Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A (Very Limited) Buddhist Glossary

A brief glossary of terms as they are used on this site:






Sunyata (Empty)

Tathata (Suchness)


Pratitya-Samutpada (Dependent Co-Arising)


Conditioned Existence

Anitya (Impermanence)

Anatman (No-Self)

Dukkha (Suffering)

Trishna (Attachment)

Nirvana (Liberation)

Dharma (Teachings)

Prajna (Wisdom)

Sila (Ethics)

Samadhi (Focus)













Triple Gem


Tripitaka (Three Baskets)




Upaya (Expedient Means)








Faith...Entrusting your heart to something. Devotion. This is in contrast to other popular uses of the term, such as "unquestioning loyalty and acceptance of unchallenged ideas and beliefs" or as a synonym for the word "religion".

Spirituality...Being connected to something in a sense of transcending our own personal limitations, a dedication to something greater than ourselves offering a sense of purpose or fulfillment.

Religion... A mediation of spiritual insight and conventional cultural knowledge through traditions employing myth and ritual. These systems of belief may involve some combination of the following elements:

  • involves ceremonies commemorating/sanctioning events like birth, marriage, death
  • involves belief in supernaturalism
  • involves a code of conduct
  • involves a belief about what happens when our bodies die
  • involves belief in a God
  • involves a meatphysical explanation of the universe
  • involves a set of beliefs about the purpose or meaning of life
  • involves a set of beliefs that are poorly supported by generally accepted factual knowledge

The conservative nature of many religions not only preserves the accumulated
wisdom of its tradition but also cultural knowledge which may clash with more progressive ideas. This can range from anything from supernatural versus scientific explanations; social norms based on sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation; or even schisms within the religion tradition itself. These conflicts are perpetuated by framing the devotion of faith as unquestioning loyalty and acceptance of unchallenged ideas and beliefs. This in turn sometimes leads to uncharitable characterizations of both "faith" and "religion".

Prayer... Opening your heart to another, however you might symbolize or conceptualize it--engaging your buddha-nature, communing with God, etc. While it is often associated with magical thinking, prayer is not necessarily a kind of summoning charm or spell used to request favors or attention from a supernatural agent. On a socio-cultural level of analysis, prayer is a means of expressing solidarity and consideration even when there is no practical avenue
of expressing such unity and concern. For those who view existence through our interrelatedness and see a fundamental connection in the ultimate dimension (i.e. the union of tathata through sunyata), prayers can be most efficatious as we are in a sense all intimately and immediately connected.

Buddhist prayer can include (but is not limited to): silent meditation and reflection on being present; reciting a mantra, dharani, or gatha; prostrations or walking meditation; visualization methods generating compassion.

Myth ...An epic story using familiar cultural themes and symbols ideally suited for conveying meaning not properly expressed in other forms of communication (for example emotional or spiritual sentiments). The value of myth is ahistorical (that is it isn't revelant whether one can prove it really happened at such and such a place at such and such a time).

Sunyata (Emptiness)... There is no direct equivalent to the concept in English. In older publications the term was translated as "Void". The current preference in translation is "Emptiness". It refers to the lack of an instrinsic reality. In Buddhism to say something is empty is not to deny its existence or any meaning to its existence (nihilism) but rather to deny it has an eternal, unchanging, independent existence. Emptiness itself can also be represented as the "dimension" in which existence occurs, that which provides "room" for the perpetual flow of time and space. It is often compared to the term/concept Tao.

Tathata (Suchness) ... Translated as "Suchness", "Thatness", "Is-ness" or just "That Which Is". It is the cumulative tally of all form. It is that which arises from the potential that is provided by Sunyata. Hence all form is empty.

Skandhas ...The elements which in Buddhist philosophical analysis make up an individual, including 1) form, 2) cognition, 3) perception, 4) mental formations, and 5) consciousness. Buddhism focuses on showing that each of these skndhas is in fact empty, thereby demonstrating the teaching of no-self.

Pratitya-Samutpada (Dependent Co-Arising) ...Also known as "Dependent Origination", it refers to the fact that any form is interconnected to and dependent on other forms. These forms are then turned into phenomena by the sentient mind and create a twelve-step set of links in which we can define "the self" through a developmental progression: 1) Ignorance, 2) Karmic Actions (actions based on ignorance), 3) Consciousness (but without full awareness), 4) developmeny of Mind and Body, 5) development of Senses, 6) formation of Impressions, 7) formation of Feelings/Attitudes, 8) development of Craving/Desire for that which feels good and seems proper), 9) development of Clinging (to moments and experiences which we desire), 10) Becoming (though the discriminating mind/indentifying ourselves by our desires, attitudes, etc.), 11) Birth (or Rebirth as we are challenged and faced with impermanence), 12) Old Age & Death (suffering followed by the the end of the self). This is typically seen in Buddism as a circular pattern rather than a linear one, so that the process repeats itself. Ignorance and Karmic Actions continually fuel the repeating pattern. This is known as samsara. Some traditions view this as describing our entire physical life as a sentient biological organism, i.e. from the time you left your mother's womb until your heart and brain stop functioning. However, the elements are merely basis for the construction of a sense of an intrinsic self and begin with ignorance. Hence the cycle can begin at any time and repeat as often as ignorance and karmic actions persist.

