Glossary of Buddhist Terms

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(Chinese: 阿毘達磨) Sanskrit for “higher teachings.” It is the philosophical treatment of the Buddha’s teachings in which the Buddha’s leading students tried to categorically organize and understand such teachings, and it is the third “basket” of the Buddhist Canon, or Tripitaka. There were at least seven versions of Abhidharma from different early Buddhist schools, but two exist today. One is the Pali version of the Theravada school. Another, from the Sarvastivada school, exists only in Chinese translation.
Amitabha Buddha
(Chinese: 阿彌陀佛) The Buddha of boundless light and boundless life. Amitabha is one of the most popular Buddhas for devotion among Mahayana Buddhists. He presides over the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.
(Chinese: 阿難陀) Great disciple of the Buddha. He was the Buddha’s cousin, and then long-time attendant. He is said to have committed all the Buddha’s discourses to memory.
animal realm
See six realms of existence.
(Chinese: 央掘摩羅) A monastic disciple of the Buddha. Before he became a monastic he was a serial killer who attempted to murder the Buddha. After meeting the Buddha he mended his horrific ways and eventually attained full awakening.
anuttara samyaksambodhi
(Chinese: 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提) A Sanskrit term meaning complete, unexcelled enlightenment; an attribute of all Buddhas.
asura realm
See six realms of existence.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
(Chinese: 觀世音菩薩) The bodhisattva of compassion, whose name in Sanskrit means “Observing the sounds of the world.” He is known as one of the great bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, and is very popular throughout China.


(Chinese: 菩提) Literally, “awakening.”
(Chinese: 菩提達摩) First patriarch of the Chan School, who is said to have brought Chan from India to China.
(Chinese: 菩薩) While the term can describe a practitioner anywhere on the path to Buddhahood, it usually refers to a class of beings who stand on the very edge of full awakening, but remain in the world to help other beings become awakened.
(Chinese: 佛) Sanskrit for “awakened one.” Though there are many Buddhas, the term typically refers to Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism. Buddhahood is the attainment and expression that characterizes a Buddha and the ultimate goal of all sentient beings.
Buddha nature
(Chinese: 佛性) The capacity to become a Buddha that is inherent to all living beings.
Buddha’s Light International Association
(Chinese: 國際佛光會) A lay-oriented Buddhist organization founded by Master Hsing Yun in 1991.


causes and conditions
(Chinese: 因緣) See karma.
(Chinese: 禪宗) A school of Buddhism relying on meditative concentration for the path to liberation. “Chan” is also used to describe the aesthetic and way of life that developed out of this school.
Consciousness-Only School
(Chinese: 唯識宗) One of two primary Mahayana schools that developed in India and asserted that all phenomena originate from consciousness. The school subsequently had major influences on Buddhist thought in China, Japan, and Tibet.
cycle of birth and death
(Chinese: 生死) This phrase refers to the idea that all beings are continually reborn in and among the six realms of existence until they reach nirvana.


Deer Park
(Chinese: 鹿野苑) This area is where the Buddha gave his first sermon.
dependent origination
(Chinese: 緣起) The Buddhist concept that all phenomena arise due to causes and conditions. The central principle that phenomena do not come into existence independently but only as a result of causes and conditions; thus, no phenomena possesses an independent self-nature. This concept is also referred to as interdependence. The twelve factors of dependent origination are ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name and form, the six sense organs, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and death. The term is also sometimes used to specifically refer to the chain of causes that result in suffering, sickness, and death.
(Chinese: 提婆達多) A monastic disciple of the Buddha and the Buddha’s cousin. Devadatta is characterized as a wicked man who was jealous of the Buddha and wished to seize control of the sangha. He attempted to murder the Buddha several times and created schisms within the sangha.
(Chinese: 天) Celestial beings made of light that reside in the heavenly realms of rebirth.
(Chinese: 陀羅尼) A passage from the Buddhist sutras which is chanted to grant blessings.
(Chinese: 法) Refers to the Buddha’s teachings, as well as the truth of the universe. When capitalized, it means the ultimate truth and the teachings of the Buddha. When the Dharma is applied or practiced in life it is referred to as righteousness or virtue. When it appears with a lowercase “d,” it refers to anything that can be thought of, experienced, or named; close in meaning to “phenomena.”
(Chinese: 法身) One of the three “bodies” of the Buddha. The Dharmakaya is the aspect of the Buddha that is present throughout all of existence.
(Chinese: 禪定) A state of meditative absorption. When the Buddha describes right concentration, he often refers specifically to eight types of dhyana. The first four signify ever deepening states of tranquility, while the last four refer to formless states, including the states of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither thought nor non-thought.


