Glossary of Zen Terms

Glossary of Zen Terms

Because Zen is an Asian tradition, many of the words used in the practice environment are Japanese or, in some cases, Sanskrit. To give you a quick start with this vocabulary, we provide you with the following little glossary of terms you’re likely to hear around the Zendo.

Ango. “Dwelling in Peace”; intensive training period usually lasting three months.

Bodhisattva. Literally “Enlightened Being.” Bodhisattvas compassionately put helping others to be enlightened ahead of their own enlightenment.

Daisan. Personal interview/instruction with a Zen master with the title of Sensei.

Dokusan. Personal interview/instruction with a Zen master with the title of Roshi.

Dana. Giving. Gratitude. Often expressed by donation of money to a Zen center.

Dharma. The Teaching of the Buddha, or more generally, the universal law or truth.

Dharma Talk. Talk or lecture given by a senior student or Sensei on a Buddhist topic.

Fusatsu. Renewal of Vows ceremony. For a good explanation of this ceremony, please see Barbara O’Brien’s Fusatsu article.

Gakki. Memorial service for important teacher in the lineage.

Gassho. Hand position with the palms of the hands pressed together; the tips of the fingertips should be about one hand’s width from the lips. Thumbs are against the side of the index fingers. No space between the hands means no space between our life and the life of the Buddha.

Hanamatsuri. Jap. “Flower Festival.” Traditional Zen and secular holiday ostensibly commemorating the birth of the historical Buddha. Celebrated in April or May, depending on the nation. (Compare Theravadin celebration of Vesak.)

Inka Shomei, (sometimes just “inka“). Literally, “the legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof.” Generally, one who has received inka shomei is considered a “Zen master.” In the words of James Ford, Roshi, inka is “the formal recognition of Zen’s deepest realization.” Common Dharma Transmission (see Shiho) does not include inka shomei.  One who has received inka is given the honorific title of “Roshi.” (Note: Great Wave’s teacher received inka shomei on April 21, 2018.)

Jikido. Officer responsible for keeping time in the zendo, signaling the beginnings and endings of periods of meditation with the han ( wooden striking board) and the kesu (large bell).

Jukai. Receiving the precepts ceremony. This ceremony formally marks one’s conversion to the Zen Buddhist path.

Kanzeon. AKA Kannon, Kwan Yin, etc. The bodhisattva of compassion.

Kinhin. Walking meditation. The mind is absorbed in the activity of walking.

Koan. Literally “public document,” the short, recorded exchanges that occurred between students and their masters in ancient China. Zen teachers (especially, but not exclusively, in the Rinzai sect) give koans to their students as objects of meditation to help them go beyond discriminative, conceptual understanding to a more direct, experiential wisdom. (Students at Great Wave Zen Sangha may engage in koan practice with Gendo Sensei.)

Mudra. Hand gesture or position. The position of the hands changes depending on what type of meditation or activity is being carried out.

Oryoki. Formal or ritual eating style used in monasteries during retreat, or sesshin. (You may download and print the meal gatha that is chanted before eating.  It includes a few instructional notes as well.)

Rohatsu. December 8, the day on which the Zen tradition commemorates the enlightenment, or nirvana, of the Buddha.

Roshi. Literally “elder teacher.” Honorific title bestowed on a Zen master. It is customary to address such teachers simply as “Roshi.” In the context of the White Plum Asanga, those with the title of Roshi have not only received Shiho (Dharma Transmission) but Inka Shomei as well.

Samu. Work period. Usually spent in cleaning the zendo and associated rooms, buildings, and grounds. It is usually considered a form of meditation.

Sangha. Congregation of Buddhist practitioners, or more generally, the harmony of the Buddha and Dharma treasures.

Seiza. A traditional Japanese sitting posture in which one sits on one’s shins, knees together, ankles under the buttocks.

Sensei. Literally “teacher.” Generally, the title of anyone who teaches any subject. In the context of Zen tradition, a sensei is someone who has received Shiho, or Dharma Transmission. The title Sensei indicates that one is authorized to independently teach Zen, hold daisan, give Jukai, conduct the Tokudo ceremony, and perform Dharma Transmission (Shiho).  Compare “Roshi.”

Sesshin. Literally “Gathering of Mind.” An extended and intensive meditation retreat, varying in length from two or three days to one week.

Shashu. Common mudra for kinhin. Formed by making a fist with the left hand, thumb inside. The fist is held over the heart, and the right hand is held over the left. Forearms are parallel with the floor.

Shikantaza. “Just sitting.” Refers to zazen without any specific focus or technique and is characterized by intense, non-dual awareness.

Shiho. Dharma transmission. The ceremony by which a teacher affirms that a disciple’s training is complete and that he or she is authorized to independently teach the Dharma.

Shusso. Head monk trainee. Usually responsible for the overall practice environment during ango.

Soto. Zen lineage founded in China by Masters Tung-shan Liang-chieh (Tozan Ryokai) and Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi (Sozan Honjaku) and established in Japan by Zen Masters Dogen Kigen and Keizan Jokin.

Teisho. Zen teaching given by a Roshi.

Tokudo. Shukke Tokudo. “Leaving Home” ceremony. Ordination ceremony for a monk or nun.

Zabuton. Large square, padded mat on which the zafu (meditation cushion) is placed.

Zafu. Small circular cushion upon which practitioners sit when meditating.

Zazen. Literally, “seated Zen.” Because there is no object of meditation in zazen, it is more appropriately and commonly translated as “sitting.”

Zazenkai. One-day retreat. (See our zazenkai schedule.)

Zendo. The Zen meditation hall.

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