One of the people who I had great appreciation for when I was young was Leonard Cohen, who has just passed away. May he have a good rebirth and continue to make music in it. Given how his poetry and music moved me I have read several articles and obituaries about him over the last few days. While doing so I couldn’t help notice a particular incongruity in the language used in a few of these. In several Cohen is said to have been ordained as “a Zen monk.” In another his teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki is described as “a Japanese monk” or “a Zen monk.”
The word monk comes from the Greek monachus meaning alone or solitary; i.e. living in isolation from others, at least for certain periods, and also being unmarried. In Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism and I think in Taoism too, the word monk always implies celibacy. To the best of my knowledge almost all Japanese Buddhist clergy have been married since the late 19th century. I know that Cohen was in relationships with women at the time of his ordination and afterwards as well, and my understanding is that Kyozan Joshu Sasaki was married too. Given this, wouldn’t it be more correct to describe Buddhist clergy who are married as priests?
And there’s another word that’s undergoing change, in this case gender reassignment – priest. Until recently female religieux were nuns (Latin nunna), now they are “female priests” or ‘female monks’. I’m bewildered by such inivations. What’s wrong with the universally understood, long-standing, non-derogatory, more compact, and correct word nun? I note that the New Oxford Thesaurus of English does not recognize ‘female priest’, not yet anyway. And if we are going to describe nuns as “female priests” why not go the whole hog and call Diana a “female prince”? Or Charles a “male princess” for that matter! We have the malapropism, the catachresis and the spoonerism for other mangleings and misuses of the language. Seeing as we are inventing new words and phrases, why not create one for the sort of thing ‘female monk’ would be an example of? Can anyone think of a good word for it?