Irregular Weekly Four 10: 行住坐臥

This week's phrase comes to us from Buddhism:

gyou ju(u) za ga
go stop sit recline

In modern Japanese, 住 normally refers to making one's home someplace (住む, 住所), but originally it meant simply "stop", "stay in one place", and that is the meaning here.

You hardly see 坐 at all these days -- 座 has replaced it in most contexts, although originally the two meant different things: 坐 was used for the action of sitting, and 座 indicated a place one sits. (In fact, it's more common to write this phrase 行住座臥 nowadays, but 行住坐臥 is the original.)

臥 comes from 臣 + 人. 臣 was originally a picture of an eye looking downwards, means (among other things) "to put something down"*. Add the 人, "person" radical and it means "to put one's person down", i.e. to lie down and/or sleep.

行 has pretty much always meant "go", but I will note that according to this wikipedia article the specific Sanskrit word being translated as 行 here is gamana (गम्मन). And yes, I did only mention that because I wanted to have Sanksrit on this page.

So, the idea is that these characters summarise every kind of action a person can take, and they are referred to as the 四威儀, "four dignities" -- yet another example of Buddhism's fondness for classification and listing things. Note also that the list is organised in descending order of difficulty.

(I seem to recall this list being used in the context of Zen as the basis for an argument that sitting zazen is the most ideal state for human beings, since "going" and "stopping" (standing) are too difficult to be prolonged forever but "reclining" (sleeping) is too easy to be worth doing for long.)

Nowadays, this compound is also used in non-religious contexts to mean simply "at all times", "whatever you're doing". There's even another version 日常坐臥, which replaces the first two characters with 日常, "everyday" or "regular" and uses "sitting and reclining" as shorthand for all four actions.

* It also included the meaning of "to look down in respect or fear", which is why it's often used in words that refer to royal retainers -- or, nowadays, government officials. 大臣 (daijin) is one common word of this type that's still in use. It's usually translated "Minister", e.g. 文部大臣 (mombu daijin, Minister of Education), 左大臣 and 右大臣 (sadaijin and udaijin, the classical Ministers of the Left and Right). Sometimes it just means "big shot", though, as for example in the four-letter compound 一夜大臣, "one night daijin" = "overnight millionaire".

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Interestingly enough (or perhaps not) the devanagari गम्मन actually reads gammana rather than gamana. The bit in the middle is a conjunct of two मs*. I've no idea which is correct - every time I pick up Teach Yourself Sanskrit I get as far as the verb conjugations in the second chapter and then get bored.

-- Tim May

* If rendered properly. If rendered improperly, it would probably come out as ma-with-virama, ma. Which reads the same (mma), but isn't really the way to do things.


Oh, man, this is the next level. Not only do I have Sanskrit on the page, I also have people proofreading it. What an age to be alive.

I had that "teach yourself Sanskrit" book too! I never got very far either though (obviously)


Hey babe, Andrew got his package. Did you get your doobage?




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