Zen Terminology

Bodhisattva: An awakened or enlightened being who renounces the experience of nirvana in order to remain with unenlightened beings and work for the liberation of all. The bodhisattva ideal is closely associated with Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddha Hall:  Room used for services, lectures, and ceremonies.

Ch’an: The Chinese word for zen. The word ch’an predates the Japanese word zen, of course, since zen originated in China and came to Japan later.

Chiden: This is the person who takes care of altars. The chiden cleans the incensors, makes sure that incense is available for service, and that altar candles are in working order.

Densho: The large bell used to announce services and lectures.

Doan: The person who rings the bells during service or zazen.

Dharma: The dharma (almost as difficult to define as zen) is thought of variously as the Way, the Path, Cosmic Law and Universal Truth. The dharma is often thought of as the teachings of the Buddha.

Doan-ryo: The group of people who serve in temple roles, including the doan, the fukudo, the chiden, the jisha, and the kokyo.

Dojo: Literally: the room or hall (do-) of the way (-jo). Dojo is often used interchangeably with zendo, however, the ‘way’ referred to by ‘dojo’ does not necessarily have to be zen. Technically speaking, dojo could also refer to a room where judo is taught, for example. For our purposes, however, it refers to a room or building in which zen is practiced.

Dokusan:  A private interview between a student and a zen teacher or master. The format and length of the interview, and whether it revolves around koan work or involves another kind of exchange, varies depending on the teacher. As a general rule, dokusan pertains more to a student’s personal practice and experience than it does academic, theoretical matters.

Doshi: The priest who officiates at zazen, service or ceremonies.

Eightfold Path: The Eightfold path was given by the Buddha as part of the Four Noble Truths and as such, as the main way out of suffering.
1. Right View (Understanding)
2. Right Thought (Resolve)
3. Right Speech
4. Right Conduct
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

Fukudo: In Soto Zen, this is the person who strikes the han (see definition of han). During sesshins (retreats) the Fukudo, also rings the large bell in the foyer to summon participants to the zendo.

Four Noble Truths: The Buddha’s motivation for leaving his home and taking up a spiritual life was to understand duhkha (suffering) and find a solution to suffering. The Four Noble Truths are the answer that came to the Buddha as part of his enlightenment.

1. Suffering is all around us; it is a part of life
2. The cause of suffering is craving and attachment
3. There is a way out; craving can be ended and thus suffering can be ended
4. The way to end craving is the Eightfold Path

Engawa: The wooden walkway surrounding the zendo.

Han: In Zen monasteries, a wooden board that is struck with a mallet announcing sunrise, sunset and the end of the day. The pattern of strikes always includes three roll downs.

Hinayana: Literally: “Small Vehicle”. A pejorative term for one of the three main branches of Buddhism, the other two being Mahayana (great vehicle) and Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle). Considered by most to be the oldest form of Buddhism. Many followers prefer to use the term Therevada one branch of Buddhism under this category (Teaching of the Elders) to describe their beliefs.

Gassho:  (Literally: “palms together”): A mudra expressing nonduality. The palms are joined so that the fingertips are at the height of the nose. The hands are approximately one fist width away from the face.

Ino: The meditation hall (zendo) manager and supervisor of monk’s conduct, one of the seven positions of the senior staff.

Inkin: A portable bell It usually sits atop a lacquered wooden handle and has a drape of material that covers the user’s hand. It is used in ceremonies and in any service where a portable bell is needed.

Jikido: The person who lights the outside lanterns before zazen, strikes the echo han, and sounds the work drum and bell before work meeting.

Jiki-jitsu (also Jiko): The timekeeper for a sesshin or for any meditation gathering. Can be an incense carrier (see Jisha below). All matters having to do with time are the responsibility of the “jiki” (provided the decisions do not conflict with the activities or wishes of the roshi). The jiki usually leads kinhin as well.

Jisha: In Soto Zen, the Jisha is the attendant to the Doshi during service. During daily service, the Jisha presents an incense stick for the Doshi’s offering at the altar an carries other items for Doshi, Abbot or Roshi.

Jundo: Broadly speaking, ‘jundo’ can mean any ritual circuit or circumambulation.

Jukai:  Taking the precepts, taking refuge in the precepts or taking up the way of the bodhisattva. A significant step marked by a ceremony of the same name(s), jukai signifies a serious commitment to zen, to the ten main precepts of Buddhism and to the salvation of all beings. Each student will recite the ten precepts during the ceremony and explain to the assembly what each precept means to him or her personally.

Karma: The Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect. The effect of an action taken today (or thought or word spoken, etc.) might not occur today. The effect, whether good or bad, may come to pass many years from now or even in a subsequent lifetime. The important point to remember is that no actions are isolated and independent; all are tied together in cause and effect.

