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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 I - L


(bka’-rgyud-pa), Tib., lit. “oral transmission lineage”; one of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The central teaching of this school is the “great seal” (mahāmudrā) and the six dharmas of Nāro­pa. The teachings were brought to Tibet from India in the 11th century by Marpa. Gampopa, a student of Mi­larepa’s, organized them into the Kagyü school. From this school is derived that of the Karma Kagyü and others. The school places particular value on the direct transmission of in­struction from teacher to disciple.


Skt.; world cycle, world age (Pali, kappa); term for an endlessly long period of time, which is the basis of Buddhist time reckoning. The length of a kalpa is illustrated by the following simile: suppose that every hundred years a piece of silk is rubbed once on a solid rock one cubic mile in size; when the rock is worn away by this, one kalpa will still not have passed.


Skt., lit. “deed” (Pali, kamma). Universal law of cause and effect, which according to the Buddhist view takes effect in the following way: “The deed (karma) produces a fruit under certain circumstances; when it is ripe, then it falls upon the one responsible. For a deed to produce its fruit, it must be morally good [kushala] or bad [akushala] and be conditioned by a volitional impulse, in that it leaves a trace in the psyche of the doer, leading his destiny in the direction determined by the effect of the deed. Since the time of ripening generally exceeds a lifespan, the effect of actions is necessarily one or more rebirths, which together con­stitute the cycle of existence (samsāra)” (trans. from German ed. of Die Religionen Indiens, vol. 3, A. Bareau, 1964, 41).


(karunā) Skt., Pali; compassion, active sympathy, gentle affection. The outstand­ing quality of all bodhisattvas and buddhas; one of the four brahma-vihāras. Compassion ex­tends itself without distinction to all sentient be­ings. It is based on the enlightened ex­perience of the oneness of all beings. Karunā must be accompanied by wisdom (prajñā) in order to have the right effect. The virtue of com­passion is embodied in the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Karunā is often translated as “pity” or “sym­pathy”; since these notions tend to suggest pas­sive attitudes that do not contain the quality of active help that is an essential part of karunā, the concept of “compassion” is more suitable.


Jap., lit., “public notice”; the Chinese kung-an originally meant a legal case constitut­ing a precedent. In Zen a kōan is a phrase from a sūtra or teaching on Zen realization, an episode from the life of an ancient master, a mondō or a hossen—whatever the source, each points to the nature of ultimate reality. Essential to a kōan is paradox, i.e., that which is “beyond” (Gk., para) “thinking” (Gk., dokein), which transcends the logical or conceptual. Thus, since it cannot be solved by reason, a kōan is not a riddle. Solving a kōan requires a leap to another level of comprehension. more...


(bla-ma), Tib., lit., “none above”; in Tibetan Buddhism a religious master, or guru, venerated by his or her students, since he or she is an authen­tic embodiment of the Buddhist teachings. The term lama is used for the Sanskrit guru in the traditional Indian sense, but includes still fur­ther meanings. For the Vajrayāna, the lama is particularly important, since his or her role is not only to teach rituals but also to conduct them. As spiritual authority, the lama can be the head of one or several monasteries and possess political in­fluence. The spiritual “value” of the lama is indicated by the honorific title rinpoche (“greatly precious”), which is bestowed upon es­pecially qualified masters. Today, however, lama is often used as a polite form of address for any Tibetan monk, regardless of the level of his spiritual development. more...