Literally "person" (sha 者) who "waits on" or "attends" (ji 侍).A servant or attendant to an abbot, former abbot, or other senior monk; often a younger monk who is a personal disciple.
In the Chinese monastic bureaucracies that provided the model for medieval Japanese Zen, the abbot had five acolytes (go jisha 五侍者): (1) an incense-burning acolyte (shōkō jisha 燒香侍者), also known as incense acolyte (jikō 侍香), who attended the abbot in all services that called for burning incense and making offerings of food and drink before images enshrined on altars; (2) a secretary acolyte (shojō jisha 書状侍者), who kept records of the abbot's sermons, took dictation, and assisted with official correspondence; (3) a guest-inviting acolyte (shōkyaku jisha 請客侍者), also known as guest acolyte (jikyaku 侍客), who greeted and waited on the abbot's VIP visitors; (4) a robe-and-bowl acolyte (ehatsu jisha 衣鉢侍者), who served as the abbot's valet; and (5) a refreshments acolyte (tōyaku jisha 湯藥侍者), who prepared meals, snacks, tea, and medicines for the abbot and his guests. To be selected as an acolyte was a boost to the career of a young monk because it meant that he had been singled out as having the potential to become a dharma heir and was being groomed for high monastic office. To be in close proximity to the abbot, even in a relatively menial position, was also regarded as an excellent opportunity for spiritual development. In Soto Zen monasteries today, the names and some of the duties of the five acolytes remain, but they are not necessarily fixed, full-time positions.
Not all acolytes wait on living people. In the sangha hall (sōdō 僧堂) or meditation hall (zendō 禪堂) of Zen monasteries, there is a Sacred Monk's acolyte (shōsō jisha 聖僧侍者, abbreviated as shōji 聖侍 or jishō 侍聖) whose primary duty is to tend to the image of the Monju Bodhisattva enshrined there (Monju is known as the "Sacred Monk" because he is depicted in monk's robes), keeping the altar clean and properly decorated, providing offerings of food and drink, and burning incense as part of the daily routine of worship and prayers. There is also a portrait acolyte (jishin jisha 侍眞侍者, abbreviated as jishin 侍眞) whose job it is to arrange incense, flowers, lamps, and candles before the mortuary portraits (shin 眞) of Zen masters, especially the two ancestors (ryōso 兩祖), Dōgen and Keizan, and former abbots who are enshrined in the ancestral teacher's hall (sodō 祖堂), and to attend the spirit of the deceased in funerals, which is believed to be seated in the mortuary portrait.
A number of acolyte positions are also established for the ceremony of giving precepts (jukai e 授戒會), such as the precepts acolyte (kai jisha 戒侍者) and instructing master's acolyte (kyō jisha 教侍者).