Kensho: An enlightenment or awakening experience. It is folly to try to describe this experience in words, however, a kensho reportedly gives one a glimpse of one’s own nature and the true nature of reality. It is said that koan work can lead to kensho, though koan work is not the only way.

Kinhin: Walking meditation. Although its meditative aspect is of prime importance, kinhin also serves the purpose of moving one’s legs after a long period of zazen, thus making physical problems unlikely. Hands should be held in the shashou position.

Koan: Originally: a public record. A zen paradox, question or episode from the past that defies logical explanation. Koans are sometimes thought of as zen riddles, but this is not entirely accurate since most riddles are intended to be solved through reason. A student undertaking koan work is meant rather to exhaust the use of reason and conceptual understanding; finally making an intuitive leap (see kensho). Koans were originally recorded and used by the rinzai school of zen, but the old distinctions have become less important so that today some teachers closer to the soto school have also used koans.

Kokyo: The ‘cantor’ or chant leader.

Kyosaku: A wooden stick, roughly a yard long and flattened at one end, sometimes carried by senior practitioners in the zendo during zazen. Sitters may request to be hit on the shoulders to help refresh the body and mind.

Mahayana: Literally: “Great Vehicle”. One of the three main branches of Buddhism, the other two being the old wisdom school and Vajrayana (indestructable vehicle). Although this is the branch to which zen belongs and zen traces its origin back to the Buddha himself, generally Mahayana is considered to be a newer form than Hinayana. There is less emphasis placed on nirvana and individual salvation in this tradition and more emphasis placed on saving all sentient beings.

Mindfulness: Awareness; remembering that all things are interrelated; living in the present moment. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of mindfulness in zen and Buddhism.

Mokugyo: (Literally: ‘wooden fish’) A traditional Japanese temple instrument played during services to set the pace of certain chants. Mudra A ritual hand position or gesture.

Mudra: A position of the body which is symbolic of a certain attitude or activity, such as teaching or protecting. Although mudra technically refers to the whole body and the body does not have to be that of the Buddha, in common usage this term most often refers to the hand positions chosen for statues of the Buddha. Each hand position is symbolic of a certain characteristic such as supreme wisdom or serenity.

Nirvana: Literally: cessation or extinction. Although nirvana is the ultimate goal of many Buddhists it should never be confused with the Western notion of heaven. Instead, nirvana simply means an end to samsara. In the Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattva eschews nirvana until all sentient beings are saved.

Okesa: (sometimes stated as Kesa) From the Sanskrit “Kashaya,” a rectangular, patched robe made and worn as monks have done since the Buddha’s time. It encircles the body and is draped over the left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder uncovered. It is given to a new priest during the priest ordination ceremony.

Oryoki: This has come to mean a certain kind of formal, ritualized eating, but the word oryoki actually refers to the specific collection of napkins, utensils and especially bowls used for this style of eating. This set, which is held together by tying one of the larger napkins around it, was traditionally given to a nun or monk upon ordination. Eating is commonly done while seated on one’s cushion in a position similar to meditation posture. Silence is maintained except for the chanting of certain meal sutras. When done, the utensils and bowls are immediately washed (while still at one’s seat) and wrapped up again in the same specific way.

Practice Discussion: A formal or informal private interview with a practice leader.

Practice Leader: A person who has been shuso and who is empowered to hold practice discussions.

Rakusu: A small version of Buddha’s patched robe, suspended from cloth straps and worn around the neck. Usually, each initiate sews his or her own and receives it from the Preceptor during lay ordination.

Rinzai: One of the two main schools of zen still active in Japan, the other being soto. Rinzai, which originated in China, was the first school of zen to be brought to Japan. Its initial introduction near the end of the 12th century did not take hold, but a subsequent transfer from China did succeed. The rinzai tradition places more emphasis on dokusan and koan work than the soto tradition..

Rohatsu: The day set aside to commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, which traditionally is celebrated on the eighth of December. Many zen centers and sanghas will organize a rohatsu sesshin early in December to mark this zen “holiday.”

Roshi: Venerable master of zen.

Ryo: A Japanese word meaning ‘chamber’ or ‘section’, for example, the doan ryo (‘instrument player section’) or the tenzo ryo (‘head cook section’).

Seiza: A sitting position where one kneels and sits back onto the heels. This is the standard position for morning service.

Samsara: In Buddhist thought this is the continuing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All beings are trapped in this unpleasant cycle until they reach enlightenment. Samsara is looked upon in a negative light because of all the suffering that life entails (as elucidated in the First Noble Truth).

