Buddhist Glossary

What follows is a Glossary of commonly used Buddhist terms.

Abhidharma:  The Buddhist teachings are often divided into the Tripitaka (the three baskets): the Sutras (teachings of the Buddha), the Vinaya (teachings on conduct), and the Abhidharma, which are the analyses of phenomena that exist primarily as a commentarial tradition to the Buddhist teachings.

Absolute Truth: There are two truths or views of reality: relative truth which is seeing things as ordinary beings do with the dualism of “I” and “other,” and absolute truth which transcends duality and sees things as they are.   See also “Relative Truth.”

Amitabha (Amida, Amita, Amitayus): Amitabha is the most commonly used name for the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life.  A transhistorical Buddha venerated by all Mahayana schools (Ch’an, Zen, Esoteric, T’ien T’ai …), and particularly Pure Land. Presides over the Western Pure Land (Land of Ultimate Bliss), where anyone can be reborn through utterly sincere recitation of Her name, particularly at the time of death. 

Amitabha Buddha at the highest level of understanding represents the True Mind, the Self-Nature common to the Buddhas and sentient beings – all-encompassing and all-inclusive.  This deeper understanding provides the rationale for the harmonization of Ch’an (Zen) and Pure Land Buddhism. See also “Buddha Recitation,” “Pure Land School.”

Amitabha Sutra: See “Three Pure Land Sutras.”

Anatta (Not-self): A central teaching of the Buddha, in which there is no essential, independent, permanent identity that can be called a Self or Soul. Anatta is also sometimes translated as ‘Selflessness.’ See also “Emptiness,” “Impermanence,” “Absolute Truth,” and “Relative Truth.”

Arhat (Arahant in Pali): Arhatship is the highest rank attained by Sravakas.  An Arhat is a Buddhist saint who has attained liberation from the cycle of Birth and Death, generally through living a monastic life in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. This is the goal of Theravada practice, as contrasted with Bodhisattvahood in Mahayana practice. See also “Sravakas,” “Theravada,” “Mahayana.”

Avalokiteshvara: Also called Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  Usually recognizable by the small Buddha adorning Her crown.

Bodhi: Sanskrit/Pali for Enlightenment.

Bodhi Mind (Bodhichitta, Great Mind):  The spirit of Enlightenment, the aspiration to achieve it, the Mind set on Enlightenment.  It involves two parallel aspects: 1) Absolute Bodhichitta, which is a completely awakened mind that sees the emptiness of phenomena, and 2) Relative Bodhichitta, which is the aspiration to practice the six paramitas and liberate all sentient beings from the suffering of Samsara.  See also “Paramita.”

Bodhisattva (Enlightened Being, Heroic Mind):  One who has vowed to attain Supreme Enlightenment for themselves and all sentient beings, and who is committed to the Mahayana path of compassion and the practice of the paramitas to achieve it.  See also “Mahayana.”

Buddha (Awakened One):  An Individual who has attained complete enlightenment, such as the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.

Buddha Nature:  The essential nature of all sentient beings. The potential for enlightenment.

Buddha Recitation (Buddha-Remembrance):  General term for a number of practices, such as 1) Oral Recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name, and 2) Visualization of Amitabha’s auspicious marks and those of the Pure Land.  See also “Amitabha.”

Dedication of Merit:  See “Transference of Merit.”

Dharma (Dhamma in Pali):  This has two meanings: 1) Any recognized truth, such as the sky is blue, and 2) the teachings of the Buddha known as Buddha-dharma.

Dharma Gate:  School, method, tradition.

Dukkha: The Dissatisfied Mind, or the Unsatisfactoriness of Life. Often translated as ‘suffering.’ Dukkha is a central teaching of the Buddha coming out of The Four Noble Truths.

Emptiness:  A central theme in Buddhism, indicating the lack of any truly existing independent nature of any and all phenomena.  Positively stated, phenomena do exist, but as mere appearances, interdependent manifestations of mind with no limitations.  It is not that it is just your mind, as mind is also free of any ultimately true existence.

Evil Paths:  The paths of hells, hungry ghosts, animality.  These paths can be understood as states of mind; i.e. when someone intentionally thinks of hurting or killing another being, they are effectively reborn, for that moment, in a hell realm.

Five Poisons:  Temporary mental states that inhibit understanding: ignorance, desire, anger, pride, and jealousy.  The three root poisons are ignorance, desire, and anger.

