Zen for Beginners 

 Some Buddhist Terms

Bodhisattva. Literally, an awakened being, one who has attained Nirvana but remains in the world so that he or she can help others to awaken. Some of the better-known bodhisattvas are Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, and Amida Buddha, the bodhisattva of the Pure Land.

Dhyana. Meditation. Clearing the mind so that it directly perceives the emptiness of the phenomenal world.

Hinayana. Literally, the lesser vehicle. The only surviving school of Hinayana is Theravada, the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries of Southeast Asia. The highest ideal of the Theravadins is the arhat, one who has attained personal liberation. The collected texts of the Theravadins are incorporated in the Pali Canon.

Ko-an. A question given to a Zen student by a master during an interview. The student goes over the question in his or her mind while meditating. The ko-an system of a series of interviews with the master is a means of testing the student to find his or her state of mind and to lead the student to awakening. With a clear mind a ko-an can be answered in an instant; with a muddled mind it might take years. Examples: "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Mahayana. Literally, the greater vehicle. A general term applied to forms of Buddhism that arose in India around 100 BCE-100 CE. The Buddhisms of Central Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea are Mahayana. It is characterized by the emphasis on sunyata (emptiness) and the belief in bodhisattvas, awakened ones who forgo entry into Nirvana to give aid to the suffering world. Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism.

Nirvana. Being in the state of sunyata (emptiness).

The Pali Canon. The collected works of the Theravadin school. It is written in Pali, an ancient language of India related to Sanskrit. According to tradition the canon was standardized at the First Council of Buddhism, which met shortly after the passing away of the Buddha to preserve his teachings. The canon was originally transmitted orally and later committed to writing. It consists of three parts and is therefore known as the Tripitaka, or three baskets. The three parts of the Tripitaka are the Vinaya, rules of conduct for monks and nuns; the Sutras, the teachings of the Buddha; and the Abhidharma, commentaries and analysis.

Samsara. The cycle of birth, suffering, and death. As long as a being is alive, he or she is participating in samsara.

Sangha means community. This term usually refers to a Buddhist community of monks. It can also mean the community of Buddhist supporters in a given region, or the whole world community.

Sanskrit. The classic language of India, which originated around the second millennium BCE. It is part of the Indo-European group of languages and is related to Latin, Persian, and the modern languages of Europe and India, including English. Many of the texts of Mahayana Buddhism were originally written in Sanskrit and later translated into such languages as Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese. Familiar Sanskrit terms: nirvana, samsara, sunyata, dhyana, and boddhisattva.

Satori. The Zen experience of sudden awakening.

Sunyata. Literally, emptiness. When we examine the sensory phenomena we find that they cannot be grasped or delineated. They are empty of self-being. This is neither nihilism nor a denial of the sensory realm; rather, emptiness is the interdependence of all phenomena. For example, a pencil cannot be taken out of its surroundings, or exist, without someone perceiving it. The pencil is empty of self-being. Its existence is dependent on the existence of everything else. This interdependence is known as pratityasamutpada.

Zen is a form of Buddhism that developed as a distinct line in China around the sixth century CE. It emphasizes direct perception under the guidance of a teacher and deemphasizes the study of Buddhist literature. The word Zen is derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation). In Chinese dhyana became ts'o-ch'an, which became zazen in Japanese or just zen. The practice of Zen spread from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. In the twentieth century it made its way into America and the rest of the world.


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