sutra chanting and ceremonies

A glossary of zen terms by the zen master Laure Hosetsu Scemama

Awakening: Sitting in zazen, the Buddha awakened to the profound reality of all things (Buddha means “the awakened one”). All his teaching comes from the clarity of his awakened viewpoint. We do not practice zazen to obtain awakening because zazen is itself awakening. Zazen reveals our true nature, Buddha-nature. Awakening is the natural condition of the mind.

Bodhisattva: an awakened being. Through his practice and awakening, the bodhisattva naturally helps all existences. Jukai, the bodhisattva ordination, usually for lay people, marks the beginning of the Buddha-way.

Dharma: the Law, the directing principle of the Universe, the reality as it is in its totality. The Universe is one; all existences have the same nature; when all existences follow the Universal Law, everything is in balance and harmony; everything is Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha and the Zen masters taught only this; this is why Dharma also means, the Teaching.

Do: the Way. It is the Buddha-dharma. It is without beginning and end and without a goal. Progress on the Way is in itself realization.

Dojo: The dojo is not an ordinary place; it is the room where we practice zazen. When we enter the dojo, we naturally let go of all personal preoccupations and concentrate on the way we walk, sit etc. The mind is open and present to the reality of the moment.

Fuse: This is the selfless gift that expects nothing in return. Fuse is one of the six paramitas, the six perfections of wisdom. The whole Universe works in the mode of fuse: giving-receiving. We can give material goods, but also one’s time, energy, concentration, etc. Spreading the teaching is also a gift.

Gassho: This is a gesture of respect, gratitude and veneration. The palms of the hands are placed together in front of the face, the forearms horizontal.

Godo: In the tradition of Sôtô Zen temples, the godo is the teacher and educator. In the dojo, he sits facing the master, at the back. After Master Deshimaru’s death, we called those teachers who had not yet received the transmission, godo. Today, most of these are kyoshi, master-teachers.

Hishiryo: Consciousness during zazen, which does not behave like the intellect. During zazen, thoughts appear and disappear naturally. If we let this process happen freely, without giving form to thought, without wanting to flee from them, the intellect becomes peaceful by itself and hishiryo consciousness appears, beyond thinking and non-thinking; it is absolute consciousness. It is body-mind thinking in unity with the whole universe. Hishiryo is inexpressible; it cannot be explained, but we can experience it in zazen, naturally and unconsciously.

Kesa: The kesa is the garment of Buddha; it is the garment of awakening transmitted from master to disciple and worn by monks. Originally, it was a collection of old pieces of cloth, washed, dyed and carefully sewn together in the traditional way.

Kin-hin: This is the concentration of zazen in the act of walking. We practice kin-hin in the dojo between two periods of zazen. The mind concentrates on the slow walk, each step taken in coordination with the breathing.

Kusen: Spoken teaching during zazen.

Kyoshi: Teacher of the Sôtô School.

Mondo: Teaching in the dojo in the form of a question from the disciple and an answer from the master.

Mushotoku: The absence of the search for personal gain, whether material or spiritual.

Roshi: An old master.

Samu: This is work done for the community, mushotoku. Samu is one of the aspects of the practice; it is the mind of zazen in every act of daily life: serving others, preparing food, cleaning, working in the vegetable garden, etc.

Sangha: This is the community of monks and nuns and, by extension in the West, ordained lay people, and all those practicing together. The same term designates a group of practitioners who practice with a master in a temple. It also means, on a larger scale, the entire group of practitioners in Sôtô Zen (or Buddhism). When we are ordained a bodhisattva, we take refuge in the Three

Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Sesshin: Retreat during a practice session lasting from 2 to 9 days. Through forgetting all our habitual pre-occupations, we can dive deeply into the practice. Zazen and all our everyday actions are emphasized: zazen, ceremony, samu and study. This is how our true, original mind manifests, the Buddha-nature that all existences in the Universe share.

Shikantaza: Only sitting. Committing oneself completely to zazen, mind-body in unity, giving up everything, dropping the idea of “me”, just sitting, nothing else. A single existence in the universe, “a single flame on a zafu.”

Skanda: The five skanda, the aggregates that make up life, the workings of the body and mind of human beings. Shiki, matter, form; jû, perceptions from the sense organs; sô, sensations; gyô, action; shiki, personal consciousness.

Sôtô Zen: Originally, one of the Chinese Chan (Zen) schools, the name coming from masters Tozan Ryokai and Sozan Hojaku (IX century). In the XIII century, Master Dogen returned to Japan from China and transmitted the Sôtô lineage. He founded the principles of what would become the Sôtô

Zen tradition: Sôtô Zen prioritises shikantaza, sitting, facing the wall, and silent awakening, without the use of koans and words during meditation (see “the Principles of Sôtô Zen”).

Sutra: The sutras are Buddha’s written teachings, or attributed to the Buddha. A part of the texts that are recited during the ceremonies are extracts from the sutras.

Teisho: Spoken teaching in the form of a lecture given by the master.

Tenzo: Head of the kitchen in a temple or during a sesshin. The tenzo is not just a cook; he or she is a senior monk or nun, an educator. In the tradition, he or she has an important place in the temple.

Zafu: A round cushion stuffed with kapok (silky fibre from the silk-cotton tree) that enables one, during zazen, to tilt the pelvis forward, push the ground with the knees, and to stretch the spine upwards.

Zazen: Za, seated; Zen, meditation. Zazen is itself awakening. It is the direct experience of ultimate reality. Through the practice of concentration (Samadhi), the intellect becomes calm, the notion of “I” fades, body and mind are dropped, and we return unconsciously to our true nature, Buddha-nature, in unity with all existences and the whole cosmos. Buddha awakened while sitting in zazen. All his teaching, “Buddhism”, comes from this living experience.