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From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.,

Buddhist Glossary A - D


(also Amita), Skt. (Jap., Amida), lit., “Boundless Light”; one of the most impor­tant and popular buddhas of the Mahāyāna, unknown in early Buddhism. He is ruler of the western paradise Sukhāvati, which is not to be understood as a location but as a state of consciousness. Amitābha is at the center of the worship of the Pure Land school of Chinese and Japanese Bud­dhism. He symbolizes mercy and wisdom.


Skt. (Pali, anatta); nonself, non-essentiality; one of the three marks of every­thing existing. The anātman doctrine is one of the central teachings of Bud­dhism; it says that no self exists in the sense of a permanent, eternal, integral, and independent substance within an individual existent. Thus the ego in Buddhism is no more than a transito­ry and changeable—and therefore a suffering-prone—empirical personality put together from the five aggregates (skandha).


(Avalokiteśvara), Skt.; one of the most important bodhisattvas of the Mahāyāna. The literal meaning of Avalokitesh­vara is variously interpreted. One interpretation is the “Lord Who Looks Down,” in which the last component of the name is taken to be ishvara, “lord.” Another interpretation is “He Who Hears the Sounds [Outcries] of the World” or also the “Sound That Illumines the World,” in which svara, “sound” is regarded as the final component of the name. In any case, Avalo­kiteshvara embodies one of the two fundamental aspects of buddhahood, compassion (karunā), in virtue of which he is often given the epithet Mahākarunā, “Great Compassion.” more...


Skt., lit., “ignorance, nescience.” As a Vedantic term, avidyā refers to both individual and cosmic ignorance. Individual ignorance is the inability to distinguish between the transient and the intransient, between the real and the unreal; cosmic ignorance is maya. Its effect is the same as that of ajñāna (Pali, avijja), which is delusion, that is, noncognizance of the four noble truths, the three precious ones (triratna), and the law of karma. Avidyā is the first part in the nexus of conditionality, which leads to entanglement in the world of samsāra as well as to the three cankers. It is one of the passions (klesha) and the last of the ten fetters.


Skt., Pali; meditation, mind devel­opment, all those practices usually designated as meditation. Two types of bhāvanā are distin­guished: the development of tranquillity (shamatha) and clear seeing (vipashyanā). Tranquillity is the prerequisite for attaining clear seeing. According to the Visuddhi­magga there are forty different exercises leading to the development of tranquillity. They include absorption (dhyāna), contemplation (samāpati), and concentration (samādhi).


Skt., lit., “awakened mind”; the mind of enlightenment, one of the central no­tions of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In the Tibetan tradition it is seen as having two aspects, rela­tive and absolute. The relative mind of enlight­enment is divided again into two phases (1) the intention and wish, nurtured by limitless com­passion, to attain liberation (nirvāna) for the sake of the welfare of all beings and (2) actual entry into meditation, the purpose of which is the acquisition of the appropriate means to ac­tualize this wish. The absolute mind of enlightenment is viewed as the vision of the true nature of phenomena. The various methods for arousing the mind of enlightenment stem primarily from Atīsha and entered into all schools of Tibetan Bud­dhism through him.


Skt., lit., “enlightenment be­ing”; in Mahāyāna Buddhism a bodhisattva is a being who seeks buddhahood through the sys­tematic practice of the perfect virtues (pāramitā) but renounces complete entry into nirvāna until all beings are saved. The determin­ing factor for his action is compassion (karunā), supported by highest insight and wis­dom (prajñā). A bodhisattva provides active help, is ready to take upon himself the suffering of all other beings, and to transfer his own kar­mic merit to other beings. The way of a bodhi­sattva begins with arousing the thought of en­lightenment (bodhichitta) and taking the bodhisattva vow (pranidhāna). The career of a bodhisattva is divided into ten stages (bhūmi). The bodhisattva ideal replaced in Mahāyāna the Hīnayāna ideal of the arhat, whose effort is directed towards the attainment of his own liberation.


