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Feature: Pono
Posted by Devin on Wednesday, February 01, 2006 - 08:50 PM PST

Religion
It's time for another Hawaiian Language lesson. I've been asked many times what the opposite of Shmeng is. There is no one word answer to that question in English. In Hawaiian the answer is simply: Pono.
Pono is a noun, and sometimes when it is mixed in with English it is an adjective, yet it is usually translated as a verb phrase. It means 'to do the right thing', or 'to have done the right thing', or various conjugations of that basic idea. It is sometimes translated by dirt eating hippies or the travel channel as 'living in harmony', which is also accurate, but loses some of the solid finality of the word, since harmony is left to interpretation. It is hard to translate it into English as a non-verb. Of course English speakers will probably see this as a flaw in the Hawaiian language, but it seems to me more a flaw in the minds of those English speakers.

Pono is not up to interpretation. Pono is the correct answer to any ethical question. Although there might be more than one right answer in a given situation, every right answer is Pono and every wrong answer is not Pono.

Should I cheat on this test if it will get me an A? That would not be Pono. Should I bulldoze this jungle to make housing for people? Not Pono. But the housing does more good for more people than the jungle. The Pono answer is still 'absolutely not'. The Aina (land) comes before the people. Mix the housing in with the jungle, and it becomes Pono.

The Christians call it righteousness, although the meaning of that word has changed to either mean 'self righteousness', or 'what I say that god wants'. The word righteousness also makes any sane person cringe these days. Hippies might call it 'being one with nature', but nature is not required. Pono is absolute. Pono has no religious or philosophical affiliations. Pono is not the opposite of Kapu like righteousness is the opposite of sin. Pono is just the absolute right thing.

Of course Christian missionaries have tried to make Pono mean 'doing right by god' rather than 'doing right by the world'. While they have been moderately successful, Pono is such a strong word, that it is not easily diluted. The travel channel has had more success.

Haole minds and haole languages lend themselves well to justifications why Pono doesn't matter. In English, it's easy to talk yourself into ignoring what is Pono. There's a thousand excuses, and we become very good at believing them, but in the back of our minds we always know, no matter how well we bury it, the difference between what is Pono and what is not.

If there were a word like Pono in the English language, this site might not exist. While it is not the exact opposite of Shmeng, if everyone had the option of thinking about whether each thing they did was Pono, there would be a lot less Shmeng. There would also be a lot less assholes in the world. I'm not sure if it's a coincidence, but I am not aware of any Hawaiian word with the same meaning as asshole. Okole puka is just the puka in your okole, you wouldn't use that to describe a person.

It is every parent's job to teach their kids the meaning of Pono. It is also every person's kuleana to learn what their parents didn't teach them. It is hard in this Haole world to think about whether what we are doing is going to affect future generations, or whether the implications of our actions are going to do more good than harm. It's just too many syllables. Hawaiians had it easy. It's either Pono, or it's not.

It is no surprise that the Hawaiian national anthem is "Hawaii Pono'i" (ok, it might be the state song now depending on who you ask). Other countries have songs about bombs bursting around their pretty flag, or asking god to save their queen and scatter their enemies. Or they have songs that repeat their country's name over and over and mention that they live there and that it's up north. The phrase "Hawaii Pono'i" is officially translated as "Hawaii's own", or "Hawaii's own people", but you now know enough to read more into that translation. Obviously Hawaii has a specific kind of people. Pono. The state motto is ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. Obviously Hawaiians think quite highly of this Pono stuff.

Pono is also a state of being. It is similar to being Irie, but it's more long term, and has fewer side effects. It does not imply enlightenment like Nirvana, and most people find Pono at least a few times in their lives. Usually this means they will quit posting to shmeng for a while. It is not the opposite of koyaanisqatsi (Hopi word, not Hawaiian), as that implies external forces are out of balance. Rather Pono implies that one's personal, material, and spiritual life are balanced and working well with the people and world around them, and that life is peaceful and happy. Pono really is the absence of shmeng.



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Pono | Login/Create an account | 6 Comments
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Re: Pono
by Kira on Feb 02, 2006 - 08:18 AM
(User info | Send a Message) http://www.livejournal.com/users/mod_complex/
This sounds a little similar to the ancient Egyptian concept of Ma'at (which is who/what my tattoo is of) although there are some differences. I guess I had never thought about the fact that there is no word equivalent in the English language. It would seem we are taught that either there are no absolute truths, or that the only absolute truth just happens to be the one you were raised to believe in.


Re: Pono
by W0rmW00d (allchaka@hotmail.com)
on Feb 06, 2006 - 08:55 AM
(User info | Send a Message)
Thank you Devin. I finally have a word to describe the things that are 'immoral' but right. I can't pretend to understand the concept fully, because I do not believe in a normative basis for morality (or any equivalent), but I very much like this idea.

Is pono a custom-style idea, built around what is for the greatest good (presumably, in a strict case for the Hawaiian way of life) or are there pseudo-religious connotations as with kapu that reinforce the concept further?
I know that you have basically covered all of this, but could you please go into a little more depth about the bases, if they are still known? as this is what interests me most about any such concept.


  • Re: Pono by callei on Feb 06, 2006 - 01:25 PM
    • Re: Pono by W0rmW00d on Feb 07, 2006 - 05:27 AM
Re: Pono
by gothicmorman (litty_klj@hotmail.com)
on Feb 14, 2006 - 01:05 PM
(User info | Send a Message) http://www.freewebs.com/gothicmorman
Thanks for another great Hawaiian language article.
I really like this one - maybe most of all.
It always bothers me that I can't speak anything well other than english because it is indeed a very limited language and somehow all the words that are supposed to mean strong things like love, righteousness, etc have been so depreciated or twisted that nothing really means anything strong anymore.
Often I find that I feel or think something but have no words to explain it - its like being 2 again and you know what you havein your head but you don't have the language skills to express yourself fully yet - it is so frustrating.
Sometimes I wish there was a way to just put an idea from your head into someone elses so they would just understand instead of all the discussion and confusion.
But I have bad communication skills so *shrug*


Re: Pono
by djinn (-)
on Oct 05, 2007 - 10:51 PM
(User info | Send a Message)
Aloha, Devin;

Re okole puka

It's my understanding that okole actually means anus, whereas the word for ass or buttocks is 'elemu, tho you're right, it doesn't mean asshole in the sense that you would call someone asshole.

Closest I could come to that would be the pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English) phrase, "You fahka!"


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