In the appendix of A Zen Forest, Sōiku Shigematsu lists jakugo in the original Chinese characters, along with romaji to indicate how the saying is read by Japanese Zen students. I have a hard time understanding the relationship between the kanji and the romaji, though.

Take for example entry 199:

Kari ni ishō no i naku
Mizu ni chin'ei no shin nashi

This seems like a mix of on'yomi and kun'yomi readings, with some words out of order. I can't make sense of it... Though that may be because my understanding of Japanese is still at a beginner level.

Would this reading of the kanji come naturally to a native Japanese speaker? If not, how do Japanese Zen students learn it? Are there Zen phrase books with the sayings written out in kana?

Please pardon my ignorance. 😅

1 Answer 1


I am not a native speaker, however I am familiar with these texts.

My impression is that even native speakers do not necessarily know how to read these texts. It's not that they couldn't come up with a reading; they can and they do. However, there is an "official" reading, which may vary upon the Buddhist sect. Most sutra books, even those printed in Japan, will have furigana throughout the text.

Sometimes the text seems to be read in kanbun. Other texts are written in a hybrid of native Japanese with a mix of kanbun, but the native Japanese is usually classical Japanese. I have never discerned a rhyme or reason for when one style versus another is used.

When read in kanbun, the on'yomi is used. However, the particular on'yomi may be rather archaic from a modern perspective. I'd have to dig around for examples.

When read using classical Japanese, since Chinese word order and sentence structure is markedly different from Japanese, there are usually small notations made in the text to assist the reader in knowing what order the words should be chanted.

In general, these sutra texts are to be chanted. So regarding the question of how a Japanese Zen student learns how to read the text, it's simply a matter that they chant them so often that the pronunciation is memorized.

When chanting something like the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the readings used for the characters are easy enough to master (most of them correspond closely to modern day on'yomi readings).

If what's being chanted is something like a dharani, then the characters are read only for the phonetic value and that phonetic value is based upon how that particular text was chanted in China in the region where the text was borrowed from. In theory, these readings should be traceable back to a Sanskrit original.

An example where you can see a mixed phonetic reading and kanbun approach is the Heart Sutra. The kanji for the title is read for phonetic value. If you know Sanskrit, you can make out "Mahaprajna Paramita". The close of the Heart Sutra is also read purely for phonetic value. The "Gate, gate,..." is extremely close to Sanskrit itself (it's so close that I get the two mixed up in my head).

The Sandokai is read in a form of classical Japanese.

The Daihishin dharani has an interesting history. It's essentially read purely for phonetic value. I think it was Hakuin who had some fun with this sutra and interpreted parts of it into Japanese about a tiger (since the line "tora ya" is repeated numerous times throughout the dharani).

There are occasionally texts that are chanted in classical Japanese. These are usually famous texts written by Japanese Buddhist masters of whatever sect. It is not uncommon that these texts were composed in classical Chinese, but they were intended to be understood by monks who were not necessarily educated in reading or understanding Chinese. As such, they were read in Japanese from the Chinese text. This may account for why a particular text appears to be a hybrid of styles.

For the text you provided,

[雁]{kari-ni} [無]{naku} [遺蹤]{ishō} [之]{no} [意]{i}
[水]{mizu-ni} [無]{nashi} [沈影]{chin'ei} [之]{no} [心]{shin}

If you know the rules for classical Japanese, then such differences as "naku" vs "nashi" are a matter of grammar. I've left out the symbols that indicate what order to read the words (the literal order is non-sense in Japanese).

  • Good answer, but the difference of naku and nashi isn't just Classical Japanese tho, the same grammar difference applies to modern standard Japanese as well. なく being the 連用形 and なし being 終止形. Both are still very actively used in modern Japanese.
    – dvx2718
    Jan 11 at 17:23
  • @dvx2718 Indeed they are, but mentioning that felt like adding more layers of potential confusion. Let me think about this and then perhaps update my answer.
    – A.Ellett
    Jan 11 at 17:26
  • To add a bit, Kanbun is just a makeshift convention to understand Chinese texts in Japanese, It is by no means a "rule". There are is lots of info left for the reader to decide like tenses. and sometimes words are completely changed depending on what word was used in an entirely different text. for example the Kojiki and Nihon shoki first chapters describe about the same event, in Kojiki the first sentence is 天地初發之時 which is read as 天地【あめつち】初【はじ】めておこる時【とき】 or おこりし時 if you add the tense, or ひらくる時 if you refer to the nihon shoki which says 一書曰、天地初判..., or just f it and say はじめの時
    – shinku
    Feb 4 at 5:12
  • @shinku Indeed. I am aware of this. Nevertheless, often in the sutra books that monks carry, one particular reading is used or preferred when reciting various texts. If you go to a different temple (even one of the same sect), there may be variations of the reading, just as you're drawing attention to. In Soto Zen, in recent years, there has been some effort to achieve greater uniformity in these readings. But, within some subsects of Soto, these revisions are dispensed with in favor of what was traditionally chanted within that temple.
    – A.Ellett
    Feb 4 at 6:09

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