The linguistic origins and affiliations of Zen

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In the fifth comment to "Artistic Sinograph: Buddha" (11/11/21), stephen reeves says he'd like to hear about the origins of Zen.  This has always been one of my favorite topics, so I'm more than happy to tell it.

"Zen" entered the English lexicon already by 1727.  Here's a succinct, serviceable, popular explanation of its derivation:

[Japanese zen, from Early Middle Chinese dʑian, meditation; also the source of Mandarin chán), from Pali jhānaṃ, from Sanskrit dhyānam, from dhyāti, he meditates.]
Word History: Zen, a word that evokes the most characteristic and appealing aspects of Japanese culture for many English speakers, is ultimately of Indo-European origin. The Japanese word zen is a borrowing of a medieval Chinese word (now pronounced chán, in modern Mandarin Chinese) meaning "meditation, contemplation." Chán is one of the many Buddhist terms in Chinese that originate in India, the homeland of Buddhism. A monk named Bodhidharma, said to be of Indian origin, introduced Buddhist traditions emphasizing the practice of meditation to China in the 5th century and established Chan Buddhism. From the 7th century onward, elements of Chan Buddhism began to reach Japan, where chán came to be pronounced zen. The Chinese word chán is a shortening* of chán'nǎ "meditation, contemplation" a borrowing [VHM:  transcription] of the Sanskrit term dhyānam. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Sanskrit root dhyā-, dhī-, "to see, observe," and the Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dheiə-, *dhyā-, "to see, look at." This root also shows up in Greek, where *dhyā- developed into sā-, as in the Common Greek noun *sāma, "sign, distinguishing mark." This noun became sēma in Attic Greek and is the source of English semantic.

Source:  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

*The same thing happened with the Chinese transcription of "Buddha", as we saw in the previous post.  The Chinese have a low tolerance for maintaining the full transcriptions of words from other languages, usually shortening them by one or more syllables.]

It is fascinating to contemplate that "Zen" and "semantics" are ultimately cognate.


1894, from French sémantique, applied by Michel Bréal (1883) to the psychology of language, from Greek semantikos "significant," from semainein "to show by sign, signify, point out, indicate by a sign," from sema "sign, mark, token; omen, portent; constellation; grave" (Doric sama), from PIE root *dheie- "to see, look" (source also of Sanskrit dhyati "he meditates;"


Let us focus a bit more intensively on the phonological and semantic history of "Zen" itself.

Zen (Chinese: ; pinyin: Chán; Japanese: , romanizedzen; Korean: , romanizedSeon; Vietnamese: Thiền) is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, known as the Chan School (Chánzong 禪宗), and later developed into various sub-schools and branches. From China, Chán spread south to Vietnam and became Vietnamese Thiền, northeast to Korea to become Seon Buddhism, and east to Japan, becoming Japanese Zen.

The term Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (chán), an abbreviation of 禪那 (chánnà), which is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyāna ("meditation"). Zen emphasizes rigorous self-restraint, meditation-practice, insight into the nature of mind (見性, Ch. jiànxìng, Jp. kensho, "perceiving the true nature") and nature of things (without arrogance or egotism), and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. As such, it de-emphasizes knowledge alone of sutras and doctrine, and favors direct understanding through spiritual practice and interaction with an accomplished teacher or Master.

Zen teaching draws from numerous sources of Mahāyāna thought, especially Yogachara, the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, and the Huayan school, with their emphasis on Buddha-nature, totality, and the Bodhisattva-ideal. The Prajñāpāramitā literature as well as Madhyamaka thought have also been influential in the shaping of the apophatic and sometimes iconoclastic nature of Zen rhetoric.

Furthermore, the Chan School was also influenced by Taoist philosophy, especially Neo-Daoist thought.


In sum and in essence:

The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation (kana: ぜん) of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (Middle Chinese: [dʑian]; pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna (ध्यान), which can be approximately translated as "absorption" or "meditative state".

