A Buddhist Glossary

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This is a practical Glossary of Buddhist Terms in the Theravada (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Vajrayana Traditions. Transliterations from multiple source languages (such as Pali, Thai, and Sanskrit) are given. This glossary is expanding and further additions to the listings will come on a regular basis.

  • Adibuddha: A concept in Mahayana Buddhism of an eternal Buddha with no beginning and with no end. He is self-created and originally revealed himself in the form of a blue flame coming out of a lotus. Over time this symbol became personified in the form of the Adibuddha.
  • Ahimsa: (Without Harm) The practice of refraining from causing harm to other living beings. Observed in Buddhism and Jainism, as well as by some of the devotional cults in Hinduism.
  • Akusala: (Without Skill) One of the unhelpful states that can be a barrier on thepath to enlightenment.
  • Amitabha: The primary Buddha in the Northern Mahayana school of Buddhism. In Japan, Amitabha is known as Amida.
  • Amrita / Amarit: Translated as the elixir of the Gods, from original Hindu mythology of a drink that could bestow I mortality.
  • Anatta: (Not Self) The belief that there is not a permanent cohesive soul that transmigrates upon death, but instead a “non-soul” that is a complex of senses and karma. Contrast this with Atman.
  • Animal Realm: In Buddhist cosmology, one of the six realms of existence, where the mind is consumed by survival.
  • Arahant / Arhat: One who has achieved personal liberation (Nirvana) from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Enlightened beings playing an immportant role in Therevada Buddhism.
  • Asana: Pose or posture, used when describing a statue or image or when describing a human pose for meditation and yoga.
  • Asuras (male) / Asuris(female): Also referred to as Titans, they are originally from Hindu mythology where they are lesser gods who strive to overcome the power of the deities. In Buddhism, they are a symbolic manifestation of the ego, representing certain states of mind.
  • Atman: A permanent soul that transmigrates bodies upon death. More common to Hinduism, there are monistic (the soul is one with a Universal God) and dualistic (the soul is distinct from the Universal God) philosophies. Compare this to the word Anatta.
  • Avalokiteshavara: In Tibetan Buddhism, the most important Bodhisattva, considered a savior and god of compassion.
  • Ayatana: Meditative states that are capable of being reached only by advanced practioners.
  • Bhikku (male) / Bhikkhuni (female) “An Alms Collector,” meaning one who has been ordained as a monk or a nun.
  • Bodhi: Meaning to be enlightened or awakened. To have knowledge of the ultimate reality. Hence, the Bodhi Tree would be the Tree of Wisdom under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
  • Bodhisattva: A being who has achieved awakening and has chosen to reincarnate so as to help alleviate the suffering of all beings. Generally thought of as waiting to achieve nirvana until all other beings have reached enlightenment. Kuan Yinis one of the most well-loved Bodhisattva.
  • Brahman: In Hinduism, Brahman refers to the Universal Truth or Universal God, as defined in the Upanishads. In earlier Vedic texts, it implies the Universal power flows through sacrificial rituals to the gods.
  • Buddha: Most commonly used in English to refer to Shakyamuni Buddha, who was born Prince Siddhartha, but can be used to refer to an enlightened or awakened person.
  • Chan: The Chinese form of Meditative Buddhism, which is known as Zen in Japan.
  • Chakra: In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, they are considered energy points in the body. However, the word also has its roots in the word for cosmos.
  • Daka (male) / Dakinis(female): Divine wrathful beings that in Tantric Buddhism are believed to be intermediaries between practitioners and the transcendental Buddhas.
  • Deva (male) / Devi(female): Originally from Hinduism Deva is a god. In Buddhism, they are still subject to the endless cycle of existence.
  • Dharma / Dhamma: Often translated as either the Eternal Truth (in the Vedic and Upanishadic religions), or the teachings of the Buddha. In particular, this refers to the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path.
  • Dhukka: Suffering, or unsatisfactory feeling. the main focus of the Four Noble Truths.
