Zen Glossary

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.

Ch’an – The Chinese word for zen.

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

Dharma – The dharma 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.

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.

Dokusan – A private interview between a student and a zen teacher or master.

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.

right understanding
right thought
right speech
right action
right livelihood
right effort
right mindfulness
right meditation

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.

All life is suffering.
The cause of suffering is desire.
Suffering can be ended.
The way to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

Gassho – A mudra or bow with palms together, it signifies gratitude.

Gatha – A short sutra.

Jukai – Taking the precepts, taking refuge in the precepts or taking up the way of the bodhisattva

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.

Kensho – An enlightenment or awakening experience.

Kinhin – Walking meditation.

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.

Kyosaku – Wake-up stick or encouragement stick. Used during long periods of zazen (mainly during sesshin) to strike practitioners on the back or on the part of the shoulders close to the neck.

Mahayana – Literally: “Great Vehicle”. One of the three main branches of Buddhism.

Mindfulness – Awareness; remembering that all things are interrelated; living in the present moment.

Mokugyo – The red lacquered drum used as a “heartbeat” for chants.

Mondo – 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 instead in a way that encourages the student to reach a deeper level of perception.

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.

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.

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.

Raihai – Also known as deep bows or prostrations.

Rinzai – One of the two main schools of zen still active in Japan,

Rohatsu – The day set aside to commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, which traditionally is celebrated on the eighth of December.

Roshi – Venerable master of zen.

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.

Samu – Work Practice.

Sangha – Zen family, community or group practicing together.

Satori – A very deep state of meditation in which notions of duality, self and indeed all concepts drop away.

Sensei – A recognized teacher of zen.

Sesshin – Most easily translated as a meditation retreat.

Shikantaza – “Just sitting.” An intense form of zazen where no mental aids such as counting the breath are used.

Soto – One of the two main schools of zen in Japan.

Shuso – The head student for a practice period.

Soji – A brief period of mindful work

Sutra – A Buddhist canon written in prose form.

Vesak – The celebration of the Buddha’s birth, which traditionally is set in May on the day of the full moon.

Zabuton – A rectangular, flat cushion used for zazen, usually found underneath the zafu.

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.

Zafu – A round cushion used for zazen.

Zendo – Meditation hall.

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