Five Precepts:  The precepts taken by lay Buddhists, prohibiting intentionally:  1) killing, 2) stealing, 3) lying, 4) sexual misconduct, 5) ingesting intoxicants.

Impermanence (Anicca in Pali): A universal natural law, that all things born/created are subject to change. Impermanence is a central teaching of the Buddha. See also “Three Sufferings,” and “Samsara.”

Interdependent Origination:  The twelve links of causal connections, which bind beings to samsaric existence and thus perpetuate suffering: ignorance, karmic formation, consciousness, name and form, the six sense bases, contact, sensation, craving, grasping, becoming, rebirth, old age and death. 

Karma (Kamma in Pali):  Literally “Action.”  The unerring law of cause and effect; i.e. positive actions bring happiness and negative actions bring suffering in this or some future life.

Mahayana:  Literally the “Great Vehicle,” which indicates universalism, or liberation for all sentient beings, for all are Buddhas who will attain enlightenment.  See also “Bodhisattva.”

Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali):  Literally “Extinguished.”  Complete extinction of individual existence; cessation of rebirth and entry into bliss. Liberation from samsaric suffering. See also “Samsara.”

Paramita:  “Perfection.”  Method of attaining enlightenment.  The six paramitas are: generosity, morality, diligence, patience, meditative concentration, and wisdom-awareness.  See also “Bodhi Mind,” “Bodhisattva.”

Prajna:  Fundamental wisdom which is inherent in every sentient being, and which manifests itself after the veil of delusion has been destroyed.

Pratyeka Buddha: “Solitary Awakened One.”  Someone who has attained enlightenment by themselves, without a teacher. But unlike the Perfect Buddhas, they do not exert themselves to help liberate others from samsaric suffering.

Pure Land School:  A popular form of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China, Japan, and Vietnam, whose chief tenet is salvation by faith in Amitabha Buddha.

Relative Truth:  Meaning “seeming reality,” the perception of an ordinary (unenlightened) being who sees the world with all her/his projections based on the false belief in “I” and “other.”   See also “Absolute Truth.”

Samsara:  “Cyclic Existence.”   Realms of birth and death.  An endless cycle of rebirth, and suffering. See also “Nirvana.”

Sangha:  Sangha is one of the Three Jewels, the other two being the Buddha and the Dharma.  It refers to the followers of Buddhism, particularly to the community of ordained monks and nuns.  See also “Three Jewels.”

Six Realms:  These are the six realms that sentient beings in Samsara can be born into: the god realm of pride, the jealous gods, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghosts, and hell realms. See also “Samsara.”

Sravaka:  Literally “Voice Hearer,” who follows the Theravada path, and eventually becomes an Arhat as a result of listening to the Buddha’s teaching, and gaining insight into selflessness and the Four Noble Truths.  See also “Arhat,” “Theravada.”

Theravada:  Literally the “School of the Elders.”  It is the last surviving Sravaka school that came out of ancient India, and still exists today in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries.

Three Jewels (Triple Gem, Three Treasures):  The Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha.  See also “Buddha,” “Dharma,” “Sangha.”

Three Pure Land Sutras:  1) The Amitabha Sutra, 2) The Larger Sukhavati Sutra, and 3) The Visualization Sutra.  These texts are central to Pure Land Buddhist practice.

Three Sufferings:  1) The suffering of pain, 2) The suffering of change, 3) The suffering of samsara (meaning the pervasive suffering inherent in samsaric existence).  See also “Samsara,” and “Impermanence.”

Transference of Merit:  The concept of merit transference, or sharing one’s own merit and virtue with all beings is an ancient practice.  At the end of a Buddhist service, the following prayer is offered: “We dedicate the merit gained from this practice to the complete Enlightenment of all sentient beings.”  It is part of the cultivation of Selflessness.

Vajrayana: Literally “Diamond-like Vehicle.”  The Vajrayana is popular throughout the Himalayan region, and has its roots in the Mahayana. But it incorporates teachings and practices of its own, based on esoteric tantric texts, which emphasize the clarity aspect of phenomena. 

Zen (Ch’an in Chinese): Meaning name of mind; Zen (or Ch’an) being name, and mind being substance; also interpreted as meditation, abstraction, or dhyana (in Sanskrit). A major school of Mahayana Buddhism, with several branches, originating in China.

Copyright © 2013-2023 – Venerable Shih Jingang

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