A Small Buddhist Glossary

I've been thinking about including a Buddhist glossary from the time I first created this website. When I first listed a zen sesshin among the upcoming retreats, there were some terms I was sure few people outside the zen tradition would understand. That prompted me to put something together sooner than I would have otherwise. What I have up to this point you see below. Many of the "definitions" go into greater depth (or at least have more words) than you'd usually find in a simple glossary or dictionary, but are much shorter than you'd expect to find in an encyclopedia. Some terms have had books written about them. I tried to include a short definition at the beginning of each term for people looking for no more than that.   Over time many more words used in the Theravadan tradition, but also common in the other traditions of Western Buddhism, have been added. I hope you find it useful.

  B-D     E-K     M-P     R-S     T-Z  

bodhisattva (Sanskrit) (Wikipedia   Tricycle) - A being whose actions promote unity or harmony. A being who vows to postpone one's own enlightenment (or in some definitions, whose intention of enlightenment is) for the purpose of helping all sentient beings realize liberation. One who seeks enlightenment not only for oneself but for others. The bodhisattva ideal is at the heart of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism.  

Mahayana Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva. According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayana, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." The Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra contains a simple and brief definition for the term bodhisattva, which is also the earliest known Mahayana definition. This definition is given as the following.

"Because he has enlightenment as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahasattva is so called."

Mahayana Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings by practicing the six perfections. Indelibly entwined with the bodhisattva vow is merit transference.

In Mahayana Buddhism life in this world is compared to people living in a house that is on fire. People take this world as reality pursuing worldly projects and pleasures without realizing that the house is on fire and will soon burn down (due to the inevitability of death). A bodhisattva is one who has a determination to free sentient beings from samsara and its cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as the mind of awakening (bodhicitta). Bodhisattvas take bodhisattva vows in order to progress on the spiritual path towards buddhahood.

There are a variety of different conceptions of the nature of a bodhisattva in Mahayana . According to some Mahayana sources a bodhisattva is someone on the path to full Buddhahood. Others speak of bodhisattvas renouncing Buddhahood. According to the Kun-bzang bla-ma'i zhal-lung, a bodhisattva can choose any of three paths to help sentient beings in the process of achieving buddhahood. They are:  

1. king-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to become a buddha as soon as possible and then help sentient beings in full fledge;
2. boatman-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to achieve buddhahood along with other sentient beings and
3. shepherd-like bodhisattva - one who aspires to delay buddhahood until all other sentient beings achieve buddhahood. Bodhisattvas like Avalokitesvara and Santideva are believed to fall in this category.

calm   see samatha

chokei (also choki)  (Japanese) - An upright kneeling position used in some zen ceremonies. Chokei is a posture with the knees bent, resting your weight on your knees and shins, with the rest of your body upright, in gassho (hands in prayer position).  


dana (Sanskrit and Pali) is the sacred practice of cultivating selfless generosity.   In Buddhism, it is one of the perfections (paramitas): the perfection of giving (dana paramita).   Dana is sometimes translated simply as generosity or caring actions. It can be described as "offering supportive value for the benefit of another without attachment and with unconditional generosity. Giving and letting go without expectation or obligation in selflessness."   As in any other action, so also in offering dana, it is the noble intention and volition that really counts as the action, not the mere outward deed. It is an expression of a caring heart in support of another. One of the best discussions of dana I've run across is in this dharma talk by Temple Smith in 2014.

So dana is the expression of a warm and open heart. As we feel warmth and openness an urge to express that warmth will naturally arise. It is this expression that dana refers to. It is sometimes referred to as experiencing and living life with an open heart. Dana develops the release if clinging contraction and fear, and at the same time as clinging contraction and fear are released, the expression of dana is a natural outcome.
By giving this gift, my heart will be glad, and happiness and joy will arise in me ... one gives because it ennobles and adorns the heart/mind. - The Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya 8:33)

That's what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing. - Simone de Beauvoir

Monks, if people knew, as I know, the fruits of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart. Even if it were their last bite, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there was someone else to share it with. - The Buddha (Itivuttaka 18)

A good person gives in five ways: out of faith, with respect, at the right time, generously, with without denigrating the other. - The Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya V.14}

King Pasenadi asked, "Where should a gift be given?"     The Buddha replied,     "Wherever one's mind has confidence." - The Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya I.99)

Dana has also been used for millennia to refer to an offering to monks and nuns. Theravadan Buddhist monastics have always been dependent on the lay population for food, and often other supplies and services. In the West today, many of the dharma teachers are lay people themselves, and offer their teachings at no charge. To learn more about how that works in today's Buddhist communities click here.

To begin with, the information you just read about dana is the root. That is what dana is. A culture can either nurture and nourish that impulse to open-heartedness and its expression, or it can work against it. David Loy wrote an article for Open Democracy entitled Listening to the Buddha: how greed, ill-will and delusion are poisoning our institutions. It describes what motivates our government, our institutions, and to a significant extent, each of us. Part of what it is describing are the immense obstacles each of us faces in opening our hearts and our minds. How difficult it is to become open-hearted and generous in a world where everything we see and hear argues against it.

I remember reading how Bhutan (the government that tries to develop its Gross National Happiness Index) tried to prevent the development of satellite TV from coming to their country a few years ago. They were concerned that it's effect on happiness and well-being would only be detrimental. They failed. The article I read mentioned how people quit going through their prayer beads very shortly after TV came. I wish I could find that article: it mentioned other ways that that happiness index was being undermined. I recently heard from someone recently trekking in Bhutan how the leader of the trek mentioned as they were passing through a very small village how a few years earlier they would not have to been carrying food because they could have knocked on the door of any home and the owner would have been honored to provide lodging and sustenance to anyone passing through. As we force our world view and our economic system on the rest of the world, generosity is becoming increasingly rare.

In Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma, for example, there is a deep spiritual connection that the population still maintains - at least outside the cities. People are happy. Monks and teachers are well taken care of by the population, who feel so good to be able to express generosity by contributing food to the monks and nuns. Small children are taught very early in life the value of this by each putting a spoonful of rice into the alms bowls carried by the monastics. The value of giving has been emphasized over the value of getting for many centuries. When you hear someone ask how people with so little can be so happy it is useful to understand that they ask how people with so much can be so unhappy. Today this is changing rapidly everywhere.

Throughout what you are reading maintain an awareness of what dana is and why you want to develop it.

To a large extent Theravadan and Zen Buddhism are being taught by lay teachers in the United States.

In this country some teachers are having to begin charging for their teachings because they cannot survive on what people give them. Others are considering it. I've heard one founding teacher from Spirit Rock say how dana almost works now. It is improving. In this country people need to buy (or rent) a home. You generally can't get by very well without a vehicle. You need health insurance, co-pays, auto insurance, homeowner's insurance, food, electricity, school supplies for kids, phone, computer, and so much more just to begin getting by. Few teachers can teach for even close to an sixth of the year, but they do have to get by for the entire year.

I don't think you would have read this far if you didn't appreciate the value of cultivating generosity into the very essence of your being. If you go to Buddhist retreats or sanghas being lead by a teacher, you'll often see dana baskets at the end of the retreat. Often one for the teacher, and one for overhead and expenses (unless there was a charge for that in advance). For years I was uncomfortable knowing what an appropriate amount to give would be. There are several ways to think about this, so I will share some of my thoughts.

Discounting generosity, I've come up with a formula that might provide some guidelines of what reasonable support might be. I've thought about this for awhile, and it is only a guideline. Below is a table I devised which I will explain underneath.


