Zen / Buddhism Glossary


Avalokitesvara (Sanskrit). Kuan-yin (Chinese). Kannon or Kanzeon (Japanese). Bodhisattva of compassion; said to have many hands and eyes (for seeing and helping beings); one of the most important bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. His or her name means, “One who hears the sounds of the (suffering) world.”

Bodhi (Sanskrit). Enlightenment; the state or experience of reality; direct realization of the truth of the oneness of the essential nature of all things.

Bodhisattva (Sanskrit). An enlightened, or enlightening, being; bodhi; “enlightenment” sattva; “being”; one who has reached the threshold of nirvana but chooses not to enter until all other beings have entered; a being that acts from compassion and wisdom to deliver all beings from suffering.

Bodhi tree (or Bo Tree). Enlightenment tree; the tree under which Shakyamuni Buddha was sitting when he realized enlightenment.

Brahma. The Hindu god of creation.

Buddha. Awakened one; the historical Shakyamuni Buddha; an awakened human being; the true essence and function of reality. See Buddhahood, Shakyamuni.

Buddha-dharma. The essence of Buddhism; the authentic teaching, law or truth of Buddhism; universal truth; the Way; the Tao.

Buddha-eye (or Dharma-eye). The (spiritual) eye of an enlightened being, which can discern the truth of scriptures and reality; true dharma-eye; observing prajna (wisdom).

Buddhahood. The attainment of perfect enlightenment in Buddhism, the highest realization; in Zen, because all beings already are Buddha, Buddhahood is not attained, but realized.

Buddha-mind. Enlightened, or awakened (to truth), mind.

Buddha-nature. True, or essential, nature; the essence and function of reality; inherent enlightenment.

Capping verse (also, capping phrase). A verse or phrase that succinctly expresses a particular truth; such verses and phrases are often drawn from classic literature.

Cessation. See cessation and observation, meditation.

Cessation and observation (or Stopping and seeing; samadhi and prajna; wisdom and compassion; tranquility and insight). The two primary modes of meditation in Buddhism, used in conjunction for balancing serenity and wisdom; “cessation” is the stopping of delusion, “observation” is the cognizance of truth or reality. See nonthinking.

Dharma (Sanskrit). Law, truth, reality, teaching; thing, or being, esp. when spelled with a small ‘d’ (dharma).

Dharmakaya (Sanskrit). The all-inclusive aspect of reality; dharma: law, truth, reality, teaching; kaya: body, form; one of the ‘three bodies of Buddha’; the empty, equal, or void aspect of reality; all things, from the perspective of ‘oneness.’

Emptiness. Sunyata (Sanskrit); the void nature of reality; the essence of all things; oneness; equality; the vast, unnamable, fathomless void.
Enlightened-eye. See buddha-eye.

Gatha. A short verse or poem, often a succinct formulation of wisdom.

Koan(s). Short stories or sayings unique to Zen Buddhism; the most distinctive characteristic distinguishing Zen from other schools of Mahayana Buddhism; expressions which contain, transmit, and evoke enlightened wisdom; direct expressions of specific wisdom; most koans come from the recorded sayings and doings of the classic Zen masters.

Koan-introspection. The assimilation of enlightened wisdom (bodhi prajna) through the illumination of koans within observation meditation; evoking the specific wisdom within particular koans; a method (unique to Zen) for the transmission of enlightened wisdom. See also koan, transmission, prajna.

Li and shih. Universal and particular; li represents the universal, absolute, all-inclusive, etc., shih represents the particular, relative, individual, etc.; in the Huayen (Japanese: Kegon) school of Buddhism, li and shih philosophically demonstrate the interdependence and non-obstruction of the universal and the particular, each particular and all particulars, and each particular and each particular.

Maha Prajna Paramita (Sanskrit). Great Perfection of Wisdom. See prajna, prajna paramita, prajna paramita sutras.

