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Thread: SPLIT THREAD: Roshis and Senseis

  1. #1

    SPLIT THREAD: Roshis and Senseis


    What is the difference between a sensei and a roshi. When does a Sensei become a roshi (if he/she indeed becomes one)?


  2. #2
    Dear Sam,

    the short answer is that SENSEI is a generic term which Japanese people regularly use to address someone who appears to have some kind of specialist knowledge in just about any area of life. It simply means teacher in the widest sense and is polite, but not particularly so, it is just how you talk to people who are in some kind of teaching position (doesn't matter whether it is Buddhism, pottery, maths, animal husbandry etc.)

    ROSHI literally means "old master/man" with a distinctly male connotation and was/is used occasionally as an honorific title behind an old Zen teacher's name (in the broadest sense someone who has received dharma transmission in a Zen lineage).

    However, in the West the term ROSHI has taken on a life of its own. Now we have female Roshi etc., which to a Japanese ear may sound pretty ridiculous.

    Whilst practising at Shogoji in Japan, we called the visiting Zen teacher usually either by their surname+sensei or even the name of their temple +san (whicht refers to just about any human being) ....which would make Jundo Treeleaf-San

    To make matters even more confusing, now there are big western organisations that have created rank systems, where SENSEI is a different and lower rank than ROSHI.

    I remember someone from such an organisation once criticising Brad Warner in a forum by saying "you're not even a Sensei". Which couldn't have been more off the mark to be frank.


    Hans Chudo Mongen
    Last edited by Hans; 10-29-2013 at 03:08 PM.

  3. #3
    Thanks for that explanation Hans. I wasn't sure what the difference was either.

    Gassho, John

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by shikantazen View Post

    What is the difference between a sensei and a roshi. When does a Sensei become a roshi (if he/she indeed becomes one)?

    Hi Sam,

    Yes, the Sensei/Roshi ranking is largely an American invention. Here is some more information I have posted on those and some other titles ... Probably more information than you want or need:


    What is the meaning of Master, Reverend, Osho, Roshi (and "Sensei" too)?

    In Japanese Soto, "Roshi" just means literally an "Old Teacher" and does not imply any particular rank or attainment beyond being a fully ordained priest who one wants to refer to with some respect due to age or the like (the Rinzai folks use the term in a much more specific way ... see this article for more details).

    Soko Morinaga, a well respected Japanese Soto Zen teacher, once famously said, "A roshi is anyone who calls himself a roshi and can get other people to do the same."

    A "Sensei" in Japan is a general title that can be applied to anyone from a school teacher, to a lawyer or doctor, to a politician. It is NOT a common title in the Zen world in Japan to denote some particular rank or attainment, and its use in the West for Zen teachers is pretty much a complete Western invention. There is no sense in Japan or China that "Sensei" is a lower rank, or less attained than a "Roshi". [ONE WOULD NEVER CALL THEMSELF "ROSHI" AS SOME TEACHERS DO, and to do so is even considered to be in poor taste ... rather like "His Honor" the judge calling himself "My Honor".] From a Japanese language/cultural point of view, it is rather amusing that in the West teachers are making artificial ranks based on those terms, or calling themself by such title.

    In the rules of the Soto-shu in Japan, an "Osho" is anyone who has received Dharma Transmission (plus has done all the proper paperwork, ceremonies, and paid the needed fees to Soto-shu). Again, the Rinzai folks define the term a little differently. The term "Osho" comes from the Indian "acharya", which is a guide or instructor in religious matters.

    In my view, "master" is someone with some "mastery" in an art or tradition to pass on and pass down ... from carpentry to medicine to martial arts to Zen Buddhary. It need not mean the "master" is perfect (one can be a "master carpenter", yet not every corner will always be smooth; a "master surgeon" cannot cure every patient, and even the most gifted may sometimes make a bad cut). However, one should be pretty darn skilled.

    "Reverend" is a nice general western term to refer to clergy or a minister.

    By the way, "monk" and "priest" are both very imperfect names. The words "monk" and "priest" do not really work as good translations of the Japanese terms, and were picked, obviously, from the Judeo-Christian vocabulary of Western missionaries in the 19th century. "Priest" carries the feeling of working some power to intervene with God/the Spirits, and most Zen "monks" in Japan now only reside in monasteries maintaining celibacy for short periods as part of their training ... so both words are not good fits (except when the person is actually residing in a monastery and might be described then as a "monk". Of course, many "Zen priests" in Japan and China do reside in temples in which they are largely concerned with performing funeral and other ceremonies for parishioners to appease the spirits, bring good fortune or the like. In such case, "priest" is not inaccurate to describe such folks.)