Of course this is a guideline, and hopefully some people would want to provide more than their minimal share. Some teachers may have income apart from what they get for conducting retreats. The 7 days of support for each day of retreat might not be the best suggestion, but it seems a reasonable starting point for consideration. Certainly your means is an important consideration. If you are living at a poverty level it may be difficult to support your teacher at a middle class level. What I wanted to do is establish a guideline to understand what support may be reasonable

I've also heard suggestions offered by 2 teachers in different traditions in recent months. One suggests $25 - $50 per day depending on ability and generosity.. Another suggests $30 - $120 per day depending on ability and generosity.

The only reason I have this discussion is because so many people have no idea how much money to donate or how to think about it. I'm not sure it is even appropriate to have in a discussion of dana or generosity - but I hope some people find this useful.

Transcriptions of four short talks on dana at the London Buddhist Center by Ratnaghosa,    
Steve Armstrong & Kamala Masters on dana,    

Dependent Origination aka co-dependent arising - (An excellent discussion on Buddhanet. This is the 2nd of a 5 page article. See bottom of page to navigate.)  


dharma (Sanskrit)   dhamma (Pali) (see Wikipedia   and Tricycle)  
Dharma is the Law that "upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe". Dharma has the Sanskrit root -dhri, which means "that without which nothing can stand" or "that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe." The word "dharma" was already in use in the Vedic times

Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all have the concept of dharma at their core. In Buddhism and Hinduism it points to the purification and moral transformation of human beings. Though differing in some particulars, they concur that the goal of human life is liberation whether this salvation be in the form moksha or nirvana. In Sikhism self liberation is not the goal rather the aim of a Sikh devotee is to be detached from the world and attached to the Guru's feet.  

Buddhism (a word invented by British scholars and Christian missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century) is referred to in the East as Buddha-dharma or Dharma vinaya. This refers to both the system of analysis taught by the Buddha (recorded in the sutta pitaka of the Pali canon) regarding the causes of suffering (Pali: pariyatti) and the necessary course of action needed to be taken to undo these causes (Pali: patipatti). This course of action involves leading a life of moral uprightness abstaining from unwholesome behaviours and engaging in wholesome ones. Such a lifestyle as well as keeping a person out of harm's way brings about over time a purification of any taints brought about by unskilful past activities. Buddhism is thus often referred to as "the path of purification" (Pali: Visuddhimagga) and within a western context can be seen as an applied system of natural mental health and well-being. As with the other Indian religions, the end point of this path (notwithstanding the commitment to helping others to achieve the same), the final undoing of all the internal causes of suffering, is final liberation or Moksha. This is accompanied by a profound peace of mind referred to as nirvana.  

back to top  

doan (Japanese) - The person who rings the bells during service or zazen.  


dokusan (Japenese) - Dokusan offers the opportunity to present the state of your practice to the teacher for comment and instruction. It is a chance to ask questions, discuss difficulties, and most basically, reveal who you are at that very moment. The self-consciousness, uncertainty, anxiety, and other emotional reactions that attend self-revelation are all part of what we are here to practice with.  

Coming into dokusan is optional. If you do not wish an interview, when your turn comes, simply place your hands together in gassho for a few seconds, then resume your normal sitting posture.

When it's your turn for an interview and you hear the bell ring in the interview room, bow quickly from your seated position and then get up, walking with hands in shashu until your reach the open interview room door. Join the student who is waiting there with hands in gassho. Both make a full bow together on the floor. The person entering keeps their hands in gassho, the one leaving should shut the door, and return to the zendo, hands in shashu.  

Walk over to the interview zabuton, (hands still in gassho) stand behind it, bow, and then kneel in seiza for the interview, sitting with your knees at the front end of the mat, nearest to the teacher. When the teacher rings the bell, ending the interview, bow from your seated position, and exit with your hands remaining in gassho.  

To summarize: there are two bows entering & two bows leaving: one you do together at the door; one standing by the zabuton when entering, one kneeling on the zabuton when leaving.  

doshi (Japanese) - Guiding or leading teacher who leads or performs service or ceremony  

  back to top

dukkha (Pali, Sanskrit) - The Four Noble Truths are perhaps the most important cornerstone of Buddhism. The first Noble Truth is the truth of dukkha. Sometimes interpreted as “life is dukkha” or “life includes dukkha”.

Dukkha is most commonly translated as suffering; but also as uneasiness, dis-ease, anxiety, stress, or unsatisfactoriness.  When someone's life is going very well: their physical needs are well met and they are baically happy, you may hear them express something akin to a feeling that something is missing. This feeling is also dukkha. Many translators of the suttas and sutras prefer to not translate the word, but just use the word dukkha. This is because any of these translations, or even a grouping of some or all of them, fail to contain the full depth and meaning of the word. When you see any of these words in a sutra, or even an original article or talk it may be useful to mentally re-insert the word dukkha in its place. Alternatively, you could work on broadening your understanding of the word suffering. Dukkha is often explained as the result of grasping for things you want; striving with a sense of urgency or even desperation for things or experiences you want or see as needing; clinging tightly to things you have and are afraid of losing; or trying to push away or avoid things you are experiencing or worried about experiencing. The greater the sense of urgency or desperation, the greater the dukkha.

Munindra was quoted in Living this Life Fully as saying this about dukkha:

As one goes deeper and deeper, the mind becomes clearer and clearer that everything is suffering— dukkha. Buddha says, “Noble truth of suffering.” What is the noble truth of suffering? The whole of existence is suffering: Seeing is suffering; hearing is suffering; eating is suffering. When you give attention and come close to it, when you experience it and see it as it is, it is all useless.

Another approach to understanding dukkha is as our identification as a self or ego. This is largely the same as our separation from our identity with the Oneness of existence, variously referred to as “Source”, “The Ground of Being”, “God”, “All that Is”, “non-dual identity”, “anatta”, “atman”, and various other words or phrases that also can't even come close to describing the reality. This might also be referred to as not identifying with “what” we really are. As I try to describe this, very little comes. It's almost like a total absence of any identification at all, and yet knowing this lack of identification is our true identity. It is only by experiencing this truth that you can understand the truth of emptiness described, for example, in the Heart Sutra.

These understandings of dukkha are not mutually exclusive. As clinging and striving are released, the truth of nonseparation becomes clearer. Similarly as nonseparation is experienced in one's life, the senselessness of grasping or avoidance becomes obvious.

Another expression of this relationship is the fact that for almost all of us our most desperate clinging is to our sense of identity: to our sense of being a separate self apart from all else in the world. Without this sense of a limited and constricted identity, there would be no sense of being able to die, or any way to fear death.

  back to top

Dzogchen (Wikipedia) According to Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, Dzogchen is the natural, primordial state or natural condition,     and a body of teachings and meditation practices aimed at realizing that condition. Dzogchen, or "Great Perfection", is a central teaching of the Nyingma school and also practiced by adherents of other Tibetan Buddhist sects. According to Dzogchen literature, Dzogchen is the highest and most definitive path to enlightenment.

From the perspective of Dzogchen, the ultimate nature of all sentient beings is said to be pure, all-encompassing, primordial clarity or naturally occurring timeless clarity. This intrinsic clarity has no form of its own and yet is capable of perceiving, experiencing, reflecting, or expressing all form. It does so without being affected by those forms in any ultimate, permanent way. The analogy given by Dzogchen masters is that one's nature is like a mirror which reflects with complete openness but is not affected by the reflections, or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed. The knowledge that ensues from recognizing this mirror-like clarity (which cannot be found by searching nor identified) is what Dzogchenpas refer to as rigpa.

