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Glossary of Zen Terms

The Ancestors Room is the memorial for the founders of our lineage –the teachers of our teachers. At TAZ, pictures are displayed in the Dokusan Room and include Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Genpo Merzel Roshi, Musai Sydney Walter Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi’s teachers, Hakuun Yasutan Roshi, and Hakujun Kuroda Roshi.

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

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.

The person who takes care of altars. The chiden cleans the censors, makes sure incense is available for ceremonies, and that altar candles are in working order.

(sometimes called Zazenkai)
At TAZ, a full or half-day program devoted to meditation. Attending at least one Day of Zen is a pre-requisite for attending a Sesshin.

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, and this is a legitimate view, but it’s important to note that the Buddha didn’t create the dharma; it was always there. While the ethical standards of Buddhism are included, the dharma encompasses far more than that. It is the fundamental spirit underlying Zen and Buddhism.

The doan rings the small and large bells during service and ceremonies.

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. Theoretical questions are usually discouraged but often permitted (again very much of this depends on the teacher). Dokusan is a critical element of Zen training and an important part of sesshin, though it is by no means limited to sesshin: some modern teachers have expanded the practice of dokusan to include communication by telephone and e-mail.

The priest who officiates at zazen, service or ceremonies by offering incense and leading prostrations and bows.

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

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

(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.

A short sutra. As an example, here is an evening gatha chanted at the end of the evening sit: Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost. Let us awaken! Awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life.

A wooden board struck with a mallet used to summon participants to the zendo for daily zazen. The pattern of strikes always includes three roll downs: the first ending with one strike, the second with two, and the third with three. Practitioners are expected to be in the zendo and settled in their seats by the second roll-down, as the Officiant and Jisha enter the zendo after the third roll-down.

Literally: “Small Vehicle”. 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. Because ‘small vehicle’ has at times been used as a derogatory term by other traditions, many followers prefer to use the term Therevada (Teaching of the Elders) to describe their beliefs.

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.

The Ino leads chanting at sesshin and during services.

The attendant who carries the incense box at the beginning of a Service.

The ceremonial attendant to an Abbot or service Officiant.

Also known as ‘receiving the Precepts’, this ceremony is an initiation into the practice of the sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts for lay practitioners. During the ceremony, initiates receive the Precepts and a rakusu (which they have hand-sewn) from a lineage-holding Teacher.

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 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.

During morning practice periods, after offering incense and bowing at the altar, the Officiant walks around the zendo in front of the meditators. As the Officiant passes, meditators raise their hands in gassho without bowing; this is a mutual greeting.

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. Some schools of Zen perform kinhin extremely slowly while others do it rapidly. It has become traditional, in North America at least, to combine the two: kinhin begins very slowly at first and then switches to a brisk pace (the change is marked by an audible signal).

An enlightenment or awakening experience. While impossible to describe in words, a kensho experience 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.

Originally: a public record or case. 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. Practice at TAZ includes Koan study based on the Sambo Kyodon lineage established by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, and transmitted to Taizan Maezumi Roshi.

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. Also called the wake-up stick or encouragement stick.

Literally: “Great Vehicle”. One of the three main branches of Buddhism, the other two being Hinayana (small vehicle) and Vajrayana (indestructible 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.

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. The master Muso Kokushi said: “When you walk, watch the walking, when you sit, watch the sitting, when you recline, watch the reclining, when you see and hear, watch the seeing and hearing, when you notice and cognize, watch the noticing and cognizing, when joyful, watch the joy, when angry, watch the anger.

(Literally: ‘wooden fish’) A traditional red lacquered Japanese temple instrument played during services to set the pace or “heartbeat” of certain chants.

A short Zen dialogue between master and student, usually from the past. The student asks a question that is troubling him or her, and the master responds not with theory or logic, but rather in a way that encourages the student to reach a deeper level of perception. Many great mondos became koans.

A ritual 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.

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.

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 monk during the Shukke Tokudo “home-leaving” ceremony.

“just enough” Oryōki has come to mean a certain kind of formal, ritualized eating, but the word ōryōki actually refers to the set of nested bowls, utensils, and linens used for this style of meal. Eating is commonly done while seated on one’s cushion in a position similar to meditation posture, though on occasion one can be seated at a table. The sequence in which the pieces are used, food is received, and actions performed are carefully done by ritual. Silence is maintained except for the chanting of certain meal sutras. When done, the utensils and bowls are immediately washed with water or tea (while still at one’s seat) and wrapped up again in the same specific way. Zen teachers say that taking meals with ōryōki cultivates gratitude, mindfulness, and better understanding of self.

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.

Also known as deep bows or prostrations. Normally done in a set of three and normally done towards the altar, these are bows that lead immediately into a kneeling position and then quickly into a position with one’s forehead gently touching the floor. The hands, palms upwards, are raised in a gesture symbolic of lifting the Buddha’s feet over one’s head. It’s appropriate to cultivate an attitude of emptying, letting go, receptivity and gratitude. As mentioned with regard to other matters, one should seek out instruction from a knowledgeable practitioner or teacher for the correct form and mental approach.

