Glossary of Buddhist Terms
(adapted from the "talk.religion.buddhism" FAQ)
Buddhism has several canonical languages. The chief ones are Pali
(the main language of the Theravada canon) and Sanskrit (the main
language of the Mahayana canon). Other languages that are sometimes
encountered: Sinhalese (Sri Lanka), Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan.
(These are not all of the languages of Buddhism -- they are only the
languages of the earliest versions of key scriptures and commentaries.)
Terms transliterated from Asian languages have an undeniable in-group
appeal -- but there are other (and better) reasons for using them.
One reason is simply that these "foreign" terms have the authority of
2500 years of tradition in many cases, and are understood by members
of all Buddhist traditions (even if their first language is something
like Finnish or Swahili).
Another reason is that the words that would have to be used to render
a Pali or Sanskrit technical term into English (or any other living
language) are inevitably freighted with unintended meanings. The
advantage of using a "dead" language is that semantic precision
becomes less of a moving target.
A note on spelling and usage
In cases where more than one choice for a word is available, the FAQ
maintainer has a tendency to favor Pali. Some attempt has been made
to indicate equivalent terms in other languages, but this has not been
done in all cases. If you find another spelling more natural, send
email to the FAQ maintainer so that the alternative spelling can be
No attempt has been made to preserve diacritical marks.
Note: A number of the following definitions are adapted from
Nyanatiloka's _Buddhist Dictionary_. Readers who are looking for
(Pali) terms not defined here, or who need more precise definitions or
references to the scriptures, are encouraged to consult Nyanatiloka.
The Nanamoli/Bodhi translation of the Majjhima Nikaya also contains
discussions of many terms. (See book list in section 5 for more info.)
- See khandha.
Usually rendered 'storehouse consciousness'. In
Yogacara philosophy, this is the underlying stratum of existence that
is 'perfumed' by volitional actions and thus 'stores' the moral
effects of kamma. Note that it is regarded as a conditioned
phenomenon, not as a 'soul' in the sense of Western religion. The
theory is most fully elaborated by Vasubandhu in
//Vij~napti-maatrataa-tri.msikaa// and by Dharmapala in
//Vij~napti-maatrataa-siddhi-"saastra//. The doctrine of
alaya-vijnana greatly influenced Chinese Buddhism and sects derived
from it (e.g. Zen). See also bhavanga.
- Amitabha Buddha (Jap. Amida butsu)
- 'Limitless Light.'
the Buddha of the Western Paradise (the Pure Land). Also encountered
in the aspect of Amitayuh (or Amitayus), 'Limitless Life.' Pure Land
Buddhists practice recitation of the name of Amitabha.
- anatta (Skt. anatman)
One of the Three Characteristics (q.v.).
- anicca (Skt. anitya)
- Impermanence. One of the Three Characteristics.
- The idea that the Elect are above the moral law (as in
some versions of 'justification by faith not by works').
- arahant (Skt. arhat)
- One who has attained enlightenment.
- a 'taint' that obstructs progress toward enlightenment. The
Abhidhamma lists four asavas (perhaps for convenient identification
with the four supramundane paths?): sensual desire, desire for eternal
existence, speculative opinions and ignorance. The Suttas usually
list only three asavas, omitting explicit mention of the taint of
speculative opinions (but it is referred to implicitly, e.g. at MN 2).
- Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezi, Chin. Kwan-Yin or Guanyin, Jap. Kannon)
Mahayana Bodhisattva of Compassion
- avijja (Skt. avidya)
- Sometimes rendered 'life-stream'. In Theravada Buddhism,
this is the underlying stratum of existence that is used to explain
memory and other 'temporal' phenomena such as moral accountability.
It is described by Buddhaghosa and others as the natural condition of
mind, bright and shining and free from impurity. Note that it is
regarded as a conditioned phenomenon, not as a 'soul' in the sense of
Western religion. (The Sarvastivadin/Mahayana treatment of bhavanga
is different.) See also alaya-vijnana.
- bhikkhu, bhikkhuni (Skt. bhikshu, bhikshuni)
- monk, nun
- bodhisattva (Pali bodhisatta)
- A future Buddha.
