This short glossary of Buddhist terms and words used in Buddhism is designed to help beginners and Westerners with their practice!
Have you ever encountered a term or word used in Buddhism and were confused about what it meant? This page of “bite-sized” explanations can help you understand the many confusing terms.
Use the table of contents (or just search in your browser) to find the word or term you are looking for. I’ll add a short (or brief) explanation. Also included will be any relevant links or books to check out if you want to know more.
You might also find my complimentary article on “Understanding Numbered Buddhist Lists” beneficial.
Age of Declining Dharma
The period when Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings go into decline. This is when sentient beings (like humans) begin to misunderstand the teachings, can no longer distinguish between the true teachings and false ones, and their attitude makes them difficult to teach the Dharma. During this same age, non-Buddhist teachers will use the name of the Buddha for their teachings which are not aligned with Buddhism and the Sutras.
Age of Right Dharma
Not long after the Buddha passed into final Nirvana (Parinirvana) when the monastics were able to maintain discipline in the Sangha and uphold the Buddha’s teachings without misinterpretation.
Age of Semblence Dharma
Long after the Buddha’s final Nirvana (Parinirvana) has receded into the past, and the admiration for the Buddha’s teachings has waned, different ideas and understandings of the Buddha’s teachings appear. These teachings appear to be the Right Dharma, but are not and only resemble them.
See: Five Skandhas / Aggregates
The Buddha of infinite light is commonly referred to as Amitābha or Amida. Amida has a Buddha ‘Pure Land’ in the ‘West’ where anyone can more easily achieve awakening. Pure Land Buddhists recite his name (through the ‘Nembustu’ – Japanese, ‘Niànfó’ – Chinese, ‘Yeombul’ – Korean, and ‘Niệm Phật’ – Vietnamese) as the primary part of their practice.
- Recommended Book: Finding Our True Home by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
- Watch Alan’s Video on this Topic on YouTube
An enlightened individual who has freed themselves from the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra).
A popular Bodhisattva that encompasses the compassion of all Buddhas. Also called Guanyin in China, and Kannon in Japan.
Bhikkhu (Pāli) or Bhikṣu (Sanskrit) is the name for ordained male monks. Bhikkhunī (Pali) or Bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is the term for ordained female nuns.
Essentially “Awakened Mind”. Bodhi=Awakened/Enlightened and Citta=”Mind”. For Bodhisattva, and those on the Bodhisattva path, Bodhicitta is an important state of mind. It helps them with striving towards enlightenment, and also with the compassionate mission of helping/saving all sentient beings from delusions/ignorance and suffering.
An enlightened being who vows to attain Buddhahood and works to help liberate all sentient beings, and not just themselves, from suffering. They voluntarily remain in the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra) to help others.
This term refers to anyone on the Bodhisattva Path, but typically refers to beings who have attained the six perfections and remain in the world to help other sentient beings on their path towards enlightenment.
One must have a Bodhi Mind, or aspiration to enlightenment, to be on this path.
The patriarch of Zen/Chán Buddhism, who was a Buddhist monk that lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is credited with bringing the meditation school, known as Chán, to China. It eventually went to Japan as Zen, Korea as Seon, and Vietnam as Thiền.
The term for a fully awakened being (“The Awakened One”).
The historical Buddha was born 2,600 years ago as Siddhārtha Gautama in the area where the modern-day country of Nepal is located, which is near modern-day India. He was born into a life of luxury and privilege but was prevented from seeing real-life by his father for fear he would become an ascetic/holy person. This was because it was predicted that Siddhārtha would be a great ruler or a holy person. His father naturally wanted him to follow after him as a leader.
Siddhārtha eventually left this life of luxury to become a holy person and learned many techniques from other teachers. However, it was not until he nearly died that he resolved to follow the ‘middle way’ of not going to extremes and then resolved to meditate until he achieved awakening and realized enlightenment.
He meditated for 49 days until he became enlightened, and he was then known as the Buddha, which is the title of an enlightened teacher. He is the latest of many Buddhas who have existed in the past and is called Shakyamuni Buddha.