One of the two main schools of Zen still active in Japan, the other being Sōtō. 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 Sōtō tradition. However, a positive trend seen in North America today is that the distinctions between the two schools are not considered very significant and teachers often quote Zen masters from both schools, or from non-Japanese sources, equally as often.

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.”

Venerable master of Zen. A roshi can be a man or a woman, a monk or a layperson. Although the approach has varied down through the centuries, certainly many years of training and some degree of “enlightenment” are required before becoming a roshi is even considered. Some of these years of preparation are often spent teaching the dharma as a sensei. In the White Plum lineage an established master will elevate a teacher to the level of roshi through a process known as Inka, the Final Seal. This also confirms an important link; the roshi is considered a dharma heir or dharma successor of the established roshi.

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). The cause of this cycle is craving as elucidated in the Second Noble Truth. Belief in samsara does not necessarily require a belief in reincarnation in it strictest, traditional sense and it should be mentioned here that many people practice Zen but do not believe in reincarnation.

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. Simply stated, samu is a form of meditation done while working.

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 extended group with whom we practice. Two Arrows Zen Sangha to refer to all practitioners who have received Jukai from either Diane Musho Hamilton Roshi or Michael Mugaku Zimmerman Roshi.

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).

A sitting position where one kneels and sits back onto the heels. This is the standard position for longer, seated services.

“Teacher”. In the White Plum Asanga, an established master (Roshi) will elevate a teacher to the level of sensei through a process known as “dharma transmission.” This establishes an important link: the new sensei is considered a dharma heir or dharma successor of the Roshi and is a recognized teacher of Zen.

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

(Literally: ‘gather or touch the mind’) An intensive meditation retreat usually lasting 3, 5 or 7 days. The word ‘retreat’ may be misleading however, as the effect of a sesshin is often to let more of the world into our lives instead of escaping from it. Suffice it to say that a sesshin is a silent retreat that involves many periods of zazen and the opportunity to have private interviews with a teacher (see dokusan). Meals are often eaten oryoki style, and periods of samu are generally included.

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

“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 Sōtō tradition, to be the highest form of zazen.

“Home-leaving.” Monk’s ordination. Traditionally, Shukke Tokudo signaled entering monastic practice in a monastery setting. Like many Zen centers in the West, Two Arrows Zen is a lay practice and monks continue in their lay lives while practicing the Dharma and supporting the practice of others. Monks receive the three Shukke Tokudo precepts, the robes and kesa, and the Buddha bowl.

The head monk for a practice period.

One of the two main schools of Zen in Japan, the other being Rinzai. The tendency towards caution (one could even say mistrust) regarding words and concepts which is a common thread in Zen finds its greatest expression in the Sōtō school. Thus it follows that there is less emphasis placed on dokusan and koan study in the Sōtō tradition and more emphasis placed on shikantaza. Zen practiced this way is sometimes called mokusho, which means the Zen of silent enlightenment. Perhaps following the Buddhist doctrine of non-duality, it should be noted that many Zen teachers and students in Western cultures today do not consider the line between Sōtō and Rinzai to be of great importance.

A Buddhist canon or scripture regarded as having been spoken by the Buddha., The chanting of sutras can at times be a form of singing, but more commonly it is done in a rhythmic way in a normal tone of voice. Some sutras are intentionally recited in a monotone. Sutras are chanted as part of most Zen gatherings, whether the occasion is for a special ceremony or regular weekly zazen meeting. One of the best known is the Heart Sutra. A short sutra is often called a gatha.

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. Instead of peering intently at the teacher and concentrating on every word, some students will look at nothing in particular and just allow the words to wash over them; thereby placing less emphasis on concepts, yet trusting the value of the talk to sink in.

The head cook for a monastery or sesshin. 

A large, rectangular mat made of fabric-covered cotton batting or foam, usually used with a zafu or sitting bench.

A round cushion used for zazen.

“Total awareness in an upright posture,”or seated 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 and most practitioners of zazen do this by counting breaths in one way or another. When the mind wanders, which often happens, one gently turns attention back to the breath. zazen is usually broken into periods of 30 to 50 minutes. Determining the correct posture for zazen can be a challenge, but sitting in a chair is also permitted. As mentioned with regard to other matters, 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.

Zen, or ch’an as it was called originally, 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 indigenous 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.

Zen room or hall. This is the main room, whether it be in a monastery, retreat center or residential home, where zazen and other Zen practices are observed. An altar is not essential but usually one is present. If possible, the room should be private and quiet, free from distractions such as television, music and noise from nearby automobile traffic or pedestrians. (However, it’s important to note that quiet, isolated locations are not the only place to practice! Zen should be taken out into the real world as well, and sometimes a little traffic noise is a good reminder of that.) As with the English word “hall,” zendo is sometimes used to refer to an entire building or teaching center.