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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 M - P


Skt., lit., “Great Vehicle”; one of the two great schools of Buddhism, the other being the Hīnayāna, “Small Vehicle.” The Mahāyāna, which arose in the first century CE, is called Great Vehicle because, thanks to its many-sided approach, it opens the way of liberation to a great number of people and expresses the intention to liberate all beings. more...


Skt. (Jap., Miroku), lit., “Loving One”; in the teaching of the five earthly buddhas, already present in the Hīnayāna but first fully developed by the Mahāyāna, the embodiment of all-encompassing love. He is expected to come in the future as the fifth and last of the earthly buddhas. The cult of Maitreya is very widespread in Tibetan Buddhism. His Heaven is tushita (“the joyful”), after which the Tibetan saint Tsongkhapa named the first monastery he founded. As the world teacher to come, Maitreya is expected to appear in around thirty thousand years.


Skt., lit., “garland, rose”; also called japamālā. A string of beads that is used to count repetitions in the recitation of mantras and the name of Buddha. The number of beads in a Buddhist mālā is 108.


Skt. (Jap., Monju), lit., “He Who Is Noble and Gentle”; the bodhisattva of wisdom, one of the most important figures of the Buddhist pantheon. He first appears in the Ārya-mañjushrī-mūlakalpa, a work dating from before the 4th century. Usually Mañjushrī is iconographically depicted with two lotus blossoms at the level of his head, on which his attributes—a sword and a book of the prajñāpāramitā literature—are placed. These attributes stand for the wisdom embodied by Mañjushrī, which dispels the darkness of ignorance.


also mantram, Skt.; a power-laden syllable or series of syllables that manifests cer­tain cosmic forces and aspects of the buddhas, sometimes also the name of a buddha. Continu­ous repetition of mantras is practiced as a form of meditation in many Buddhist schools; it also plays a considerable role in the Vajrayāna. Here mantra is defined as a means of protecting the mind. In the trans­formation of “body, speech, and mind” that is brought about by spiritual practice, mantra is associated with speech, and its task is the subli­mation of the vibrations developed in the act of speaking. Recitation of mantras is always done in connection with detailed visualizations and certain bodily postures (mudrā).


Skt., Pali, lit., “murder, destruction”; although actually the embodiment of death, Māra symbolizes in Buddhism the passions that overwhelm human beings as well as everything that hinders the arising of the wholesome roots and progress on the path of enlightenment.

Māra is the lord of the sixth heaven of the desire realm and is often depicted with a hundred arms, riding on an elephant.


Pali, lit., “Sūtra on Kindness”; Hīnayāna sūtra the theme of which is the development of kindness. It is one of the most popular texts of Theravāda Buddhism and is recited daily by the monks and laypeople of this school.

Middle Way

(Skt., madhyamā-pratipad; Pali, majjhimapātipadā); generally, a term for the way of the historical Buddha Shākyamuni, which teaches avoidance of all extremes—like indulgence in the pleasures of the senses on one side and self-mortification and asceticism on the other. More specifically, it refers to the Mādhyamika school founded by Nāgārju­na, which refrains from choosing between op­posing positions, and in relation to the existence or nonexistence of all things, treads a middle way.


See Trikāya.


Skt., lit., “extinction” (Pali, nibbāna; Jap., nehan); the goal of spiritual practice in all branches of Buddhism. In the un­derstanding of early Buddhism, it is departure from the cycle of rebirths (samsāra) and entry into an entirely different mode of existence. It requires complete overcoming of the three un­wholesome roots—desire, hatred, and delusion, and the coming to rest of active volition. It means freedom from the determining effect of karma. Nirvāna is unconditioned (asamskrita); its characteris­tic mark is the absence of arising, subsisting, changing, and passing away. more...


(rnying-ma), Tib., lit. “School of the Ancients”; one of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The school brings together the oldest Buddhist traditions of Tibet, which were brought to the country from India by Padmasambhava and the monks Vimalamitra and Vairochana in the 8th century. Since the 15th century there has existed an independent collection of these teachings, which, however, is not included in the official Tibetan canon. The Nyingmapas consider dzogchen to be the supreme doc­trine; the systematization of the dzogchen teaching by Lonchenpa and his commentary on it are considered authoritative.


Skt., lit., “the Lotus-born”; contemporary of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (755–97) and one of the historically identifiable founders of Tibetan Buddhism. He left his imprint particularly on the Nying­ma school and is venerated by its followers as the “second Buddha.” His special task lay in taming the indigenous demons, or the forces of nature embodied in them. The methods of Padmasambhava ranged from the use of ritual implements, such as the phurba, to the mastery of the meditation techniques of dzogchen. In the course of centuries, the figure of Padmasambhava, who continued the tradition of the mahāsiddhas, took on an increasingly legendary character. He is still venerated today in the Hi­malayan countries under the name Guru Rinpo­che (Precious Guru).


Skt., lit., “that which has reached the other shore,” the transcendental. The pāramitās, generally translated as “the perfections,” are the virtues perfected by a bodhisattva in the course of his or her development. There are six of these: (1) dāna-pāramitā (generosity), (2) shīla-pāramitā (discipline), (3) kshānti-pāramitā (patience), (4) vīrya-pāramitā (energy of exertion), (5) dhyāna-pāramitā (meditation), (6) prajñā-pāramitā (wisdom). Frequently four further virtues are added, which were accepted into the canon later: (7) upāya-kaushala-pāramitā (right method or means), (8) pranidhāna-pāramitā (vow), (9) bala-pāramitā (manifestation of the ten powers, dashabala), (10) jñāna-pāramitā (knowledge of the true definitions of all dharmas).


also Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra, Skt., lit., “[Great] Sūtra of the Wisdom That Reaches the Other Shore [i.e., that is transcendental, or liberating]”; term for a series of about forty Mahāyāna sūtras, gathered together under this name because they all deal with the realization of prajñā. They represent a part of the Vaipulya-sūtras of the Mahāyāna and probably were composed around the beginning of the Common Era. Some sūtras are preserved in Sanskrit, however most of them have come down only in Chinese or Tibetan translation. Those best known in the West are the Diamond Sūtra (Vajrachchedikā) and the Heart Sutra (Mahāprajñāpāramitā-hridaya-sūtra). Their most important interpreter was Nāgārjuna.

Pure Land

(Chin., ching-t’u; Jap., jōdō); in Mahāyāna the “pure lands” (also buddha-realms or buddha-paradises), each ruled over by a buddha. Since according to the Mahāyāna there are countless buddhas, countless pure lands also exist. The most important is Sukhāvatī, the pure land of the west or the western paradise, ruled by Buddha Amitābha. An eastern paradise is the pure land of Bhaishajya-guru Buddha (“Medicine Guru Buddha”). The Abhirati paradise of Buddha Akshobhya is also in the east. In the south is the paradise of Buddha Ratnaketu, in the north that of Buddha Dundubhīshvara. A further pure land will be brought forth by the future buddha Maitreya, who presently still dwells in the Tushita Heaven. more...