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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 T - Z


Skt. (Tib., Dolma), lit., “savior”; an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, said to arise from his tears in order to help him in his work. She embodies the feminine aspect of compassion and is a very popular deity in Tibetan Buddhism. The cult of Tārā was propagated in the 11th century, primarily by Atīsha. Since that time, veneration of Tārā as a yidam has been quite widespread. more...


(thanka) roughly, “picture, painting.” In Tibetan Buddhism, a scroll painting framed in silk, which fulfills various religious functions. The themes of iconography are fixed by tradition and are based on three principles: expression, proportion, and detail. Commissioning the painting of a thangka and the painting itself are considered highly meritorious actions. more...


Pali, lit., “teaching of the elders of the order”; Hīnayāna school (also called the Pali school) belonging to the Sthavira group, which developed from the Vibhajyavādin school. It was founded by Moggaliputta Tissa and brought to Ceylon in 250 BCE by Mahinda, where it was propagated by the monks of the Mahāvihāra monastery. Conflicts over disciplinary questions led to schisms within the Theravāda. Today the Theravāda is widespread in the countries of Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Kampuchea, Laos, etc.).

Three Jewels

(Skt., triratna) (Pali, tiratna), lit., “three precious ones”; the three essential components of Buddhism: Buddha, dharma, sangha—i.e. the Awakened One, the truth expounded by him, and the followers living in accordance with this truth. Firm faith in the three precious ones is the stage of “stream-entry.” The three precious ones are objects of veneration and are considered “places of refuge.” The Buddhist takes refuge in them by pronouncing the threefold refuge formula, thus acknowledging him- or herself publicly to be a Buddhist. Contemplation of the three precious ones comprises three of the ten contemplations.


Skt., lit., “three bodies”; refers to the three bodies possessed by a buddha according to the Mahāyāna view. The basis of this teaching is the conviction that a buddha is one with the absolute and manifests in the relative world in order to work for the welfare of all beings. The three bodies are:

1. Dharmakāya (body of the great order); the true nature of the Buddha, which is identical with transcendental reality, the essence of the universe. The dharmakāya is the unity of the Buddha with everything existing. At the same time it represents the “law” (dharma), the teaching expounded by the Buddha. more...


Skt. (Pali, Tipitaka), lit., “Three Baskets”; canon of Buddhist scriptures, consisting of three parts: the Vinaya-Pitaka, the Sūtra-pitaka, and the Abhidharma-pitaka. The first “basket” contains accounts of the origins of the Buddhist sangha as well as the rules of discipline regulating the lives of monks and nuns. The second is composed of discourses said to have come from the mouth of Buddha or his immediate disciples and is arranged into five “collections”: Dīgha-nikāya, Majjhima-nikāya, Samyutta-nikāya, Anguttara-nikāya, Khuddaka-nikāya. The third part is a compendium of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. more...


(sprul-sku) Tib., lit., “transformation body”; in Tibetan Buddhism, a term for a person who, after certain tests, is recognized as the reincarnation of a previously deceased person. This conception developed out of the trikāya teaching and was first applied in Tibet with the discovery of the second karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204–83). The tulku was seen as an important means for assuring the spiritual and political continuity of monastic institutions. In addition to those of the four heads of the principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism, there were a great number of tulku lineages in Tibet.


Skt., lit., “Diamond Being”; in Vajrayana Buddhism, the principle of purity and purification. Vajrasattva embodies the capacity to eliminate spiritual impurities of all kinds, particularly neglected commitments toward one’s teacher and ones’ own spiritual development. Vajrasattva is a sambhogakāya manifestation; he unifies all the five buddha-families within himself in the same way that the white color of his body (in iconography) unifies all the five colors. With his right hand he holds a dorje to his heart, which signifies his indestructible essence. His left hand, holding a bell, rests on his hip; this is an expression of his compassion. The hundred-syllable mantra associated with him is used in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism for purification of the mind.


Skt., lit., “Diamond Vehicle”; a school of Buddhism that arose, primarily in northeast and northwest India, around the middle of the first millennium. It developed out of the teachings of the Mahāyāna and reached Tibet, China, and Japan from Central Asia and India along with the Mahāyāna. This movement arose from a need to extend the worldview of Buddhism to inveterate “magical” practices and is characterized by a psychological method based on highly developed ritual practices. The Vajrayāna had its origin in small groups of practitioners gathered around a master (guru). The accessibility of Vajrayāna through written texts as well as its assimilation by monastic institutions was a relatively late development in this movement. Because of the use of certain sacred syllables, Tibetan Buddhism also refers to the Vajrayāna as the Mantrayāna.


(vipaśyanā), Skt. (Pali, vipassanā); insight, clear seeing; intuitive cognition of the three marks of existence, namely, the impermanence (anitya), suffering (duhkha), and egolessness (anātman) of all physical and mental phenomena. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, vipashyanā is seen as analytical examination of the nature of things that leads to insight into the true nature of the world—emptiness (shūnyatā). Such insight prevents the arising of new passions. Vipashyanā is one of the two factors essential for the attainment of enlightenment; the other is shamatha (calming the mind).


Jap. (Chin., tso-ch’an), lit., za, “sitting” and zen, “absorption”; meditative practice taught in Zen as the most direct way to enlightenment. Zazenis not meditation in the usual sense, since meditation includes, at least initially, the focusing of the mind on a “meditation object” (for example, a mandala or a graphic representation of a bodhisattva) or contemplating abstract properties (for instance, impermanence or compassion). Zazen, however, is intended to free the mind from bondage to any thought-form, vision, thing, or representation, however sublime or holy it might be.


Jap., an abbreviation of the word zenna (also zenno), the Japanese way of reading Chinese ch’an-na (short form, ch’an). This in turn is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which refers to collectedness of mind or meditative absorption in which all dualistic distinctions like I/you, subject/object, and true/ false are eliminated. Zen can be defined both exoterically and esoterically. more...