There is a fairly wide consensus among lamas of both the Nyingma and Sarma schools that the end state of dzogchen and mahamudra are the same. The Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness are fundamental to and thoroughly compatible with Dzogchen practices. Essence Mahamudra is viewed as being the same as Dzogchen, except the former doesn't include rigpa.

  back to top


Eightfold Path (aka Noble Eightfold Path, Ennobling Eightfold Path). This is what the Buddha described as the way leading to the cessation of dukkha and the attainment of awakening. The Eightfold Path is often described as the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. There have been many books describing and discussing its features.  

The purpose of the Eightfold Path to develop insight into the true nature of phenomena (or reality) and to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion. Each element of the path begins with the Pali word samma or samyanc in Sanskrit. This is often translated as "Right" but denotes a sense of completion, togetherness, and coherence that the word right completely misses. It has also been translated as wholesome, wise, or skillful.

Each element of the path has additional levels of explanation required for a better understanding. For example, the brief description of what Wise or Right Speech is "abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter". There is significant elaboration of each of these as well.

The 8 factors are often broken down into 3 divisions: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Development. It is generally taught that these eight factors are to be understood as interdependent principles and are to be developed simultaneously - that each one supports all the others. However, sometimes early on, it is preferable to follow them in order. For example if you are beginning with very poor ethical conduct, it makes sense to follow the steps in order.  

Division Eightfold Path Factors Leads to
Wisdom 1. Right view Right Understanding
2. Right intention Right Liberation
Ethical Conduct 3. Right speech  
4. Right action  
5. Right livelihood  
Mental Development 6. Right effort  
7. Right mindfulness  
8. Right concentration  

Like many of these entries, it's hard to know when to stop. There's so much more required here for a good understanding of what the Eightfold Path is. Some other resources: Bikkhu Bohdi,   Wikipedia,   Path to Enlightenment,   Ajahn Jagaro  

back to top

eko (Japanese) - A dedication. The dedication read after recitation of a sutra, to direct the merit gained from the recitation to a certain person or group.  

gassho (Sanskrit) - (Literally: "palms together") 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 position used for greeting, with the palms together and fingers pointing upwards in prayer position; used in various Buddhist traditions, but also used in numerous cultures throughout Asia. It expresses greeting, request, thankfulness, reverence and prayer.  

inkin (Japanese) - 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.

jiko (Japanese) - The attendant who carries incense for the Doshi.  


karuna (Pali & Sanskrit) - Karuna is generally translated as the quality of compassion. It is characterized by the wish to help alleviate suffering in others. Its function resides in the inability to tolerate suffering, so it motivates the desire to help when others suffer. Karuna does not allow complacency in the face of suffering. One is moved into action. It manifests as non-cruelty, and its proximate cause is seeing the pain and helplessness in those disadvantaged or overtaken by some misfortune. Then the heart responds with the wish to help.

The far enemy is cruelty, and compassion succeeds when it makes such feelings subside.The word cruelty sounds very strong, but the wish to harm, to hurt, to be cruel can come out in many ways. One could be quite cruel in one's speech without in fact beating up someone. Making a cutting comment or put-down is being cruel. When there is compassion, the tendency to lash out subsides.

Karuna fails when it causes sorrow. When faced with suffering, if one is overwhelmed by grief or heaviness of heart, then that is not being compassionate. The quality of compassion is then tainted and not functioning properly. When the heart is drawn towards boundlessness, it is not dragged down by suffering. Instead, it is uplifted. It is important to recognize that. The heart could be weighed down by sorrow and grief in response to a tragic event or situation, and one could think that that is being compassionate. But that is not compassion, even though the etymology of the word (in English) is "to suffer with". That is not the way the Buddha defined compassion. If one's mind is affected by grief, then one is not able to respond in a clear and open-hearted manner. It is important to recognize that. This is why sorrow and grief are characterized as the near enemy of compassion. Both responses can spring from seeing suffering in others, but grief has a depressive effect, while compassion has a positive and uplifting quality.  

`Compassion' in the Dharma is a mix of qualities, including empathy and the desire or energy to heal, to alleviate suffering. Often in compassion practice these two qualities can become imbalanced. Practitioners can tend to unwittingly focus too much on the empathy (taking in and opening to the suffering of others) at the expense of feeling the lovely, even pleasant, qualities of the outflow of `healing' energy. This will usually result in `compassion fatigue' and fear of opening to suffering. So if we want our compassion to sustain and be steady, and if we want to be courageous in the face of the suffering in the world, we need to play with this balance in our practice so that compassion feels, on the whole, to be a `happy' state. Yet there are times when we should, and will naturally want to, let ourselves descend to the dark places, to feel the magnitude of the pain in the world, the scope of the unfolding tragedy, to open to the unimaginable enormity of it all, trusting and knowing that we can rebalance ourselves again and regain our buoyancy, so that we can serve in some way.

Because as practitioners, and as humans even, we must act and choose and not simply feel. `Compassion is a verb', Thich Nhat Hanh famously says. And it is many things, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional - our jewel treasure, our gift, part of the core of our humanity. Yes, it manifests naturally, but we very much need to care for it, to nurture it, because it can wither, shrink and dry up in us in so many ways. Yet if we can care for it and water it, and let it manifest and express in our lives more and more, we see it holds one of the most powerful keys to our freedom in life, to a whole different sense of being in the world, and even a whole different sense of `reality'.  

Rob Burbea

kentan (Japanese) - "inspecting the platform". The formal checking of the sitting monks in the zendo by the rmost senior teacher present.


kinhin (Japanese) (YouTube)- Walking meditation, usually between two periods of zazen.   Practitioners walk clockwise usually in a room while holding their hands in shashu, with one hand closed in a fist, while the other hand grasps or covers the fist. During walking meditation each step is taken after each full breath. The beginning of kinhin is announced by ringing the bell twice (kinhinsho); the end by ringing once (chukaisho: 'the chime to let go and detach').  


a koan (Japanese) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

I think maybe some of these descriptions get large because I was unfamiliar with the real meaning of the concept, so I go a little overboard in trying to make it clear to me as well as you. The history of koans seems to me to be important in appreciating their place in zen practice, so there is that as well. If that doesn't seem important to you, skip the Wikipedia description.  

I will present several sources of descriptions of what a koan is. It turns out to be somewhat different from popular depictions, of course.
From Columbia Encyclopedia
A koan is a subject for meditation in Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, usually one of the sayings of a great Zen master of the past. In the formative period of Ch'an in China, masters tested the enlightenment of their students and of each other through statements and dialogue that expressed spiritual intuition in nonrational, paradoxical language. In later generations records of such conversations began to be used for teaching, and the first collections of subjects, or koans, were made in the 11th century. Koan practice was transmitted to Japan as part of Zen in the 13th cent., and it remains one of the main practices of the Rinzai sect. The most famous koan collections are the Wu-men-kuan (Jap. Mu-mon-kan) or "Gateless Gate" and the Pi-yen-lu (Jap. Heki-gan-roku) or "Blue Cliff Records." A well-known koan is: "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?" sometimes expressed as "what is the sound of one hand clapping"  
From Wikipedia (this is a small collection of edited excerpts from the Wikipedia listing)
Zen koan collections are public records of the notable sayings and actions of Zen disciples and masters attempting to pass on their teachings.
The Japanese term koan is the Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese word gong'an. According to 13th century Dynasty Zen master Zhongfeng Mingben gong'an originated as an term referring to "official correspondence; documents; files" of a gongfu "government post"), which referred to a "public record" or the "case records of a public law court" in Tang-dynasty China. Koan/gongan thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person, and a teacher may test the student's ability to recognize and understand that principle. Commentaries in koan collections bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents.  

