Buddhist Glossary

# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

3 jewels

Buddhists take refuge in three different expressions of awakened mind: buddha, dharma, and sangha. Each of these is a precious and necessary element of the Buddhist path, and so they are called the three jewels.

3 poisons

The three poisons — greed, anger, and ignorance — are the energy of ego’s three basic attitudes — for me, against me, and don’t care. All unwholesome states of mind (kleshas) are variations on these three themes.

4 divine abodes

The divine abodes (Pali: brahmaviharas) are four prized emotions or mindstates that give us a framework to cultivate positive behaviors and minimize harmful ones. They are called the “divine abodes” because they are the mindstates in which all the enlightened ones reside. They are also known as the “four immeasurables” or “four limitless ones” because they represent love and goodwill toward all sentient beings, without limit. The four are: loving-kindness (Pali: metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha).

4 Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are the Buddha’s basic teaching, encapsulating the entire Buddhist path. The first truth explains that life involves suffering, distress, and dissatisfaction. The second truth says the cause of this discontent is self-centered craving and ignorance. The third truth says that we can realize the end of suffering. The fourth truth tells us that freedom comes through practicing the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

5 precepts

The five precepts are the five rules that form the foundation of Buddhist morality. The precepts are: not killing, not stealing, not misusing sex, not engaging in false speech, and not indulging in intoxicants. Many new Buddhists take on the five precepts with their refuge vow. Interpretation of the precepts varies widely from person to person and school to school, with some Buddhists adhering literally and others taking the precepts as suggestions.

5 skandhas

Sanskrit — The five skandhas are the constituent parts that make up living beings. Skandha means “heap.” They are referred to as heaps because they are collections of parts without any central core. The five skandhas are: form, feeling, perception, formation, mental formation, and consciousness.

6 transcendent perfections

In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva practices the six paramitas, or transcendent perfections. These are a path to enlightenment, the fruition of the bodhisattva way, and a means to benefit sentient beings. They are generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom.

12 nidanas

Sanskrit — The 12 nidanas, which are pictured as the outer circle in the Wheel of Life, describe the chain of causation by which the cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara is created. They are also known as the 12 links of dependent origination. With basic ignorance as the first cause, each link in the chain is both the result of the previous nidana and the cause of the next.


Sanskrit — The early Buddhist teachings on psychology.


Sanskrit — The principle of non-violence towards all sentient beings (including oneself!). The practice of making conscious where we harm and trying to avoid or at least reduce it.


Pali; Sanskrit: (a-)kuśala — Kusala means “wholesome” or “skill-ful.” What action or in-action brings more happiness and peace into the world? Akusala is the opposite of that.


Pali; Sanskrit: ānāpānasmṛti — Mindfulness of breathing; also rendered as mindfulness with breathing.


Pali — Not-self. Non-identification with a permanent self. We can get all philosophical about the question whether there is a self or not but at the core of this concept lies the question: Does making this (thought, emotion, experience etc) into who I am bring more suffering or more ease and freedom? Anatta is one of Buddhism’s “three marks of existence: dukkha, anicca, anatta.


Sanskrit — The bodhisattva of compassion. Also widely known by names such as Chenrezig in Tibet, Kanzeon/Kannon in Japan, Kuan Yin or Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism, and others.


TibetanBardo is the intermediate state or gap we experience between death and our next rebirth. More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional Buddhist texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life — which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death.


Pali, Sanskrit — Meditation, cultivation, practice, (mental) development. For example, as in “Metta Bhavana”: Loving-kindness practice/cultivation. Bhavana is one of “three meritorious acts:” dana, sila, bhavana.


Sanskrit — The title of Shantideva’s famed text, translated in English as A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.


Sanskrit — “Enlightenment mind”; the state of mind of the bodhisattva, striving toward enlightenment and infused with the compassionate motivation to help others.


Sanskrit — Literally, “enlightenment being.” In Mahayana Buddhism, one who practices with the vow and motivation to put others before oneself, which may include forgoing enlightenment until all others have achieved it. In other Buddhist schools, the term is often used to refer specifically to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, before his enlightenment.


See: 4 divine abodes


Sanskrit — Buddhism teaches that we all live in a fog of illusions created by mistaken perceptions and “impurities” — hate, greed, ignorance. “Buddha” is a title for one who is freed from the fog. It is a Sanskrit word that means “a person who is awake.” Buddhas are often also referred to as Tathagata (Sanskrit), “one who has gone.”

