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Buddhism Glossary



Brief Glossary of Buddhist Terms


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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 included.

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.’ In Mahayana, 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)

No-self. One of the Three Characteristics (q.v.).  anicca (Skt. anitya)

Impermanence. One of the Three Characteristics.  antinomianism 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.  asava 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 Triple Gem.


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 Japanese.

(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 roughly “phenomenon.”

Dharma (Pali Dhamma)

When spelled this way (capitalized), refers to the Teachings of the Buddha.  The Second Refuge of the Triple Gem.  dukkha Often rendered as “suffering,” but can span the whole range from excruciating pain to not-getting-what-I-want. One of the Three Characteristics (q.v.).


(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.  epistemology In philosophy, the study of the nature and limits of knowledge.



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 Eightfold Path).


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.  hindrance 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 effect.”


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.  nirhoda Cessation. (Specifically, the cessation of suffering in the Third Noble Truth.) nirvana (Pali nibbana)

Absolute extinction of suffering and its causes.  nivarana 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 monastic community.

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.  samsara (lit. ‘wandering together’) The wheel of suffering and rebirth.  samyojana 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 Consumption.

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 non-delusion.  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.  vetulyavada 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. See hinayana.  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 (Mahayana).


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).


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