Shakya was his clan’s name, and Shakyamuni is Sanskrit for “Sage of the Shakya.”
The Buddha taught for roughly 45 years in the country now known as India, establishing many monastic communities, followers, and giving teaching to numerous people.
His foundational teachings are the Four [Noble] Truths and the [Noble] Eightfold Path.
The term “Buddha” is not restricted to Shakyamuni. In Mahayana Buddhism, all beings strive towards eventually becoming a Buddha, even if that takes eons. This is different than Shakyamuni Buddha, who is known as a ‘Buddha of our era.’ Each era has a single Buddha whose teachings we know and follow.
There have been numerous Buddhas in the past, and there will be more in the future (such as Maitreya, the next Buddha).
The teaching that all sentient beings, like humans, have the natural ability (“seed”) to be able to realize enlightenment and become a Buddha.
Buddhism is a worldwide religion with over 350 million followers, based on the insight and teachings of the founder Shakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha’s teachings allow us to be awakened to seeing our world as it is, free of delusion, greed, and hatred. This allows us to realize enlightenment and live in our natural state of Nirvāṇa, which liberates us from creating actions, typically unskillful and unwholesome, known as Karma. This ultimately allows us to transcend the endless cycle of birth and death, known as Saṃsāra, which was caused by our actions due to constant craving and attachment.
Cats have a long history within Buddhism. They were first formally recognized as the “protectors of the Dharma” around the 6th century A.D. Chinese sailors would keep cats on ships to keep the rats at bay, which would otherwise eat the books and other documents that were being transported to Japan. When the Buddhist scriptures arrived in Japan by ship, the cats jumped off and took residence. They must have known that hundreds of years later, they would be worshipped in Japan with cat cafes and jobs as wildly popular train station masters 😉
Chanting is a popular form of practice in most forms of Buddhist traditions. Typically, a teaching of the Buddha (called a Sūtra or Sutta) is recited or chanting the name of a Buddha. Chanting is similar to meditation because it allows a concentrated effort on an object, such as the Buddha and the Buddha’s qualities, that aims to transform the mind of the practitioner towards awakening.
A Buddhist concept meaning all phenomena do not exist independently of other things, do not have a separate independent self, and are not permanent. All phenomena arise and fall, dependent on causes and conditions.
When capitalized, it means the ultimate truth of the Buddha’s teachings. These are typically presented as the teachings or sermons of the Buddha or one of his enlightened disciples. Also called the “Buddhadharma.”
When presented in lowercase, “dharma” or “dharmas” are phenomena and being(s). It is not to be confused with the similarly worded ‘Dharma,’ when presented in upper-case, are the teachings or sermons of the Buddha. You are a dharma, a tree is a dharma, an animal is a dharma, a cloud is a dharma.
Called “Dukkha” in Pāli and “Duḥkha” in Sanskrit. Dukkha is a term that is often translated as “Suffering” or “Unsatisfactoriness.” Dukkha is a result of our attachments, specifically to the erroneous belief that we (and other things) have an unchanging, independent, and permanent ‘self.’
Our attachments to things create actions (Karma), which result in Dukkha, which is the “sickness” we face. This sickness, which creates Karma, results in rebirth. Attachments crave “fuel,” which they find with the “Three Poisons/Fires” of Ignorance/Delusions, Greed/Desire, and Aversion/Hatred. These are essentially ‘wrong views’ which cause us to have craving, which in turn cause us to be “attached” to Saṃsāra.
Following the Noble Eightfold Path, which is likened to a “prescription” the Buddha wrote, all sentient beings like humans or cats can heal our sickness (“Dukkha”) caused by the three poisons. Following this path is known as the “Middle Way,” which means to not go to extremes in order to achieve enlightenment and Nirvāṇa.
This core teaching of the Buddha describes the path towards awakening and enlightenment, which allows one to live in the state of Nirvāṇa.
- Right View: Having the right concepts and ideas about the true nature of reality, and the path leading us away from delusion and wrong views.