Gongans developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) from the recorded sayings collections of Chan-masters, which quoted many stories of "a famous past Chan figure's encounter with disciples or other interlocutors and then offering his own comment on it". Those stories and the accompanying comments were used to educate students, and broaden their insight into the Buddhist teachings.  

Those stories came to be known as gongan, "public cases". Such a story was only considered a gongan when it was commented upon by another Chan-master. This practice of commenting on the words and deeds of past masters confirmed the master's position as an awakened master in a lineage of awakened masters of the past.

In the eighteenth century the Rinzai school became dominated by the legacy of Hakuin, who laid a strong emphasis on koan study as a means to gain kensho and develop insight. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the tradition of koan-commentary became suppressed in the Soto-school, due to a reform movement that sought to standardize the procedures for dharma transmission. One reason for suppressing the koan-tradition in the Soto-school may have been to highlight the differences with the Rinzai-school, and create a clear identity. This movement also started to venerate Dogen as the founding teacher of the Soto-school. During this period his teachings became the standard for the Soto-teachings, neglecting the fact that Dogen himself made extensive use of koan-commentary.

In Zen practice, a koan is not meaningless, and not a riddle or a puzzle. Teachers do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a koan. Koan after koan explores the theme of nonduality. Hakuin's well-known koan, "Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?" is clearly about two and one. The koan asks, you know what duality is, now what is nonduality? In "What is your original face before your mother and father were born?" the phrase "father and mother" alludes to duality. This is obvious to someone versed in the Chinese tradition, where so much philosophical thought is presented in the imagery of paired opposites. The phrase "your original face" alludes to the original nonduality.  

Study of koan literature is common to all schools of Zen, though with varying emphases and curriculae. The Rinzai-school uses extensive koan-curricula, checking questions, and jakogo ("capping phrases", quotations from Chinese poetry) in its use of koans. The Sanbo Kyodan, and it's western derivatations of Taizan Maezumi and the White Plum Asanga, also use koan-curricula, but have omitted the use of capping phrases. In Chinese Chan and Korean Seon, the emphasis is on Hua Tou, the study of one koan throughout one's lifetime. In Japanese Soto-Zen, the use of koans has been abandoned since the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.

I found this in an Amazon review of a classic collection of koans.
"So what is a Koan? An IQ puzzle? A logical enigma that enables you to see the limits of rational thought? A mysterious aphorism that you should just Be With, not try to solve? Heck no! A Koan Is A Plain, Clear Statement About Something You Are Quite Capable Of Understanding. Laughter is the usual response when you see into a koan ("solve" is misleading.) I'm not entirely sure what's so funny. Partly it's that it was all so obvious: something insanely wonderful was right there in front of you all the time."  

kokyo (Japanese) - The 'cantor' or chant leader.

  back to top  

Mahamudra Wikipedia (Sanskrit, Tibetan: Chagchen) literally means "great seal" or "great symbol." It "is a multivalent term of great importance in later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism" which "also occurs occasionally in Hindu and East Asian Buddhist esotericism."

The name refers to a body of teachings representing the culmination of all the practices of the new translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism, who believe it to be the quintessential message of all of their sacred texts. The mudra portion denotes that in an adept's experience of reality, each phenomenon appears vividly, and the maha portion refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.

An excerpt from An Introduction to Mahamudra and Its Practical Application to Life by Alexander Berzin

"Mahamudra" is a Sanskrit word meaning "great seal" and refers to the nature of all phenomena. Just as a wax seal is stamped on legal documents to authenticate their signature, likewise the nature of reality is figuratively stamped upon everything as a guarantee that nothing exists in a fantasized, impossible way. The fact that everything is devoid of existing in any impossible manner thus validates that things actually exist.

Mahamudra also refers to sophisticated Buddhist systems of meditation and practice to realize this great sealing nature. The distinctive characteristic of these methods is to see this nature by focusing on mind itself and discovering the relationship between mind and reality. When our mind confuses reality with fantasy, we produce problems for ourselves. Furthermore, when our mind gives rise to an appearance of others in a way that does not correspond to their reality, we are unable to know them accurately in order to be of most help. Understanding the intimate relation between mind and reality, therefore, is essential for achieving both liberation and enlightenment, the goal of mahamudra practice.

The most commonly discussed fantasized and impossible manner of existence in Buddhism is literally called "true existence," namely existence truly independent from a relation with mind. Since true existence is, paradoxically, false existence, referring to a manner of existence that is impossible and not at all real, we can perhaps avoid the confusion by using, instead, variations of the term "solid existence."

We can begin to appreciate the complex relation between mind and reality by examining it from various points of view. For example, if we approach the topic in a practical, down-to-earth manner and call the actual way in which we and the universe exist "reality," we live "in reality." On the basis of our everyday experience of reality, we can know and perhaps understand it. This process can only occur through the medium of mind.

If directly experiencing and knowing reality is not sufficient to be able to understand it clearly and we also need to think about it, we can only do so through a conceptual scheme, which is a construct of mind. Furthermore, if we need to formulate and express to ourselves or others what reality is, we can only do so through words or symbols, which are also a construct of mind. Reality exists, but it is a fantasy to imagine that we can experience, understand, prove or describe it independently from the relationship between reality and mind. If we may borrow a term from post-modernist philosophy, we must "deconstruct" reality from being some solid thing "out there."

If we ask how do phenomena exist, we have already involved mind in merely asking the question. Moreover, we can only answer this question by also involving mind. Suppose we reply, Yes, that is obvious, but on a theoretical level don't things exist separately from mind? We would have to say that a theoretical level does not exist by itself, independently from a mind that is either formulating or at least thinking about it. We cannot say anything further about how a theoretical level exists, because to say anything involves language, which is a construct of mind.


Mahayana (Sanskrit) (Wikipedia (the discussion of the etymology of the word is interesting there) BuddhaNet - The "greater" vehicle of Buddhism, Mahayana developed in India and spread to China, Japan, and Korea. It emphasizes compassion and the bodhisattva ideal of saving all sentient beings. It originated as a lay movement.  

The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan. Ch'an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools. According to these schools, to look inward and not to look outwards is the only way to achieve enlightenment, which to the human mind is ultimately the same as Buddhahood. In this system, the emphasis is upon 'intuition', its peculiarity being that it has no words in which to express itself at all, so it does this in symbols and images. In the course of time this system developed its philosophy of intuition to such a degree that it remains unique to this day.

It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionised the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon which had been accepted in the First Council.  

mantra (Sanskrit) (Wikipedia)- I looked through half a dozen zen dictionaries and half a dozen Theravadan disctionaries and found no references to mantra.   Buddhist door had this definition "Sanskrit words signifying a sacred word, verse or syllable which embodies in sound of some specific deity or supernatural power. It is one of the three mystics in Tantric Buddhism."


metta (Pali) (Sanskrit = maitri) Metta is often translated as loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence, amity, friendship, good will, kindness, close mental union (on same mental wavelength), or and active interest in others. (Wikipedia) Each of these captures some aspect of the word.  

