Buddhist Vocabulary

Buddhist Vocabulary



Karma is a Sanskrit word which has come into standard use in the English language. The Tibetan word for karma is le (phonetic; Wyl. las) which means action or deed.

Karma is the law of cause and effect. For every action there is a result. When one engages in actions of body, speech, or mind, these actions leave imprints or karmic seeds in one’s alayavijnana or storehouse consciousness. These imprints accumulate over lifetimes and when the right causes and conditions arise, these seeds come to fruition and manifest as the various circumstances in one’s life.

There are 4 types of actions:
—Both wholesome and unwholesome mixed
—Indeterminate actions which take place after enlightenment

Wholesome, beneficial actions bring about favorable, positive results.
Unwholesome, harmful actions bring about unfavorable, negative results.
Mixed actions bring about mixed results, some of which are positive, and others are negative.
Indeterminate actions do not bring about results in the realm of samsara, conditioned existence.

The intention behind one’s actions also contributes to the flavor of the result.
Karma from current or past lives can ripen at any time in one’s present life, in one’s next life or future lives, or not at all.

Understanding the law of cause and effect provides a context for understanding one’s current circumstance and empowers one to engage in actions that will bring about beneficial results in the future.



An initiation ritual that introduces one to a specific Vajrayana practice and allows them to engage in the practice.

Sanskrit: abhiṣeka which means anoint or consecrate
Tibetan: wang kur (dbang bskur) which means to confer initiation/empowerment.
wang (dbang): power, force
kur (bskur): send, give, bestow

In an empowerment, the vajra master transmits the realization of a particular practice to the initiate.
This is not a bestowing of something to the initiate that they do not have. An empowerment activates a quality that is dormant. The vajra master’s transmission wakes up an innate quality to which the initiate does not have access because the quality is obscured by habitual patterns.

An initiation allows one to enter the mandala and learn the visualizations, mantras, and mudras associated with a particular practice.

An empowerment is one of three transmissions required for one to have permission to engage in a Vajrayana practice:
wang: transmission of the realization of the practice one wishes to undertake.
lung: reading transmission that allows one to read the text.
tri: the instructions on how to do the practice.

There are four empowerments within an Anuttarayogatantra initiation
Vase empowerment which relates to a purification of the body, the sense doors, and phenomenal world into nirmanakaya (manifest body of enlightenment).
Secret empowerment which relates to purification of speech into sambhogakaya (body of enjoyment).
Knowledge-Wisdom empowerment which relates to purification of the mind into dharmakaya (body of ultimate enlightenment) .
Word empowerment which purifies the above three into the svabhavikakaya (essential body) which is the inseparability of the nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya and dharmakaya.

In order for an empowerment to take place, the two causes and four conditions are necessary:

Two causes needed for an empowerment:
Associated cause: the presence of the buddha nature
Cooperative cause: the ritual implements and substances used in the ritual

The four conditions needed for an empowerment:
Causal condition: initiate with faith and intelligence
Dominant condition: fully qualified teacher/vajra master
Objective condition: the vajra master’s knowledge of the ritual
Immediate condition: the previous stage or empowerment which prepares the initiate for each successive stage of practice or of the empowerment. It is important the vase, secret, knowledge-wisdom, and word empowerments be given in the correct order as each one prepares the ground for the next.



The noble heart that feels the suffering of another being as if it were its own and wishes for all beings to be free of suffering and its causes.

Tibetan: snying rje (Wylie), nying je (phonetics)
Sanskrit & Pāli: karuṇā

snying = king, majesty, sovereign, noble
rje = heart, mind, courage

The courageous, noble heart that, based on the recognition of the equality of self and other, one recognizes and experiences that another’s pain and suffering is no different than one’s own, and therefore wishes for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

Compassion is one of the four brahma viharas (sublime abodes).

When the wish for all beings to be free of suffering expands into to the wish to attain awakening so that one may liberate being from the suffering of samsara, it is called great compassion, nyingje chenpo or mahākarunā.



A bodhisattva is someone who has committed themselves to courageously walk the spiritual path. They are motivated by bodhicitta (the aspiration to benefit beings) and guided by wisdom and compassion. A bodhisattva has vowed to undertake the spiritual path for the benefit of all beings. While putting the well being of others before themselves and engaging in acts of generosity, morality/ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom, a bodhisattva intently pursues the path of awakening. When they are at the gateway to liberation, they intentionally return to samsara to alleviate the suffering of beings and guide them to liberation.