(Chinese: 空) A Buddhist doctrine that all phenomena have no essence or permanent aspect whatsoever. Consequently, everything that exists in the world is due to dependent origination and has no permanent self or substance.
(Chinese: 悟) The state of awakening to the Ultimate Truth—freedom from all afflictions and sufferings.
Esoteric School of Buddhism
(Chinese: 密宗) One of eight traditional schools in Chinese Buddhism and also associated with one the three major traditions in Buddhism known as Vajrayana. The Esoteric School is characterized by its use of practices with mudras, mantras, and mandalas.
Eightfold Path
(Chinese: 八聖道分) See Noble Eightfold Path.
eight precepts
(Chinese: 八關齋戒) Special precepts taken by lay people while on retreat. They include the five precepts in addition to precepts to refrain from personal adornments like jewelry, watching singing and dancing, and sleeping on fine beds.


five aggregates
(Chinese: 五蘊) The five aggregates make up a human being. They are form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.
five precepts
(Chinese: 五戒) The most fundamental set of Buddhist precepts, or rules of moral conduct, observed by lay and monastic Buddhists alike. They are to refrain from killing, to refrain from stealing, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to refrain from lying, and to refrain from consuming intoxicants. There are several sets of precepts, with the five precepts being the most basic and fundamental. There are also a set of eight precepts for practitioners on retreat, ten precepts for novice monastics, and 250 precepts and 348 for male and female monastics.
Fo Guang Shan
(Chinese: 佛光山) Literally, “Buddha’s Light Mountain,” it is the largest Buddhist order and temple system in Taiwan. Founded in 1967 by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, Fo Guang Shan’s main temple and monastery is about thirty-five miles from Kaohsiung.
four great mountains of Chinese Buddhism
(Chinese: 四大名山) These are Wutai Shan (Five-Terraced Mountain), Emei Shan (High and Lofty Mountain), Jiuhua Shan (Nine Glories Mountain), and Putuo Shan (Mount Potalaka). These have been important sites for Buddhist pilgrimage. Each of the four sacred peaks is said to be home to a great bodhisattva: Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Kisitgarbha, and Avalokitesvara, respectively.
Four Noble Truths
(Chinese: 四聖諦) A fundamental and essential teaching of Buddhism that describes the presence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
four reliances
(Chinese: 四依止) Four guidelines for Buddhist practitioners to stay on the Path. They are to rely on the Dharma, not on an individual teacher; rely on wisdom, not on knowledge; rely on the meaning, not on the words; and rely on ultimate truth, not on relative truth.
four universal vows
(Chinese: 四弘誓願) Four vows that are said to initiate the seed of awakening in a practitioner if sincerely taken to heart. They are (1) sentient beings are infinite; I vow to liberate them, (2) afflictions are endless; I vow to eradicate them, (3) dharmas are inexhausable; I vow to study them, (4) Buddhahood is supreme; I vow to attain it.


(Chinese: 公案) Also known in Japanese as koan. Literally “public notice” in Chinese that originally referred to a legal precedent. However, this became a term adopted by the Chan tradition to refer to a phrase, or question and answer exchange that points to an essential paradox. Contemplation of a gongan is aimed at transcending logical or conceptual assumptions in order to intuit the ultimate reality of emptiness.
Guan Yin
See Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.