The actual Chinese term for the "Zen school" is 禪宗 (pinyin: Chánzōng), while "Chan" just refers to the practice of meditation itself (Chinese: 習禪; pinyin: xíchán) or the study of meditation (Chinese: 禪學; pinyin: chánxué) though it is often used as an abbreviated form of Chánzong.

"Zen" is traditionally a proper noun as it usually describes a particular Buddhist sect. In more recent times, the lowercase "zen" is used when discussing the philosophy and was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018.


Before closing, we must say a few words about the Sinographic form for writing "Zen".


In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), that is pronounced chánnuó / chánnà, while in Middle / Sinitic (around 1,400 years ago) it would have been something like /d͡ʑiᴇn  nɑ/


Bear in mind that 禪那 is purely a Sinographic transcription of the Middle Sinitic phonetic rendering of Sanskrit dhyāna (ध्यान).  The semantics of 禪那 have nothing whatsoever to do with this borrowing. 

shàn (Old Sinitic /*[d]ar-s/ (Baxter-Sagart), /*djans/ (Zhengzhang); Middle Sinitic /d͡ʑiᴇnH/, with its original meanings of "worship [nature], abdicate, hand over, inherit" — note that the last three definitions may also be written with the alternative form 嬗, which has the "woman" radical [compare this post])

chán (Middle Sinitic /d͡ʑiᴇnH/ with its acquired Buddhis meanings of "deep meditation; contemplation > Buddhist doctrine; Buddhist teachings" > "relating to Buddhism; Buddhist; thoughtful; philosophical")

nà ("that")

Another reminder that the form, meaning, and content of Chinese writing are separate, though interrelated, entities.


Selected readings



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2021 @ 2:29 pm

    Interesting connection.

    Given that discussion in the American Heritage Dictionary, I'm surprised that its online appendix on Indo-European Roots doesn't have that root or any Indo-European origin for "semantic", "semaphore", "aposematic", or "semiotic".

  2. Josh R. said,

    November 14, 2021 @ 8:25 pm

    So Merriam-Webster includes this definition of Zen, as an adjective:
    2a : suggestive of the teachings or practice of Zen Buddhism.
    Paddling, itself, is a Zen art: Anyone can do it, yet you can spend a lifetime perfecting it.— Jim Albrecht
    b : having or showing qualities (such as meditative calmness and an attitude of acceptance) popularly associated with practitioners of Zen Buddhism.
    "I hate to use this word, but Owen is very 'Zen,'" said Rita Nagel, a vice president at Goldman, Sachs. "When some traders start losing money they get nervous. Owen stays very relaxed."

    Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this sense of the word "Zen" does not exist in Japanese, and when it shows up in translated English media, Japanese translators often write around it, trying to get the same idea across without using the the word Zen. No doubt due to the fact that in Japan Zen does not have much cultural cachet as pop philosophy. Akito, or another native Japanese Language Logger, could probably speak to this better than me, but my sense is that rather than "meditative calmness" or "attitude of acceptance," or even the paradoxical sense of a koan*, the image of Zen to the average Japanese person is one of strictness and austerity. Probably due in part to the historical association of Zen with the samurai ruling class (the common folk tended to follow Pure Land Buddhism), and partly due to popular images of Zen being priests shouting at their disciples (喝 katsu) or hitting them on the shoulder with a bamboo whisk during meditation.

    *"Koan" is another word that's found popular purchase in the English speaking world that it doesn't quite have in its place of origin.

  3. astrange said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 12:41 am

    "No doubt due to the fact that in Japan Zen does not have much cultural cachet as pop philosophy."

    Interestingly, there's a lot of continental European philosophy left over as pop philosophy terms in Japan. (not sure, but I think it comes from an 80s fad)

    An example of this is media critics using 世界観 (Weltanschauung) as a term to mean something like "the atmosphere/aesthetics of a work". This is constantly translated back into English as "worldview" and I suspect nobody understands what it actually means.

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