Glossary of Buddhist Terms

Awakening (bodhi in Pali and Sanskrit) –The word buddha means ‘awakened one.’ In traditional Buddhism, someone who is awakened (or has achieved enlightenment) has moved beyond suffering and is free from the afflictive emotions of greed, hatred, and delusion. After his enlightenment, the Buddha was recognized by those around him as an extraordinary being and said, “I am awake.” A more contemporary view is less about achieving enlightenment in this lifetime and positions awakening as a meditative experience during which the meditator has clear seeing or gains insight into the fluid and interconnected reality of our existence. This altered state of consciousness may be only momentary yet may have a formative effect on the meditator.

Anapanasati – Mindfulness of breathing. A core meditation practice of Theravada Buddhism and the most widely used method for contemplating bodily phenomena.

Beginner’s Mind — A mind that is open to the experience of the moment, free of conceptual overlays; first made popular by the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi.

Bhikkhu – A Buddhist monk.

Brahma Viharas – The Pali and Sanskrit term meaning divine abodes or sacred dwellings. The Brahma Viharas are the four mind states of the awakening mind: metta (universal friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy or genuine happiness at the joy or achievements of others), and upekkha (equanimity or emotional balance in the face of both good fortune and bad. These mind states can be cultivated through meditation practice.

Buddha – A title meaning ‘one who is awake’. The Buddha refers to the historical Buddha, Gotama, who lived around 480–400 BCE in the Ganges region of what is now northeast India. He achieved a powerful awakening experience around the age of 35 and from then until his death 45 years later refined his teaching in the course of instructing others on the path to awakening.

Buddhism – A religion and philosophy based on the original teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha, who lived in northern India 2500 years ago. Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to insight about the nature of reality and development of the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom.

Three Characteristics of Existence – Buddhist teachings emphasize that all physical and mental phenomena share three characteristics or marks of existence. We experience life as: 1) Imperfect (dukkha in Pali) in that we all experience suffering; 2) Impermanent (anicca in Pali), in that everything changes, nothing stays the same; and 3) Impersonal (anatta in Pali) in that life is interconnected and there is no enduring independent self. These characteristics are part of everything we experience.

Conditionality – Also known as conditioned arising or dependent origination. Conditionality is the philosophical idea that all elements of our experience, including both mental and physical phenomena, arise and pass away depending on causes and conditions and that our present conditions are in a constant state of change. Insight into conditionality contributes toward awareness of the fluid, unfolding and interconnected nature of life, including our own lives.

Dana – A word meaning generosity in both Pali and Sanskrit. In Buddhist tradition, teachers receive no fee for service, sharing their experience and learning for free. This is their dana. Those who receive the teachings reciprocate by making donations to the teacher and/or Sangha in the knowledge that, without their generosity, the teachings will cease to exist.

Dharma (Sanskrit, dhamma in Pali) – The teachings of the Buddha. More generally, the term can mean ‘the truth’ or ‘the way things are’, or even ‘the law’ (in the sense of a law of nature).

Dukkha (Pali) – Most commonly translated as suffering. The First Noble Truth acknowledges the reality of suffering. One of three characteristics of existence.

Enlightenment – See awakening.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness – The Pali word, satipatthana, means ‘the focuses of awareness’ and is often translated as the four foundations (or focuses) of mindfulness. These are: 1) the body – the sensations we experience through our physical senses; 2) feeling tones – the instant reaction (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) we have to everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or think of; 3) mind – our emotions, moods and other mind states; and 4) dhammas or phenomena – the systematic contemplation of our direct experience.

Five Hindrances – These are five negative mental states that can affect both meditation practice and daily life. The five hindrances are: sensual desire (craving stimulation of any of our senses), ill will (or aversion), sloth (lethargy or mental dullness), restlessness (including boredom or anxiety), and doubt.  Hindrances arise from our own mental habits, and we need to engage with them rather than push them away. When we experience a hindrance, it is helpful to simply notice what is happening in the moment and name the hindrance. Placing attention on the hindrance without judgment can help quiet its impact.

Impermanence (anicca in Pali) – all mental and physical phenomena change; nothing stays the same. One of three characteristics of existence.

Karma (Sanskrit, kamma in Pali) – An action or deed. An intentional action, either wholesome or unwholesome that brings either pleasant or unpleasant results respectively.

Three Kleshas – Sometimes called the three afflictions, these are the three negative emotions that cause us the most suffering. They are: greed (or attachment), hatred (or aversion), and delusion (or ignorance and confusion).

Metta – Pali word meaning unconditional friendliness, for self and others. Metta is often translated as loving kindness. Metta is the first of the brahma viharas and is foundational to dharmic ethics. The cultivation of metta is a meditation practice known as metta bhāvana or metta development.

Mindfulness – The conventional translation of the Pali word, Sati. Mindfulness is a central word in dharma teachings that means to both notice and allow (without judgment) whatever experience is occurring in present moment. Through mindfulness, we may pay attention to a thought, a feeling, physical sensations, or the environment around us. Curiosity and non-judgmental awareness of our present moment can lead to insight into now we experience life and bring us closer to living with more balance.

Four Noble Truths – Traditional Buddhism holds that the Buddha offered the Four Noble Truths in his first teaching: 1) There is suffering in life; craving is the cause of suffering; 3) The end of suffering is possible; and 4) The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.  Contemporary scholarship sometimes frames these as actions to be taken or Four Great Tasks: 1) Embrace life, including the difficulties that all humans face; 2) Let go of greed, hatred, and delusion; 3. Pause to experience, even momentarily, freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion; 4) Cultivate the eightfold path.

Not Self (Anatta in Pali) – The absence of an enduring or permanent self. We exist in a state of change rather than as a fixed entity. This is different than ‘no self,’ which suggests the self does not exist. Buddhist teaching recognizes a developing self who practices the dharma. One of three characteristics of existence.

Noble Eightfold Path – A summary of eight practices that are central to the Buddhist path to uprooting the causes of suffering: Wise View (understanding), Wise Intention (resolve), Wise Speech (abstinence from false, harsh, or idle speech and thought), Wise Action (abstinence from destruction of life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct), Wise Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration

Pali – The language in which ancient Buddhist texts known as the Pali Canon were written. Pali is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism.

Three Refuges – Three inspirations or orientations that support the dharma practitioner: 1) Sangha (community), 2) Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), 3) Buddha (our potential to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.)

Sangha – A word in Pali and Sanskrit that means community. Sangha can be understood as the process by which people come together to pursue a common interest such as spiritual development. Spiritual friends who accompany and support us on our spiritual path.

Samadhi – A state of concentration characterized by stable attention. Both samadhi (stable attention) and sati (mindfulness) are necessary for vipassana (insight or clear seeing).

Sankhara – Mental or physical formations or the starting point from which we undertake dharma practice. Our foibles, obsessions, phobias, and other influences, often unconscious, that we are engaged in transforming through practice.

Sati – The Pali word for mindfulness.

Sutta/Sutra (Pali/Sanscrit) – A discourse by the Buddha or one of his disciples.

Theravada – Theravada is a form of Buddhism prominent in southeast Asia. Its doctrines are taken from the Pali Canon, and its basic teachings begin with the Four Noble Truths. Vipassana or insight is the meditative tradition of Theravada.  Vipassana was introduced in the United States by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, among others.

Vipassana – To see clearly; insight meditation. Vipassana is the direct practice of moment-to-moment awareness; sustained, intentional observation of how we experience the flow of our mind-body process.