Metta is characterized as being connected to happiness or welfare. Its function is to generate welfare or well being. It is manifested as the removal of annoyance. Its proximate cause is seeing the lovableness of beings, or the good qualities and that which is pleasing in others. Metta succeeds when it causes ill will to subside and fails when it brings about affection. Using the word metta is more useful as it does not have the connotations of affection and attachment that the word loving-kindness has. Metta is a selfless wishing of happiness and well being for others. Ajahn Pasanno

The brahmaviharas have so-called near and far enemies--obstructions to their correct development.The near enemy of metta is greed or attachment, since happiness and well being could become coveted.That leads to pain and sorrow and could even turn into a defilement if not correctly understood. When we experience something pleasing, we tend to want it, but to really practice metta is to wish for the well being of others and not to try to possess them. The same goes for cultivating metta towards oneself, to try not to cling to feelings of joy and well being generated by the practice of meditation. So the near enemy to metta is when the heart moves too close to something and then it shifts from being loving-kindness to greed and grasping. (ibid)  

The far enemy of metta is anger. Bearing anger, ill will, or aversion is, of course, inimical to loving-kindness, but it is far enough away to recognize such feelings. Being more insidious, the near enemies are more dangerous. When you are angry, you try to deal with it or try to remove it, but when you are delighting in something, your mind tends not to be clear enough to see that you have come too close to the object. In terms of cultivating loving-kindness, you have to know and be aware of these aspects that are related to and define the quality of metta, and to use them as boundaries to work within. (ibid)  

mindfulness see sati


moha (Sanskrit, Pali) - Moha is commonly translated as "ignorance", "delusion", "bewilderment", "stupidity", etc.

In the Theravada tradition, moha is considered to be a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. In the Mahayana tradition, moha is defined as a sub-category of this fundamental ignorance, that is a dumbfounded state of not knowing what to do - a state of being deeply clouded, in which the mind is not clear.  

When there is moha we live in darkness. It was the Buddha's great compassion which moved him to teach people Dhamma. Dhamma is the light which can dispel darkness. If we do not know Dhamma we are ignorant about the world, about ourselves; we are ignorant about good and ill deeds and their results; we are ignorant about the eradication of defilements
There are many degrees of moha. When we study Dhamma we become less ignorant about realities; we understand more about paramattha Dhammas, about kamma and vipaka. However, this does not mean that we can already eradicate moha. Moha cannot be eradicated merely by thinking about the truth; it can only be eradicated by developing the wisdom which knows 'the world in the ariyan sense': eye-sense, visible object, seeing-consciousness, ear-sense, sound, hearing-consciousness, and all realities appearing through the six sense doors.- Nina van Gorkom  


paramita (Sanskrit)- Virtues or "perfections" of a Buddha.

In Theravaden Buddhism, the 10 paramitas, as formulated by Buddha are:   dana: generosity, giving of oneself; sila: virtue, morality, proper conduct; nekkhamma: renunciation; panna: transcendental wisdom, insight; viriya: energy, diligence, vigour, effort; khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance; sacca: truthfulness, honesty; adhitthana (adhitthana): determination, resolution; metta: loving-kindness; upekkha: (also spelled upekha) : equanimity, serenity

In Mahayana Buddhism, these are the six paramitas:   dana (generosity), sila (virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct), khanti (patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance), virya (energy, diligence, vigor, effort), dhyana (one pointed meditation), prajna (wisdom, insight).  

Tibetan Buddhism saya Mahayana practitioners have the choice of two practice paths: the path of perfection (the 6 paramitas) or the path of tantra, which is the Vajrayana.  


prajna (Sanskrit) (Pali=panna)- Wisdom. In Sanskrit, -jna can be translated as "consciousness", "knowledge", or "understanding." Pra is an intensifier which could be translated as "higher", "greater", "supreme" or "premium." Prajna is wisdom, understanding, discernment, insight, or cognitive acuity. It is one of three divisions of the Noble Eightfold Path. Such wisdom is understood to exist in the universal flux of being and can be intuitively experienced through meditation. In some sects of Buddhism, it is especially the wisdom that is based on the direct realization of such things as the four noble truths, impermanence, interdependent origination, non-self and emptiness. Prajna is the wisdom that is able to extinguish afflictions (klesas) and bring about enlightenment.  

The Prajna paramita Sutras, such as the Heart Sutra, describe prajna as supreme, highest, incomparable, unequalled and unsurpassed. It is spoken of as the principal means, by its enlightenment, of attaining nirvana, through its revelation of the true nature of all things.

The beginning of the Heart Sutra includes the phrase "...doing prajna..." indicating that prajna is also an activity as well as an outcome, quality or state. As activity, prajna can be described as "choiceless engagement" where "choiceless" means selflessly accepting outcomes as they develop while understanding interdependent co-existence and emptiness (sunyata), followed by further engagement.  


Prajnaparamita (Sanskrit) in Buddhism, means "the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." The word Prajnaparamita combines the Sanskrit words prajna ("wisdom") with paramita ("perfection"). Prajnaparamita is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism and its practice and understanding are taken to be indispensable elements of the Bodhisattva Path. The practice of Prajnaparamita is elucidated in the genre of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The Prajnaparamita sutras suggest that all things including oneself, appear only as conceptual constructs. Some scholars believe that the earliest Mahayana sutras were all of the Prajnaparamita type.

  back to top

Rinpoche (Tibetan) -is an honorific used in Tibetan Buddhism. It literally means "precious one," and is used to address or describe Tibetan lamas and other high-ranking or respected teachers. This honor is generally bestowed on reincarnated lamas, or Tulkus, by default. In other cases it is earned over time, and often bestowed spontaneously by the teacher's students.  

roshi (Japanese) - "old teacher", "old master" is an honorific title used for a highly venerated senior teacher in Zen Buddhism, a Zen Master  


samadhi (Sanskrit) - A state of steady, clear, and focused attention.   Staying connected to (in continuous contact with) the flow.

Samadhi is a higher level of concentrated meditation. It has been described as a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still, one-pointed or concentrated while the person remains conscious. It can also refer to an abiding in which mind becomes very still, but does not merge with the object of attention, and is thus able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience.

Samadhi is the 3rd division of the eightfold path of the Buddha's threefold training: wisdom (prajna), ethical conduct (sila), and samadhi - within which it is developed by samatha meditation. Vajrayana Buddhism teachs 40 different object meditations, according to the Visuddhimagga, an ancient commentarial text. These objects include meditations on the breath (anapanasati), loving kindness (metta) and various colors, earth, fire, etc.  


samatha (Pali, Sanskrit; also shamatha) is stillness, literally 'calm abiding' or 'remaining in quiescence' after thought activity has subsided. It can also mean the meditative practice of calming the mind in order to rest free from the disturbance of thought.

The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:   calm abiding (samatha) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind; and insight (vipassana) which enables one to see, explore and discern "formations" (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).  

In the Pali canon, the Buddha never mentions independent samatha and vipassana meditation practices; instead, samatha and vipassana are two "qualities of mind" to be developed through meditation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes, "when [the Pali suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha - not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together. Similarly, Ajahn Brahm writes that "some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."  

Nonetheless, some meditation practices such as contemplation of an object favor the development of samatha, others such as contemplation of the aggregates are conducive to the development of vipassana, while others such as mindfulness of breathing are classically used for developing both mental qualities.


samsara (Pali, Sanskrit)- The cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. During the course of each life the quality of the actions (karma) performed determine the future destiny of each person. The Buddha taught that there is no beginning or end to this cycle.  

