Glossary of Zen Terms

Chiden – This is the person who takes care of altars. The chiden cleans the incensors, makes sure that incense is available for service, and that altar candles are in working order.

Doan – This is the Soto Zen term for the one who rings the small and large gongs during service and ceremonies.

Doan-ryo – The group of people who serve in temple roles, including the doan, the fukudo, the chiden, the jisha, and the kokyo.

Doshi – In Soto Zen, the Doshi is an ordained person who leads the service by offering incense and leading prostrations and bows.

Fukudo – In Soto Zen, this is the person who strikes the han (see below) during sesshins (retreats).

Gassho– A mudra (hand position) with palms together most often accompanied by a slight bow. It signifies gratitude or greeting/acknowledgement of another.

Han – A large solid piece of wood suspended so it can be struck with a mallet. It is used to summon participants to the zendo for the beginning of zazen. The pattern of strikes always includes three roll downs.

Jiki-jitsu (also Jiko) – The timekeeper for a sesshin or for any meditation gathering who rings the bell to start and end a meditation period and also hits the clackers to lead kinhin.

Jisha – In Soto Zen, the Jisha is the attendant to the Doshi during service, presenting an incense stick for the Doshi’s offering at the altar. This role can also include attending the person giving a dharma talk, the teacher during a retreat, and the organizer of dokusan (the private meeting with a teacher).

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, jukai signifies a serious commitment to zen, to the ten main precepts of Buddhism, and to the Bodhisattva’s vow to save all beings. The rakasu is sewn during the study period prior to taking the vows in a formal ceremony with the teacher.

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. Hands should be held in the shashou position. The focus is on the breath, in and out with each quiet step.

Kokyo – This is the Soto Zen term for the person who leads chanting during service.

Mokugyo – The round hollow wooden drum used as a “heartbeat” for chants.

Mudra – A position of the body which is symbolic of a certain attitude or activity, such as teaching or protecting. Each hand position is symbolic of a certain characteristic such as supreme wisdom or serenity.

Okesa – A large patched robe made like Buddha’s robe, worn by priests. The fabric for this robe is cut and sewn entirely by hand as part of the preparation for being ordained.

Oryoki – This has come to mean a certain kind of formal, ritualized eating, but the word oryoki actually refers to the specific collection of napkins, utensils, and especially bowls used for this style of eating. This set, which is held together by tying one of the larger napkins around it, was traditionally given to a nun or monk upon ordination. Eating is commonly done while seated on one’s cushion in a position similar to the meditation posture. The sequence in which the pieces are used and the actions performed are precisely prescribed by ritual. Silence is maintained except for the chanting of certain meal sutras. Once the meal is over, the utensils and bowls are immediately washed with tea (while still at one’s seat) and wrapped up again in the same specific way. The practice involves ceremonial opening of the three bowls, chanting, receiving servings of food from servers, eating, washing the bowls, offering wash water, and then rewrapping the bowls.

Rakusu – A small patched neck robe made like Buddha’s robe, worn by people who have received precepts in jukai or ordination. This robe is also cut and sewn by hand as part of the preparation for taking jukai or being ordained.

Rohatsu – The day set aside to commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, which traditionally is celebrated on the eighth of December. Many zen centers and sanghas will organize a rohatsu sesshin early in December.

Samu – Work Practice. This is work, usually physical, done in a mindful and aware manner. Tasks should be carried out in silence, though speaking in hushed tones is permitted when clarification or further instructions are needed. Periods of samu are often part of a sesshin, though it can be performed at any time during one’s daily life. Simply stated, samu is a form of meditation done while working.

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 fellow practitioners in the local zen center or the group in our area with whom we practice.

Sesshin – 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 can vary from 3-10 days.

Shashou (also Shashu) – The position in which to hold the hands for kinhin and whenever moving about in the zendo. To form this position, the left hand should gently be made into a loose fist with the thumb held inside. The other hand is then wrapped around the fist with the thumb resting in the slight indendation at the top of the first hand. Together the hands are held at the upper part of the stomach area, near the base of the ribs.

Soji – temple cleaning.

Sutra – A Buddhist canon 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.

Tenzo – The head cook for a monastery or sesshin. Traditionally the role of tenzo was a position of high honor in zen monasteries. Similarly today, a tenzo is often considered to be one of the main leaders for sesshin.

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

Zazen – “Total awareness in an upright posture”: Zen meditation is 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 to 40 minutes. Determining the correct posture for zazen can be a challenge, using a meditation bench or sitting in a chair is permitted. Zazen is essential to practicing zen.

Zafu – A round cushion used for zazen.

Zazenkai – A single day devoted to meditation, usually done together with a group. This can be considered a one day sesshin, although a teacher need not be present.

Zendo – This is the main room, whether it be in a monastery, retreat center or residential home, where zazen and other zen practices are observed.