What is Zen?

What is Zen? March 9, 2022



I recall reading how someone quoted from the wonderful teacher Norman Fischer’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra.

When the Chinese encountered the word ‘dhyana’, the Pali word for meditation, they translated it into something that sounded like ‘dhyana’ in Chinese. They chose the word ‘Chan’ which became ‘zen’ in Japan. But ‘Chan’ or ‘zen’ doesn’t mean meditation, it only sounds like the Pali word that means meditation. The literal meaning of ‘Chan’ is ‘to bow before mountains and rivers.’

As Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of Chan, it might be interesting to know.

He, the quoter, then asked if anyone could verify that definition for the word.

This was social media, and it opened quite the range of comments. Mostly of the posturing sort. Of course there were a couple of amateur Zen masters sneering about the inferiority of dualistic thought.

Another offered a view of whether the word dhyana is Sanskrit or Pali. Apparently certain this was particularly meaningful, rather than a small correction.

Others were more serious. The bottom line of it is that there seems to be no natural connection of Chan to “mountains and rivers.”

The Venerable Fischer is a poet. He is also a practitioner of the discipline. And a teacher of our intimate way. And wherever he picked up that “The literal meaning of ‘Chan’ is ‘to bow before mountains and rivers’” I personally find a connection between worshiping Heaven, Sacrificing to the Earth, and bowing to the Mountains and Rivers, and just sitting.

What is Zen?

To bow before mountains and rivers.

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