Mahayana (Sanskrit). ‘Great vehicle’ or ‘big ferryboat’ Buddhism, used in contrast to ‘Hinayana’ or ‘small vehicle’ Buddhism; Mahayana is distinguished by its universal teaching aimed at saving all beings, in contrast with Hinayana which aims at personal, rather than universal liberation.

Manjusri (Sanskrit). Monju (Japanese). The bodhisattva of wisdom; one of the most important bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism, often depicted wielding a double-edged sword that kills and gives life in a single stroke (Kills delusion and/or confusion, gives life to wisdom and/or clarity).

Mind to mind transmission. See transmission.

Nirvana (Sanskrit). The goal of all Buddhist schools; the full and complete actualization of enlightenment; complimentary to ‘samsara’ (the cycle of birth and death); in Zen, nirvana is not separate from samsara. See samsara.

No-mind. See nonthinking.

Nonthinking. Cessation meditation; the state or condition that includes, yet transcends, both ‘thinking’ and ‘not thinking’; balanced with observation meditation, it is the essential art and keystone of Zen practice and enlightenment; depending on the context, nonthinking is often used synonymously with ‘zazen’, ‘shikantaza’, ‘cessation’, ‘samadhi’, ‘objectless meditation’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘mindlessness’, ‘no-mind’, ‘no-thought’, and others.

Prajna (Sanskrit). Wisdom, knowledge, insight, enlightened wisdom.

Prajna paramita (Sanskrit). Perfection of wisdom; the wisdom which leads one from samsara (the cycle of birth and death) to nirvana (perfect enlightenment, or bodhi). See prajna, samsara, nirvana, bodhi.

Prajna paramita sutras (Sanskrit). The perfection of wisdom sutras (scriptures) expounding the teachings of prajna paramita; in Zen (and Mahayana generally), the most popular and influential of these are the Heart Sutra (Mahaprajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra) and the Diamond Cutter Sutra (Vajrachchedika). See prajna, prajna paramita.

Roshi. Venerable teacher; the honorary title of a Zen master (usually a veteran master); in the West, it is often misunderstood, and misrepresented as a title of rank or authority.

Samsara (Sanskrit). The cycle of birth and death: birth, abiding, death, and re-birth; the compliment of nirvana; a metaphor for life, especially for the difficult aspects of life; in Mahayana Buddhist teachings, samsara and nirvana are nondual.

Shastra(s) (Sanskrit). Written treatises that analyze, interpret, and amplify the teachings of the Buddhist sutras (scriptures).

Shih and Li. See Li and Shih.

Shikantaza. Sole sitting; shikan: ‘only, ‘just’, or ‘sole’; taza: ‘sitting’; ‘objectless’ meditation, in contradistinction to meditation focused on an object such as a koan or the breath.

Sunyata (or, shunyata) (Sanskrit). See emptiness.

Skillful means; Upaya (Sanskrit). Enlightened techniques, skills, or methods employed to deliver beings from suffering or delusion to liberation or enlightenment.

Stopping and seeing. See cessation and observation.

Sutra (Sanskrit). Scripture.

Tathagata (Sanskrit). The ‘thus come’ one; a name for the Buddha; an enlightened being. See Buddha.

Transmission. The transmission of wisdom (prajna); wisdom transmitted from the enlightened mind to the enlightened mind though personal contact with a teacher, through scriptures, written treatises, koans, and through awareness in the world; also associated with the tradition of a Zen master recognizing the enlightenment of a student, and thus ‘certifying’ the student’s qualification to teach; often misunderstood as the transmission of esoteric or secret knowledge from teacher to student.

True nature. The essential nature of the universe; the essential nature of all things. See Buddha-nature.

Upaya (Sanskrit). See skillful means.

Vast, unnamable, fathomless void. The inconceivable, all-inclusive source, manifestation, and destination of all beings and things in time and space; the true nature of all beings and things, each being and thing, and no-being and no-thing.

Zazen. Seated meditation, Za: sitting, zen (dyhana: Sanskrit) meditation; the keystone of Zen practice and enlightenment. See cessation and observation, nonthinking, shikantaza.

Zen. Zen Buddhism; seeing your true nature.

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