Heart Sutra
(Chinese: 般若波羅蜜多心經) More common name for the Mahaprajnaparamita Heart Sutra. One of, if not, the most popular and widely known sutras among Mahayana Buddhists. Despite its short length, the sutra refers to all of Buddhism’s most central teachings.
heavenly realms
Buddhism describes many different heavenly realms that are possible to enter in the cycle of birth and death. These are considered one range of possible rebirth within the six realms of existence.
The lowest of the six realms of existence. There are many hell realms. In all of them suffering is so intense that little, or no, progress can be made toward enlightenment. Avici hell (Skt. “without waves”) is said to be the worst of all the levels of suffering.
(Chinese: 惠能) The Sixth Patriarch of the Chan school of Buddhism and the subject of the Platform Sutra, one of the school’s most influential texts.
Humanistic Buddhism
(Chinese: 人間佛教) Buddhism practiced in a way that is engaged with the world and life-affirming. Major tenets include the integration of Buddhism with life and the creation of a “pure land on Earth.” Venerable Master Hsing Yun is a proponent of Humanistic Buddhism.
human realm
See six realms of existence.
hungry ghost
(Chinese: 餓鬼)This is considered one mode of rebirth in the six realms of existence for those that die with large amounts of cravings.


(Chinese: 無常) Describes a process of how all phenomena cannot remain fixed and constant, but undergo a process of arising, change, and extinction.There is not one single thing in this world that remains unchanging and exists forever.


(Chinese: 東勝身洲) The terrestrial world in Buddhist cosmology where human beings reside.


(Chinese: 劫) An Indic unit of time measurement. A kalpa is an incalculably long period of time spanning the creation and destruction of the universe.
(Chinese: 業) Encompasses all wholesome and unwholesome actions, speech, and thoughts along with their effects. The term literally means “action,” though it is much more commonly used to describe the entirety of the Buddhist view of cause and effect. The Buddha stated that the causes, conditions, and rebirth that we encounter in the future are effects of our previous thoughts, words, and deeds. The term “causes and conditions” is used to analyze causal relationships in a Buddhist context. In this form of analysis, a cause denotes the major factor which produces an effect. A condition is a factor whose presence allows for a cause to produce a given effect. In the cause and effect phenomena of the growth of a plant, the seed is the cause, the sprouting of the seed is the effect, and factors such as the soil, sunlight, and water are the necessary conditions.
King Suddhodana
(Chinese: 浄飯王) Sakyamuni Buddha’s father.
(Chinese: 刹那) Buddhist term describing a moment; the smallest possible unit of time.
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva
(Chinese: 地藏菩薩) The bodhisattva of vows and one of the great bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed to go to the hell realm and remain there helping everyone until all sentient beings are released.
(Chinese: 鳩摩羅什) (344-413) Sino-Indian Buddhist monk and a prolific sutra translator. Many of his sutra translations are still commonly chanted in Buddhist services today.


lotus position
Commonly suggested seated meditation position for those with enough flexibility to do it, which provides ideal stability to sit for long periods of time. It is done by crossing the legs with each foot sitting on top of the opposite thigh. This is also the position in which nearly every seated Buddha figure is portrayed.
Lotus Sutra
(Chinese: 妙法蓮華經) One of the most popular and honored texts in Mahayana Buddhism, which includes many easy-to-understand parables to explain deep and profound concepts.
lower realms of existence
(Chinese: 惡道) Refers to the lower three realms in the six realms of existence.
(Chinese: 嵐毘尼) Birthplace of Sakyamuni Buddha.


