A glossary of Buddhist terms (from a secular perspective) 

May 31, 2019

A work in progress, this selective glossary sets out to explain terms commonly used in dharma (aka ‘Buddhist’) circles in plain English, in particular those which newcomers may find difficult to grasp. Highlighted words have their own entries elsewhere. Many terms originated in the languages in which these texts were first written: Pali and Sanskrit, two ancient, related Indic languages – neither of which, incidentally, use scripts which have Capital Letters.

AWAKENING (bodhi in Pali and Sanskrit)
Awakening is a meditative experience (thus also a process), however momentary, whereby the mind sees clearly into and is suffused by the two basic currents of conscious life: insight into conditionality, and nirvana.It is an altered state of consciousness. Depending on its intensity and duration, an awakening experience can have a formative effect on the meditator, especially if repeated.

Because awakening constitutes the apex of dharma practice, it inspires the movement of dharma practitioners who together contribute to a culture of awakening in their sangha life and their wider engagement in the community as a whole.

In conventional ‘Buddhism’, by contrast, awakening is often called ‘enlightenment’ and stands for the achievement of perfection and an irreversible change of status into an ‘awakened (or enlightened) being’. Such a beyond-human being is supposedly completely free of the ‘taints’ of greed, hatred and delusion, and has gone beyond suffering.

See four immeasurables.

A title meaning ‘one who is awake’. ‘The Buddha’ refers to the historical Buddha, Gotama, who lived around 480–400 BCE in the Ganges region of what is now northeast India. He achieved a powerful awakening experience around the age of 35 and from then until his death 45 years later refined his teaching in the course of instructing others on the path to awakening.

In some traditions, a buddha can refer to a number of particularly illustrious awakened beings – historical or mythical – whose attainments replicate Gotama’s.

A term coined by European travellers and commentators in the early 19th century as a catch-all for a wide variety of religious traditions they ‘discovered’ throughout Asia. The word has since become a flag of convenience for many such traditions, especially as it allows ‘Buddhism’ to claim the status of a world religion.

The diversity of the ‘Buddhist’ world, however, belies the suggestion that it stands for shared doctrines and practices, even if it is possible to identify certain conventional ‘Buddhist’ features.

In actually existing ‘Buddhist’ circles, particularly in Asia, the term is rarely used; dharma is a far more useful piece of working vocabulary.

CONDITIONALITY (paṭiccasamuppāda in Pali)
Also known as ‘conditioned arising’, ‘dependent origination’, or simply ‘contingency’. This is the Buddha’s central philosophical idea that everything – all elements of our experience – arises dependent on past and present conditions, which are themselves in a constant state of flux.

Nothing in our experience exists in and of itself, independent of conditions, and so nothing is eternal. Everything partakes of ‘conditioned existence’, arising and passing away, always subject to change.

Seeing into conditionality contributes towards awakening to the processual, contingent, fluid, unfolding, interconnected nature of life. Including our very own lives.

The Pali and Sanskrit word for the virtue of generosity. In the context of a practice community or sangha, it refers to the voluntary donations from participants to a teacher or teaching institution in gratitude for the teaching as well as to the sangha itself to enable it to continue.

Since this tradition began two and a half millennia ago, its continuity has rested on dana. Teachers generally receive no fee for service, sharing their experience and learning for free. This is their dana. Those who receive the teachings reciprocate by making donations in the knowledge that, without their generosity, teachers cannot survive, the teachings will no longer be available, and the tradition will cease to exist.

The practice of dana stands in stark contrast to the commercialisation of teaching, whereby a teacher receives an agreed fee for service.

Giving dana ensures that others will receive the benefit of the teachings as well, so it means a lot more than a fee-for-service or the small change placed in a collection plate in a church.

Generosity is the most basic dharmic virtue. It is where spiritual awakening begins. When many practise it, a culture of generosity develops.