Most of the time, when someone says “the Buddha,” it’s in reference to the historical person who founded Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama.


Depending on who you ask, buddhanature is a kind of seed of buddhahood, or it’s a cause of it, or maybe it’s the foundation on which it all rests. Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote at length about how buddhanature is, ultimately, just everything — it’s a synonym for reality itself.


See: Zen


See: Avalokiteshvara


Person — Seventh-century scholar of Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, teachings.


Tibetan — Spiritual practice developed by Machig Labdrön (1055–1145) that, as Lama Tsultrim Allione writes in Lion’s Roar magazine, seeks to “nurture rather than battle our inner and outer enemies, offering a revolutionary path to resolve conflict and leading to psychological integration and inner peace.”


Compassion (Pali: karuna) is the wish that others be free from suffering. It is the second of the four divine abodes.

Dalai Lama

Person — The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader and former political leader of Tibet. “Dalai Lama” is a title. The current holder of the title, Tenzin Gyatso, is the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Though the Dalai Lama is the most famous Buddhist figure in the world, he is not the leader of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama’s official role is as a senior monk in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas are also believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The current Dalai Lama has said that the line of Dalai Lamas may end with him.


Pali — One of the paramitas, or perfections, dana is the virtue of giving or generosity. (See also parami/paramitas and 6 transcendent perfections.)

Dedication of Merit

At the end of a meditation, dharma talk, or retreat we usually offer a dedication of merit. When we are meditating or listening to teachings, we are cultivating wholesome qualities that will benefit our experience of awakening. We don’t want to keep these benefits to ourselves because we know separation is illusory; we are all connected and what we want for ourselves, we also want for others because there is no separate self. We dedicate the merit of our practice to others to share its fruits.


Pali — Celestial beings or gods whose good fortune also hinders them from perceiving the truth of suffering, and thus, from attaining full spiritual liberation as well.


Sanskrit — The teachings of Buddhism. Can also refer to non-Buddhist teachings and insights.


See: suffering


Tibetan — The practice of “Great Perfection” or “Great Completion.” As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in Lion’s Roar, “Dzogchen is treasured above all other practices in the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism because it helps us connect directly with our own enlightened nature.”

Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s guide to awakening. It comprises eight steps that can be divided into three types: the development of wisdom, which includes right view and right resolve; ethical conduct, which includes right speech, right action, and right livelihood; and meditation, which includes right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

empathetic joy

Empathetic joy (Pali: mudita) is joy for another’s happiness. It is the opposite of jealousy. Empathetic joy is the third of the four divine abodes.


Emptiness is the central insight of Buddhism, and what makes it unique among religions. According to Buddhism, neither we, nor other beings, nor any phenomenon in the universe, has a permanent, separate, and independent core, soul, or identity.


Enlightenment (Sanskrit: nirvana) is liberation from the cycle of suffering. Some Buddhists also believe that enlightenment is our inherent nature. Nirvana literally means “extinguishment,” and is interpretted as the extinguishment of ego.


Equanimity (Pali: upekkha) is the experience of true neutrality — an evenness of mind undisturbed by negative emotions. Equanimity is the fourth of the four divine abodes.


Sanskrit, Pali — A short verse, recited or simply recalled, meant to call us to the present moment and strengthen our intention to practice.

Guan Yin

See: Avalokiteshvara


In Vajrayana Buddhism, a guru is a teacher whom students regard as enlightened. This is an advanced form of practice, and it is recommended that students exercise caution before accepting a guru. In principle, gurus are dedicated to helping others and adept at helping their students realize their true nature.


Japanese — The spiritual center of the body, generally considered to be “located” slightly above the navel.


Pali — Self-respect, inner compass, or consciousness about what kind of actions we feel right about doing and which not. Usually listed together with ottapa as “twin states” or “guardians of the world,” as they are associated with skillful actions.


Insight (Pali: vipassana, Sanskrit: vipashyana) is the direct intuition of the nature of phenomenon. Insight and tranquility are the two qualities of mind that are developed in meditative practice.


Sanskrit — An unfathomably long period of time, sometimes defined as 16,000,000 years.