Samsara literally means "to flow on", to perpetually wander, to pass through states of existence. The historical origins of a concept of a cycle of repeated reincarnation are obscure but the idea appears frequently in religious and philosophical texts in both India and ancient Greece during the middle of the first millennium BCE. Orphism, Platonism, Jainism and Buddhism all discuss the transmigration of beings from one life to another. Several scholars believe that reincarnation was adopted from this religious culture by Brahmin orthodoxy. The Brahmins first wrote down scriptures containing these ideas in the early Upanishads.

While samsara often refers to the continuous cycle of death and rebirth based on the karma of the current and past lifetimes, it also is often used in Buddhism to refer to our continuous creation of our ego in each moment caused by the greed, aversion and incomprehension of our lives as we live them. Either way, it is through the development of insight and wisdom through the practice of continuous clear sustained observation of the process of our lives that this cycle can cease. In our present life this results in "stream entry" or cessation of the ego, which is our very concept of self.  


sangha (Sanskrit)- In the Mahayana and Zen traditions: the community of all practitioners; may also refer to a family of students under a particular master.  

Colloquially, sangha has come to mean an association (sometimes a loose association) of people coming together to meditate or study the dharma. Community would typically be far too strong a word for the colloquial usage of sangha.

The Sangha is characterized by "unfailing mutual delight". Communication and taking delight are the essence of friendship - of Sangha. The Sangha, we could say, is characterized by exuberance, an overflowing of energy into creative activity that is saturated with meaning and beauty. This is the vitality of Sangha, this is what gives life to our common pursuit; this energy, exuberance, and delight that flows forth in constant creative activity. This creative activity transforms ourselves and transforms the world into something beautiful, something that is permeated by truly human values. - Ratnaghosa  

When the word is used to describe the entire larger sangha there are three distinct historical usages. Only the second two go back to the time of the Buddha.

1. A currently popular colloquial definition is to include all Buddhist practitioners.
2. The most generally applied term includes only the community of ordained monks and nuns.
3. A more strict definition from the scriptures applies to the practitioners who have at least directly realised emptiness.  

For Buddhists, the Sangha is a community of spiritual friends, and its importance is explained in the Upaddha Sutta.

It describes Ananda once saying to the Buddha that he thought the spiritual friendships developed in the sangha were half of the spiritual life. The Buddha replied, "Not so, Ananda. Deep spiritual friendship and camaraderie are actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path."

"And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings ... subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life."  


sati (Pali) (smrti: Sanskrit) is the term generally translated into English as mindfulness or awareness, but this is really a very inadequate word to describe what sati is.   Sati lies behind words and concepts, but gives rise to them. Because it is pre-conceptual, its meaning cannot really be said or conceived, but it can be known. Attempts at trying to say the unsayable can be useful. They are useful to the extent that they awaken an intuitive recognition of what they attempt to point to, which can be a springboard to deeper understanding.   In that spirit, an attempt will be made. Sati is a present-time exact reflection of exactly what is happening as it is happening. In sati there are no biases, judgments, expectations, or preferences, but there is interest. Sati is a balanced impartial interest and observation of things exactly as they are with full acceptance of that. There is no clinging to what is normally accepted as good, and no attempt or desire to avoid what is normally considered bad. Whatever is is. To judge it is to provide something other than what is. If you are remembering anything or analyzing or comparing during the process, that is not sati. Sati just watches the passing flow of experience. Without sati objective observation and understanding of experience is impossible. When there is sati, the hindrances cannot arise - there is no greed, no dislike, no desire, no laziness or tiredness.  

Bhikkhu Bodhi also points to the meaning of "sati" as "memory":
The word derives from a verb, sarati, meaning ‘to remember,’ and occasionally in Pali sati is still explained in a way that connects it with the idea of memory. But when it is used in relation to meditation practice, we have no word in English that precisely captures what it refers to. An early translator cleverly drew upon the word mindfulness, which is not even in my dictionary. This has served its role admirably, but it does not preserve the connection with memory, sometimes needed to make sense of a passage

Venerable Henepola Gunaratana describes the relationship to memory this way:
The Pali term 'Sati' also bears the connotation of remembering. It is not memory in the sense of ideas and pictures from the past, but rather clear, direct, wordless knowing of what is and what is not, of what is correct and what is incorrect, of what we are doing and how we should go about it. Mindfulness (Sati) reminds the meditator to apply his attention to the proper object at the proper time and to exert precisely the amount of energy needed to do that job. When this energy is properly applied, the meditator stays constantly in a state of calmness and alertness.

satori (Japanese)- Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment, meaning "understanding". In the Zen Buddhist tradition, satori refers to the experience of kensho. Kensho (Japanese) is a term used in Zen traditions meaning "seeing into one's true nature." Ken means "seeing," sho means "nature" or "essence."   Satori and kensho are commonly translated as enlightenment, a word that is also used to translate bodhi, prajna and buddhahood    

Kensho refers to the perception of the Buddha-Nature or emptiness. According to some authors, kensho is a brief glimpse, while satori is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience. Satori is considered a "first step" or embarkation toward nirvana.

sesshin (Japanese) - Literally: 'touching the heart-mind' (but frequently mistranslated in Western Zen centers as 'gathering the mind') An intensive meditation retreat usually lasting 1-7 days.  

While the daily routine in the monastery requires the monks to meditate several hours a day, during a sesshin they devote themselves almost exclusively to zazen practice. The numerous 30- to 50-minute-long meditation periods are interleaved with short rest breaks, meals, kinhin, and sometimes short periods of work (Japanese: samu)-- all performed with the same mindfulness. Nightly sleep is kept to a minimum, at six hours or fewer. During the sesshin period, the meditation practice is occasionally interrupted by the master giving public talks (teisho) and individual direction in private meetings (which may be called dokusan, daisan, or sanzen) with a Zen Master.

In modern Buddhist practice in Japan and the West, sesshins are often attended by lay students, and are typically one, three, five, or seven days in length. Seven-day sesshins are held several times a year at many Zen centers, especially in commemoration of the Buddha's awakening to annuttara samyak sambodhi. At this Rohatsu sesshin, practitioners seek to relax and quiet the mind to the point of cessation of mental chatter and emotional impulse, samadhi, kensho, or satori.  

A sesshin schedule in the West will typically allow anywhere from nine to fifteen periods of zazen per day, 30-40 minutes each, with ten minute periods of walking meditation (kinhin) between zazen periods. Traditional sesshins are more intensive, with meditations lasting 30-60 minutes each, with an absence of any rest or work breaks and sleep limited to less than five hours a day.

Meals are taken in a formal meditation ritual of oryoki. Work periods in westernized sesshin are sometimes scheduled and may comprise one to two hours of the day, usually in gardening, cooking, or cleaning. The sesshin schedule typically allows for four to five hours of sleep per night, though practitioners occasionally will spend much of the next-to-last night of a five- or seven-day sesshin in zazen. This is called yaza and is much revered as a particularly effective time to meditate when the thinking mind and ego lack the energy to derail practice. It has been reported that at least three days of sesshin are usually required for the practitioner to "settle down" into the sesshin routine to a point where the mind becomes quiet enough for the deeper types of meditation and samadhi to begin.

