Visualization, Zen and Semantic Theory

by Shinzen Young

Visualization practice is sometimes called dhyāna in Sanskrit.  Dhyāna in this sense must be kept distinct from dhyāna in the sense of absorption practice--the system of the four, eight or nine dhyānas
(or jhānas) codified in the Buddhist canon.

Of course

Dhyāna 1 (Visualization)


Dhyāna 2 (Absorption)

share a common thread in that they both involve high concentration.  Furthermore, for the sake of completeness, one should mention

Dhyāna 3 (Yoga Sūtra sense)

Patanjali in his classic treatise on Rājayoga (the Yoga Sūtras) distinguishes three grades of concentration.

Dhāranā: Attention wanders from the object and is brought back over and over again.

Dhyāna: Attention on the object is effortless and continuous like an unbroken stream of oil.

Samādhi: Attention is so complete that the yogi becomes the object!

Dhyāna in the sense of visualization seems to hearken back to the original meaning of the Indo-European root from which it is derived.  The root is dhey- (pronounced something like DAY-uh).  It meant "to see" in the physical sense.

The sense development (semantic history) of dhyāna probably went something like this:

The word dhyāna was borrowed directly into the Chinese language with the arrival of Buddhism.  From China it was introduced to the rest of East Asia -- Japan, Korea and Vietnam.  In each country it's pronunciation reflects the local readings of the Chinese characters originally used to "transliterate" the Indic term.


Sanskrit: dhyāna
Pali: jhāna
Mandarin: chánnà or simply chán
Japanese: zenna or simply zen
Korean: sŏnna or simply sŏn
Vietnamese: thiê-ná or simply thiê

As a scholastic term in Chinese Buddhism, chán meant exactly what it meant in India--the system of absorptions as codified in the canon.  But in colloquial Chinese chán came to be used loosely for "sitting meditation" in general.

Finally, in the Tang Dynasty, chán shifted from common noun, "sitting meditation," to proper noun, "the sect that does a lot of sitting meditation," generally known in the West as Zen Buddhism.

Putting all this together we can view a connected chain of semantic shifts, spanning at least five thousand years, linking prehistoric nomads in Southern Russia to contemporary basketball players in Southern California.

So "Zen" has at least three meanings:

  1. "The Absorptions" (scholastic usage)

  2. A specific sect of East Asian Buddhism (standard meaning)

  3. Something enigmatic with pretensions of depth (colloquial English)

Does Zen have any other definitions?  Yes, many.  This is because Zen masters sometimes define Zen in terms of their own personal spiritual experiences.  In a sense there are as many Zens as there are innovative Zen masters.

My teacher of 22 years, Joshu Sasaki, is one of the most original thinkers in the history of Zen--indeed in the history of all world mysticism.

How does Sasaki Roshi define Zen?  Consider the following.  It is not really a direct quote but more in the nature of a paraphrase designed to give you a sense of his substance and style.

"Zen is the activity of Expansion and Contraction which continuously creates you and your world.  To study Zen is to study Expansion and Contraction.  To practice Zen is to practice Expansion and Contraction.  There are many synonyms for Zen.  It is known as the activity of Life and Death, the activity of Heaven and Earth, the activity of Plus and Minus, the activity of Going and Coming, the activity of Future and Past, the activity of Outside and Inside.

Over and over again one must give oneself to Expansion and Contraction...until one becomes none other than Expansion and Contraction.  One must make all the Going and all the Coming of the universe ones very content.  Then Expansion and Contraction cease to be something outside of you.  You become free from future and past, free from outside and inside, free from god and the devil!

Zen is the effortless pure doing that continuously creates you and your world.  Because it occurs spontaneously, without a scintilla of will or desire, it is also known as the activity of Emptiness.  Because it never fixates, it is called the activity of Impermanence.

In historically earlier periods, Zen was defined in terms of contraction only--as one-pointed absorption.  But properly understood, Zen involves both collecting and dispersing.  Zen is totally gathering and totally scattering--simultaneously as well as cyclically!"

So, according to Sasaki Roshi, Zen is the activity of nature which expands and contracts to mold all things.  Did expansion and contraction mold the semantic development of the word "zen" itself?  Hmm, let's see...


Semantic Steps Comments Interpretation
1.  "To see" In general, a broad activity Starting point
2.  "To see in the mind's eye" A somewhat narrower kind of seeing Contraction
3.  "To think" In general, a broadening to include talk as well as image Expansion
4.  "To think intently" A slight narrowing of #3 Contraction
5.  "To be absorbed" A broadening to include any kind of intent focus Expansion
6.  "The Absorptions" A narrowing of #5 to very specific states Contraction
7. Meditation in general (chán) A broadening of #6 to include any seated concentration Expansion
8. A specific school of meditating Buddhists (Chán)
A narrowing to one style of meditation Contraction
9. "Zen" in contemporary colloquial English Broadened to anything enigmatic and vaguely profound Expansion

How did the Sanskrit word dhyāna develop out of the Proto Indo-European root dhey-?  Well, the full story is a little complicated, but here's the gist of it.

