Buddhist enrichment of Sino-Japanese vocabulary

« previous post | next post »

I'm often surprised by the number of terms in modern Japanese that have their roots in ancient Buddhist usage.  Some of the most common ones are introduced in this article by Brendan Craine from The Japan Times (2/2/23):

"The Buddhist terms that find their way into everyday conversation"

A good example is aisatsu あいさつ /  挨拶:

    [noun] a greeting, a salutation, a polite set phrase
    [noun] an address given at an official function or ceremony
    [noun] greetings or respects such as given at holidays or funerals
    [verb] to greet, to say hello, to address

This derives from ichiaiissatsu / いちあいいっさつ / 一挨一拶:  "dialoging (with another Zen practitioner to ascertain their level of enlightenment)​" (source).

Another frequently encountered Buddhist term in modern Japanese, one that has even found its way into English, is kōan, from Chinese gōng'àn 公案 ("public case"):  "a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the 'great doubt' and to practice or test a student's progress in Zen" (source).  See also American Heritage Dictionary:  "A puzzling, often paradoxical statement, anecdote, question, or verbal exchange, used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening."

Craine gives the wrong Japanese expression as the source for this term:  kōan 考案 ("plan; device; idea; design; contrivance; conception; invention​").

An interesting Buddhist-derived term that Craine touches upon is danna-san 旦那さん ("husband"), which he correctly states comes from the Sanskrit word dāna for someone who provides alms.  We may follow the etymological trail deeper by pointing out that modern Japanese danna comes from Middle Chinese 旦那 (MC tɑnH), 檀那 (MC dɑn nɑ), both used as transcriptions of Sanskrit दान (dā́na, generosity, giving, donating). Ultimately cognate with English donate and donor, from Proto-Indo-European *déh₃nom." (source)

All of these widespread linkages bear out the linguistic and cultural interconnectedness of the Eurasian ecumene (and beyond), which has been a constant theme on Language Log for the past two decades.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser and Alan Kennedy]


  1. ohwilleke said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 5:14 pm

    While a lot of Hindu terminology has a direct Sanskrit origin and was in its formative era when Sanskrit was still a widely spoken living language.

    In contrast, Buddhism arose almost two thousand years later, when Sanskrit was not a widely spoken living language outside a few small pockets of people. So, I wonder what the intermediate language would have been.

  2. Amda said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 5:32 pm

    三昧 & 剎那 came into my mind

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 6:57 pm


    Ardhamāgadhī, Pāli, and other Prakrits ("natural"), in contrast to Sanskrit ("refined").

    See "Bahasa and the concept of 'National Language'" (3/14/13)

    The Prakrits are the deśa-bhāṣā ("languages of the countries / states"), i.e., the vernaculars.

  4. AG said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 1:40 am

    I'm curious about the relationship between Pali and Sanskrit… I've briefly studied both, and maybe it's just because I only have a shallow awareness of them, but they seem very similar to me in grammar and vocabulary.

    Everyone seems clear on the fact that Sanskrit is older than Pali. However, I've read from more than one source that Pali isn't "directly descended" from Sanskrit, and that Pali was more of a spoken vernacular while Sanskrit was an artificial written language.

    So I guess my main question is – do we know for sure that Classical Sanskrit (as written down) is older than Pali or its immediate precursor? If so, how? Couldn't Pali have been spoken during the time that Sanskrit was first being written?

  5. Lasius said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 4:03 am


    You have to remember that Sanskrit wasn't written down untill the very late first millenium BC, long after Buddhism arose and the Pali canon was allegedly compiled shortly after Gautama's death. Vedic and Classical Sanskrit were languages of orally transmitted sacred "texts" and so was the Pali of early Buddhist "scripture".

    The "texts" of Vedic Sanskrit were composed about a millenium before the Pali cannon, while Classical Sanskrit and Pali (both somewhat artificial "literary" languages) are about the same age.

  6. AG said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 9:04 am

    OK, thanks. Is Vedic Sanskrit significantly different from Classical Sanskrit? Is there some way we know that there wasn't Vedic-era Pali? I guess what I'm wondering is if there are "evolutionary" features in the sound shifts or grammar of any of these languages that date them, or track their rate of divergence from PIE, or whatever… I'm sure there must be – guess I should probably try to start researching these topics myself!

  7. Mahaphakha said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    魔,大袈裟,修羅場 are also originated from the translation of Buddhist scriptures

  8. Josh R. said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 7:42 pm

    It should be noted that the English metaphorical sense of "koan", seen in Merriam-Websters usage examples (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/koan), is not really present in the Japanese idiom. The closest you get to this is the phrase 禅問答 zenmondou (Zen dialogue) to represent a conversation that has gone off the rails and you can't make sense of what the other person is saying.

    For that matter, the popular metaphorical sense of "Zen" in English also presents a problem for translators to Japanese.

  9. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 11:05 pm

    On 旦那 the meaning suggests that the original might be Skt. dānapati- "master of donation", abbreviated in the manner of 禅 from 禅那 (from Pkt. < Skt. dhyāna) rather than Skt. dāna- "giving". We still need to check the use of the longer form vis-à-vis the shorter one in the historical context. Böhtlingk's PW lists, in addtion to the examples from the Mahābhārata etc., a form dānapati- from S. Julien's translation of Xuanzang's Travels (II 45; Vol. 9, just before the description of the Nalanda), but the original has no transliterated form but simply 施主.

    @ VHM "Prakrits ("natural"), in contrast to Sanskrit ("refined")."

    Against this rather wide-spread concept it is to be noted that the traditional Indian grammarians held that the meaning of prākṛta- is "derived from the prakṛti-'basis', which is Sanskrit". Pischel's Grammatik der Prakrit Sprachen states:

    Daher leiten sie in der Regel prākṛta ab von prakṛti »Element«, »Grundlage«, und als diese Grundlage gilt ihnen das Sanskrit. So sagt Hemacandra i , i : prakṛtiḥ saṃskṛtam | tatrabhavaṃ tata āgataṃ vā prākṛtam »die Grundlage ist das Sanskrit. Was in ihm seinen Ursprung hat, oder von ihm herkommt, heisst Prākrit. «

    [Translation of Subhadra Jhā] Therefore they generally derive the word prākṛta from prakṛti, "element", "basis", and according to them this basis is Sanskrit. So says Hemacandra I, 1. prakṛtiḥ saṃskṛtam | tatrabhavaṃ tata āgataṃ vā prākṛtam, "Sanskrit is the basis, what originated from it, or what is derived from it, is called Prākrit".

  10. Chris Button said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 9:15 am

    I love the 一挨一拶 origin of 挨拶. It’s almost like “one squeezes a little, one squeezes a little more”

  11. Josh R. said,

    February 12, 2023 @ 8:26 pm

    挨拶 has my favorite kanji memorization mnemonic:

    両手で無理矢理三つ食った, roughly, "I forced myself to eat three with both hands."

    It breaks down as
    両手で ryoute, "with both hands" represents that both characters have the "hand" radical 扌

    無理矢理 muri-yari "forcibly, against one's will" The right side of 挨 is the katakana character ム"mu", and under that the kanji 矢, ya, meaning "arrow".

    三つ食った mittsu kutta "ate three" The right side of 拶 is three of the hiragana character for "ku" く, underneath of which is the katakana character for "ta" タ.

RSS feed for comments on this post