- Four "sublime abidings" (lit. 'abodes of Brahma') that
accompany spiritual development, consisting of compassion, loving
kindness, sympathetic joy for others, and equanimity toward the
pleasant and the unpleasant.
- The Enlightened (or Awakened) One. The First Refuge of the
- Chogye (alt. Jogye)
- largest Buddhist sect in Korea
- conditioned phenomena
- Phenomena (dhammas) constituted of the five
khandas (Skt. skandhas), objects for paticcasamuppada (Skt.
pratityasamutpada), subject to arising and passing away. With a
handful of exceptions (notably Enlightenment itself), all phenomena
fall into this category.
- The practice of chanting "Nam (or Namu) Myoho Renge Kyo" in
Japanese Lotus Sutra Buddhism. Myoho Renge Kyo is the sutra's name in
- (His Holiness the 14th) Dalai Lama
- Leader of the Tibetan people in
exile. Vajrayana Buddhists regard him as the living embodiment of
Avalokiteshvara (q.v.). Most other Buddhists, including Theravadins,
revere him as a teacher of very high spiritual attainment who works
tirelessly for peace and goodwill.
- The practice of giving to accumulate merit.
- see kilesa
- dependent arising, dependent origination
- See paticcasamuppada.
- dharma (Pali dhamma)
- When spelled this way (not capitalized), means
- Dharma (Pali Dhamma)
- When spelled this way (capitalized), refers to
the Teachings of the Buddha. The Second Refuge of the Triple Gem.
- Often rendered as "suffering," but can span the whole range
from excruciating pain to not-getting-what-I-want. One of the Three
- (Noble) Eightfold Path
- The Path of the Fourth Noble Truth: Right
Understanding, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Attitude, Right
Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
- In philosophy, the study of the nature and limits of
- See samyojana.
- Five Aggregates
- See khandha.
- Four Noble Truths
- Suffering. Suffering has a cause. Suffering has
an end. There is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering (see
- Gautama (alt. Gotama)
- Family name of the Buddha.
- Heart Sutra
- The Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, one of several
"perfection of wisdom" sutras in the Mahayana scriptures.
Calculatedly paradoxical in its language ("there is no suffering,
cause, cessation or path"). Central to most Mahayana schools.
- The science of interpretation or exegesis of Scripture.
- Lesser Vehicle. According to Walshe, this term was
originally coined by Mahayana polemicists to distinguish their path
(seen as a 'greater vehicle' with room for all) from the path of the
Sarvastivadins (seen as a 'lesser vehicle' with room for only one at a
time). Over time, it came to be applied to the only surviving member
of the original 'eighteen schools' of Southern Buddhism, Theravada
(q.v.). Many Buddhists prefer the term Theravada, because 'Hinayana'
is perceived to have negative connotations.
- see nivarana; not to be confused with nirvana. :-)
- insight meditation
- See vipassana.
- Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.
- Jodo Shinshu
- The largest Jodo sect in modern Japan (in fact, the
largest Buddhist sect of any kind in Japan, as far as the FAQ
maintainer knows). See Shinran Shonin.
- karma (Pali kamma)
- Literally, "action." Often translated "cause and
- Compassion. One of the brahmaviharas.
- khandha (Skt. skandha)
- One of the Five Aggregates of Clinging:
matter (rupakhandha), sensations (vedanakhandha), perceptions
(sannakhandha), mental formations (sankharakhandha), consciousness
(vinnanakhandha). A starting point for Buddhist psychology.
- kilesa (Skt. klesha)
- one of ten 'defilements' that are to be
overcome through training, viz. greed, hate, delusion, conceit,
speculative views, skeptical doubt, mental torpor, restlessness, lack
of shame, and lack of moral dread. (A related term, upakkilesa, is
also sometimes translated as 'defilement' but 'impurities' may be
preferable in that case. Nyanatiloka's dictionary has a discussion.)
- Lotus Sutra
- The Saddharmapundarika Sutra, one of the Mahayana
scriptures. Lotus Sutra Buddhists sometimes practice recitation of
the title of the sutra. See daimoku.
- A prophesied end time of decadent Dharma in Japan. Several
Buddhist traditions that arose in 12th century Japan (notably the
practices of Nichiren and Shinran) are historically unintelligible
unless seen against the backdrop of this prophecy.