In Proto European, the usual process of forming words from roots involved adding at least one suffix (and sometimes one or more prefixes).  Depending on the affixes, the vowel(s) of the root might be "strengthened" or "weakened."

One common noun forming suffix was -no.

When this suffix is added to dhey-, the e drops to "zero grade," i.e. disappears.  At the same time, the is strengthened to lengthened grade ā (our old friend simultaneous expansion and contraction!)

Thus, dhey- + -no --> dhyāno.

In Sanskrit, three short vowels which were distinct in Proto Indo-European, "a" "e" "o" all coalesce into "a."  Hence,


Proto Indo-European: dhyāno
Sanskrit: dhyāna

Unlike Sanskrit, Greek preserves the Indo-European vowel distinctions.  Consider the following.

Notice how the Sanskrit here preserves the Proto Indo-European consonants while the Greek preserves the Proto Indo-European vowels.

This is true in general.  In fact, Proto Indo-European could be (very crudely!) characterized as "Sanskrit consonants with Greek vowels."  In Greek, Indo-European consonants and consonant clusters may be subject to radical modification.  Notice, for example, how the dhy of Proto Indo-European and Sanskrit has become s in Greek!

Are there any Greek words derived from dhey?  Put alternatively, does Sanskrit dhyāna have any "cognates" (related words) in Greek?  Well, let's see!

We know that dhey tends to go through "e-contraction -expansion" when it appears before suffixes.

dhey + suffix --> dhyā + suffix

We also know that Indo-European dhy usually becomes Greek s and that Greek usually preserves Proto Indo-European vowels.  So we would expect dhyā to become (sa) in Greek.

It would seem, then, that we are looking for a Greek word that can be analyzed into:

+ suffix

But here's where things get a little tricky!  The "Classical Greek" that people study in school is based largely on East Greek dialects.  But in those dialects, the original Greek long a (long alpha) usually gets converted into long e (eta).  By way of contrast, the West Greek dialects usually preserve the original form.  For example, the West Greek dāmos ("the people") becomes East Greek dēmos.


Damocles ("acclaim of the people") the Syracusan courtier 
Demosthenes ("strength of the people") the Athenian orator 

So Proto Indo-European dhyā- would actually correspond to sē- (sh) in "standard Greek."

Now one of the most common noun-forming suffices in Greek is -ma (as in soma ("body") and thēma ("theme")).  It corresponds exactly to the Sanskrit -ma (as in brahma, karma, etc.).

What happens when we combine sē- with -ma?  We get sēma, the Greek word for "sign, symbol, token, meaning" as in semaphore ("sign bearer") and semantics ("the study of meaning").

The sense development here seems to be:

So it turns out that the term "Zen" (the Eastern philosophy that rejects words and meanings) and the term "semantics" (the Western science that studies words and meaning) are both derived from the same prehistoric root!

The Indo-European sound dh was probably pronounced something like the dh of Sanskrit, i.e. as the "voiced dental aspirated" sound one hears in the proper pronunciation of words like dharma and Buddha.  Indo-European seems to have had a series of four such sounds.

Labial: bh
Dental: dh
Velar: gh
Labio-velar: gwh

We have seen that the Indo-European combination dhy turns into an s in Greek.  What happens in Greek when dh is followed by a vowel instead of a semi-vowel?

Consider the following correspondences.


Indo-European Sanskrit Greek English
to carry
to carry
(< pher + ein)
to carry
something put
down, established
realm, element
(< the + ti + s)
to pour
to pour
(< khu + ein)
to pour

It would seem that under these conditions, Greek keeps the aspiration but loses the voicing whereas English keeps the voicing but loses the aspiration.  Sanskrit has both the voicing and the aspiration, presumably reflecting the original pronunciation.  Fascinating!

What happens to dhey- if we expand the by lengthening without contracting the e to nothing?  We would get


The corresponding Greek pronunciation would be theyā.  According to some (but not all) scholars, this is the source of the Greek word theā meaning a show or spectacle, i.e. "a thing seen."

If one now adds the noun-forming suffix -tron, we get

theā + -tron --> theātron

And hence,

theatron (Greek) --> theatrum (Latin), theatre (Old French), theater (English).

If thea is a show, then theōros (thea + o + ros) would be a spectator or observer.

Now, theōros + the abstract noun-forming suffix -ia yields

theoria ("observation")

The Greek word theoria shows a fascinating semantic development spanning some two millennia.  Splitting in two directions, it eventually comes to signify both of the most profound endeavors of the human species!

The roots of the entire Western contemplative tradition can be found in "theoria" as it was practiced in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Christian era.  The Latin term contemplatio (contemplation) is simply a translation of the Greek word theoria.

Based on the writings of the early Greek-speaking "desert fathers," it appears that theoria involved purification (catharsis) through equanimity (apatheia) applied to ones mental states and body sensations.   (Sound familiar?)

Theoria led to kenosis (emptying) and theosis ("god-ification").  According to the Eastern church, the goal in Christianity is to become "isochristos" (Christ-equivalent) and theoria is the way to achieve that goal.

Thus, the 5000 year-old Indo-European word for "seeing" unites not only East and West but also scientific inquiry and mystical experience, the two highest achievements of the human spirit!

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