Samsara ...The cycle of suffering through birth and death caused by ignorance and karmic actions. The cycle involves the creation of a sense of intrinsic self connected to psychological or biological factors as outlined in the twelve links of the dependent origination of suffering.

Conditioned Existence ...The world of phenomena created by the sentient mind to map out and make sense of form. It has three characteristics or "marks" which are 1) impermanence, 2) no-self, and 3) suffering. These are also referred to as the Three Dharma Seals. All phenomena are "conditioned" in the sense of being a part of an interconnected causal network.

Anitya (Impermanence) ...The nature of form, based on the idea of Sunyata. Form is constantly arising and falling away, forever changing. The only constant is change.

Anatman (No-Self) ...The idea that there is no enduring or constant form which can be identified as the "self", either physically or in terms of an "immortal soul".

Dukkha (Suffering) ...The anxiety and anguish caused by failing to fully appreciate or accept impermanence, especially the lack of an unchanging form that we can identify as the self (as demonstrated by observing birth, disease, old age, and death).

Trishna (Attachment) ...The most used translation is "Attachment", although "Obsession", "Unhealthy Fixation", or "Craving" may help to flesh out the concept. Specifically it refers to attachment to delusions born of lack of acceptance of impermanence, which in turn causes suffering. This may be manifested as anger, greed, or igmorance.

Nirvana (Liberation) ...A direct translation would be "Extinction" or "Blowing Out", which in the context of Buddhism naturally applies to attachment and suffering. Hence it also is translated as "Liberation"
from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Dharma (Teachings) ...A word with several meanings, including form(s), law, teachings, and a synonym for the combination of Sunyata and Tathata are just a few examples. Among the primary teachings of Buddhism are: the three marks of form (also called conditioned existence), which refer to impermanence (anitya), no-self (anatman), and suffering (dukkha); the four noble truths, which refers to the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering or attachment (trishna), liberation from suffering (nirvana), and the path to liberation (a.k.a. the eightfold path); the eightfold path to libertation, including 1) skillful perspective/understanding and 2) skillful intention/thougth representing wisdom, 3) skillful speech, 4) skillful conduct, and 5) skillful employment representing ethics, and 6) skillful persistence/effort, 7) skillful mindfulness, and 8) skillful concentration representing focused awareness.

Prajna (Wisdom) ...Frequently translated as "Wisdom", it encompasses two of the steps of the eightfol path, 1) skillful perspective/understanding (samma ditthi) and 2) skillful intention/thought (samma sankappa).

Sila (Ethics) ...Frequently translated as "Ethics" or "Morality", it encompasses three of the steps of the eightfold path, 3) skillfull speech (samma vaca), 4) skillful conduct (sama kammanta), and 5) skillful employment (samma ajiva).

Samadhi (Focus) ...Sometimes translated as "Concentration" it can also be thought of as more generally as "Focused Awareness" encompassing three of the steps of the eightfold path, 6) skillful persistence/effort (samma vayama), 7) skillful mindfulness (samma sati), and 8) skillful concentration (samma samadhi).

Precepts ...A code of conduct cultivating and reflecting the principles of basic Buddhist teachings. Monks may take over one hundred precepts, but the five essential precepts for all practioners are: 1) Refrain from killing/Respect life 2) Refrain from stealing/Exhibit trustworthiness 3) Refrain from sexual misconduct/respect sexuality 4) Refrain from harmful speech/Exhibit generosity kindfulness 5) Refrain from abusing intoxicants/Exhibit moderation in consumption.

Paramitas ...Commonly translated as "Perfections" but more directly translating as "reaching the other shore", they refer to the qualities of our inherent Buddha-nature we can develop and include dana (generosity), sila (ethics), ksanti (patience), virya (enthusiasm or effort), dhyana (meditation), and prajna (wisdom).

Buddha ...One who lives an enlightened existence. It is an Indian term that predates Siddhartha Guatama, the prince-turned-sage who is often known as "the Buddha", or Buddha Shakyamuni (sage of the Shakyas, the ethnic group into which Siddhartha was born). Some Buddhist sutras speak of an unfantomable number of Buddhas, and according to the teaching that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, everyone is either a realized or unrealized Buddha.

Tathagata ...Translated as "The Thus-Come One" or more accurately "The Thus-Coming Thus-Going One", it is a title for the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.

Buddha-nature ...You must see for yourself. It is often conceptualized as "our true face" or as that common quality which unites all forms beyond form, or represented through the symbolism of different mythical Buddhas and Bodhisattvas demonstrating our capacity to live enlightened lives as Buddhas through discovering Bodhi. Yet perceiving your own Buddha-nature goes beyond these expedient means.

