Zen Buddhism

A Comprehensive Glossary of Zen Buddhism Terminology

Zen Buddhism is a fascinating and complex spiritual tradition that has its roots in ancient Chinese and Japanese philosophy.

The practice of Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, mindfulness, and the attainment of enlightenment through direct experience. For those new to the practice, the language and terminology of Zen Buddhism can be intimidating and difficult to understand. This is where a glossary of Zen Buddhist terms can be incredibly helpful. 

In this article, we will provide an introduction to Zen Buddhism and its key concepts, as well as a comprehensive glossary of Zen Buddhist terms. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned practitioner, this glossary will be an invaluable resource in your exploration and understanding of Zen Buddhism.


Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) – a being who is committed to attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Butsu (Buddha) – a being who is fully enlighten someone, the awakened nature that exists within all beings.

Butsudan – a Buddhist altar or shrine in a household or temple.

Butsudo – the teachings of the Buddha.

Daiji – the principle of great compassion in Zen practice, emphasizing the importance of empathy and altruism.

Dokusan – a private interview with a Zen teacher for guidance and feedback on one’s practice.

Enso – a circle or symbol representing emptiness and the interconnectedness of all things in Zen practice.

Fudo Myo – a legendary figure in Zen mythology, often depicted as a fierce guardian or protector.

Fukan Zazen Gi – a Zen text written by Dogen, outlining the practice and guidelines for zazen meditation.

Genjokoan – a famous Zen text by Dogen, exploring the relationship between reality, perception, and experience.

Gokan – the five senses in Zen practice, considered a gateway to the realization of the true nature of reality.

Hara – the Japanese term for the lower abdomen, considered a center of physical and spiritual energy in Zen practice.

Hensho – a sudden awakening or realization in Zen practice, often experienced during meditation or other spiritual practice.

Hishiryo – the Zen state of “non-thinking” or “no-mind,” characterized by a sense of emptiness and detachment from the world of form and concept.

Inmo – often translated as “it” or “such,” and is used to point to the ultimate reality or the fundamental nature of existence that can’t be captured by words or intellectual understanding, including concepts that are often encapsulated under the term “God” in other spiritual or religious traditions.

Inryō – the principle of “dependent origination” in Zen practice, referring to the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

Joriki – the power of concentration and determination in Zen practice, allowing one to maintain a steady focus during meditation and other practices.

Jukai – a Zen ceremony in which a student formally receives the precepts and becomes a Buddhist practitioner.

Keido – the path of awakening in Zen practice, involving a combination of meditation, study, and ethical conduct.

Kensho – a sudden glimpse or experience of enlightenment in Zen practice, often considered a precursor to full awakening.

Kesa – a Buddhist robe worn by ordained Zen practitioners, representing the precepts and teachings of the Buddha.

Kinhin – a Zen practice of walking meditation, often used to break up long periods of seated zazen meditation.

Koan – a paradoxical question or statement used mostly within the Rinzai school of Zen to provoke insight and realization, often unanswerable through conventional thinking.

Komyo – the Zen principle of “clear light,” emphasizing the importance of clarity and insight in Zen practice.

Kyosaku – a wooden stick used in Zen practice to strike or tap a meditator, often used as a means of helping the meditator to stay alert and focused.

Mokugyo – a traditional Japanese percussion instrument used in Zen practice to mark the beginning and end of meditation sessions.

Mondo – a question-and-answer session in Zen practice, often used to explore koans or other aspects of Zen teaching.

Monjin – a Zen term for a student who has received formal transmission from a Zen master and has begun teaching independently.

Mushin – a state of mind characterized by a lack of attachment or grasping in Zen practice.

Mushotoku – the Zen principle of “no gain,” emphasizing the importance of non-attachment and non-grasping in all activities.

Nen – the Zen practice of focused concentration or mindfulness, often used in conjunction with other practices such as zazen and kinhin.

Nyohō – the art of adapting one’s behavior and expression to fit the needs of the moment in Zen practice, often associated with the concept of “skillful means”.

Nyorai – a Buddha or fully awakened being.

Oryoki – a traditional Zen eating practice, involving the use of a set of nested bowls and utensils and emphasizing mindfulness and simplicity.

Rakusu – a small garment worn by Zen practitioners, similar to a bib, representing the precepts and teachings of the Buddha.