DHARMA (dhamma in Pali)
A task-based ethics, the term dharma (a Sanskrit word) refers in the first instance to Gotama’s teachings. The dharma is also a living tradition to which many illustrious teachers have contributed – and continue to do so – since the Buddha’s death.

More generally, the term can mean ‘the truth’ or ‘the way things are’, or even ‘the law’ (in the sense of a law of nature).

This Pali term is one of the key words in the dharmic lexicon. It stands for all the difficult and inevitable aspects of our lives: birth, ageing, sickness, death, being separated from whom or what we love, being thrown together with whom or what we detest, not getting what we want, and our overall psycho-physical fragility.

The commonest translation of dukkha is ‘suffering’; others include ‘unsatisfactoriness’, ‘anguish’, ‘stress’ and ‘distress’. All of these translations are too narrow, so most dharma practitioners leave the word untranslated.

It really refers to the human condition, so words like ‘poignancy’ or simply ‘life’ might give a better idea of what is understood by this term.

See awakening.

In deep meditation – and in other special moments – we can experience everyday phenomena with such intensity that we have no way of expressing them in words or pictures. In this way they are sublime in their beauty or their terror.

‘The numimous’ is another term for capturing these experiences. They point to an appreciation of just how wondrous the things we take for granted really are, and can be an indication of a meditator’s aptitude.

In the dharma unskillfulness (some might say ‘evil’) in the human mind arises in three forms: greed, hatred and delusion (the latter often referred to as ‘ignorance’ or ‘confusion’). Collectively they attract the label ‘the three fires’ or sometimes ‘the three poisons’ (which is not a good translation).

Each has many facets. Greed encompasses craving, cupidity, lust, and any form a sense of lack can take. Hatred refers to all forms of aversion, including anger, envy, jealousy and boredom. Delusion stretches from actual deludedness to a chronic inability to make up one’s mind.

The three fires underpin the five hindrances, in which case they cramp the mind in meditation. In traditional Buddhism they can be deployed to classify personality types, depending on which of them predominates in an individual’s personality.

In secular Buddhism, they’re seen as evolutionary factors: what our ancestors needed to survive and thrive as a species in prehistory, but which now threaten us with extinction. So they’re important focuses for our practice. In the words of a zen vow: ‘Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them’.

The Pali word satipatthāna means ‘the focuses of awareness’, but is usually translated as ‘the four foundations of mindfulness’. This is a pragmatic way to parse our meditative experience into distinct facets so we can explore its multi-layered nature. In fact, these facets go to the heart of insight meditation as set out in the Buddha’s discourse, the Satipatthāna sutta. The four focuses are:

  • … the body
    the physical sensations we feel, internally and through our physical senses
  • … feeling tones
    the instant reaction (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) we have to everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or think of
  • … mind
    emotions, moods and other mind states
  • … phenomena (dhammas in Pali)
    under this heading we systematically contemplate all elements of direct experience in terms of sets of central teachings that the Buddha developed in list form, starting with the five hindrances, and ending with the four tasks.

This teaching prompts us to repeatedly probe these four facets of our experience, observing for ourselves how every experience we have contains the seeds of impermanencedukkha and not self.

Experiencing these three ubiquitous characteristics of experience for ourselves viscerally brings us closer to awakening via a more balanced and sane way of life.

These are disturbing energies we often experience both in meditation and in daily life. They contract the heart or mind as if it were a cramped muscle, and obstruct our access to more supple, expansive states of mind. They are not ‘bad’ things to be pushed aside; rather they are the result of our own mental habits, habits that we need to engage with, investigate, and in so doing ultimately leave behind. In this sense, they are our (temporary) teachers.

