The S-Word

The word “spiritual” confounds me. There can’t be many other words in the English language that are so widely used and yet so poorly defined, simultaneously.

What exactly does that word mean? When I was a Christian, I would have said that it related to our spirits. That definition would have been satisfactory back then, as I assumed everyone had a spirit (whatever that is). Nowadays I realise that this is just defining one undefined term by referencing another equally undefined term.

In the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts that make up the Christian canon, the words usually translated as “spirit” actually mean breath or wind. So for the people of the ancient Near East, spirit was synonymous with breath.  However, this original meaning has long gone out of common usage.

For some, “spiritual” means moral, transcendent, enjoyable, mentally calming or any number of other things. Some use the same word, “spiritual,” to mean all these things interchangeably, and more besides, such that it is hard to pin them down to a definition.

As far as I’m aware, the Buddha never taught that we have spirits or souls. Our bodies are conditioned phenomena and are thus impermanent, and there is no evidence to suggest that we have any sort of existence apart from our bodies. So why use the term “spiritual” at all?

To me, Buddhism is a mentally, emotionally, intellectually and even physically fulfilling path. Some might call that the very definition of spirituality or a spiritual path. If the word makes sense to them, that’s fine by me. Personally, though, I see no need to call it “spiritual” when there are other words that are equally adequate and, to me, far more meaningful, to describe it.


3 thoughts on “The S-Word

  1. Hi Barry

    The way I see it, religion is following someone else’s experience, and spirituality is following your own experience. So I feel being spiritual is an important part of being a Buddhist, as we are told to test what we read or hear against our own experience. So meditation and mindfulness have more to do with being spiritual and very less to do with religion.

    In the West being spiritual has something to do with a spirit, but in the East it has more to do with your mind. I use the word a lot in my teachings, but that is because I do not see it as meaning having a spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Yeshe.

      As I said, if the term has meaning for others then I have no problem with it as such. It’s just that the term makes no sense to me personally when there are other perfectly good and far better-defined words to describe the same thing.

      That said, I may end up using the word anyway just because everyone else in my immediate (Buddhist) circle does so. I suppose at that point it becomes more convenient simply to use the same terminology.


  2. I, Too, dislike the word ‘spiritual’. For while it may not always be intended to denote the existence of a spirit by the user, the word itself may imply such a belief to some listeners – usually those who want to believe in one. I dislike the word ‘atheism’ for similar reasons – having to define myself as a non-theist implies that I am the one who has some explaining to do! Yet theists are the ones making the assertion & are therefore the ones upon whom the onus lies to validate their stance.

    But they’re merely labels. So I just sit & breathe.

    Liked by 1 person

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