(Chinese: 大迦葉) One of the ten great disciples of the Buddha. He is known as foremost in ascetic practices, and is considered the first patriarch of the Chan School of Buddhism.
(Chinese: 大乘) Literally, “Great Vehicle” and one of the major categories of Buddhism. Mahayana promotes the idea of the bodhisattva path, striving to end the suffering of all sentient beings. Mahayana speaks of many Buddhas throughout the cosmos and asserts that we all have Buddha nature.
(Chinese: 摩尼寶珠) Literally, “circle,” geometrically arranged art which helps portray various Buddha realms and represents processes of contemplative practice.
mani pearl
(Chinese: 摩尼寶珠) An orb said to represent the greatness, virtue, and power of a Buddha.
Manjusri Bodhisattva
(Chinese: 文殊師利菩薩) The bodhisattva of wisdom, often depicted with a sword that symbolizes cutting through ignorance.
(Chinese: 咒) A sound or a particular group of syllables or words used as a concentration device or incantation formula, sometimes said to provide some sort of protection or power.
(Chinese: 魔) A malevolent being that embodies desire and is an adversary of the Buddha. The name is also used to refer to mental qualities that impede spiritual progress.
(Chinese: 目犍連) Great disciple of the Buddha known for his supernatural powers and great filial piety.
Medicine Buddha
(Chinese: 藥師佛) Also known as Bhaisajyaguru, the Buddha of healing. He presides over the Eastern Pure Land.

(Chinese: 福德) Blessings that occur because of wholesome deeds.
Middle Way
(Chinese: 中道) The path between the extremes of hedonism and extreme asceticism taught by the Buddha.
(Chinese: 手印) Various hand positions or gestures one can see on statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and in certain Buddhist practices, which each convey different meanings.
(Chinese: 念) One part of the Noble Eightfold Path. Literally translated from the Pali texts, it simply refers to the exercise of remembering or keeping something in mind. However, Buddhist meditation texts and traditions expound many methods on how to use mindfulness as a technique to both settle and develop the different aspects of the mind.


(Chinese: 龍樹) (ca. 150-250 CE) Born in Southern India in the second or third century. He is the founder of the Madhyamika School and the author of many commentaries and treatises. His famous works include Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom, Treatise on the Middle Way, the Merits of Right Deeds Sutra, and many more. Therefore, he was given the title “Master of a Thousand Commentaries.” He is one of Buddhism’s most influential philosophers.
(Chinese: 涅槃) A state of perfect tranquility that is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. The original meaning of this word is “extinguished, calmed, quieted, tamed, or dead.” In Buddhism, it refers to the absolute extinction of individual existence, or of all afflictions and desires; it is the state of liberation beyond birth and death.
Noble Eightfold Path
(Chinese: 八聖道分) The path leading to enlightenment taught by Sakyamuni Buddha. It includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative concentration.
(Chinese: 無二) See emptiness.
(Chinese: 無我) (Skt. anatman) A basic concept in Buddhism that says that all phenomena and beings in the world have no real, permanent, and substantial self. Everything arises, abides, changes, and extinguishes based on the law of dependent origination.


oxherding pictures
(Chinese: 十牛) A series of ten illustrations used particularly within the Chan School to represent the path to awakening.


Ultimate nirvana. This phrase often refers to the physical death of the Buddha, when all his ties to karma were completely unbound.
(Chinese: 辟支佛) One who attains enlightenment on his or her own, without having heard the teachings of a Buddha.
(Chinese: 戒) Rules of moral conduct taught by the Buddha. The most fundamental set of precepts is the “five precepts,” observed by lay and monastic Buddhists alike. They are to refrain from killing, to refrain from stealing, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to refrain from lying, and to refrain from consuming intoxicants. See five precepts or eight precepts.
(Chinese: 般若) Sanskrit for “wisdom.” Typically referring to a transcendent variety of wisdom that comes from seeing the true nature of reality. Prajna wisdom is considered the highest form of wisdom, the wisdom of insight into the true nature of all phenomena.
Pure Land
(Chinese: 净土) A transcendent realm created through the power of a Buddha’s vow to help ease the suffering of living beings, should they choose to be reborn there. One of the most commonly discussed pure lands is the “Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.” The realm where Amitabha Buddha presides. It came into existence due to Amitahba Buddha’s forty-eight great vows. Sentient beings can make a vow to be reborn there, where they can practice without obstructions until they attain enlightenment.