- Greater Vehicle. The northern branch of Buddhism. More
doctrinally liberal than Theravada (recognizes several non-historical
sutras as canonical -- it should be noted, however, that even
Theravada gives canonical authority to some non-historical works, such
as the Jatakas or the Abhidhamma for that matter). Strong focus on
alleviation of suffering of all sentient beings.
- Loving kindness. One of the brahmaviharas.
- A meditation practice that develops loving kindness
toward all sentient beings.
- See sati.
- Sympathetic joy. One of the brahmaviharas.
- The practice of chanting "Namu Amida Butsu" in Japanese
Pure Land Buddhism. See Amitabha.
- Nichiren Daishonin
- Twelfth-century founder of a practice that is the
basis of a number of Lotus Sutra (q.v.) sects in Japan.
- Nichiren Shoshu
- A Nichiren sect founded in Japan in the foothills of
Mt. Fuji in the 13th century. Its head temple is Taisekiji Temple.
- Nichiren Shu
- A Nichiren sect founded in Japan at Mt. Minobu in the
13th century. Its head temple is Kuonji Temple.
- Cessation. (Specifically, the cessation of suffering in the
Third Noble Truth.)
- nirvana (Pali nibbana)
- Absolute extinction of suffering and its causes.
- One of five 'hindrances' that obstruct the development of
concentration and insight: sensual desire, ill will, sloth-and-torpor,
restlessness and skeptical doubt. The scriptures compare them
respectively to water mixed with colors, boiling water, water covered
by moss, water whipped by wind, and muddy water.
- In philosophy, the branch of metaphysics that deals with
the notion of Being per se, as opposed to specific instances of it
(such as God). Buddhist philosophy is somewhat allergic to the
notion of Being in the sense of Western and/or Hindu philosophy, so
most of what passes for ontological discourse in other philosophies
would be considered unintelligible in Buddhism.
- parinirvana (Pali parinibbana)
- The end of the Buddha's physical
existence (i.e., his death).
- paticcasamuppada (Skt. pratityasamutpada)
- Dependent origination.
The twelve-stage process that leads from ignorance to rebirth.
- pratyekabuddha (Pali paccekabuddha)
- A 'solitary awakened one'.
Sometimes used as a term of reproof, to refer to students who get
entangled in personal striving for illumination. One of the
characteristic marks of pratyekabuddhas is that they do not teach.
- A basic set of standards for moral conduct: to refrain
from killing, stealing, harmful sexual behavior, lying and the use of
intoxicants. These are the five "normal" precepts for the laity; more
extensive sets may apply to persons in special circumstances, e.g. the
- Pure Land
- See Amitabha.
- Concentration (as in the 'right concentration' of the
Eightfold Path). A state of one-pointedness of mind achievable
through certain forms of meditation.
- samatha (Skt. shamatha)
- 'Calmness' meditation, a set of techniques
for developing one-pointedness of mind. Cf. samadhi and sati.
- (lit. 'wandering together') The wheel of suffering and
- one of ten 'fetters' that tie beings to the wheel of
birth and death. They are: belief in a substantial self, skeptical
doubt, clinging to rules and ritual, sensual craving, ill will,
craving for fine-material existence, craving for immaterial existence,
conceit (mana), restlessness and ignorance. The first five are the
'lower' fetters; the second five are the 'upper' fetters. In the
Stream Enterer the first three fetters have been destroyed; in the
Once-Returner the next two are weakened, and in the Non-Returner they
are destroyed; in the Arahant all fetters have been destroyed.
- A word with several associations. One meaning refers
specifically to the Aryasangha (Pali Ariyasangha -- those who have
attained to the supramundane Path). Another meaning is the patimokkha
sangha -- the community of ordained monks and nuns. Western
Mahayanists sometimes use the word in yet a third sense, to refer to
the "mahasangha" -- the community of all believers. The Sangha that
is referred to in the Triple Gem is the Ariyasangha; from an orthodox
viewpoint (whether Theravada or Mahayana), beings who have not cut off
the defilements are not a satisfactory object of refuge.
- sati (Skt. smrti, Jap. nen)
- Mindfulness (as in the 'right
mindfulness' of the Eightfold Path). Consciousness of/attention to
experience here and now. Cf. vipassana and samadhi.
