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. The bodhisattva ideal is closely associated with Mahayana Buddhism.

Dharma - 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. The ethical rules of Buddhism are included but the dharma encompasses far more than that. It is the fundamental spirit underlying Zen and Buddhism. The dharma is as much something to do as it is something to discuss or read about.

Dokusan - 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.

Eightfold Path - The Eightfold path was given by the Buddha as part of the Four Noble Truths as the main 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

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.

  • Suffering is all around us; it is a part of life.
  • The cause of suffering is craving and attachmen.
  • There is a way out; craving can be ended and thus suffering can be ended.
  • The way to end craving is the Eightfold Path.

Jukai - Taking the precepts, taking refuge in the precepts or taking up the way of the bodhisattva. A significant step marked by a ceremony of the same name(s), jukai signifies a serious commitment to Zen, to the ten main precepts of Buddhism and to the salvation of all beings. Each student will recite the ten precepts during the ceremony and explain to the assembly what each precept means to him or her personally.

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. The important point to remember is that no actions are isolated and independent; all are tied together in cause and effect.

Kensho - An enlightenment or awakening experience. It is folly to try to describe this experience in words, however, a kensho 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.

Kinhin - 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).

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. 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, but the old distinctions have become less important so that today some teachers closer to the soto school have also used koans.

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. The kyosaku is not used for punishment: this is made clear by the fact that receiving the kyosaku is voluntary; it is never given to those who do not request it. Some request it simply to shake off sleepiness, but others say the blows can actually relax tense muscles. Ceremonial walking of the kyosaku (without any striking) is done early in the morning to signify opening the dojo and late in the evening to begin the closing.

Mindfulness - 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."

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. Each hand position is symbolic of a certain characteristic such as supreme wisdom or serenity.

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.

Roshi - A highly experienced teacher of Zen. The title Roshi is positioned after the teacher's name rather than before (i.e.: Jane Smith Roshi).

Samu - Selfless service; work that contributes to the maintenance of the temple and/or sangha. Periods of samu are often incorporated into practice days and may include cleaning, cooking, gardening, grounds keeping, etc.

Sangha - 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 group in our area with whom we practice.

Sensei - A recognized teacher of Zen. The title sensei, like the title roshi, traditionally is positioned after the teacher's name rather than before (i.e.: Jane Smith Sensei). This convention is not adhered to rigidly, however.

Sesshin - Most easily translated as a meditation retreat, though the wrong impression may be given by using this "shorthand" definition. Many feel the word retreat has the wrong connotations, since 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 also private interviews with a teacher (see dokusan). Meals are often eaten oryoki style, and periods of samu are generally included. The duration of a sesshin, at least in North America, is usually 3, 5 or 7 days, though the length can be shorter or longer and an odd number of days is not required.

Shikantaza - "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 soto tradition, to be the highest form of zazen.

Sutra - A Buddhist cannon written in prose form. 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.

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. 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 25 or 30 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 - Zen, or ch'an as it was called originally, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that first appeared in China in the 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.

Another distinctive characteristic of Zen is that the person of the Buddha is regarded with somewhat less reverence than in most other Buddhist traditions. Certainly Zen practitioners can exhibit a degree of respect and admiration for the Buddha, especially for his solitary quest for enlightenment without the guidance of anyone before him and for his burning desire to cure the world's suffering. However, Zen Buddhists do believe the Buddha was just a man after all and that being fixated on this man is not a sensible path to enlightenment. Thus a bit of disregard for the Buddha now and then is considered healthy. One Zen master, when he heard a student speak reverently of the Buddha, washed out the student's mouth with soap! (It should be noted, however, that Zen is certainly not the only tradition that considers the Buddha to be just an admirable person and not a godlike figure.)

Zendo - 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.