I would like to understand this Zen calligraphy:


I gather that it says "hōgejaku" and that this means something like "let it go", "throw it away", "throw it down". According to this page, the kanji are 放下著, but I find it hard to see the similarity, especially for the last one. The first two do have on readings of "hō" and "ge", respectively, and the New Nelson character dictionary has the compound 放下 with reading "hōka" and meaning "throwing down; juggling". The last one, however, appears to have neither a reading "jaku", nor a meaning indicating an imperative.

The page offering the calligraphy for sale says:

The three characters of this print express the Zen principle of releasing all negative, selfish thoughts and emotions [...].

This book says:

In Japan's traditional interpretation of Zen, either grammatical markers appearing in Baihua were accepted in the form of Chinese or individual characters as grammatical markers were read in Japanese as follows: [...] -zhuo2 (Imperative): -jaku-seyo. This is ascribed to the fact that bilingualism was practiced at the Zen temples in Kamakura Gozan when Zen was imported to Japan.

A translation of Shobogenzo Zuimonki relates the Zen connection as follows:

Hoge in Japanese means to let go, throw away, give up, abandon, lay down, etc. Someone asked Joshu, “I have nothing. How is that?” Joshu replied, “Throw it away (hoge-jaku).”

However, this book gives a different meaning:

There is a Japanese Zen expression "Hogejaku". This expression is often interpreted as "to throw away or give up everything," implying from now on. But this isn't what it means. Rather, the meaning is that "everything has already fallen away or been thrown away," and it points to your condition right now.

I'd appreciate any information related to the expression, the calligraphy and/or the Zen background; in particular:

  • How would you translate this phrase into English?
  • Which kanji are being used?
  • Is it an imperative, and if so, how is it being formed?
  • Is this something a present-day native Japanese speaker would readily understand?
  • Is there a "canonical" version of the associated Zen story?

2 Answers 2


How would you translate this phrase into English?

It would depend on context and what I was trying to say, but something like "Throw it away!" I guess. (I am sure that Sekkei Harada had good reasons for writing what he did, but this is the standard interpretation of the surface meaning of what Joshu said -- telling a questioner who believed himself to be free of attachments to discard his attachment to that belief.)

Which kanji are being used?

I think in that particular piece it is written 放下着 (right to left). Why the difference? 着 was actually originally a variant ("vulgar character", 俗字) of 著. I understand that in mainland Chinese only 着 is used now. Separating them into two separate characters with distinct meanings (and readings) was apparently a Japanese innovation. Some more info here; my main source for all this is my desktop kanji dictionary Kanji gen 漢字源 (ed. Todo 藤堂 et al, Gakken 2002).

So, originally, 放下着 and 放下著 were just variant "spellings" of the same thing, and that last character would have been pronounced /chaku/ (or "zháo/zhuó" [depending on era, I think]) no matter how it was written. In modern Japanese there is a stricter separation between 着 and 著, but since this isn't a modern Japanese phrase -- in fact, it's arguably a three-character "word" that should be left as it is -- you can see both spellings if you Google them. (Some are from Chinese pages, of course.)

Is it an imperative, and if so, how is it being formed?

It is an imperative made of 放下 ("discard") + 著 (roughly equivalent to Japanese しまう if I understand it correctly). Because it's Chinese, not Japanese, there isn't much in the way of morphology -- the bare verb is used as the imperative form.

(Sidebar: I'm not sure if 放下 wouldn't be better analyzed as "discard" + "down" -- that's clearly the etymology, but I don't know if by the time this sentence was uttered these two characters had become one word.)

Soundwise, /ho:ge/ is the standard reading of 放下 when used as Zen jargon, and /jaku/ is a voiced version of /chaku/, which is a standard reading of 著 (and 着).

Is this something a present-day native Japanese speaker would readily understand?

They would definitely not be able to understand it from "first principles" -- they would probably know the word 放下, but adding 著 after a verb is not meaningful in Japanese, so that would be confusing. Only people who had learned it as a set phrase, probably in the context of Zen Buddhism, would understand it.

(Although, if it was read to them as 放下せよ, as in your second reference, they would certainly understand that.)

Is there a "canonical" version of the associated Zen story?

There are a few slightly different versions floating around. I'm not sure if any particular one can be identified as the locus classicus. (At any rate, I can't make such an identification...) It does appear in the 趙州録, and in the English translation by James Green, The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, it can be found at #182:

A monk asked, "What about it when I don't have anything?"
Joshu replied, "Throw it away."

There's also a footnote:

In the Compendium of the Five Lamps (Wu-teng Hui-yuan; Goto Egen) the questioner was Yen-yang Tsun-su (Ganyo Sonshoku), who was one of the heirs of Chao-chou (Joshu). In the Compendium it is recorded that he goes on to say, "I do not have anything, what is there to throw away?" Chao-chou (Joshu) then said, "In that case, take it away with you." At these words Yen-yang was enlightened.

Here's the Chinese original of one version, punctuated by me:


  • Matt, thank you so much; I didn't dare to expect such a comprehensive answer so quickly :-). A dear friend gave this calligraphy to me a long time ago, but it only occurred to me now to enquire more into its background. I like the continuation in the Compendium :-). One question: You seem to be using 著 and 着 interchangably -- Nelson has separate entries with quite different readings and meanings for them (and no chaku reading for 著) -- could you please explain?
    – joriki
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 6:46
  • 1
    You're welcome! I updated the answer with this information. The short version is that 著 and 着 used to be variant ways of writing the "same" character. The separation in meaning/pronunciation between them seems to be native to Japan. I suppose that Nelson is showing the standard Japanese readings (promulgated by MEXT etc.) rather than the full historical mess.
    – Matt
    Commented May 22, 2012 at 12:16

In the initial pages of his Ore Giapponesi (English title: Meeting with Japan, 1961), Fosco Maraini mentions 'hoge jaku' and says that it can be translated as 'lìberati dall'attaccamento alle cose inutili', roughly 'free yourself from (get rid of) attachment to useless things'. I read the book 30 years ago and still remember that expression and his translation.

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