2600 years ago, Prince Gautama ‘woke up’ – meaning a buddha who abides/teaches free from deceptions. The word ‘buddha’ retains its original meaning. Why has ‘woke’ lost its meaning in a decade?

Prince Gautama, heir to the Sakyan kingdom of north India Kingdom, experienced a personal crisis at the age of 29. He fled his responsibilities as a prince, father and husband determined to find a resolution to the suffering and anguish he experienced. Born into a dysfunctional family, he could not handle the responsibilities he faced for himself and his family as a future king of the country.

His story of flight, exploration and realisation has become one of the most famous stories in human history. At the age of 35, he woke up which continues to have a profound influence on countless millions.

The word buddha means to wake up and emerge free from problematic mind states, contracted views and living in the spell of birth and death. After listening to his teachings, people conferred on him the title of The Buddha –  ‘The Awakened One’ – with his knowing an immeasurable reality and the peace of nirvana.

A Buddha refers to a fully liberated human being with profound insights and realisations about the nature of existence while offer a full range of practices for others to come to similar deep realisations. She or he has the capacity to teach others – men, women, children, angels (such as the pure in heart) and gods (such as the deeply religious, gurus, political and powerful of the Earth).

Gotama’s teachings addressed suffering, causes and conditions for it, the complete resolution of suffering and the way to resolve suffering. A Buddha offers teachings emphasising equally these four truths.

The word Buddha has retained its original meaning despite more than 100 generations of teachings and practices available in many areas in Asia as well as elsewhere. The meaning of Buddha continues the same extensive use in a range of societies, cultures and religious traditions. Western countries continue to take a growing interest in the teachings of the man who woke up fully to the importance of ethics, unification of being, action, wisdom and liberation.

The West has no record of such an awakened one in its history with beliefs in theism, agnosticism and atheism pervading the mindset of many.

Woke. Rise and Fall of a Supportive Concept

In recent years, many of us have heard the term woke used regularly in social, cultural and political debates. Unlike the word Buddha, which continues to retain a certain integrity of meaning, the word woke seems to have undergone a notable change in meaning from its original use a generation or two ago.

In its early use in Afro-American, woke referred to those people well informed and responding to racial and social discrimination. Woke people engaged in addressing injustice as they had woken up to the divisions and conflicts in society. Such people developed the knowledge and action to respond and transform social suffering.

In the past decade and more, the concept went from the margins of society into the mainstream and with it political/social commentators started disparaging woke.

The concept received extra traction with the launch of the Black Lives movement. Hashtags and tweets in social media employed woke and staying true to its original meaning. The concept appeared in dictionaries.  In the past couple of years (2020-2022), many, including those connected with woke for social/racial justice, distanced themselves from this useful umbrella concept with its concerns and values. Certain commentators, public figures and the media started to distort the meaning of woke until it became an insult.

For example, a person might express concerns on social issues only to be dismissed as one of those woke people. Woke shifted to meaning a term describing insincere and shallow voices on social/racial issues. Critics dismissed woke as unable to make a deep contribution to public debate. The concept has now fallen out of favour due to. the subversion of the word in the mainstream.

The new meaning can discourage some of those committed to social issues, human rights and justice for minorities. Hostile and judgmental, the anti-woke commentators engage in ridicule of woke as a way of undermining the importance to focus on deep unresolved issues and racism in society. These commentators have rendered the concept irrelevant since woke shifted from a healthy concept to a concept viewed with disapproval and contempt.

Woke people get dismissed as snowflakes – a derogatory term used against people obsessed with self-entitlement. It is not easy for woke people to endure such harmful speech as they endeavour to respond to matters of community concern instead of preoccupation with self-interest.

The four-letter word woke started off as being awake to social problems and by 2022 woke people faced regular ongoing ridicule. Stress and tension also triggered responses such as cancel culture with the exclusion of a person organisation or company deemed to act in offensive ways.

Cancel culture works to exclude people from mainstream culture by organising control over specific individuals or organisations. Exclusion politics have the danger of preventing dialogue and social change as one extreme due to rejection and intolerance. At the other extreme, those who reject cancel culture can endorse unethical and harmful elements in society in the name of inclusion. It is important to find a middle way between these extremes.

A meaningful word to implement social change, woke has now lost its original meaning due to the derision heaped upon it. Language matters. A few advocates of woke have not helped the movement such as expressing prejudices against large groups of people – people of faith, the elderly and more. Offensive language against the mainstream brings about a backlash.

As a concept, buddha has sustained 2600 years with its contribution to humanity on personal and social issues. Another beneficial concept woke has become the object of cynicism and ridicule in a decade.

The erosion of meaning and language goes on.

Christopher is the author of The Political Buddha
and grandfather of four Anglo-Caribbean children.

1 thought on “2600 years ago, Prince Gautama ‘woke up’ – meaning a buddha who abides/teaches free from deceptions. The word ‘buddha’ retains its original meaning. Why has ‘woke’ lost its meaning in a decade?”

  1. Thank you for reminding us that language is subject to severe misuse, a point the Buddha emphasized by making Right Speech an important part of the Noble Eightfold Path. An example of such misuse is the word “freedom.” In the U.S., where I live, many people will say that “freedom” really means “I can say and do anything I want.” Thus the word is equated with the thrill of acting upon any impulse that happens to pop into one’s head, often without considering the consequences upon others or the environment. Dharma teachings reveal that notion to be the exact opposite of genuine freedom. People who believe it’s liberating to act on whatever arises in their minds don’t see how in doing so they are really being slaves to such impulses. As dharma practice shows quite clearly, the teachings point to a freedom from acting upon impulses rather than being dragged along by them.

    We are living through an extended age of reaction, in many parts of the world, to the modest, painstakingly-won social and economic gains made on behalf of historically oppressed groups over the last century, particularly since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. “Woke” has unfortunately been made into a verbal weapon by reactionary conservatives, particularly in the U.S., as part of their ongoing efforts to split the majority of the populace into warring factions, ultimately for protecting the minority interests of the super-wealthy. “Woke” thus joins other “smear words” such as “liberal” or “feminist” as a term of disdain applied by reactionaries, as part of their fervent crusade to prevent additional gains in social and economic status or to eliminate the ones already achieved. Their efforts have lasted for decades and show no signs of abating. It is my conviction that dharma practice and association with like-minded people are significant contributions toward ending such strife, with all its needless suffering. One aspect of that practice is to reclaim the meaning of words and use them for clarity and wisdom rather than as harmful bludgeons.

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