There is no talking during sesshin. Silence is observed so that each student may both concentrate on his experience and not influence those of others. At the end of the sesshin there is usually a meal when students are allowed to talk to others for the first time since arriving.  

shashu (Japanese) - Hand position used when walking or standing in the zendo (left hand in a fist, thumb tucked in and covered by the right hand; both are placed against the solar plexus).   See the video linked to in the kinhin definition for seeing shashu, and a much better description.  


shikantaza (Japanese) - Shikantaza is a term primarily associated with Soto zen. The term is thought to have originated with Tiantong Rujing, Dogan's teacher in China. It has been described variously as "quiet sitting in open awareness" or as "an alert condition, performed erect, with no trace of sluggishness or drowsiness, while not working on any koan, or counting the breath."

I've found several posible etymologies for the word. Each emphasizes a different aspect of shikantaza and none is in conflict with the others.
(1) "shikan means nothing but  
da means precisely  
za refers to zazen or sitting."  
In other words Dogen means by this, "doing only zazen whole-heartedly" or "single-minded sitting."

(2) "shi means tranquility,
kan means awareness,
ta means hitting exactly the right spot (not one atom off),
and za means to sit."

(3) "Shikan means pure, one, only for it.
Ta is a very strong word. It shows moving activity. When you hit, that movement is called ta, so strike is ta.
Za is the same as in the word zazen, sitting"

Dogen counseled a distinctly nonattached or nonclinging kind of action, that is, an activity completely unconcerned with benefits or the accomplishment of ulterior goals. Shikantaza is he activity of 'just sitting' or 'nothing-but-sitting' whereby self-seeking is set aside in a manner resembling a resolute 'dropping off of body and mind.'  


shodoka (Japanese) or Song of Enlightenment. Also translated as Song of Awakening or Song of Freedom.

The Shodoka is a Zen discourse written some time in the first half of the 8th century C.E. and usually attributed to Yongjia Xuanjue. The true authorship of the work is a matter of debate, with a number of elements in the writing suggesting either the text has been substantially changed over time or Yongjia was an unlikely author. The first commentaries appeared in the 11th century during the Song Dynasty. The Song deals with the methods of and attitudes towards daily Zen practice. A central theme is the contrast between dharma-nature, or reality as it is, versus buddha-nature, or self-nature. It also emphasizes practice over sutra-study. It has been considered a central Zen text from the Song Dynasty to the present day. It was so highly esteemed that Dahui Zonggao reported that it was translated from Chinese to Sanskrit so it could be studied elsewhere. Today it is often memorized by Zen practitioners in East Asian countries.
You can find Robert Aitken Roshi's translation here, with some commentary.  

shunyata see sunnata


sila (Sanskrit and Pali) ethical conduct, morality (The Rewards of Sila, Access to Insight)  

Sila is one of three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is a code of conduct that embraces a commitment to harmony and self-restraint with the principle motivation being non-violence, or freedom from causing harm. It has been variously described as virtue, right conduct, morality, moral discipline, and precept.

Sila is an internal, aware, and intentional ethical behavior, according to one's commitment to the path of liberation. The Sanskrit and Pali word sila is an ethical compass within self and relationships, rather than what is associated with the English word "morality" (i.e., obedience, a sense of obligation, and external constraint - all of which are quite foreign to the concept of sila as taught by Gautama the Buddha). In fact, the commentaries explain the word sila by another word, samadhana, meaning "harmony" or "coordination."

Sila is one of the three practices foundational to Buddhism and the non-sectarian Vipassana movement – sila, samadhi, and panna as well as the Theravadin foundations of sila, dana, and bhavana. It is also the second paramita. Though some popular conceptions of these ethics carry negative connotations of severe discipline and abstinence, sila is more than just avoiding the unwholesome.

Sila is also wholehearted commitment to what is wholesome. Two aspects of sila are essential to the training: right "performance", and right "avoidance" . Honoring the precepts of sila is considered a "great gift" to others, because it creates an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security. It means we pose no threat to another person's life, property, family, rights, or well-being.  

The Five Precepts undertaken by lay Buddhists are common to all schools of Buddhism. Taking the precepts are a commitment to sila

Sloth and torpor is the third of the Five Hindrances to Buddhist practice and meditation.

The English word sloth is one of the seven deadly sins in Christian moral tradition, particularly within Catholicism. It refers to laziness. Sloth is spiritual or emotional apathy, neglecting what God has spoken, and being physically and emotionally inactive. In Pali sloth and torpor are combined into the compound word thina-middha. Thina is defined as sluggishness or dullness of mind, characterized by a lack of driving power

The English word torpor originally referred to the state of decreased physiological activity of an animal in hibernation. It has since come to mean sluggish activity and lethargic indifference. Middha is translated as torpor. Middha is defined in the Theravada tradition as a morbid state that is characterized by unwieldiness, lack of energy, and opposition to wholesome activity. In the Mahayana tradition, middha is defined as a mental factor that causes the mind to draw inward, lose discrimination between wholesome and unwholesome activities, and drop out of activities altogether  

stupa (Sanskrit) literally means 'a heap' and refers to a unique Buddhist monument.   After the Buddha's passing and cremation, his ashes were divided into eight and each portion was interned under a large hemispherical earthen mound, as was the custom of the time. People would pay their respects to these mounds until eventually they came to be seen as symbols of the Buddha himself. In time the simple earthen mounds evolved into masonry structures, sometimes of great size and beautifully decorated. Today stupas usually contain real or supposed relics of the Buddha or some great saint or articles used by them and are common objects of devotion in all Buddhist countries  

In Buddhist India the bodies of kings, chiefs, or saints were cremated and the ashes buried under earthen mounds. When the Buddha died his ashes were divided into eight portions and buried under mounds raised in his home town and at seven other locations. An umbrella, the symbol of royalty, was placed on the top of each mound. These first stupas were seen as symbols of the Buddha's presence and soon came to be objects of devotion. Legend says that King Asoka opened these stupas, further broke the ashes into 84,000 parts and built a stupa over each part. Although 84,000 parts is an obvious exaggeration, archaeologists have confirmed that many of India's numerous stupas were first constructed during the Asokan period. From the early prototype the stupa soon developed, the mound into a solid dome and the umbrella into a spire and in later ages were enlarged, sometimes to enormous dimensions, and decorated with sculptures and paintings.

There are four types of stupas:
    those built over relics of the Buddha or a saint,
    those containing an object used by the Buddha or a saint,
    those commemorating an important event in religious history and
    those built as an act of devotion.
Today, along with the Buddha statues and Bodhi trees stupas are the primary objects of popular devotion and at least one can be found in every Buddhist temple.


sunnata (Pali) shunyata (Sanskrit)  

From The Diamond Sutra by Mu Soeng (p41)
Translating the word shunyata into Western languages has always been problematic. When translated as "voidness" or "emptiness" it has a nihilistic undertone ...

The root of the word comes from the verb svi, meaning to "swell." The Buddhist usage of this verb in the compound term shunyata is to indicate the true nature of the swelling of a bubble, which appears to be an enclosure, but it is in reality hollow or contentless. In [Buddhism] its usage is a tool with which to distinguish between appearance and reality. When one is deluded, one assumes that that which is apprehended by the senses (the bubble) contains something which is identifiable or graspable; the corrective application of prajna allows one to see that all appearances are illusory, with nothing inherent to grasp.  

In the Pali suttas [sunnata] is used in a twofold sense. First it refers to a direct mode pf perception in which nothing is added to or subtracted from the actual data perceived. This modality of perception perceives a thought as a thought, for example, irrespective of the contents of the thought and without attending to the question of whether or not there is a thinker. When this modality of perception apprehends something in the visual field, it perceives the object as an experience of seeing rather than an affirmation or denial of the existence of the object behind the experience. The same notion applies to each sense organ and its function. In this modality, nirvana is considered to be the highest form of sunnata in the present life--the uncorrupted mode of awareness of things as they are. In the second sense, sunnata refers to the lack of selfhood ... in the six senses and their objects, in other words, sunnata is both a mode of perception and an attribute of things perceived.  