Pali — One involved in spiritual friendship, meaning mutual support and friendship with a peer on the Buddhist path.


See: Avalokiteshvara


The law and workings of cause and effect. The law of karma says that all things are interconnected, all actions have consequences, and all consequences are the result of past actions. Buddhism also teaches that, while karma is very complex, positive actions generally reap positive consequences and negative actions generally reap negative consequences.


See: compassion


Sanskrit — Often referred to as “defilements.” As Pema Chödrön has put it in Lion’s Roar magazine, klesha “refers to a strong emotion that reliably leads to suffering. It’s sometimes translated as neurosis. In essence, kleshas are dynamic, ineffable energy, yet it’s energy that easily enslaves us and causes us to act and speak in unintelligent ways.”


Japanese — As Bodhin Kjolhede, abbot of Rochester Zen Center, put it in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, “the word koan, or gongan in the original Chinese, means a public case or precedent. We look back to the precedent, to the understanding of the masters, as a starting point.” Koans are commonly understood—or rather misunderstood—to be riddles, and as such to be “solved.” But they are not intellectual exercises; they are opportunities to engage in and cultivate non-dualistic thinking.

Kuan Yin

See: Avalokiteshvara


Tibetan — Literally, “mind training.” Lojong is a Tibetan Buddhist practice wherein one contemplates a series of 59 slogans designed to help replace negative mental habits with positive ones.


Loving-kindness (Sanskrit: maitri, Pali: metta) is the wish that one finds happiness. It is first of the four divine abodes. Loving-kindness is a popular meditation practice, focused on generating goodwill toward others.


Sanskrit — “The “Middle Way” or “doctrine of emptiness” credited to Nagarjuna.


Sanskrit — A form of meditation taught in the Vajrayana, it begins with shamatha or calm abiding, and in time helps the practitioner develop clarity and insight into emptiness, or shunyata.


Sanskrit — A later development in Buddhism that typically emphasizes the ideal of the bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism, often the goal is liberation for all sentient beings, rather than liberation for individuals. Pure Land and Zen are both examples of Mahayana schools.


See: loving-kindness


Sanskrit — A series of syllables (often, but not always, Sanskrit) meant to be recalled/recited as part of contemplative practice.


Sanskrit — When singular: mythical demon who tempted Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha to stray from his meditative aspirations; when plural (maras): may refer to multiple kinds of temptors or temptations.


Buddhist meditation is the practice of intentionally working with your mind. Basic Buddhist meditation starts with practices to help calm and concentrate the mind. From there, you can begin to investigate the nature of reality and develop insight. The most common form of meditation is breath meditation, in which you rest your attention on your breath. Many schools emphasize other forms of meditation as well as — or instead of — breath meditation, such as chanting, koan practice, and yoga.


See: loving-kindness


Mindfulness (Pali: sati, Sanskrit: smrti) is the ability to focus on an object. Mindfulness is essential to developing wisdom, and “right mindfulness” is one of the components of the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is closely associated with insight, or vipassana. Sati can also be translated as “awareness.”

monkey mind

The unsettled and restless nature of mind. In Buddhist philosophy, consciousness is symbolized by a monkey inside a house, with the windows representing the senses.


See: empathetic joy


Person — Buddhist philosopher (150-250 CE), credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.


Sanskrit — mythical half-snake, half-human deities of the underworld.


Pali — Renunciation.


See: enlightenment


See: enlightenment


Pali — Ethical dread that arises when we imagine that a beloved and respected teacher or friend would know about something harmful we did or intend to do. Their knowing how much this action will be harmful to us hurts them because they love us and wish nothing but the best for us.
Usually listed together with hiri as “twin states” or “guardians of the world” as they are associated with skillful actions.


Pali; Sanskrit: prajna — Wisdom, insight, discernment, knowing through the felt sense (not thinking-based). One of the paramis. Part of the Noble Eightfold Path.


Sanskrit — As the Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki writes, “This term is used to describe the tendency of the mind to 1) spread out from and elaborate upon any sense object that arises in experience, smothering it with wave after wave of mental elaboration, 2) most of which is illusory, repetitive, and even obsessive, 3) which effectively blocks any sort of mental calm or clarity of mind.”

parami / paramita

See: 6 transcendent perfections

Parinirvana Sutta

Sanskrit — The final teaching, or sutra, of the Buddha, given at his entrance into final nirvana, or death.


