With apologies to Rod Meade Sperry, proprietor of the blog The Worst Horse, but some funky HTML code makes the following guest post by Sumi Loundon Kim unreadable on certain Web browsers.
You can try to read the post (and comments) in its original context here. Otherwise, I’ve taken the liberty of re-posting Sumi’s entertaining (and thought-provoking) article “below the fold”.
How should one Buddhist sign off on an email to another Buddhist? It’s no big deal, right? Wrong. It is way more complicated than you might imagine.
You see, when I was an administrator at a dharma center, I wrote between 20 and 40 emails a day, many of which were navigating complex issues of a sensitive and personal nature. The standard sign-off from one Buddhist to another in the vipassana/Theravada lineage in the West is “metta,” the Pali word for the brahma vihara of loving-kindness. The problem is that “metta” has become used so frequently-in fundraising letters, in memos, etc.– that it has become the equivalent of “sincerely.” The reader (at least this reader!) doesn’t necessarily expect that the writer really has taken a moment to send loving-kindness to all 20,000 people on the mailing list. Perhaps we intend it more as a dharma-insiders’ handshake.
But because “metta” is over-used, at some point staff people, teachers, and even students began using “love.” This really bothers me because some people sign “love” when I cannot imagine they love me. How could they? All I did was help them register for a course, or something similarly administrative. But then I am stuck: they signed love, if I don’t write “love” back, then am I giving them a cold shoulder? And if I do write “love”, then am I validating something I am not sure I agree with?
And believe it or not, because “love” is used so much, if you use “metta” you are being pretty chilly. For example, one of my dearest, bestest friends also worked in this dharma organization. However, I didn’t always agree with her ideas and from time to time we would get a bit worked up about things. Naturally, some of our emails were tense. I always try to be sincere in my signoffs, so while I normally would sign “love” to her, if I was aggrieved, I would sign “metta.” Signing “metta” meant that I did NOT sign “love” and that meant that I was actually pretty pissed off and that meant that when I wrote “metta” I did not mean metta. I was just trying to see if I could conjure it.
There’s one signoff that is between “metta” and “love,” and that is “with love.” “With love” means that you are just sending the letter with love but you are not making a statement about the whole relationship. I like to use “with love” when there’s something difficult for the other person and I want them to know I empathize.
The dear friend I mentioned before has found a good solution for signoffs among close dharma friends. She does “xo” for “hugs and kisses.” The problem is that when she’s really pleased with something or with me, she does more x’s and o’s. “Oh, I loved the birthday card you sent me! Xxxxxoooooo.” So if she uses just one xo, I am not sure if she’s feeling peeved or in a hurry or what. I will actually take a moment to notice if it’s xo or xxoo or xxxooo. I use “xo” myself now, but sometimes people for whom English is not a first language are left a bit baffled (I tried explaining it to my Korean husband, only to realize I had no idea why x=kiss and o=hug). And, it is also a tricky signoff if I am writing to a man who isn’t my husband!
My Zen friend Josh uses emoticons [or, “graticons,”] which is also a good solution. Here’s a bow: /|\. Bows are a nice way of ending a letter. The students from the Zen tradition often do “Gassho”, which is a bow, but like “metta” you run into all kinds of nuances with that, too. Since “gassho” is commonly used, I wonder if the Zennies too are using “love” among themselves!
Personally, I have settled on two solutions. One is to simply mirror the signoff the other person did, with the exception of “love.” I always feel relief when the person doesn’t do any signoff or does the beautifully simple “Best.” The Protestant New Englander in me really appreciates restraint, so that when something is really worth expressing a feeling about, it’s all the more meaningful. If someone has been using “best” for a long time and then shifts to “with love” I am gratified by the deepening of our relationship. My other preference is to sign off with “Gratefully.” Before I do, I check with myself to see if I really am grateful. Many of my emails are about needing something, asking something, and I truly will be grateful if the person can write back with the something that I need. My only worry with “Gratefully” is that it might seem like I’m trying too hard to be humble. No one likes pretentiousness.
Some of my least favorite signoffs are “take care” and “peace.” I think “take care” implies that the person has forgotten to take care of themselves and you, who knows better, are reminding them. “Peace” feels too 60s and I am not one to imitate. The one signoff that truly gratifies me is from a monk I know who signs with “Peace and Joy.” I like it because he greets me (and all others) with “Peace and Joy, Sumi!” and you can tell he really means it. So when he signs his letters, it’s like he’s really there beaming peace and joy at me.
You are probably thinking that I am insane or obsessive or have too much time on my hands. Perhaps. But the signoff is a statement of where you think the receiver stands in your pecking order of acquaintances, colleagues, friends, dear friends, and dearest friends. That matters. Moreover, we all know that email tends to intensify or misconstrue what people really mean. The signoff, which we often notice, is like the aftertaste of a letter. If the taste is nice, that can change the interpretation entirely. So, bon apetite, dear dharma friends, and, as my characteristically irreverent Zenophile friend Josh recently signed off,