When we experience a hindrance (or several at the same time), the most helpful thing to do is simply to notice what’s happening and name the hindrance of the moment, placing our attention on it. The five hindrances are:

  • … craving for sense contact
    we have five physical senses, and in the dharma the mind is understood as a sixth sense; we have cultivated the habit of having each sense continuously stimulated. When we meditate, we thwart this habit, and so craving for stimulation arises.
  • … aversion
    negative reactions of any sort: hatred, anger and ill-will in all its facets, as well as boredom, which is a negative reaction to what is happening in the moment.
  • … sloth and torpor
    sloth refers to physical lethargy, which takes the form of slouching in meditation, while torpor is the mental dullness and sluggishness that accompanies it.
  • … restlessness and anxiety
    even when we’re sleeping, our bodies constantly move and squirm; when we sit still in meditation, we countermand the body’s usual restlessness, which can in turn induce anxiety in the mind.
  • … doubt
    lack of self-confidence that we can practise successfully, and lack of conviction or trust in the methods and benefits of the practice, this shilly-shallying doubt simply obstructs practice; it is quite different to the bracing, no-holds-barred questioning (great doubt) that the dharma encourages.

THE FOUR IMMEASURABLES (brahma viharas in Pali)
The four immeasurables, or divine abodes – or more literally the sacred dwellings – are the four emotional tones of the awakening mind:

  • … universal unconditional friendliness
    also known as loving kindness, this refers to a feeling of kindness and good will towards all sentient beings, human and otherwise

  • … compassion
    an understanding, empathic care towards all other beings in their moments of suffering
  • … empathic joy
    often known as ‘sympathetic joy’, this is a genuine happiness at the joy and achievements of others
  • … equanimity
    a calm, positive emotional balance in the face of both good fortune and bad.

IMPERMANENCE (anicca in Pali)
‘Whatever arises, passes.’ This is one of the three characteristics of conditioned existence (see conditionality) and thus attaches to every experience we have (see the four focuses of mindfulness).

This Pali word means universal unconditional friendliness and is the first of the brahma viharas; it thus underpins dharmic ethics. Its systematic cultivation is widespread in the form of a meditation practice known as metta bhāvana.

It is frequently translated as loving kindness.

A derogatory term for the commercialised and standardised mindfulness meditation techniques that currently abound in psychotherapy and in work life (especially in corporations, corporatised public institutions, and the military). The term derives from George Ritzer’s concept of ‘the McDonaldisation of society’, which refers to the way the fast-food chain McDonalds’ methods of organising production have infected many other functions of society.

This is the conventional but unsatisfactory translation of the Pali word sati, a central term in the dharma which means both to recollect and to be aware of experience in the present moment. The recollective element refers both to remembering the context in which present experience arises and the dharmic setting in which it is to be understood. Insight meditation (see the four focuses of mindfulness) rests on both these aspects of sati.

By and large, the current commercial and therapeutic applications of mindfulness drop the recollective element and treat it as simply meaning close attention to whatever is occurring at any point in time, with kindness and with curiosity, and stripped of context. We might be paying attention to a thought, a feeling, physical sensations, other people, or the environment around us.

NIRVANA (nibbāna in Pali)
This is the Sanskrit word for an experience that usually arises in deep meditation and is characterised by the complete absence of greed, hatred and delusion – that is, a mind state of undiluted serenity and lucidity – however brief it may be. Contrary to popular usage it isn’t a place, and isn’t even remotely comparable to the paradises postulated by other spiritual and religious traditions.

Practising the third of the four great tasks – stopping and experiencing the ceasing of reactivity – we experience moments of awakening, however briefly.

See four great tasks.

NOT SELF (anattā in Pali)
This expression refers to a recurring experience that insight meditators encounter. Among the countless experiences we discern during a meditation session (or a whole retreat), not one of them points to a permanent, enduring self. Direct evidence of such a self is simply not findable.

As we note this absence again and again, we realise at a deep level that nothing and no-one exists independently of supportive conditions. (See conditionality.) Rather, we become conscious of how all the elements of our experience are conditional, impersonal, and not to be clung to as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’.

This liberating aspect of meditative experience accompanies those of impermanence and dukkha. Together they’re called ‘the three characteristics of conditioned existence’ and they teach us not to attach to conceptions of self and other longed-for objects as if they were real.

