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Zen master (Chinese: 禪師, chánshī), or Zen teacher, is an umbrella title which refers to an individual who teaches Zen Buddhism to others, and it may be used to refer to individuals hailing from any number of countries and traditions. There are several terms used interchangeably with this title.

A roshi (Chinese: 老師, lǎoshī) is a Japanese honorific title used in Zen Buddhism that literally means "old teacher" or "venerable teacher", denoting a monastic who gives spiritual guidance to a sangha. Despite the literal meaning, the title has nothing to do with the actual age of the individual who receives it. The title is generally granted to an individual who has realized a deep understanding of the Dharma, and most roshi have undergone many years of arduous training under a master. In the Rinzai school of Zen, a monastic becomes a roshi when they have received inka from their master. In the Soto school of Zen, a person becomes the equivalent of roshi when they have received the title of shike from the Soto school. Most Zen communities in the United States confer the title in line with this protocol, and in most instances it is used synonymously with the term Zen master.[1][2][3][4]

Not to be confused with this is the title of sunim, despite several sunims being acknowledged as Zen masters. Sunim is the Korean title for a Buddhist monk or Buddhist nun. It is considered respectful to refer to senior monks or nuns in Korea as Kun sunim, and this polite way of expressing the title can also denote some sort of realization on the part of the individual being addressed. In most Korean temples, a middle-aged monk assumes the role of a juji sunim, who serves administrative functions. The eldest sunim is typically seen as a symbolic leader of the younger sunims. In the Kwan Um School of Zen, founded by Seung Sahn, a Zen master is referred to as a Soen Sa Nim—although this term usually is used in reference to Seung Sahn himself.[1][5][6]

In Zen there are no self-declared teachers, as only a master can place a student in a formal teaching position.[7] However, in the United States and other Western countries, there are a growing number of individuals calling themselves Zen masters who have apparently received no external authority to teach Zen Buddhism. Sometimes this occurs innocently when an individual who is already leading a community did not complete their training because their master had died or returned to their country of origin. However, sometimes it is a case of individuals using the term who never had an official link to Zen in the first place. Lists of officially sanctioned teachers published by organizations such as the American Zen Teachers Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association can prove helpful to those who are curious about a teacher's credentials.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Ogata, 37
  2. ^ Seager, 107
  3. ^ Katagiri, 184
  4. ^ Gard, 193
  5. ^ Daehang Sunim, 96-97
  6. ^ Kwan, 125
  7. ^ Clarke, 99
  8. ^ Ford, 78-79




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