A Simple Guide to Key Non-English Terms

A guide to key non-English terms. Many of these definitions, plus a good deal more, can be found in the Lion’s Roar Buddhist Glossary.

AvalokiteshvaraSanskrit — The bodhisattva of compassion. Also widely known by names such as Chenrezig in Tibet, Kanzeon/Kannon in Japan, Kuan Yin or Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism, and others.

BodhichittaSanskrit — “Enlightenment mind”; the state of mind of the bodhisattva, striving toward enlightenment and infused with the compassionate motivation to help others.

BodhisattvaSanskrit — Literally, “enlightenment being.” In Mahayana Buddhism, one who practices with the vow and motivation to put others before oneself, which may include forgoing enlightenment until all others have achieved it. In other Buddhist schools, the term is often used to refer specifically to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, before his enlightenment.

BuddhaSanskrit — Buddhism teaches that we all live in a fog of illusions created by mistaken perceptions and “impurities” — hate, greed, ignorance. “Buddha” is a title for one who is freed from the fog. It is a Sanskrit word that means “a person who is awake.” Buddhas are often also referred to as Tathagata (Sanskrit), “one who has gone. Most of the time, when someone says “the Buddha,” it’s in reference to the historical person who founded Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama.

Devas — Pali — Celestial beings or gods whose good fortune also hinders them from perceiving the truth of suffering, and thus, from attaining full spiritual liberation as well.

Dharma — Sanskrit — The teachings of Buddhism. Can also refer to non-Buddhist teachings and insights.

Karma / kamma — Sanskrit; Pali — The law and workings of cause and effect. The law of karma says that all things are interconnected, all actions have consequences, and all consequences are the result of past actions. Buddhism also teaches that, while karma is very complex, positive actions generally reap positive consequences and negative actions generally reap negative consequences.

Mahayana — Sanskrit — A later development in Buddhism that typically emphasizes the ideal of the bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism, often the goal is liberation for all sentient beings, rather than liberation for individuals. Pure Land and Zen are both examples of Mahayana schools.

Manas — Pali/Sanskrit — the self-cherishing quality of consciousness that clings to phenomena as evidence of a separate self.

Metta — Loving-kindness (Sanskrit: maitri, Pali: metta) is the wish that one finds happiness. It is first of the four divine abodes. Loving-kindness is a popular meditation practice, focused on generating goodwill toward others.

Paticca-samuppada — Pali — “Dependent origination,” the chain of causation. Also known as interdependent origination.

SamsaraSanskrit — The ongoing cycle of life: birth and death and rebirth. Due to our ignorance, we go through this cycle with a sense of suffering and dissatisfaction. Buddhist practice is, to put it very simply, about undoing our ignorance and transcending our traditional relationship to samsara.

SanghaSanskritSangha is a community that practices the dharma together. It’s one of the Three Jewels in which Buddhists take refuge, along with the buddha and the dharma.

Sarnath — This locale in India includes the deer park where the Buddha gave his first teachings to his first five disciples.

SmrtiMindfulness (Pali: sati) is the ability to focus on an object. Mindfulness is essential to developing wisdom, and “right mindfulness” is one of the components of the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is closely associated with insight, or vipassana. Sati can also be translated as “awareness.”

Sutras / SuttasSanskrit, Pali — Discourses of the Buddha; that is, oral teachings attributed to him.

ZenJapanese — A Mahayana school, originating in China, that emphasizes meditation practice (zazen) and a “direct pointing to the mind” over doctrinal knowledge. Zen is the Japanese term; it is known in China as Chan, Vietnam as Thien, and Korea as Seon.