Anattā is sometimes mistranslated as ‘no-self’, which carries the implication that the self doesn’t exist according to the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha, however, explicitly refused to affirm or deny the existence of a self. In general, he repudiated all metaphysical beliefs of this kind.

On the other hand, his teaching assumes a continuous, developing self who practises the dharma. This self corresponds roughly to the philosophical concept of moral agency. The practitioner takes responsibility for her or his actions and spiritual development – but because of this s/he is in a state of constant change, and so not a fixed entity.

The fourth of the four tasks.

These are the central inspirations and orientations of a dharma practitioner: the pursuit of awakening, the teaching we explore and apply to approach it, and the spiritual community that supports our practice. In the conventional shorthand, these are expressed as the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. They give our lives direction and meaning – clarity without closure – as we follow the path to awakening.

Traditionally ordered Buddha, dharma, sangha, in today’s world it makes a lot more sense to order them as follows:

  • … the sangha – is the community of spiritual friends we belong to, rely on, and contribute to, as we seek to awaken as a joint enterprise.
  • … the dharma – refers in the first instance to the Buddha’s teaching and later helpful additions thereto within his living tradition. It can also mean ‘the truth’ or ‘the law’ (in the sense of a natural law).
  • … the Buddha – in this context, points to our human potential to awaken and so lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Why ‘refuge’? In the face of the fragility and uncertainty of our lives, which inevitably end in loss and death, we all actually seek refuge in something. It could be be wealth, fame, career, relationships, systems of belief that promise ultimate salvation, fantasies about all of the above, insurance policies, and whatever else we can find to distract us from our actual experience – such as obsessive busyness, drugs, overindulgence in music and TV, fanaticisms, and so on.

But in the end these refuges are all ineffective and usually make matters worse. The three dharmic refuges on the other hand can never be taken away from us, they are always there for us, and they address the great matters of life and death directly.

Traditionally, if someone ‘goes for refuge’ for the first time, it means they’ve undergone a profound experience of conversion: see stream entrant. The central rite of Buddhism is the Pali chanting of this phrase in reference to the three refuges, immediately followed by an undertaking to adopt the five basic ethical precepts that these refuges mandate. In this way practitioners refresh and renew their conversionary experience.

A word in both Pali and Sanskrit that simply means ‘community,’ this should be understood not as a sociological group but as the process whereby people actually associate with one another to pursue a common interest. In the dharma context of the three jewels it refers to our working practice communities – our spiritual friends who accompany and support us on the path.

Sanghas vary greatly in size and the degree to which they are formalised. Many nowadays are completely informal, inclusive and egalitarian.

Note that in the theravāda school of Buddhism, sangha refers exclusively to monastics. This usage is a special case.

In conventional Buddhism, a person is reborn with two mental givens: ignorance; and the karmic vestiges left over from previous lives – one’s saṅkhāras. The term is usually rendered into English as mental (or karmic or volitional) formations. These two givens are said to constitute our starting points when we undertake dharma practice; they’re what we’re engaged in transforming.

Stripped of the rebirth premise and reinterpreted, the saṅkhāras can stand for the inclinations and proclivities we start out with: from our foibles, obsessions, and phobias, to our personality disorders. Their origins lie in the instincts we’re born with, and the traumas and other formative influences that have marked each individual’s early childhood. Freud’s concept of the unconscious covers our saṅkhāras well enough.

Meditators need to be aware of them as they arise in practice, often painfully as traumatic memories resurface. Bringing them into consciousness is the necessary step to neutralising them and moving on from them.

See Mindfulness.

Throughout its 2,400 year history, every time the dharma has spread to a new civilisation it has had to express itself in terms of its new host culture. In this way, it has realised new possibilities for enriching the human condition. Its arrival in the West is no exception. Secular Buddhism contributes to the process of embedding the dharma in western countries.