- Right Thought or Resolve: The desire to realize enlightenment by keeping your thoughts in accord with the teachings, called the Dharma or Dhamma, at every moment, which allows you to eliminate the Three Fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance.
- Right Speech: Speech that produces wholesome actions and prevents unwholesome actions. This typically means avoiding lying, harsh speech, idle talk, etc.
- Right Action: Behavior that is wholesome and in accord with the Dharma, such as practicing the ‘Five Precepts.’
- Right Livelihood: Choosing an occupation and way of life that does not hurt others, or yourself, due to unwholesomeness.
- Right Effort: Diligence in following the Eightfold path, which creates wholesome actions and the prevention of unwholesome actions.
- Right Mindfulness: Be aware of your thoughts, body, words, and actions, so your mind is pure, aware, and does not give rise to unwholesome thoughts.
- Right Concentration. Known as Samadhi, or meditative concentration is where your mind and whole being is wholly absorbed in the moment without distraction, wavering, anxiety, or drowsiness. This is also part of Right Mindfulness, in which you are aware of what is occurring and its origins, to see its illusionary and impermanent nature.
Everything in the world arises due to Dependent Origination and has no permanent, unchanging, independent “self” or substance. Therefore, because all phenomena (dharmas) are said to be empty of an “inherently independent self”, we use therm “emptiness”.
Note that the concept of ‘emptiness’ is different in Mahāyāna Buddhism than it is in Theravāda Buddhism. Mahāyāna Buddhists believe that not only are human beings empty of an intrinsic self (such as a soul), but everything (all phenomena, which are called ‘dharmas’) is inherently empty of this ‘independent self’ or ‘independent nature.’
Because everything is interconnected, arises when the conditions are right (Dependent Origination), and all things (“we”/“self”) are a temporary grouping due to causes and conditions and will eventually cease existing in that current form, everything is therefore ‘empty’ of a permanent, unchanging ‘self’ which does not really exist.
When one has eliminated all obstructions of the mind, perfected insight and wisdom, and abandoned defilements, they are liberated from the cycle of rebirth and enter the state of Nirvāṇa. While the different Buddhist traditions define enlightenment differently, Theravāda views the Arhat as the ideal. In contrast, Mahāyāna views the Bodhisattva as the ideal as they strive to become a Buddha (Bodhisattva path).
Five Skandhas / Aggregates
The Five Aggregates, also referred to as the Five Skandhas, refers to the temporary, ever-changing conditions that make up a sentient being, such as a human or an animal.
The first of the Five Aggregates, matter, is also known as “Rupa” or “Body.”
The other four are “Nama” or “Mind.” Together, they are known as “Nama rupa,” which is a formation of our “store consciousness” (Alayavijnana), ourselves, and our environment. Sentient beings believe they have an independent and permanent self, which causes suffering (Dukkha) in their lives and the cycle of rebirth.
The teaching of the Five Aggregates helps a Buddhist understand they are a temporary grouping of things that arise when the conditions are right (birth) and cease in the future (death). It is a fundamental Buddhist practice to understand the Five Aggregates as it relates to the concept of non-self.
Rules of Buddhist morality undertaken by laypersons. They are derived from the hundreds of precepts that monastics follow as part of the Vinaya. The precepts are: Refrain from taking life, refrain from taking what is not yours, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from false speech, refrain from indulging in intoxicants. Precepts are taken not as rules from a heavenly being, but as a way to help them stay on the path towards awakening.
Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the Buddha’s explanation (as if he were a Doctor) of the disease, the cause of the disease, the prognosis, and the cure for what ails all sentient beings. This “ailment” is known as Dukkha (commonly referred to as “suffering” but has a deeper meaning related to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of mundane life) and affects us at various times in our life.
- The Truth of Suffering (“The Symptom”): Life entails ‘suffering’ known as “Dukkha”
- The Cause of Suffering (“The Diagnosis”): This suffering is caused by craving or desire (“Trishna”)
- The Truth of the End of Suffering (“The Prognosis”): There is a cure to this suffering, which helps you find your natural state known as “”
- The Truth of the Path That Ends Suffering (“The Prescription”): Follow the eightfold path to eliminate suffering in your life (“Maggha”)
One of the shortest and most recited scriptures in Mahāyāna Buddhism regarding the perfection of wisdom is called Prajna Paramita. One is to take the sutra into the heart and uncover its true meaning through practice. Intellect, analysis, and faith alone will not be enough to understand the sutra.
