The glossary is divided into two categories: “Commonly Used Terms” and “Less Commonly Used Terms.” Both contain the names of zendo instruments as well as terms you may hear at the Center that don’t appear in the foregoing text. At the Center we generally try to use English equivalents for Asian Buddhist words, but when there are no suitable ones, we keep the original.
For more extensive vocabularies of Zen terms, see the Glossaries in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s books, The Three Pillars of Zen and Zen: Merging of East and West.
The following abbreviations are used: Ch. = Chinese; J. = Japanese; Skt.= Sanskrit
Commonly Used Terms
The twenty-eighth Indian Dharma ancestor in line from the Buddha, and founder of Zen in China in about 520 AD.
lit., “wisdom being”; in Zen, anyone sincerely working on herself or himself for the sake of others. Originally bodhisattva referred to any of the most deeply enlightened disciples of the Buddha or to a being in the final stage of enlightenment. They may also be seen as human archetypes, and in Buddhism the best known are the bodhisattvas of compassion (see Kannon), wisdom (Manjusri), and action (Bhadra).
The first of the Three Treasures. Buddha is used in two senses: (a) ultimate truth, or the enlightened nature common to all of us, and (b) one who has awakened to this fundamental reality. The Buddha refers to Shakyamuni (563-483 BC), the Supreme Buddha of our world cycle.
The former carriage house at the back of the Zen Center garden. More specifically, it is the large space on the second floor of that building, which the Center rents to Open Sky yoga studio and uses only for the occasional large ceremony or other special activity.
The annual celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, which at the Center falls on Memorial Day weekend. We used to follow the Japanese Zen custom of observing it on April 8, but in Rochester it was consistently too cold for this largest festive Sangha gathering of the year.
The second of the Three Treasures; the Law or ultimate truth, and also the Buddha’s teaching. When written in lower case (and often in the plural), dharma is being used in its widest sense, and means “phenomenon” or “thing.”
(“DOAK-sahn”): A one-to-one teaching encounter in private given at this center by a fully authorized Zen teacher. It is open only to those who have become members of the Center. Dokusan is geared to matters of practice in the narrow sense of the word (e.g., zazen), but personal issues closely related to one’s sitting practice are also okay to bring up. Dokusan encounters are usually quite brief.
Taking the Precepts, a ceremony in which one receives the sixteen Buddhist precepts, and formally aspires to live in harmony with Buddha Nature. Jukai is usually offered twice a year at the Center.
Kannon or Kanzeon
(Ch., Gwan Yin; Skt., Avalokitesvara, or Avalokita): “Hearer of the Cries of the World,” the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She plays a central role in the devotional practices of all Buddhist sects.
Small room off the left side of the zendo containing a particularly evocative Chinese Kannon figure. The Kannon Room offers a more intimate setting for zazen and devotions outside of formal sittings.
(“KEEN-heen”): Formal walking meditation between periods of sitting.
Entrance building with a slate floor, connecting the Center’s two front buildings, 5 and 7 Arnold Park.
Leader of formal zazen session. In the zendo two monitors sit facing toward the center of the room, in the seats on either side of the main doors; they use the encouragement stick, correct sitters’ postures, and make sure the sitting runs smoothly.
Small passage area, paved in slate, that connects the Link, the covered walkway to the dorms, and the inner door to 7 Arnold Park.
A one-to-one teaching encounter in private given by a senior student. Its parameters are a little broader than those of dokusan; depending on how many others wish to go that evening. Private Instruction may offer the time to get into counseling-like territory, though still only briefly. Private Instruction also covers points about posture and breathing and other basic instruction in Zen practice, especially for those who have not formally become a student of one of our teachers. Private Instruction is generally held on Tuesday and Friday evenings. Before going to Private Instruction for the first time, attend the Tuesday Beginners’ Night orientation; it includes the procedure for going in-person. Private Instruction is also available during Zoom sittings and can be scheduled outside of sittings upon request.