- Satipatthana Sutta
- The Discourse on the Basis of Mindfulness, a
fundamental Buddhist scripture describing methods of meditation.
(Also cited by its Digha Nikaya title: Mahasatipatthana Sutta = the
Greater Discourse on the Basis of Mindfulness.)
- Teacher. Title of respect in Japan.
- Sage of the Shakya clan. Common epithet of the Buddha.
- A Japanese Vajrayana sect.
- Shinran Shonin
- Twelfth-century founder of Jodo Shinshu.
- see khandha.
- skillful means
- Creating good causes for sentient beings to enter
onto the Path. This includes practicing the five perfections,
explaining the Dharma in language a hearer can understand, etc.
- Siddhartha (Pali Siddhatta)
- Personal name of the Buddha.
- Soka Gakkai International (SGI)
- A Buddhist lay organization founded
in the 20th century and formerly affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu.
Its headquarters is located in Tokyo.
- The study of salvation.
- sublime abidings
- See brahmaviharas.
- sutra (Pali sutta)
- In Theravada, a historical discourse of the
Buddha as passed down by oral tradition and ultimately committed to
writing (the Suttapitaka was not actually compiled in written form
until circa 80 B.C.E., around the same time as the earliest Mahayana
sutras were set down in writing). In Mahayana, the set of canonical
sutras is enlarged to include some nonhistorical sermons -- the Heart
Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, etc.
- see asava.
- The Thus-Gone One. An epithet of the Buddha.
- thera, theri
- elder monk, elder nun.
- The Way of the Elders. The southern branch of Buddhism.
More doctrinally conservative than Mahayana (narrower conception of
what is canonical). Strong focus on correct practice and right conduct.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
- A contemporary Vietnamese Zen monk and campaigner
for peace. Among other things, he has suggested a 'positive'
interpretation of the Precepts: Reverence for Life, Generosity, Sexual
Responsibility, Deep Listening and Loving Speech, and Mindful
- Three Characteristics
- All conditioned phenomena are unsatisfactory,
impermanent and devoid of Self.
- Three Poisons
- Used as a synonym for the three unwholesome roots
(q.v.). We are not aware of any use of this precise expression in the
Pali Canon, but the English usage is fairly well established. Not to
be confused with the 'taints' (see asava).
- Three Unwholesome Roots
- three conditions that determine the moral
quality of unskillful volitional actions, viz. greed (lobha), hate
(dosa) and delusion (moha). Sometimes translated in other ways,
e.g. lust, ill-will and ignorance. See also kilesa.
- Three Wholesome Roots
- three conditions that determine the moral
quality of skillful volitional actions, viz. non-greed, non-hate and
- Tipitaka (Skt. Tripitaka)
- The Three Baskets of Buddhist scripture,
comprised of the Suttapitaka (the discourses), the Vinayapitaka (rules
governing the monastic order) and the Abhidhammapitaka (Buddhist
psychology). There are significant differences between the Theravada
and Mahayana canons.
- Triple Gem
- The Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
- Equanimity. One of the brahmaviharas.
- Sometimes translated Thunderbolt Vehicle (or Diamond
Vehicle). A development of Mahayana Buddhism that includes several
features of Indian philosophy not found elsewhere (e.g., tantric
yoga). Strong emphasis on teacher-student relationship.
- This term or one of its cognates (vetulyaka, vetullaka,
vaipulyavada, etc.) is found in a few Theravada sources, e.g. at
Kathavatthu XXIII. Originally, the terms designated a pre- (possibly
proto-) Mahayana doctrine that was regarded as heretical by the more
orthodox. Later, some Theravada writers may have adopted it as a
polemical label for Mahayana per se -- which is reminiscent of the
history and use of the word 'hinayana' by certain Mahayana writers.
- vipassana (Skt. vipashyana)
- Insight, seeing things as they are.
Also used to refer to insight meditation, a technique that develops
attention to the arising and passing away of conditioned phenomena
(Theravada) or attention to the emptiness of conditioned phenomena
- Zen (Chin. Ch'an)
- A Buddhist tradition founded in China as a result
of the teaching of Bodhidharma, circa 475 C.E. Found today mostly in
Vietnam, Japan and Korea (and of course various centers in the West).