Skt., Pali, lit., “awakened one.”
1. A person who has achieved the enlightenment that leads to release from the cycle of existence (samsāra) and has thereby attained complete liberation (nirvāna). The content of his teach­ing, which is based on the experience of enlight­enment, is the four noble truths. A buddha has overcome every kind of craving (trishnā); although even he also has pleasant and unpleasant sensations, he is not ruled by them and remains innerly untouched by them. After his death he is not reborn again. more...


(Skt., buddhatā); according to the Mahāyāna view, the true, immutable, and eternal nature of all beings. Since all beings pos­sess buddha-nature, it is possible for them to at­tain enlightenment and become a buddha, re­gardless of what level of existence they occupy.

The interpretation of the essence of buddha-nature varies from school to school; there is con­troversy over whether all beings and also inani­mate entities actually possess buddha-nature.

Dalai Lama

(dalai bla-ma), Mong. and Tib., lit., “teacher whose wisdom is as great as the ocean”; an honorary title bestowed by the Mon­golian prince Altan Khan on the third head of the Geluk school in 1578. This close con­nection with Mongolia brought the school of Tsongkhapa into a position of political preemi­nence, which with the fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82) was consolidated into rulership over all of Tibet. Since this time, the Dalai Lama has been regarded as an incarnation of Avalokitesh­vara, and the Panchen Lama has been vener­ated as his spiritual representative. Each Dalai Lama is considered a reincarnation (tulku) of the preceding Dalai Lamas. more...


Skt., Pali, roughly “gift, alms, dona­tion”; voluntary giving of material, energy, or wisdom to others, regarded as one of the most important Buddhist virtues. Dāna is one of the six perfections (pāramitā), one of the ten con­templations (anussati), and the most impor­tant of the meritorious works (punya).

In the Hīnayāna dāna is regarded above all as a means to overcoming greed and egoism and avoiding suffering a future life. In Mahāyāna dāna is associated with the virtues of kindness (maitrī) and compassion (karunā) and viewed as an essential factor in leading all beings to enlightenment.


Skt., lit, “carrying, holding” (Pali, dhamma; Chin., fa; Jap., or datsuma); central notion of Buddhism, used in various meanings.

1. The cosmic law, the “great norm,” underlying our world; above all, the law of karmically deter­mined rebirth. more...


Skt. See Trikāya.

Dogen Zenji

also Dōgen Kigen or Eihei Dōgen, 1200–1253; Japanese Zen master who brought the tradition of the Sōtō school to Japan; without any question the most important Zen master of Japan. He is also considered Japan’s greatest religious personality and is venerated there by all Buddhist schools as a saint or bodhisattva. However, he is often misunderstood as having been a philosopher and referred to as the “most profound and original thinker” ever produced by Japan. What is missed here is that his writings, although they do treat the most profound existential questions, do not represent a philosophy of life. What Dōgen writes does not originate in philosophical speculation and is not the result of a thought process but rather is the expression of immediate inner experience of the living truth of Zen. more...


Skt. (Pali, dukkha); suffering; a cen­tral concept in Buddhism, which lies at the root of the four noble truths. The characteristic of suffering is one of the three marks of existence.

Duhkha signifies not only suffering in the sense of unpleasant sensations; rather it refers to everything, both material and mental, that is conditioned, that is subject to arising and pass­ing away, that is comprised of the five skandhas, and that is not in a state of liberation. Thus everything that is temporarily pleasant is suffering, since it is subject to ending. Duhkha arises because of desire and craving (trishnā) and can be overcome by the elimination of desire. The means to bring about the extinc­tion of suffering is shown by the eightfold path.


(rdzogs-chen), Tib., lit., “great perfection”; the primary teaching of the Ny­ingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. This teaching, also known as ati-yoga (extraordinary yoga), is considered by its adherents as the de­finitive and most secret teaching of Shākyamuni Buddha. It is called “great” be­cause there is nothing more sublime; it is called “perfection” because no further means are nec­essary. According to the experience of dzog­chen practitioners, purity of mind is always present and needs only to be recognized. The tradition of dzogchen was brought to Tibet in the eighth century by Padmasambhava and Vimilamitra; in the 14th century it was synthe­sized by Longchenpa into a unified system. The condensation of this system by Jigme Ling­pa (1730–98) remains an authoritative expres­sion of the great-perfection tradition up to the present day.