Sanskrit: Bodhisattva

bodhi = awakened; intimate familiarity; enlightened essence

sattva = living, sentient being

bodhisattva = awakened being

Tibetan: jang chub sem pa (phonetics); byang chub sems dpa’ (Wylie transliteration)

jang chub is synonymous with the term buddhahood and it articulates 2 aspects of buddhahood:

  • jang (byang) = purified; purified of all that obscures our minds from clearly seeing the true nature of ourselves and all phenomena.
  • chub (chub) = perfected; that one has fully developed the perfect qualities of a buddha.

sem pa (sems dpa’) = heroic or courageous being

  • sem (sems) = “mind” or “heart”. The mind/heart is the foundation of awakening or buddhahood.
  • pa (dpa’) = brave, heroic, courageous

jang chub sem pa = Courageous being of enlightenment



Bodhicitta is central to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Literally, it means the mind of awakening. It is the aspiration to awaken for the benefit of all beings. The key ingredient in cultivating and deepening bodhicitta is compassion. There are two types of bodhicitta: conventional/relative bodhicitta and ultimate bodhicitta. Conventional bodhicitta is the intention to awaken for all beings and engagement in meditative practices that make that possible. Ultimate bodhicitta is direct experience of the ultimate nature of all phenomena.

Sanskrit: bodhicitta

Tibetan: byang chub kyi sems (jang chub kyi sem)

bodhi = awakened; enlightened essence; intimate familiarity

citta = mind/heart; buddha-mind; pristine cognition

Meaning: The mind of awakening; the aspiration to awaken for the benefit of all beings

Bodhicitta is central to the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhicitta is born from compassion.

There are 2 types of bodhicitta:

  • Conventional/Relative Bodhicitta: The intention to awaken for all beings, and engagement in meditative practices that make that possible
  • Ultimate Bodhicitta: Direct experience of the ultimate nature of all phenomena

Training in bodhicitta includes the following:

  • Meditating on the 4 Immeasurables (boundless lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity).
  • Stating one’s aspiration by taking the bodhisattva vow 3 times in the morning and 3 times at night.
  • Equalizing self and other: Recognizing that just as you wish for happiness, so do all beings wish for happiness.
  • Exchanging self and other: Taking in the suffering of others and offering them love and happiness in exchange
  • Considering others as more important than yourself.

There are 3 types of commitment/courage:

  1. King-like bodhicitta: Attaining awakening and then helping others to do the same
  2. Ferryman’s bodhicitta: Oneself and all beings attain awakening simultaneously
  3. Shepherd-like bodhicitta: Ensures that all beings attain awakening before oneself attains awakening



Sanskrit: dharma
Pali: dhamma
Tibetan: Wylie transliteration: chos, phonetic: chö

The term dharma has multiple meanings. It is derived from the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “to hold” or “to maintain.”
The three basic definitions are 1) Teachings or Doctrines, 2) Phenomena, 3) Qualities

1. Teachings or Doctrines:
– Refers to all teachings or doctrines, whether they are Buddhist or not.
– In this sense, dharma is something which holds us from falling into suffering.
– In this definition there are 2 subcategories:

o Dharma of Scripture: a teaching that is read or heard
o Dharma of Realization: a teaching that has been integrated and subse-quently manifests in our experience

2. Phenomena:
– Anything that we experience
– From a Buddhist point of view, all that we experience is dependently exist-ent, meaning that what we perceive are appearances that depend on many conditions or constituent parts coming together. These constituent parts are phenomena or dharmas.

3. Qualities or Characteristics:
– Any quality or characteristic of an awakened being’s body, speech, or mind



Sangha literally means that which is struck together well. In common usage, it generally refers to a community. It has been adopted by multiple religions. In Buddhism, it is generally used to indicate a group of Buddhist practitioners. Sangha is also used to refer to specific categories of Buddhist practitioners: Enlightened beings, ordained practitioners, lay practitioners, or a combination of ordained and lay practitioners.

Complete Definition:
Pali: saṅgha
Sanskrit: saṃgha
Tibetan: phonetics: gendun; Wylie transliteration: dge ‘dun

The word sangha generally refers to a community. It has been adopted by Buddhists and is used to indicate a group of Buddhist practitioners. Within Buddhism it can be used to refer to different categories of Buddhist practitioners.

  1. Noble Sangha: In the context of the 3 Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), sangha refers to those who have achieved a high level of realization (having attained at least the first of the 10 levels of a bodhisattva) and have an unwavering commitment to benefit all sentient beings.
  2. It refers to the ordained community; ordained men, women, and non-binary. It was first used to identify the first 5 ordained disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni; the 5 who were present for the Buddha’s first teaching.
  3. In the West, it is commonly used to refer to a community of lay practitioners.
  4. Fourfold Sangha: Refers ordained and lay practitioners collectively.