This week I attended a Fodan (Buddha’s Birthday) celebration with the local Kwan Um Zen sangha. It was a very nice liturgy, complete with bathing a statue of the baby Buddha with waters and rose petals.

It had been quite a while since I had participated in a Kwan Um liturgy, but it highlighted again for me one of the distinctives of Lotus Sangha and of our tradition - namely:

Everything is in English.

Or in the vernacular language, since we have some sanghas in Germany and in Central and South America, as well.

We try very hard to use as few Sanskrit, Chinese, and other words as possible. There is a reason for this.

Master Hsu Yun was born and lived his entire life in China, except for, to my knowledge, at least one trip to Tibet (which many would argue is part of China, but let’s not go there). Because China does not have a single dialect, and because Master Hsu Yun was extremely long-lived (living 120 years) and saw a lot of cultural change in his lifetime, he had an assistant who was also his own personal translator. This assistant was a monk named Jy Din.

Master Hsu Yun saw a great opportunity to spread the buddhadharma to the West when a congregation of Chinese Buddhists in Hawaii (at the time not a US state) asked for a monk to help them establish a temple. He sent his assistant, Master Jy Din, to serve this congregation and gave him the commission to “translate the buddhadharma into the Western idiom.”

Our tradition and lineage comes from a translator-monk’s efforts to translate the teachings and practices of Chinese Buddhism into another language and culture.

We don’t typically chant in Chinese. Here in the United States, we speak English, so that is what we chant and speak. We also don’t chant or recite dharanis or magic words. These fit into the culture of China, but don’t fit into our own culture in the US. Instead, we replace these magic words with hymns, chants, recitations, or sutras in English that communicate the intention of the original dharanis.

Sometimes we do use certain words or phrases that are simply part of the larger Buddhist culture - typically words that don’t have any good translation or that have traditional uses, but even then we do our best to translate them in footnotes or margins. An example might be our use of “Maha Prajna Paramitta,” something we chant frequently. It means, “great perfection of transcendant wisdom,” but it is a very traditional refrain. You might compare it to the Christian use of “amen,” which can be translated as “let it be so,” but isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Another example is recitation of the following mantra:

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

This mantra, and some others like it, have translations, but are short enough to be casually memorized and are points of common practice with other Buddhists. The translation, by the way, is:

Go! Go! Go beyond! Go completely beyond! Awakening, hail!

It really doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it is still part of our mission to make sure that anything that can be translated is translated.

What difference does it make?

Probably the biggest difference is that we want to avoid a few things that using a strange language can produce:

Busy Work

Memorizing pages of liturgy in a foreign language is a huge waste of time. It feels like genuine discipline, but it would be more profitable to memorize the same amount of one’s own language rather than pages of what is, in effect, unintelligible nonsense.

As the Christian Saint Paul wrote: “Better one word that builds up than a thousand in an unknown language.”


One of the unhealthy appeals of Buddhism in the United States is that it is exotic and strange. Using esoteric and magical language reinforces that exotic feel, but that works against the goal of letting the practices of buddhadharma permeate one’s everyday life. It actually fuels that unhealthy compartmentalization of life into sacred and secular.

The list could go on an on, but you probably get the picture. If you look at the liturgies that we use at Lotus Sangha, you will see that there is very little strange terminology, outside of the traditional, the dogmatic, and the untranslatable.