  • Dhyani (or Meditation) Buddhas: They are emanations of Adibuddha and serve as the meditation Buddhas. These are five images of the Buddha in meditation, and are considered as different aspects of Buddhahood. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, they have evolved in to five “families” representing different cosmic elements and being guardians of five different directions (North, South, East, West, and Center).
  • Dorje: Tibetan pronunciation of the word Vajra (see below).
  • Eightfold Path: This is the path preached by the Buddha as the way to escape from anguish and suffering. The eight qualities are right understanding or view (based on understanding the Four Noble Truths), right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
  • Enlightenment: This has been translated as understanding the ultimate reality and escaping the endless cycle of existence and rebirth. It is the point where perfect wisdom and perfect compassion reach balance.
  • Five Poisons: They are five harmful qualities that are normal to most beings, namely ignorance, hatred, pride, craving and envy.
  • Four Noble Truths: One of the basic concepts in all schools of Buddhism, they are the truth that suffering arises from impermanence; The truth that ignorance is the attachment to impermanent objects; The truth that suffering can be overcome by developing an understanding of the ultimate reality; The truth that the Eightfold Path is the way to achieve this understanding and liberation from suffering.
  • Gelupka: This is a Tibetan lineage of Buddhism, headed by the Dalai Lama. It is the largest of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • God Realm: Literally, it is the universe where the gods dwell, but in Buddhist thought it is a symbol for a heavenly state of mind. Hinayana: Literally meaning lesser of smaller cart, it is a word describing Theravada Buddhism (see below).
  • Human Realm: Literally being the world where humans dwell, it is a symbol of the mindstate where one has achieved a balance of compassion and awareness. It is thus considered a main gate on the path to enlightenment.
  • Hungry Ghosts: Another one of the six worlds, where the pretans dwell. They are beings with a huge stomach and a pin hole for a mouth, and thus are unable to consume enough to satisfy their hunger or cravings.
  • Jatakas: Tales of the previous lives of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Each tale is similar to a fable with a lesson, and is used to teach moralitiy and virture.
  • Jizo: In Japanes Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva that protects travellers and children. Jizo is also believed to interfere on the behalf of those suffering in Hell.
  • Karma/ Kamma: Karma is usually translated as the law of cause and effect. That we suffer at present because of past harmful or spiteful actions. Karma underlines the importance of all individuals being responsible for their past and present actions. When taking actions, it is best to look at what effect this will have on others, and why is it that we are taking these actions.
  • Khandha: “Bundle, Heap.” The constituent parts of humans according to the philosophy of ananta (not self); namely, the physical body, feelings, perception, volition, and consciousness. Contrast this with atman (permanent soul).
  • Kusala: Skillful states of mind that are helpfel in the pursuit of enlightenment. Opposite of Akusala.
  • Lama: In Tibetan Buddhism, considered a master of certain areas of Buddhism. May be the head of one or more monasteries.
  • Mahayana: Literally meaning the “Great Vehicle,” it is the school of Buddhism that is prominent in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and East Asia. It has incorporated many of the areas original religious beliefs with the original Theravada beliefs. This school emphasizes the path of the Bodhisattva, along with compassion and faith. Vajrayana is a later developed branch of Mahayana.
  • Maitreya: The Buddha of the Future – the Buddha yet to come.
  • Mandala: Used as a point of concentration in Tantric Buddhism, is usually a painted circular diagram or sacred circle which represents the unfolding of the cosmos. The mantra form is often used as a ground plan for Buddhist structures.
  • Mantra: Sometimes translated as a chant, it is the repeating of phrases or words to help one concentrate and achieve focus.
  • Mudra: Buddhist and Hindu images all have particular hand gestures, and these hand gestures have specific meanings. For instance, the right hand of Shakyamuni Buddha reaching down is known as Calling the Earth to Witness. The most common mudras are blessing (Medicine Buddha), meditation (hands in lap), protection / reassurance (right hand raised), calling the earth to witness (right hand touching ground), amd teaching (hands making a circle).
