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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 Q - S


(ris-med), Tib., lit., “unbiased”; term for a current in Tibetan Buddhism that had its origin in east Tibet in the 19th century. It arose from the need to overcome sectarian bias in the evaluation of the doctrinal traditions of the various schools and to accept each tradition on its own merits. The movement was initiated by the Sakyapa teacher Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–92). Among his many students, the most important were Chogyur Dechen Ling­pa (1829–70) and Jamgon Kongtrul (1811–99). more...


Jap., lit., “old [venerable] master”; title of a Zen master. Traditional training in Zen takes place under a rōshi, who can be a monk or layperson, man or woman. It is the task of the rōshi to lead and inspire his or her students on the way to enlightenment, for which, naturally, the prerequisite is that the rōshi has experienced profound enlightenment.


Skt.; derived from sādh, “to arrive at the goal” and meaning roughly “means to completion or perfection.” In Vajrayāna Buddhism, a term for a particular type of liturgical text and the meditation practices presented in it. Sādhana texts describe in a detailed fashion deities to be experienced as spiritual realities and the entire process from graphic visualization of them to dissolving them into formless meditation. Performing this type of religious practice, which is central to Tibetan Buddhism, requires empowerment and consecration by the master for practice connected with the particular deity involved. Part of this is trans­mission of the mantra associated with the deity.


(sa-skya-pa), Tib.; a major school of Tibetan Buddhism named after the Sakya (lit., “Gray Earth”) Monastery, located in southern Tibet. In accordance with a prophecy of Atīsha, the Sakya Monastery was founded in the year 1073, and its abbots, members of the Khön family, devoted themselves primarily to the transmission of a cycle of Vajrayāna teachings known by the name of “path and goal.” This school concerned itself with creating a systematic order for the tantric writings, but also turned its attention to problems of Buddhist logic. In the 13th and 14th centuries it had great political influence in Tibet.


See Trikāya.


(samsāra), Skt., lit., “journeying”; the “cycle of existences,” a succession of rebirths that a being goes through within the various modes of existence until it has attained liberation and entered nirvāna. Imprisonment in samsāra is conditioned by the three “unwholesome roots” : hatred (dvesha), desire or craving (trishnā), and delusion (avidyā). The type of rebirth within samsāra is determined by the karma of the being. In the Mahāyāna, samsāra refers to the phenomenal world and is considered to be es­sentially identical with nirvāna.


(samgha), Skt., lit., “crowd, host”; the Buddhist community. In a narrower sense the sangha consists of monks (bhikshu), nuns (bhikshunī), and novices (shrāmanera). In a wider sense the sangha also includes lay followers.


Jap.; Zen term for the experience of awakening. The word derives from the verb satoru, “to know”; however, it has nothing to do with “knowledge” in the ordinary or philosophical sense, because in the experience of enlightenment there is no distinction between knower and known. The word kenshō is also often used as a synonym for satori.


Burm., lit., “teacher”; Burmese title for a Buddhist monk. This title properly only applies to the abbot of a monastery but is frequently used also as an honorific form of address for monks in general.


(śamatha), Skt., lit., “dwelling in tranquillity.” In the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism it is stressed that the precondition of “concentration” (samādhi) is intentional development of “dwelling in tranquillity” and “special insight” (vipashyanā ). Dwelling in tranquillity calms the mind, while special insight, through analytical examination, leads to vision of genuine reality, which is emptiness (shūnyatā). Shamatha is first developed in preliminary practice and later further refined in connection with vipashyanā. Dwelling in tranquillity is compared to a still, clear lake in which the “fish of special insight” plays.


(Śambhala), Skt.; name of a mythical kingdom, the geographical location of which is uncertain, but which according to legend lies northeast of India. It is considered the place of origin of the Kālachakra teachings and, with all its associations as a “source of auspiciousness,” plays a central role in Tibetan Buddhism. A key part of the myth is that the savior of humanity will come out of Shambhala at a time when the world is dominated by war and destruction. more...


Jap., lit., “nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za)”; a form of the practice of zazen in which there are no more supportive techniques of the types beginners use, such as counting the breath or a kōan. According to Dōgen Zenji, shikantaza—i.e., resting in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content—is the highest or purest form of zazen, zazen as it was practiced by all the buddhas of the past.