Dharmakaya ...Sometimes referred to as "Dharma-Body", it has the connotation of a supreme reality which goes beyond the historical dimensions of space and time but which is also present everywhere. It can be conjectured that Dharmakya is a complete view of reality (implying that the world of form is not complete) which includes emptiness, that is, perceiving the union of form and formlessness as completing one another--Sunyata as Tathata and Tathata as Sunyata--form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In Mahayana and Vajrayana literature Dharmakaya is sometimes alluded to as the true eternal Self or absolute Self as opposed to the (illusory) conventional self composed of the five skandhas.

Bodhi ...Awakening to Buddha-nature (i.e. enlightenment).

Bodhisattva ...framed in Western religious terms the mythic Bodhisattvas are somewhere between patron saints and guardian angels. They typically are represented as epitmozing a certain ideal quality or virtue based on the specific nature of how they have vowed to save sentient beings. The bodhisattva is one who chooses to return to the world of form and its cycles of birth and death in order to assist other sentient beings to realize their own buddha-nature and accept liberation from suffering, or nirvana. The bodhisattva ideal is frequently associated with the form of Buddhism that spread through China and into Japan and southeast Asia (Mahayana) as well as the form that moved through central Asia into Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia (Vajrayana). In less mythical/symbolic terms the bodhisattva is similar (but not identical) to the label of arhat, which is often associated with the form of Buddhism that spread through southern Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia (Theravada).

Arhat ...Often translated as "Stream-Enterer", refering to the symbolism in Buddhism of wading through the river of doubt and temptation to reach "the other shore", or liberation from suffering. A rough equivalent in Western culture would be a living saint.

Shramanera ...A novice Buddhist monk.

Bhikkhu ...A fully ordained (male) Buddhist monk (female: Bhikkhuni).

Upasika ...A (female) lay Buddhist who has taken refuge in the Triple Gem, that is, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (male: Upasaka).

Triple Gem ...Referring to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Buddha is to honor Shakyamuni Buddha as a great teacher and to recognize our own Buddha-nature. Taking refuge in the Dharma is honoring the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and recognizing their truth in our own lives. Taking refuge in the Sangha is honoring our fellow Buddhists and recognizing the value of their support and encouragement.

Sangha ...Traditionally it referred to the Buddhist monastic community but in the West especially it has come to refer to both monks and lay Buddhists, more akin to the Western terms congregation or church.

Tripitaka (Three Baskets) ...The three bodies of Buddhist scripture, including the Vinaya Pitaka (monastic codes of conduct), the Sutra Pitaka (stories about the life and teachings of the Buddha), and the Abhidharma Pitaka (philosophical treatises about Buddhist teachings).

Vinaya ...Monastic code of conduct for Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

Sutra ...Literally translates as "Thread". Sutras are the primary means of explaining and teaching the dharma to lay Buddhists, generally presented in a particular style and format. The Buddha or a Bodhisattva (the perfect teacher) gives a perfect teaching at the perfect place at the perfect time to the perfect audience. Often in the story a group has assembled to hear a teaching and on their behalf an enlightened person will ask the teacher to explain a particular topic. Sutras can be as short as one page or as long as several hundred. Popular sutras in the West include the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Smaller Sukhavati Sutra, the Longer Sukhavati Sutra, the Visualization Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Platform Sutra.

Abhidharma ...A collection of philosophical treatises about Buddhist teachings.

Upaya (Expedient Means) ...Frequently translated as "Expedient Means" or "Skillful Methods", it refers to teachings or practices which may be useful, especially for beginners, but may not be completely correct or accurate. Much of Buddhism itself is often referred to in this way, comparing itself to a raft to get to the other shore, a means to an end but not the end in and of itself.

Buddha-field ...A realm sustained by a Buddha. In different sutras there are references to endless numbers of Buddha-fields occupied by endless numbers of Buddhas. Some define this in other-worldly terms akin to other dimensions. Another view, or a more this-worldly perspective, is that even when "seeing reality as it is" each person has a unique perspective. As our view of the world becomes clearer and we become more familiar with our Buddha-nature, our unique relationship to existence is a Buddha-field.

Karma ...The effects of actions based on ignorance, specifically ignorance concerning the lack of an intrinsic or unchanging self. Ignorance leads to the delusion of an independent, static identity which then reinforces ignorance in a cyclic fashion.

Merit ...The virtue produced by enlightened action, it is the opposite of karma, or actions based on ignorance and their effects. Merit can effectively purify or neutralize the suffering caused by ignorance. While some talk about transferring merit, the shared benefit of activities producing merit is both automatic and instantaneous.

Mala ...Also known as Juzu (Japanese), a string of prayer beads commonly used for counting during recitations of mantras, dharanis, or gathas.

Mantra ...A phrase in Sanskrit which is recited to invoke a particular virtue or quality and produce merit.

Dharani ...A phrase or prayer recited to invoke a particular virtue or quality and produce merit.

Gatha ...A stylistic component or element of a sutra similar to a stanza or quatrain in a poem.

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