- The Heart Sūtra occurred at Rājagṛha, while the Buddha was staying on Mount Gridhrakuta, which is near Vulture’s Peak. However, the Buddha does not speak during the Heart Sūtra. The sutra refers to something known as the ‘Two Truths doctrine,’ which is ‘conventional’ truth and ‘ultimate’ truth. The ultimate truth is that all phenomena, called ‘dharmas,’ are ‘Śūnyatā,’ which is commonly translated as ‘emptiness.’
- The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara explains to Śariputra, who was one of the Buddha’s top disciplines, that emptiness means that all phenomena are fundamentally empty of an independent and unchanging self or existence. This emptiness is due to two things known as the Five Aggregates and Dependent Origination. The temporary grouping of things that make up a human being, called the Five Aggregates or Skandhas, are form, feeling, volitions, perceptions, and consciousness. The Five Aggregates only exist when the conditions are right and cease when they are no longer conducive. Essentially ‘birth and death,’ known as the cycle of ‘Saṃsāra’ or commonly referred to as ‘rebirth.’ Dependent Origination teaches that all phenomena, even humans and kitties, arise and cease due to other phenomena. Therefore, nothing is permanent and everlasting, and nothing is independent of other phenomena.
- Avalokiteśvara gives Śariputra numerous examples of conventional truth, explaining that they are not reality, but we think they are. The practitioner must go beyond ordinary understanding and instead rely on the perfection of wisdom, which is the ‘heart’ of the teaching. This allows one to achieve the liberation and freedom of Nirvāṇa by perceiving reality directly without attachments.
- Nirvāṇa is referred to as the ‘other shore’ in the Heart Sutra.
An extremely long period of time.
- A Kalpa is an expression of the creation and recreation of a world (we have had several Kalpas, and Buddhas, before Shakyamuni Buddha, and more will come).
- There are four different lengths for Kalpas (regular or traditional expression of this is about 16 million years long, a small expression is about 16 billion years long, a medium expression is 320 billion years long, and a great Kalpa is about 1.28 trillion years long). Kalpa’s can have up to 1,000 Buddha’s who come one-by-one in them. Some Kalpa’s have no Buddha’s.
- We are currently living in the “Bhadra Kalpa”, known as the “Fortune Aeon” which is one of the most favorable aeon’s to occur.
- We are using a regular expression for this current Kalpa, meaning it lasts about 16 million years.
- There have already been four Buddha’s in this Kalpa, including Shakyamuni Buddha, of whom we currently follow and know his teachings. There are 29 named Buddha’s, including Shakyamuni and Maitreya. Maitreya Buddha will be the fifth, and last, Buddha in this Kalpa when the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha become unknown.
The word “Karma” means “deed” or “action” in the ancient Sanskrit language and is a core teaching in all schools of Buddhism.
Karma (Kamma in Pāli) governs the concept of “cause and effect,” meaning that all “intentional” actions produce results that the doer (“you”) will eventually feel.
Any “good deeds” would receive positive (wholesome) karmic effects, and any “bad deeds” would produce negative (unwholesome) karmic results.
Karma also exists with other types of sentient beings, communities, countries, and even the earth.
There are three types of Karma identified by the Buddha: Karma generated by the body (your actions), Karma caused by speech (your words), and Karma developed by the mind (your thoughts).
Any actions you intentionally do with your body, speech, or mind will create karmic results.
Wholesome karmic actions are based upon generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness, or wisdom.
Unwholesome karmic actions are based upon greed, hatred, and delusion.
Neutral (or “Ineffective”) karmic actions have no impact and include unintentional activities such as sleeping, breathing, eating, unintentionally stepping on an ant, etc.