Samu: Work Practice. This is work, usually physical, done in a mindful and aware manner. Tasks should be carried out in silence, though speaking in hushed tones is permitted when clarification or further instructions are needed. Periods of samu are often part of a sesshin, though it can be performed at any time during one’s daily life. Samu is a form of meditation done while working.

Sangha: Zen family, community or group practicing together. In its largest sense, all living beings make up our sangha, though when commonly used sangha means our fellows in the local zen center or the group in our area with whom we practice.

Satori: A very deep state of meditation in which notions of duality, self and indeed all concepts drop away. Profound satori is very close to an enlightenment experience (see kensho).

Service: A period of bowing, chanting, and making offerings to the Buddhas and Ancestors.

Sensei: A recognized teacher of zen.

Sesshin: (Literally: ‘gather or touch the mind’) An intensive meditation retreat usually lasting 1-7 days.

Shashu: A mudra used when standing or walking in formal practice situations. The left hand gently makes a fist around the thumb and is held against the body at the solar plexus (right below the breastbone); the right hand gently covers the left.

Shika: The guest manager at the temple.

Shikantaza:  “Just sitting.” An intense form of zazen where no mental aids such as counting the breath are used. A state of great mental alertness is cultivated, but no concepts or objects of thought are in the mind (ideally). Some consider shikantaza, which is strongly recommended in the soto tradition, to be the highest form of zazen.

Shoten: The person who sounds the densho to announce events in the Buddha Hall.

Shuso: The Head Monk of a practice period.

Sutra: A scripture regarded as having been spoken by the Buddha. Tan The raised platforms for sitting in the zendo.

Soji: A brief period of mindful work; temple cleaning.

Soto: One of the two main schools of zen in Japan, the other being Rinzai. It follows that there is less emphasis placed on dokusan and koan study in the soto tradition and more emphasis placed on shikantaza. Zen practiced this way is sometimes called mokusho, which means the zen of silent enlightenment.

Sutra: A Buddhist canon written in prose form.

Tan: The raised platform for sitting in the zendo.

Tanto: One of the main leaders of a sesshin, the tanto is in charge of the smooth running of the zendo. The tanto is usually an experienced senior student who is familiar with the roles of the other leaders and thus is able to offer guidance if any confusion arises.

Tatami: Japanese-style, thick straw floor mats.

Teisho: Literally: presentation of the shout. Commonly: a talk by a zen teacher (a sensei or roshi). The talk is not a sermon or an academic lecture; it is more a presentation of insight than an exposition of factual knowledge. Though not limited to sesshin, a daily teisho traditionally is part of the schedule during sesshin. Often a koan is discussed, and on occasion some teachers will permit a question and answer period following the teisho. Sometimes people not familiar with zen are invited. Attendees are allowed to sit in a relaxed posture and may quietly shift position to remain comfortable

Tenken:  The timekeeper who sounds the han and densho, announcing service and zazen, and plays the mokugyo during service.

Tenzo: The Head Cook of the monastery, one of the seven positions of the senior staff.

Wake-up Bell:  About 30 minutes before morning zazen ringing, a handbell, waking everyone.

Zabuton:  A large, rectangular mat made of fabric-covered cotton batting, usually placed under the zafu.

Zafu:  A round cushion used for zazen. Zazen A Japanese word meaning ‘seated Zen’ or ‘sitting meditation’.

Zazen: Seated still meditation, usually on a cushion on the floor. Unlike meditation done in some other spiritual traditions, zazen usually does not involve concentrating one’s mind on a subject, nor is the aim to blank out one’s mind completely. Rather, being aware of one’s breath is recommended. One should seek out instruction from a knowledgeable practitioner or teacher for the correct posture, mental approach, and way to count the breath. Most zen teachers maintain that zazen is essential to practicing zen.

Zazenkai:  A single day devoted to meditation, usually done together with a group. This can be considered a one day sesshin, although a teacher need not be present.

Zen:  Zen, or ch’an as it was called in China, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that first appeared in China in sixth and seventh centuries. Buddhism had earlier come to China from India, the birthplace of the Buddha and Buddhism. When Mahayana Buddhism was introduced it was influenced by the indigeneous Chinese religion Taoism. Most scholars believe, for example, that it was from exposure to Taoism that zen developed its great caution and reluctance towards using words and concepts as the path to enlightenment. From China zen moved on mainly to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, although it found some acceptance in other regions, as well.

The word ch’an is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning concentration (i.e. meditation). While some schools of Buddhism emphasize elaborate cosmologies, devotional practices, chanted formulas and arcane images and gestures, zen offers meditation (zazen) as the best way to discover things directly for oneself.

Zendo:  Zen room or hall. This is the main room, whether it be in a monastery, or center where zazen and other zen practices are observed.