  • Nagas: In Hinduism, they were known as gods of rain and fertility, in Buddhism, they became seen as protectors. For example, there is a story of when the Buddha was meditating and it began to rain. A Naga came up behind the Buddha and unfolded its seven-headed hood over the Buddha so the rain would not disturb him. Images of Nagas are commonly seen decorating temple staircase and roofs (probably because the roofs are wood and susceptible to fire, and Nagas were traditionally thought to bring rain).
  • Nikaya: A collection of discourses found in the Pali Buddhist works, but also used to denote Buddhist orders in Thai language.
  • Nirvana / Nibbana: “Extinguish, To Cool” Considered as the goal of Theravada Buddhist practice, it is the liberation from suffering and departure from the endless cyclic existence (samsara). As opposed to a “paradise,” the meaning is that of being far away from the flames of passion.
  • Nyingmapa: Meaning the “Ancient Ones” it is the oldest of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Prajnaparamita: In certain Buddhist texts, they deal with the understanding of the “Perfection of Wisdom.” Rimpoche: In Tibetan Buddhism, it means a Precious One. It is the title of a highly adept Buddhist practitioner.
  • Rupa: The word literally means form, but is commonly used to refer to Buddha Statues and Hindu Murti.
  • Samadhi: This word generally means a type of insight gained through either meditation or wisdom. In Thai, the word refers to mediation in general.
  • Samsara: This means the endless cycle of existence in the impermanent world. It is the goal of Buddhism to escape Samsara.
  • Sangha: The monkhood as founded by the Buddha.
  • Skandas: These are the five main aspects of the human psyche or personality. Namely, they are form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.
  • Stupa: In Buddhist temples, the Stupa is a structure built to house sacred relics.
  • Sutra: These are basically written teachings, such as the Lotus Sutra or the Karma Sutra. In Buddhism, the sutra is considered to be the actual words of the Buddha.
  • Tantra: In Buddhism, Tantra generally refers the Vajrayana school. This school relies more heavily on the practice of yoga, mantras, rituals and visualizations of deities.
  • Thangkas /Thankas: These are Buddhist paintings that can be rolled up and transported from place to place. Nomads in the Tibetan plateaus favored them, since they could be carried easily. They generally feature paintings of Buddhist deities or Buddhist symbols.
  • Theraveda: Literally meaning “Path of the Elders,” This is the original Buddhist school and remains closest to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Pali Canon. The focus of Theravada Buddhism is on individual liberation and concentration on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. This school of Buddhism is found predominantly in Southeast Asia.
  • Transcendental Buddhas: They are emanations of Adibuddha and serve as the meditation Buddhas. These are five images of the Buddha in meditation, and are considered as different aspects of Buddhahood. In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, they have evolved in to five “families” representing different cosmic elements and being guardians of five different directions (North, South, East, West, and Center).
  • Vairochana: Beleived to be the primary cosmic Buddha
  • Vajra (Dorje in Tibetan): Often translated as a diamond or as a thunderbolt, it is a symbol used in ritual or found in the hands of various Mahayana deities. They represent either the clear insight (such as a lighting bolt cutting through a darkened sky), or pure understanding (such as the clarity of a diamond).
  • Vajrayana: Also referred to as Tantric Buddhism, it literally means The Diamond Vehicle and is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. See Tantra above.
  • Vipassana: This is a form of meditation known as insight meditation, and is considered key to enlightenment by Theravada Buddhists.
  • Yoga: The English word “Yoke” is derived from this word, and its meaning is “Union” or being connected to something. The understanding is that it is the integration of personal experience into wisdom, both from physical and meditative practices.
  • Zen: This is one school of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. It developed in China (where it was known as Chan Buddhism), and spread into Japan and Korea. It has incorporated several ideas from Taoism.

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