Refers to the realization of Nirvana, which provides freedom from afflictions, Dukkha (“suffering”), and Samsara (cycle of rebirth).
Mahāyāna is one of the two major branches of Buddhism currently in practice today and has many ‘sects’ or traditions within it in the east-Asian countries of China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and central-Asian countries of Tibet, Himalayas, etc. It asserts that all sentient beings, not just monastics, can realize enlightenment and eventually become a Buddha through following the Bodhisattva path.
A mala is like prayer beads used in other religions. Different Buddhist traditions use them to count recitations, sūtras, chanting, or even visually to signify the abbot of a monastery. Most lay Buddhists wear a small mala on their wrist to identify themselves as Buddhist.
Usually, a sound, word, or saying that is used as a form of meditative concentration or invocation.
A celestial demon that tempts humans and prevents them from becoming awakened. Māra was an adversary that tried to seduce Prince Siddhārtha as he meditated towards awakening. However, Siddhārtha was able to defeat Māra’s actions, and he became the Buddha. Māra is also an analogy for qualities of our mind that impede our spiritual progress and causes the Three Fires of delusion, hatred, and desire.
Commonly referred to as “Loving Kindness” in Buddhism, it is called Maitrī (Sanskrit) / Mettā (Pāli) and is a popular form of meditation. It is also one of the Ten Pāramitās of Theravāda Buddhism.
These are the blessings that result from our wholesome deeds. For Buddhist laypersons, this is one of the primary forms of practice they strive for.
Human Buddhists often refer to “monkey mind,” meaning random thoughts and actions like a monkey in the wild.
Nirvāṇa is the state of being liberated and free of wrong perceptions, delusions, and their causes. Nirvāṇa (Nibbāna in Pāli) is the natural state of all beings where there is a cessation of unsatisfactory conditions and causes. However, most beings are unaware of this natural truth and are trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth.
A central concept that states that there is no unchanging, independent, and permanent ‘self,’ ‘soul,’ or ‘essence,’ of any phenomena. Anātman (Sanskrit) / Anattā (Pāli). Everything is devoid of an individual self, but most beings are unaware of this truth.
Ox Herding Pictures
Illustrations that help to teach Buddhists the Zen/Chán path towards enlightenment. They are also referred to as the “Ten Bulls” pictures.
One of the scholarly languages used in ancient India. Most notably, it is used as the language of the Pāli Canon of the Theravāda tradition found in Southeast Asia.
This is a Sanskrit word that means either “perfection” or “crossed over”. In Buddhist scripture, this typically refers to crossing over to the “other shore”, which is Nirvana.
In certain Buddhist traditions, such as Zen and Chán, records of historical teachers and their lineage back to the Buddha are kept. This lineage helps to establish that a school’s teachings are connected back to the Buddha himself.
A Sanskrit word that means “wisdom” that comes from seeing the true nature of reality. This is considered the highest form of wisdom which provides insight into the true nature of all phenomena.
Essentially, the perfected way of seeing the true nature of reality. Prajna=Wisdom and Paramita=Perfection. The Prajñāpāramitā also refers to nearly 40 different sūtras in Mahāyāna Buddhism.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there are numerous celestial Buddhas who have a Pure Land (also called a Buddha Field) where awakening under their guidance is easily achieved. This is only a temporary place, as one will continue in the cycle of rebirth. This is also the name for the school of Buddhism which practices to attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land.
A color that is said to have been worn by the Buddha and other early Buddhists. It is now most predominately used for the color of the robes of Buddhist monastics of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Buddhist monastics of other traditions wear similarly colored robes, although not the exact same saffron color.
Also referred to as Samsara, the cycle of birth and death.
Saha is translated to mean “endurance” in the present world we are in, where suffering (Dukkha) must be endured. Due to the Three Fires of greed, anger, and delusion, all sentient beings are suffering.
There exist four realms outside of the Saha World that is not subject to its effects:
- Sravaka (Arhats)
- Pratekyabuddha (Solitary Buddha)
- Bodhisattva (On the Path Towards Buddhahood)
- Buddha (Fully Awakened)
Samatha Meditation is essentially to “calm” or “settle” the mind of random thoughts.