Queen Maya
(Chinese: 摩耶夫人) Sakyamuni Buddha’s mother.


See cycle of birth and death.
(Chinese: 皈依) The act of taking the Triple Gem as one’s guide in life; a commitment to the Buddhist path.


Saha World
(Chinese: 娑婆世界) Literally “land of endurance.” It indicates the present world where we reside, which is full of suffering to be endured. The beings in this world endure suffering and afflictions due to their greed, anger, hatred, and ignorance. Also referred to as “samsara,” or the cycle of birth and death.
Sakyamuni Buddha
(Chinese: 釋迦牟尼佛) Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and founder of the religion known today as Buddhism. The name “Sakyamuni” means “sage of the Sakyans,” which was the name of his clan. He was born the prince of Kapilavastu, son of King Suddhodana. At the age of twenty-nine, he left the royal palace and his family in search of the meaning of existence. At the age of thirty-five, he attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. He then spent the next forty-five years expounding his teachings, which include the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the law of cause and effect, and dependent origination. At the age of eighty, he entered the state of parinirvana.
(Chinese: 僧) The community of Buddhist monks and nuns. Traditionally there were two definitions of sangha. One referred to anyone fully ordained. The second, the “Arya Sangha,” referred to anyone, whether ordained or lay, who reached the first stage of enlightenment. Although in modern times, some groups refer to the whole Buddhist community as the “sangha,” traditionally, the word for Buddhist community was “parisa.”
(Chinese: 舍利弗) One of the ten great disciples of the Buddha. He is known as foremost in wisdom.
(Chinese: 說一切有部) An early Buddhist School which fluorished in Northern India. They promoted the value of the bodhisattva path, and the view that the Dharmakaya is the most pure form of the Buddha, accessible to all.
six perfections
(Chinese: 六度) In the Mahayana tradition, it is taught that bodhisattvas must master six perfections on their way to buddhahood: giving, morality, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and prajna-wisdom. The Sanskrit word for perfection also comes from root words meaning “to cross over,” denoting passage to the other shore of the tranquility of nirvana.
six realms of existence
(Chinese: 六道) Used to describe the basic Buddhist cosmological scheme. The “six realms of existence” refers to possible destinations of rebirth, and includes heaven, the asura realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, and hell. The six realms also indicate all the modes of existence in which some form of suffering is endured due to their greed, anger, hatred, and ignorance. When sentient beings die, they are reborn into one of the six realms of existence. The cycle continues as a result of one’s karmic actions. Outside of the six realms, exist four additional realms within which beings have transcended suffering: that of the sravaka, pratekyabuddha, bodhisattva, and Buddha. Taken together with the six realms previously mentioned they are called the ten dharma realms.
six sense objects
(Chinese: 六塵) The six senses of human beings are sight (alt. form), sound, smell, taste, touch, and dharmas.
skillful means
(Chinese: 方便) The ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension.
(Chinese: 聲聞) Literally “one who has heard.” A sravaka is one who has been liberated from the cycle of rebirth after listening to the Buddha’s teachings, but does not seek to become a Buddha.
(Chinese: 舍衛國) Ancient Indian city where many of the Buddha’s discourses are said to have taken place.
(Chinese: 真如) A term for the true nature of all things; the pure, original essence of all phenomena.
sudden enlightenment
An abrupt, immediate realization of enlightenment, often due to a skillful teaching by a master. This was a common technique expounded by the Chan school.
(Chinese: 經) A Sanskrit word used to describe a variety of religious and non-religious writings, but most commonly used in a Buddhist context to refer to the recorded discourses of the Buddha.