Pali — “Dependent origination,” the chain of causation. Also known as interdependent origination.


Pali; Sanskrit: priti — Experience of more physically experienced bliss or happiness that arises as meditation deepens. Stimulating, energizing, arousing. Associated with the jhanic states.


Sanskrit, or paññā (Pāli) — Wisdom.

rebirth / reincarnation

Traditionally, Buddhism teaches that beings are reborn after they die. Some schools of Buddhism don’t concern themselves with the idea of rebirth, and some modern analysts argue that the Buddha taught it simply because it was the accepted belief in the India of his time. Most Buddhists, however, see it as central to the Buddhist teachings. Buddhists generally prefer the term “rebirth” to “reincarnation,” as reincarnation sometimes implies the existence of a soul. Buddhism teaches that there is no soul that is reborn — just the illusion of an individual.


Tibetan — As relates to Dzogchen teachings, knowing the nature of the mind.


Sanskrit — meditative absorption.


See: tranquility


Sanskrit — The ongoing cycle of life: birth and death and rebirth. Due to our ignorance, we go through this cycle with a sense of suffering and dissatisfaction. Buddhist practice is, to put it very simply, about undoing our ignorance and transcending our traditional relationship to samsara.


SanskritSangha is a community that practices the dharma together. It’s one of the Three Jewels in which Buddhists take refuge, along with the buddha and the dharma.


Person — Considered to be one of the founders of the Mahamudra tradition, and was the guru of Nagarjuna.


See: mindfulness

Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

The Great Discourse (of the Buddha; (Majhima Nikaya 10)) on establishing mindfulness; also known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.


Japanese — Zen meditation retreat.


Person — Eighth-century Indian adept and author of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.


See: emptiness


Sanskrit/Pali — Ethics, ethical conduct; morality. One of the three meritorious acts: dana, sila, bhavana.

Siddhartha Gautama

Person — Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha or simply the Buddha, meaning the Awakened One, was a spiritual leader from the Indian subcontinent who lived roughly 2,600 years ago. He is particularly known for teachings on the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism was founded on his teachings.


“Suffering” is the most common translation of the Sanskrit word dukkha, which is also translated as dissatisfaction. Dukkha describes the sense that experience is suffused with unsatisfactoriness — ranging from subtle states like longing and ennui to extreme states like grief and agony.


Sanskrit — Bliss, joy, ease.

sutras / suttas

Sanskrit, Pali — Discourses of the Buddha; that is, oral teachings attributed to him.


Sanskrit — Legendary female bodhisattva known as the “Savioress,” representing the feminine aspect of compassion.


See: buddha


The longest-surviving school of Buddhism, with a strong emphasis on preserving the Buddha’s teachings as they are found in the Pali Canon.


TibetanTonglen literally means “giving and taking.” It is a meditative practice of visualizing oneself accepting the suffering of another, transforming that suffering into happiness, and returning that happiness to the other. Tonglen is a technique for developing bodhichitta.


Tranquility (Pali: samatha, Sanskrit: shamatha) refers to the mental peace and stability developed in meditation. Insight and tranquility are the two qualities of mind that are developed in meditative practice.


Sanskrit — Skillful means; to be employed by both the Buddhist practitioner and the Buddhist teacher.


Sanskrit, Pali — Clinging, grasping, attachment.


See: equanimity


Sanskrit — Literally, “diamond vehicle.” A later-developing tradition of Buddhism, most famously associated with Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas, that emphasizes esoteric teachings. Considered a further form of Mahayana, the Himalayan Vajrayana tradition is composed of the Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, and Sakya schools.


Sanskrit, Pali — Feeling/sensation.

vipassana / vipashyana

See: insight


Sanskrit — Energy, zeal, enthusiasm, diligence. An attitude of gladly engaging in wholesome activities. One of the paramis.


Sanskrit — “vehicle” to enlightenment; as in Buddhism’s three yanas: the of yana of individual liberation, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana.


Japanese — Meditation cushion.


Japanese — Zen seated meditation.


Japanese — A Mahayana school, originating in China, that emphasizes meditation practice (zazen) and a “direct pointing to the mind” over doctrinal knowledge. Zen is the Japanese term; it is known in China as Chan, Vietnam as Thien, and Korea as Seon.

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