Samsara & Rebirth
Saṃsāra is the term used for the cycle of rebirth, where birth, mundane existence, then death, are repeated endlessly and uncontrollably. This cycle is not comfortable and results in Duḥkha. One who is awakened and realizes enlightenment frees themselves from Saṃsāra and lives in their natural state of Nirvāṇa.
Based on karmic effects, rebirth occurs in one of six realms of existence:
- Heavenly Beings
- Hungry Ghosts
- Hell Beings
The community of ordained Buddhist monastics (monks and/or nuns). It may also be used more casually to refer to the community of Buddhist practitioners.
One of the scholarly languages used in ancient India. There were numerous schools of early Buddhism, and many used this language for their scriptural canons. It is now found most notably in the Chinese Canon used by several countries and traditions in East Asian Buddhism. The Mahāyāna Sūtras found in this Canon were initially written in Sanskrit.
There are six sense organs:
A living being that has consciousness or sentience. Human beings and animals are both sentient beings, whereas a tree would not be. In Mahayana Buddhism, all sentient beings inherently have “Buddha Nature” and have the inherent capacity to attain enlightenment and also become Buddhas.
See: Five Skandhas / Aggregates
Sutra / Sutta
A Sūtra (Sanskrit; ‘Sutta’ in Pāli) is a teaching/sermon of the Buddha. However, it can also be from one of his enlightened disciples or a Bodhisattva.
Commonly referred to as the “seed consciousness” or “storehouse consciousness.” The Buddhist term is “ālāyavijñāna” (Sanskrit). This is where karmic actions are ‘stored’ until the right conditions arise so they can come to fruition.
See “Dukkha” / “Duḥkha”
“In Sanskrit, literally, “Thus Come One”; one of the ten epithets of the Buddha, meaning the one who has attained full realization of suchness, true essence, or actuality. One who dwells in the absolute beyond all transitory phenomena, with the ability to freely come and go everywhere.”
Theravāda is a branch and school of Buddhism that grew out of the early Buddhist school of the same name. It is the main religion and Buddhist tradition in the southeast-Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, Cambodia, and is also part of Vietnamese Buddhism (which also incorporates Mahāyāna’s Pure Land and Chán). Theravāda is often differentiated in the fact that it does not recognize, or practice, any of the Mahāyāna sūtras.
Greed/Hatred, Anger/Aversion, and Delusion/Ignorance. These are the result of the unwholesome states of the mind (known as “Kleshas”) that cause unwholesome actions (Karma) that keep one trapped in the cycle of rebirth (Samsara).
The Buddha (Teacher), Dharma (Teachings), and Sangha (Monastic Community). These are the three refuges that Buddhists take when formerly becoming a Buddhist. They are also an expression of an awakened mind.
The term for a male lay follower in Buddhism who does not renounce the householder (layperson) life to become a monastic and enter a monastery. Instead, they strive to live a spiritually centered life that upholds the Buddha’s teachings and the Five Precepts.
Monastics (monks or nuns) are often referred to as “Venerable” in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Venerable Master is a title to the high-ranking monk in a Chán (Chinese Buddhism) or Zen (Japanese Buddhism) temple or organization.
Vipassana is the result of meditation (insight); however, it is now a type of modern meditation practice. For humans, after we calm our mind (Samatha), insight meditation (analytical) is essential to understand the world we live in and about ourselves.
A famous place in Buddhist history where the Buddha taught numerous times.
Zen / Chán
A tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism that is practiced in several east-Asian countries, which focuses primarily on meditation. Originally from China, where it is known as Chán, thanks to the teachings of the wandering monk Bodhidharma. Chán has since spread to Japan (Zen), Korea (Seon), and Vietnam (Thiền). The Japanese version of Zen is practiced as its own school, whereas Chán (such as in Chinese Buddhism) also incorporates the Pure Land school.
If you enjoyed this article, please share! 🙏
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained is provided on an as-is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied. Read full disclaimer here.