    In my view, the best translations might be "Companion" "Guide" "Teacher" or even "Rabbi (my favorite, which also means "Teacher")".

    A very nice old term for a Buddhist teacher used in China is "shanzhishi" = a "good wise friend" (善知識, Sanskrit kalyanamitra.)

    I often use "Zen clergy" or "teacher" or "minister". One of the many Japanese terms usually (and awkwardly) translated as "monk/priest" in English is actually closer to "Sangha companion" , which I care for very much ... 僧侶 ("Soryo", the first kanji derives from the "san" of Sanskrit sangha = community, and the second means companion)

    So "Buddhist companion" or "Sangha Friend and Companion" may be the most accurate.

    BOTTOM LINE: In my case (I think Taigu feels the same way), just call me Jundo or or Rev. Jundo (or Rabbi) or "Hey You" or 'Teach or Cap'n Jundo. Maybe, in a few years, you can start calling me Admiral Jundo. Call me Roshi or Sensei or "Whatsya-say?". I like "Dharma Friend". My father from the Bronx used to say, "Call me whatever, just don't call me late for dinner"

    A rose by any other name is still a rose. A lemon by another name is still a lemon.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-30-2013 at 01:45 AM.

  5. #5
    Thank you.


  6. #6
    Thank you Jundo and Hans. That is a lot of new information to me. Good to know that.


  7. #7
    Thank you Rabbi Jundo. My mother would have approved of this form of addressing you. :-)

    Gassho, John
    治 healing
    心 mind

  8. #8
    העלא, דאַנקען איר רבי.
    Hʻlʼ, Dʼanqʻn ʼyr rby.

  9. #9
    Thank you Bro for letting everybody know that we are not special, just like priests, Rabbis, whatever. We are wlaking along.



  10. #10
    call me anything but don"t tell me : my friend".

    I am not your friend. Not in this context.

    Thank you


  11. #11
    PS: translation of the above Yiddish:

    Thank you teacher.

    (My intent is to show respect for the culture from which the term 'Rabbi' comes from)
    Last edited by Myozan Kodo; 10-30-2013 at 09:41 AM.

  12. #12
    I am perfectly fine and at home to be "Spiritual Friend", a tag which has a long history in Buddhism ...

    Here is a nice short essay by Wendy Egyoku Nakao Roshi ...

    Kalyanamitra is the Sanskrit word for spiritual friendship. This friendship is something much more than someone to hang out with, but rather connotes a person or even a thing that becomes our guide, a teacher, and serves to inspire us along our path to awakening.

    There is a common Zen expression that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Ready or not, teachers are constantly appearing in our lives, but sometimes it is difficult to recognize because we are looking for someone that meets our image or idea of “teacher.” Or, we regard this person or thing as an obstacle in our life, rather than as something that can awaken us to life’s meaning.
    Your friend, Jundo

  13. #13
    In Stephen Batchelor's 'Buddhism without Beliefs' - there is a chapter on dharma friendship that reads very much like our sangha,

    '....Our practice is nourished, sustained and challenged through ongoing contact with friends and mentors who seek to realize the the dharma in their own lives'.

    I warm to the tag 'spiritual friend' .



  14. #14
    I think I need some.

    best regards,

    and neither are they otherwise.

  15. #15
    Hello and thank you all for this discussion.

    As a "newbie", I find this very helpful. I do think it is important to encourage humbleness and also accept that we shouldn't put one another on a pedestal, even our teachers. On the other hand, I guess it helps people who don't really know much about Zen to approximate the term priest within their own context. I also personally appreciate that Taigu doesn't want to be my "friend" or "sensei". It seems though out of respect to the tradition, as well as the effort and knowledge that our teachers spend on themselves and with us, they deserve some kind of recognition for what they are doing, and the knowledge and experience they possess. I just started participating here in July and haven't even accepted Jukai yet. Certainly some term must define those who are the leaders as it were, and those who are not.

    I recall an incident when I was at a wedding once in which two of my catholic friends were getting married. At the rehearsal there were some priests in the room and were walking in my direction. I could see where they were headed so I politely stepped out of the way. One said to me that they weren't special and didn't deserve any special treatment. I understood his point, yet in MY mind, I had only done what I felt was polite to ANY person in this situation. So, I guess what I am saying here is that it is the intent of context of terms that might be different for everyone. I called Taigu Sensei previously because I saw someone else do it, and I understood the term to be "teacher", nothing more. So without calling either Jundo or Taigu "anything special", I do appreciate their expertise and help. The rest of you as well.

    I would like to know how we should understand the term Unsui in this context in our Sangha.

    Gassho C

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