(śīla) Skt. (Pali, sīla), “obligations, precepts”; refers to the ethical guidelines that in Buddhism determine the behavior of monks, nuns, and laypersons and that constitute the precondition for any progress on the path of awakening. The ten shīlas for monks, nuns and novices are: (1) refraining from killing, (2) not taking what is not given, (3) refraining from prohibited sexual activity, (4) refraining from unjust speech, (5) abstaining from intoxi­cating drinks, (6) abstaining from solid food after noon, (7) avoiding music, dance, plays, and other entertainments, (8) abstaining from the use of perfumes and ornamental jewelry, (9) refraining from sleeping in high, soft beds, (10) refraining from contact with money and other valuables. The first five shīlas apply also to Bud­dhist laypersons, who on certain days observe the first eight.


(śraddhā), Skt., lit., “belief, faith”; (Pali saddhā); the inner attitude of faith and devotion toward the Buddha and his teaching. Shraddhā is the basis of the first two elements of the eightfold path—perfect view and perfect resolve. In the Mahāyāna shraddhā plays an even more important role, being regarded as the virtue out of which all the others develop and which opens the door of liberation to even those who do not have the self-discipline to tread the path of meditation. more...


(śūnyatā), Skt. (Pali, sunnatā; Jap., ), lit., “emptiness, void”; central notion of Buddhism. Ancient Buddhism recognized that all composite things are empty, impermanent (anitya), devoid of an essence (anātman), and characterized by suffering (duhkha). In the Hīnayāna emptiness is only applied to the “person”; in the Mahāyāna, on the other hand, all things are regarded as without essence, i.e., empty of self-nature (svabhāva). All dharmas are fundamentally devoid of independent lasting substance, are nothing more than mere appearances. They do not exist outside of emptiness. more...

Siddhartha Gautama

Skt. (Pali, Siddhatta Gotama); founder of Buddhism, the historical Buddha. Siddhārtha was born in 566 or 563 BCE into a noble family of the Shākya clan in Kapilavastu, a city in present-day Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the head of the Shākyas; his mother, Māyādevī, who brought Siddhārtha into the world in the Lumbinī Grove, died seven days af­ter his birth. Siddhārtha was brought up by his aunt on his mother’s side, Mahāprajāpatī. Carefully raised in wealthy circumstances, Siddhārtha married Yashodharā at the age of sixteen. At twenty-nine, after the birth of his son, Rāhula, he entered homelessness and attended on various ascetic teachers, without, however, reaching his goal, spiritual liberation. more...


Skt. (Pali, khanda), lit., “group, aggregate, heap”; term for the five aggregates, which constitute the entirety of what is generally known as “personality.” They are (1) corporeality or form (rupa), (2) sensation (vedanā), (3) perception (Skt., samjñā; Pali, sannā), (4) mental formations (samskāra), (5) consciousness (vijñāna). These aggregates are frequently referred to as “aggregates of attachment,” since (except in the case of arhats and buddhas) craving or desire attaches itself to them and attracts them to itself; thus it makes of them objects of attachment and brings about suffering.

The characteristics of the skandhas are birth, old age, death, duration, and change. They are regarded as without essence (anātman), impermanent (anitya), empty (shūnya), and suffering-ridden (duhkha).


Skt. (Pali, thūpa; Sinh., dagoba; Tib., chöten), lit., “hair knot”; characteristic expression of Buddhist architecture, one of the main symbols of Buddhism and a focal point in temples and monasteries.

Originally stūpas were memorial monuments over the mortal remains of the historical Buddha and other saints. They also served, however, as symbolic reminders of various decisive events in the life of Shākyamuni Buddha. Thus stūpas were built at Lumbinī, Bodh-gayā, Kushinagara, Sārnāth, and so on. At the latest by the time of King Ashoka (3d century BCE) the veneration of saints had become a general custom; the stūpas from his time are still preserved. more...


Skt., lit., “thread”; (Pali, sutta; Jap., kyō); discourses of the Buddha. The sūtras are collected in the second part of the Buddhist canon, the Sūtra-pitaka, or “Basket of the Teachings.”

The sūtras have been preserved in Pali and Sanskrit, as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translations. According to tradition they derive directly from the Buddha. The sūtras are prose texts, each introduced by the words “Thus have I heard.” These words are ascribed to Ānanda, a student of the Buddha. He is supposed to have retained the discourses of the Buddha in memory and to have recited them at the first Buddhist council, immediately after the death of the Buddha. more...