From Wikipedia

Sunnata, in Buddhism, translated into English as emptiness, voidness, openness, spaciousness, is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. In Mahayana Buddhism, it often refers to the absence of inherent essence in all phenomena. In Theravada Buddhism, it often refers to the not-self (Pali: anatta,   Sanskrit: anatman) nature of the five aggregates of experience and the six sense spheres. Sunnata is also often used to refer to a meditative state or experience.

Over time, many different philosophical schools ... have developed within Buddhism in an effort to explain the exact philosophical meaning of emptiness.

After the Buddha, emptiness was further developed by Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school, an early Mahayana school. Emptiness ("positively" interpreted) is also an important element of the Buddha nature literature, which played a formative role in the evolution of subsequent Maha-ya-na doctrine and practice.


sutra (Sanskrit) (Pali, sutta)- refers mostly to canonical scriptures, many of which are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha.   These teachings are assembled in part of the Tripitaka which is called Sutra Pitaka. There are also some Buddhist texts, such as the Platform Sutra, that are called sutras despite being attributed to much later authors.  

In the book "Modern Buddhism", Geshe Kelsang Gyatso defines sutra as "The teachings of Buddha that are open to everyone to practice without the need for empowerment. These include Buddha's teachings of the three turnings of the dharma wheel.

The Pali form of the word, sutta is used exclusively to refer to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the only texts recognized by Theravada Buddhism as canonical. Each branch of Buddhism has sutras unique to its own lineage.

  back to top

Tathagata (Sanskrit & Pali)) is a Pali and Sanskrit word that the Buddha of the Pali Canon uses when referring to himself. The term is often thought to mean either "one who has thus gone" (tatha--gata) or "one who has thus come" (tatha--a-gata). This is interpreted as signifying that the Tathagata is beyond all coming and going - beyond all transitory phenomena. However there are other interpretations and the precise original meaning of the word is not certain.

The Buddha is quoted on numerous occasions in the Pali Canon as referring to himself as the Tathagata instead of using the pronouns me, I or myself. This may be meant to emphasize by implication that the teaching is uttered by one who has transcended the human condition, one beyond the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth and death, i.e. beyond suffering.

A number of passages affirm that a tathagata is "immeasurable", "inscrutable", "hard to fathom", and "not apprehended". A tathagata has abandoned that clinging to the skandhas (personality factors) that render citta (the mind) a bounded, measurable entity, and is instead "freed from being reckoned by" all or any of them, even in life. The aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and cognizance that comprise personal identity have been seen to be dukkha (a burden), and an enlightened individual is one with "burden dropped".


teisho (Japanese) A presentation by a Zen master during a sesshin. Rather than an explanation or exposition in the traditional sense, it is intended as a demonstration of Zen realization


Theravada (Sanskrit) - In the Buddhist countries of southern Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries - Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the various schools is restricted to minor matters.

The most complete and authentic teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature. This belongs to the school of the Theravadins, and is the most orthodox school of Buddhism.  

The Theravadan school emphasizes the Eightfold Path as a means of liberation. This path has 3 significant divisions of emphasis: wisdom (prajna), ethical conduct (sila), and mental development (samadhi). Each of these is further broken down, resulting in the 8 "folds" of the path. Through this purification of the mind and heart we come to a place of deep clarity of understanding and acceptance of ourselves and the world, and experience our lives with deep peace. The eightfold path is the fourth truth of the Four Noble Truths.

Vajrayana (Tibetan) (Wikipedia,   BuddhaNet) - This is the kind of Buddhism predominant in the Himalayan nations of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and also Mongolia. It is known as Vajrayana because of the ritual use of the vajra, a symbol of imperishable diamond, of thunder and lightning. At the center of Tibetan Buddhism is the religious figure called the lama, Tibetan for "guru"," source of another of its names, Lamaism. It is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayana, Mantrayana, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle. Vajrayana is a complex and multifaceted system of Buddhist thought and practice which evolved over several centuries.

According to Vajrayana scriptures Vajrayana refers to one of three vehicles or routes to enlightenment, the other two being the Therevada and Mahayana.

Its main scriptures are called Tantras. A distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which are Skillful Means (Upaya). They are used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.


virya (Sanskrit, Pali) (Tibetan: brtson grus) is a Buddhist term commonly translated as "energy", "diligence", "enthusiasm", or "effort". It can be defined as an attitude of gladly engaging in wholesome activities, and it functions to cause one to accomplish wholesome or virtuous actions.


wat (Thai) A wat is a monastery temple in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos. The word wat means "school".

Strictly speaking a wat is a Buddhist sacred precinct with monks' quarters, the temple proper, an edifice housing a large image of Buddha, and a structure for lessons. A Buddhist site without a minimum of three resident monks cannot correctly be described as a wat, although the term is frequently used more loosely, even for ruins of ancient temples.   In everyday language in Thailand, a wat is any place of worship except a mosque

wise attention see yoniso manasikara


yoniso manasikara (Pali) described by Bhikku Bodhi in the Forward to Landscapes of Wonder
At the base of the entire system of mind training taught by the Buddha is a particular orientation towards experience called yoniso manasikara. Though usually rendered "wise attention" or "careful consideration", yoniso manasikara has a penumbra meanings that makes it stubbornly resistant to translation. The expression points to a mode of attending to immediate experience that marshals astute mindfulness and thorough reflection in a concerted effort to uncover the truth of existence. One who practices yoniso manasikara refuses to be taken in by superficial impressions, by the endearing smiles and bland assurances of sensory phenomena, but pushes on with keen observation and relentless questioning, until he has released the underlying bedrock of truth.

zabuton (Japanese) - In Zen meditation, practitioners sit on zafu which is typically placed on top of a zabuton. The zabuton cushions the knees and ankle. The mattress in this photo is a zabuton.

zafu (Japanese) - Round pillow for zazen. This is a picture of a zafu.


zazen (Japanese) - The word zazen literaly means 'sitting meditation'. Zazen is a form of meditation that is the very heart of Zen practice. In fact, Zen is known as the "meditation school" of Japanese Buddhism. It is the meditative discipline Zen practitioners practice use to calm the body and the mind; and with the clarity of a calmed, open, and alert mind,   to experience insight into the nature of existence. The aim of zazen is just sitting: suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. One of many YouTube descriptions of zazen.

zazenkai (Japanese) - Zazenkai literally means "to come together for meditation". It is a Zen Buddhist single day retreat devoted to samadhi practice, with Great Silence observed throughout the day. It is an opportunity to intensify and deepen practice through the experience of periods of uninterrupted meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), a dharma talk or seminar, service, mindful work practice, meals, and face-to-face meetings with a teacher. The schedule is similar to a day of sesshin. For those having difficulty scheduling several days for sesshin, a zazenkai provides the opportunity to sustain a personal meditation practice in a community setting.

zendo (Japanese) - The meditation hall.   Zendo translates roughly as "meditation hall". In Zen Buddhism, the zendo is a spiritual dojo where zazen (sitting meditation) is practiced. A full-sized Zen Buddhist temple will typically have at least one zendo as well as a hondo ("main hall", but sometimes translated as "Buddha hall"), which is used for ceremonial purposes.

back to top