Western culture itself has moved markedly in a secular direction, that is it puts much greater emphasis on the concerns of human beings in this world and at this time, and demotes doctrines, practices and their institutions that refer to supernatural phenomena and other-worldly, timeless realms. Secular Buddhism seeks to express the dharma and its practice in this spirit.

Secular Buddhism is an informal movement that reaches into the early teachings of the Buddha to bring forward an interpretation of the dharma and its practice that meshes with the way today’s westerners think and live. In this way, it seeks to reissue the Buddha’s living tradition and identify affinities between it and the development of western thought and practice.

Secular Buddhism has no authoritative institutions and no orthodoxy. It consists of many ongoing conversations, small informal sanghas, and a number of websites across the western world. After looking through this website, the best starting point for its exploration may be Stephen Batchelor’s 2015 book After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age.

STREAM ENTRANT (sotāpanna in Pali)
In the Buddha’s teaching, a stream entrant is someone who has undergone a powerful experience of conversion and thus gone for refuge to the three refuges. S/he thus becomes part of a sangha, yet can tread the path independently as s/he has internalised the teaching.

In the theravāda Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, stream entry is taken to mean a very advanced spiritual attainment, the first of four steps towards an ultimate ‘full’ awakening.

Many of the most important of Gotama’s early teachings are expressed in suttas, which is the Pali word for discourses. Originally an oral tradition, these texts were committed to writing some three centuries after his death.

Conventional ‘Buddhism’ asserts that the Buddha, in his very first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana sutta, announced the Four Noble Truths (note the initial capital letters):

  • … Life is suffering;
  • … Craving is the cause of suffering;
  • … The end of suffering is attainable; and
  • … The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.

These metaphysical propositions became the stock-in-trade of a Buddhism that has come to be understood as a religion rather than as an ethical practice.

A careful examination of the first teaching doesn’t support this conventional reading of the teaching. Among the problems associated with this reading is the fact that Gotama taught that life was not just suffering but also joy and the potential to awaken.

Contemporary scholarship informs us that the original text in fact makes no metaphysical assertions at all. Rather, it sets out four central tasks which orient dharma practice as a whole and which constitute the core of Gotama’s teaching. These tasks are:

1. Embrace life
In other words, the inevitable difficulties all humans face (i.e. the human condition).

2. Let go of greed, hatred and delusion – i.e. instinctive reactivity
When we fail to embrace dukkha, we indulge in reactivity. We pine for a set of conditions other than those which actually confront us, and this misstep in turn leads to further suffering and turbulence.

3. Stop and savour the ceasing of reactivity
When the mind is completely free of greed, hatred and delusion, however momentarily, we experience awakening, which not only clarifies our vision dramatically, but also inspires us to commit to the fourth and final task:

4. Act, cultivating the eightfold path
The eight aspects of this path call on us to overhaul our ‘view’ (worldview, or fundamental working assumptions) in line with dharmic insights, our intentions, our communications with others, our everyday ethics, our choice and approach to work, the energy we put into our spiritual practice, our sensitivity and awareness to what is happening to and around us, and our mental integration.

A positive feedback loop rather than a linear progression, the eightfold path is a comprehensive formula for living more fully – more reflectively and sanely – and for whole-of-life spiritual growth.

This is a Sanskrit word for pilgrimage, as long practised in Indian religions, including Buddhism. Traditionally it consisted of a barefoot journey to a distant holy place. As with the pilgrimages of the western tradition, the process of travelling in a pious and austere way was at least as important for spiritual development as the destination itself. The outward journey mirrors the inward journey.

Over the last three decades western dharma practitioners have embraced yatras, though in the absence of Buddhist holy places in the countries in question the destination is unimportant.

A typical modern western yatra will involve a guided hike over several days through a beautiful untouched landscape. Participants are likely to be well kitted out, provided with food, and sometimes even basic accommodation. They will usually maintain silence while walking, but may break silence at mealtimes and the end of each day, when dharma teachings may be offered. Each day usually begins and ends with a formal meditation period.