(“ROCK-soo”): A bib-like Zen Buddhist vestment worn by priests and some lay people. You are eligible to receive a rakusu after you have been a full member for a year, have formally become Roshi or Sensei’s student, and have taken jukai (see above).
The third of the Three Treasures: the community of people practicing the Dharma. In the broadest sense it includes anyone in any spiritual tradition who is sincerely working on himself.
(“seh-SHEEN”): lit., “unifying the mind”; an intensive meditation seclusion in silence, of between two and seven days’ duration.
Stick, or encouragement stick
A light wooden paddle used in the zendo to rouse energy by striking points on the shoulders along an acupuncture meridian.
(“tahn”): Raised platforms in the zendo.
(“TAY-show”): A formal (though largely extemporaneous) commentary given by the teacher while facing the altar. In sesshin it is usually on a koan or other Zen text, whereas outside sesshin it may be on a non-Zen article or book. A teisho is a not a lecture or sermon, but rather a presentation of the teacher’s direct experiential understanding.
The Three Treasures
Also known as “The Three Jewels,” they are Buddha, which in Zen is understood as Buddha Nature, our intrinsically enlightened True Self; Dharma, which means the Truth, the Law, or the Way (the Tao); and Sangha, those who practice the Dharma, but more broadly anyone, on any path, who is working to overcome self-centeredness. At our center, each chanting service begins with our “taking refuge” in the Three Treasures–placing our faith in these three treasures that are actually our very own Self.
lit.., “sitting Zen,” but sometimes used more inclusively to refer to the maintenance of a one-pointed, stabilized mind while active as well.
lit.., “Zen hall,” a room used for formal zazen; the heart of a Zen center.
Less Commonly Used Terms
Hanging wooden block, struck with a mallet before formal sittings and teisho.
used in zazen, in which the legs are crossed in front of the body, with both knees and both feet resting on the mat.
(“GAH-sho”): lit., “to place the two palms together,” used throughout Asia to convey respect, gratitude, humility, and the unification of dualities.
The area of the loins, including the stomach, abdomen and hips, and the functions of digestion and elimination connected with them. In Zen, the hara – or more correctly the tanden, which is specifically the lower abdomen – is recognized as the body-mind’s vital center, and by learning to focus the mind there and to radiate all one’s activities from that region, one develops greater mental and physical equilibrium and a reserve of energy.
Samadhi power; the dynamic energy liberated in one whose mind is unified through one-pointed concentration.
(“KAY-soo”): Bowl-shaped gong used in the zendo to punctuate chanting.
Seeing into one’s own True-nature and hence the nature of all existence; a first awakening, usually shallow.
(“KAY-sa”): Full-length outer robe worn by monks or priests for formal occasions.
(“KOE-ahn”): An ancient dialogue or story, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate truth, taken up as a spiritual practice and resolved by awakening to a dimension of the mind that transcends the discursive intellect.
(“MOO-dra”): Hand posture.
lit., “Great Vehicle;” the northern school of Buddhism, which emphasizes the bodhisattva ideal of liberating all sentient beings before entering final enlightenment oneself.
(“MAHK-yo”): lit., “devilish phenomena”; visions, hallucinations, fears and other unusual mental and physical phenomena that may arise during zazen.
(“row-HOT-soo”): lit., “the eighth day of the twelfth month”; sesshin (see above) commemorating the Buddha Shakyamuni’s Great Awakening.
(“SAY-zah”): Posture used for zazen and chanting in which the sitter is kneeling, usually with support under the buttocks, or, for shorter periods, sitting directly on the heels.
The six levels of unenlightened existence: hell, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and heavenly beings. These worlds, through which sentient beings are constantly evolving and devolving, may also be interpreted in a psychological sense.
(“SOO-trah”): lit.., “thread on which jewels are hung”; the Buddhist scriptures, traditionally regarded as the words of the Buddha or one of his disciples.