Rinzai – one of the major schools of Zen Buddhism, emphasizing the use of koans and other methods to provoke insight and realization.

Satori (Nirvana) – a term for enlightenment or awakening in Zen practice, often associated with a sudden insight or realization.

Sesshin – a formal Zen training period or retreat, emphasizing intensive periods of zazen meditation and other Zen practices.

Shaka Nyorai – the historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama.

Shikantaza – a Zen meditation practice emphasizing the cultivation of pure awareness and non-attachment, without specific goals or methods.

Shingi – the rules and guidelines of Zen practice, emphasizing the importance of ethical conduct, discipline, and compassion.

Shuso – a senior Zen practitioner who leads and oversees practice at a Zen center or monastery.

Soji – a Zen practice of cleaning and maintaining the physical space of a Zen center or monastery, often seen as a form of meditation practice.

Soto – one of the two major schools of Zen Buddhism, known for its emphasis on shikantaza and the practice of “just sitting”.

Tanden – the Japanese term for the lower abdomen, considered a center of physical and spiritual energy in Zen practice.

Teisho – a Zen dharma talk or lecture given by a teacher.

Tenzo – the head cook in a Zen monastery or center.

Tetsugaku – the Zen practice of working with or studying under a Zen master or teacher, often considered a crucial component of the path to awakening.

Toku – the Zen principle of “virtue,” emphasizing the importance of ethical conduct and compassion in all activities.

Tokudo – a Zen ceremony in which a student formally enters the monastic community and becomes a novice monk or nun.

Uji – a famous Zen text by Dogen, exploring the nature of time and existence.

Yakuseki – the Zen practice of mindful eating, often emphasizing the importance of gratitude and simplicity in the preparation and consumption of food.

Yasen – a period of extended zazen meditation in Zen practice, typically done during the night or early morning hours.

Yojijukugo – a traditional Japanese four-character idiom or saying, often used in Zen teaching and practice to convey deep wisdom or insight.

Zafu – a round cushion used in Zen meditation to provide support and comfort while sitting.

Zanshin – the principle of wholeheartedness or complete dedication in Zen practice, emphasizing the importance of focused effort and attention in all activities.

Zazen – the primary Zen meditation practice, involving seated meditation and breath awareness.

Zazen-gyo – a Zen practice of chanting or reciting sutras or other texts during seated meditation, often used to cultivate concentration and insight.

Zazen-kai – a group meditation session in Zen Buddhism, often held in a zendo or meditation hall.

Zazen-teisho – a Zen meditation and dharma talk or lecture given by a teacher in a group setting.

Zendo – a Zen meditation hall or practice space, often characterized by a simple, uncluttered design.

Zendo kai – a formal Zen training period or retreat, also known as a sesshin.

Zendo-sanmai – the three essentials of Zen practice: great faith, great doubt, and great determination, also known as the three pillars of Zen.

Zengo – a formal gathering or conference of Zen teachers and students for meditation, practice, and discussion.

Zenki – the Zen principle of “total activity,” emphasizing the importance of being fully present and engaged in all activities, both in and out of meditation practice.

Zokugo – a Zen term for informal or casual speech, often emphasizing the importance of directness, honesty, and simplicity in communication.

Zoriki – the Zen principle of wholehearted or intense energy, emphasizing the importance of sustained effort and concentration in all activities.

Zui-un – the Zen principle of “no limit,” emphasizing the boundless nature of reality and the potential for limitless insight and compassion.

Zuiho – the Zen principle of being always prepared, emphasizing the importance of mindfulness and readiness in all circumstances.


In conclusion, while studying Buddhist terminology can help deepen our understanding of this spiritual tradition, it’s important to remember that Zen Buddhism emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment through direct insight, rather than relying solely on the intellect or terminology. 

As the famous Zen proverb goes, “Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon.” In other words, the terminology and concepts of Zen Buddhism are merely pointers to guide us towards direct insight and understanding. 

Thus, while a comprehensive understanding of Zen Buddhist terminology is useful, it should not be relied upon as a substitute for personal insight and direct experience. By balancing our study of terminology with our own practice and insight, we can develop a more comprehensive understanding and application of Zen Buddhist teachings in our daily lives.