Glossary of Buddhist Terms
Following is a compilation of terms used at the Vermont Zen Center and in this website. All non-English words are Japanese unless otherwise noted.
All-day sitting: Beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending around 4 p.m., one-day sittings are an opportunity to practice zazen intensively, listen to a Zen lecture (teisho) and receive dokusan or private instruction from the teacher. All-day sittings end with a chanting service, after which there is a short work period and refreshments.
Bodhisattva: Sanskrit word meaning wisdom (bodhi) being (sattva). An awakened person who, having dedicated themselves to helping all living beings attain enlightenment, postpones their own supreme liberation for the sake of others.
Buddha: A Sanskrit word meaning either (1) ultimate truth or reality or (2) one who has awakened to the true nature of existence, that is, a person who knows who and what he or she is. "The Buddha" refers to the historical person, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born around the year 563 B.C. After his enlightenment at the age of 35 he became known as Shakyamuni Buddha.
Dharma: Sanskrit word meaning (1) the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and (2) universal Law, or Truth. With small 'd' usually means phenomena or things of existence.
Dharma Heir: A Zen disciple who has reached a high degree of spiritual attainment and has been given permission to teach and transmit the teaching to their successors.
Disciple: A student who has formally requested to practice Zen Buddhism with a particular teacher as a life-long commitment.
Dokusan/Private Instruction: A private meeting between teacher and student in a room set aside for this purpose (the dokusan room). During dokusan (for formal students of the Roshi) a student may bring up any matter or question directly relating to his or her practice. In private instruction (for trial members and non-students), a person can also bring up matters not directly relating to practice. Dokusan and private instruction are strictly confidential.
Enlightenment: Also called awakening, self-realization, kensho, satori. This is the experience of seeing into one's true nature and awakening to the fundamental perfection of all existence. There are many different degrees of realization.
Gassho: The gesture of raising the hands palm to palm to indicate respect, gratitude, humility, or all three.
Han: A wooden block hit with a mallet to notify sitters that zazen is about to begin. On the back of the han appear the following words of the Buddha:
Great is the matter of birth and death
Life flows quickly by
Time waits for no one
Wake up! Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment!
Hara: The center of energy four fingers below the navel. This is where the mind is focused during zazen.
Inkhin bell: Bell used to signal the beginning and end of formal rounds of zazen and kinhin.
Jukai: Ceremony of receiving (ju) the Buddhist Precepts (kai). This is a formal initiation into Buddhism, making one a member of the Buddha's family.
Karma: A complex doctrine fundamental to the teachings of Buddhism meaning action and its fruits, the continuing process of cause and effect. From a moral standpoint, karma implies that people are the architects of their own destiny, for what they sow, they will reap. Karma is not the same as fate, for it is made and changed by ourselves.
Keisu: Bowl-shaped gong used in chanting services.
Kinhin: Walking zazen or zazen in motion done between periods of sitting.
Kotsu: Wooden scepter of Zen teachers given to them by their teacher when they have been granted permission to teach. Has an s-shaped curve, like a human spinal column.
Lotus: In Buddhism, the lotus flower symbolizes the purity and perfection intrinsic in all beings. A lotus begins its life in mud, yet grows upward, blossoming after it has gone beyond the surface of the water. Similarly, humans, mired in the darkness of ignorance, display their true qualities of wisdom and compassion once they have transcended their desires, anger and ignorance. The lotus position is a cross-legged posture used by some people when doing zazen.
Mokugyo: Literally wooden fish. An elaborately carved wooden drum struck with a padded wooden stick during chanting services. Fish, since they never sleep, symbolize the alertness and watchfulness needed to attain Buddhahood.
Monitor: Person responsible for running sittings. General questions about zendo etiquette may be addressed to the monitor.
Precepts: There are 16 Precepts in Buddhism. These are comprised of the Three Refuges (placing one's trust in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), the Three General Resolutions (to avoid evil, do good and liberate all sentient beings), and Ten Cardinal Precepts:
- Not to kill but to cherish all life.
- Not to take what is not given but to respect the things of others.
- Not to engage in improper sexuality but to live a life of purity and self-control.
- Not to lie but to speak the truth.
- Not to cause others to take substances that confuse the mind nor to do so oneself but to keep the mind clear.
- Not to speak of the misdeeds of others but to be understanding and sympathetic.
- Not to praise oneself nor disparage others but to overcome one's own short-comings.
- Not to withhold spiritual or material aid but to give them freely where needed.
- Not to indulge in anger but to exercise self-control.
- Not to revile the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) but to cherish and uphold them.
Rakusu: Garment worn over the sitting robe by those who have practiced zazen for several years and have taken Jukai. The rakusu is symbolic of the Buddha's robe.
Roshi: Literally venerable (spiritual) teacher. This is the title of a mature Zen teacher of any gender, who may be ordained or a layperson. The function of the roshi is to guide and inspire their students along the path to self-realization.
Sangha: The community of those who practice the Buddha's teachings. In a narrow sense, those who practice at a particular Center. In a wider sense, all Buddhist practitioners everywhere.
Sensei: Literally any type of teacher. In this country many Zen teachers use the term Sensei rather than Roshi.
Sesshin: A two- to seven-day residential period of intensive zazen practice. The daily schedule begins at 4:00 a.m. with wake-up and ends at 9:30 p.m. During sesshin there are multiple two- to three-hour blocks of zazen and kinhin with dokusan. Teisho, chanting, meals, work periods and rest periods are also part of the strict daily schedule.
Student: Someone who has made a formal commitment to practice Zen Buddhism with a particular teacher.
Teisho: A formal talk which is a presentation of a Zen teacher's experiential understanding of Buddhism. Unlike a sermon or lecture, which has didactic overtones, it is a direct demonstration of the teacher’s insight. In Zen parlance, a teisho comes from the hara.
Zazen: Literally za (to sit) zen (one-pointed concentration or absorption). Thus, to do zazen is to sit with the mind intensely focused. This is the type of meditation taught in the Zen sect of Buddhism and is the cornerstone of a Zen Buddhist's spiritual practice.
Zendo: Room where zazen is practiced; the meditation room.