Brief definitions of some Japanese and Buddhist
terms, as used in this book
(Skt. means Sanskrit)
Abhidharma - Ancient Indian psychological
branch of Buddhist teaching detailing the elements of reality.
Skt. - the bodhisattva of compassion who
hears the cries of the world.
bessu - Ceremonial padded white socks without toe chamber.
Bodhidharma - An Indian monk who became the first ancestor of
Zen in China.
Skt. - enlightening being, one who vows to enter
Nirvana after all others, who vows to save all beings.
bonshō - Large bronze hanging temple bell.
daikon - Giant white Japanese radish.
Skt. - chants or incantations, the sounds of which
have beneficial effects, encouraging compassion or longevity.
Skt. - Buddhist law, teaching.
dhyāna Skt. - Buddhist meditation.
A monk whose responsibilities include hitting bells.
Dōgen Zenji [Eihei Dogen] - The founder of Soto Zen in Japan.
Soto Zen term for sanzen, private interview with the
eightfold path -
The way to Nirvana: right meditation, right
wisdom, right livelihood, etc.
One of the two head temples of Soto Zen.
Sliding door or partition, often covered by thick
Foreigner (literally, “outside person”).
Go for it, make a strong effort.
Buddhist gesture of greeting, with the palms of the
hands placed together.
Skt. - originally a song, a short verse used to remind
one of fundamental intention in the midst of everyday activities.
genmai cha - Green tea with some brown rice in it.
Wooden platform sandals.
Wooden plaque struck with a mallet to call monks to the
zendō.[lit. - wood]
Dharma hall, often the main temple building.
Heart Sutra -
The core text of the Prajnā Pāramitā Sūtras, the
Perfection of Wisdom, teaching on emptiness.
Japanese cypress, temple carpenters’ favorite.
Title for the head priest of a temple.
hōmu sutōru -
A home store.
The main hall, or building, of a temple.
A Buddhist memorial service.
Soto Zen term for the officer in charge of ceremony and
The scissors, paper, stone game played with hands.
jinja - Shinto shrine
Attendant to the abbot or officiating priest.
Jōdo Shin-shū -
“The true school of the Pure Land,” a
faith-oriented sect of Buddhism, the largest in Japan.
A popular, bawdy drama developed in the seventeenth
century and characterized by elaborate costume and stylized acting
by an all male cast. Now a classical theater form.
A short-handled sickle.
Spirits; gods associated with Shinto. Also used to mean
God the creator.
The Japanese syllabaries, hiragana and katakana.
Chinese characters (ideographs) used in Japanese
Wildly popular activity often done in night clubs
wherein people sing along with instrumental versions of popular
songs (literally “empty orchestra”).
Outer monk’s robe of ordination (okesa, more
Vital, dynamic energy of body, mind and spirit; chi in
Literally, “public case,” an exemplary story or dialogue
used as a meditation object and worked on with a teacher.
The long-sleeved monk’s robe worn over the kimono and
under the kesa.
A plucked stringed instrument having seven or thirteen
strings stretched over a convex wooden sounding board.
The temple kitchen.
A kind of oak.
Soto Zen term for the stick used to hit drowsy monks
on the shoulder in order to bring them back to alertness.
Japan’s main poisonous snake.
Powdered green tea associated with tea ceremony.
A water run-off ditch, from curb to canal size.
Gluten rice cake, popular at new years.
Mountain Seat Ceremony -
A rite in which the abbotship of a
temple is passed on to the successor.
Name of the most famous kōan of Zen. See “Does a dog have
buddha nature?” [lit. - no]
A kind of poisonous centipede.
nine clay balls -
Reference to a very old Soto Zen method of
wiping the behind.
Boxed meal, compartmentalized meal, from cheap to
A sash wrapped around the waist over the kimono.
Bathtub (respectful form of furo).
Grave, tomb, graveyard (respectful form of haka).
Monks’ stacked and cloth-wrapped eating bowls.
Monk or lay biblike vestment.
A type of Chinese noodle very popular in Japan.
One of the two main sects of Zen,
emphasizing vigorous dynamic style and systematic koan study.
Venerable old teacher; respectful title for priest,
especially in the U.S., where it is used as a title to mean Zen
Polite form of address used after the name of another
(never of oneself).
Skt. - a deep meditative state.
Temple work practice.
Temple work clothes.
Skt. - the Buddhist community.
The entrance gate to a temple, often a substantial
Private interview with the Zen master concerning koan,
breathing, Zen practice. Usually a Rinzai term.
Traditional Japanese position for sitting on floor
wherein one rests on the knees and shins.
Title of respect, used especially for teachers,
doctors and other professionals.
A concentrated zazen retreat of one or more days,
usually five or seven.
A formal position wherein the hands are held together
at the solar plexus.
Days for attending to private tasks in
temple life (literally, four-nine days).
Japan’s native animist religion.
Sliding door of latticework and translucent rice paper.
Sect, as in Sōtō-shū.
Coarse trash, big useless stuff; often used
as a term for retired husbands (who are also called “wet leaves”).
(In Eng., Soto Zen) One of the two main sects
of Zen, emphasizing “just sitting” or silent illumination
meditation, and its application to everyday activity.
Skt. - memorial monuments, originally built for the
historical Buddha, pagoda being a type of stupa.
Traditional black ink.
Something like “excuse me.”
Night club or bar (literally, “snack”).
Skt. - discourses of the Buddha, used more loosely for
old Buddhist scriptures or scriptures to be chanted.
Socks with a separate pocket for the big toe.
Formal monk’s begging (literally, to entrust the
The head of the temple kitchen.
Japanese shish kebab (literally, grilled chicken)
and the restaurants that specialize in such.
Monk’s informal supper.
The Japanese crime syndicates.
Flat square cushion to kneel or sit on.
Zazen cushion, usually black and round.
The monk’s bowing cloth.
Zen meditation, sitting meditation.
Zazen group or meeting.
Zen meditation hall, zazen hall.
Traditional straw sandals, now usually plastic thongs.