(Chinese: 如來) One of the ten epithets of a Buddha, literally translated as “Thus Come One,” meaning the one who has attained full realization of “suchness,” true essence, or actuality, i.e., the one dwelling in the absolute, beyond all transitory phenomena, so that he can freely come and go anywhere.
ten dharma realms
(Chinese: 十法界) See six realms of existence.
ten wholesome actions
(Chinese: 十善法) The ten wholesome actions are no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no duplicity, no harsh words, no flattery, no greed, no anger, and no ignorance.
(Chinese: 上座部) One of two primary branches of Buddhism, Mahayana being the other. Theravada Buddhism is the predominate form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and parts of Vietnam.
three Dharma seals
(Chinese: 三法印) Three statements of truth in Buddhism which are universally applicable to all phenomena: (1) All conditioned phenomena are impermanent, (2) All phenomena are without an independent self, and (3) Nirvana is perfect tranquility.
three poisons
(Chinese: 三毒) Seen as the root causes of all suffering: greed, anger, and ignorance.
three thousand-fold world system
(Chinese: 三千大千世界) The Buddhist cosmology containing an infinite number of worlds. Each world has at its center Mt. Sumeru surrounded by seven oceans and seven rings of golden mountains separating them. Outside of this are four continents and eight subcontinents. Humans reside on the southern continent of Jambudvipa. One thousand of these worlds constitute a thousandfold world system. A thousand of these makes up a second-order thousandfold world system. Then, when multiplied a thousand times further, this makes a third-order world system or trichiliocosm, a universe of a billion worlds.
Tiantai School of Buddhism
(Chinese: 天台宗) One of the eight major schools of Chinese Buddhism. Tiantai Buddhism was founded on the Lotus Sutra and emphasized balancing practice and study. One of the school’s main principles is the triple truth derived from Nāgārjuna, which maintains that phenomena are empty of self-nature, phenomena exist provisionally from a worldly perspective, and that phenomena are both empty of existence and exist provisionally.
(Chinese: 三藏) The canon of Buddhist scriptures known as “Three Baskets.” It is divided into three categories: the sutras (teachings of the Buddha), the vinaya (precepts and rules), and the abhidharma (commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings).
Triple Gem
(Chinese: 三寶)The Buddha, the Dharma, and Sangha. Referred to as “gems” to indicate their great value, also called the Triple Jewel, or the Three Jewels. The Buddha is the fully awakened or enlightened one; the Dharma is the teachings imparted by the Buddha; and the Sangha indicates the community of monastic members.
(Chinese: 十二因緣) Central Buddhist doctrine that all phenomena arise due to causes. There are twelve links that describe the series of causes by which old age and death arise in the world: Old age and death arise due to birth, birth arises due to becoming, becoming arises due to clinging, clinging arises due to craving, craving arises due to feeling, feeling arises due to contact, contact arises due to the six sense organs, the six sense organs arise due to name and form, name and form arise due to consciousness, consciousness arises due to mental formations, and mental formations arise due to ignorance.


(Chinese: 優婆離) One of the ten great disciples of teh Buddha, known as the foremost in monastic discipline.


(Chinese: 世親) (320-380) Founded the Yogacara School of Buddhism, along with his brother, Asanga.
(Chinese: 律) System of discipline for monastics.


Western Pure Land (of Ultimate Bliss)
(Chinese: 西方極樂世界) See Pure Land.
wheel of the Dharma
(Chinese: 法輪) A symbol of the Buddha’s teachings. The Dharma wheel rolls forth, crushing all delusions and afflictions. Its roundness is meant to symbolize perfection.
wooden fish
(Chinese: 木魚) A bulbous woodblock-type instrument used in Buddhist liturgical chanting.
World-honored One
(Chinese: 世尊) One of ten epithets of a Buddha. Traced back to the original Sanskrit, loka-natha, it refers to the lord of the worlds, or loka-jyestha, which means the most venerable of the world. Today, it is usually translated as “the World-Honored One.”


(Chinese: 玄奘) (602-664). Prolific Chinese Buddhist translator who traveled to India to recover Buddhist sutras. The events of his pilgrimage were fictionalized into the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.


(Chinese: 閻摩王) King of the Dead; He is said to supervise the hell realm.