Glossary of Buddhist Terms

Below is a glossary of Buddhist Terms. Please browse this list and also page through the entries.



(Skt.skandha; Tib. phung-po)

The five aggregates or 'heaps' are the components or faculties of sentient beings: (1) The aggregate of form; (2) of feeling; (3) of perception or discrimination; (4) of motivational or compositional factors; (5) of consciousness. The first aggregate of form is the body, and the other four aggregates are aspects of the mind.


(Tib. bdud-rtsi)

Amrita is the divine ambrosia of the gods, which was recovered during the churning of the cosmic ocean. The Sanskrit term amrita means immortal or deathless, and its Tibetan equivalent bdud-rtsi means the nectar (rtsi) that overcomes the demon or mara (bdud) of death. In Tibetan art amrita, as the nectar of immortality, is traditionally depicted as a blue liquid, and in tantric symbolism it may also be identified with semen or alcohol.


(Tib, rnal-'byor bla-na med-pa'i rgyud)

The unsurpassed (anuttara) or 'highest yoga tantras' are the most complex and exalted of the four classes of tantra, with their specific emphasis on the twofold division into the 'generation stage or process' (bskyed-rim) and the 'completion or perfection stage' (rdzogs-rim) of meditational practice. The early Nyingma tradition classified the highest or 'inner yoga tantras' into a threefold division of mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga, and the later traditions of the Sarma schools classified them into a threefold division of father, mother and non-dual tantras. The main 'father tantras' are Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava and Yamari, the main 'mother tantras' are Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini and Hevajra, and the main 'non-dual tantra' is Kalachakra. The father tantras emphasize the development of method or skilful means, and the mother tantras emphasize the cultivation of wisdom.


(Tib. dgra-bcom-pa)

An arhant or arhat is one who has attained enlightenment (nirvana), or liberation from the cycle of existence (samsara). This goal of 'personal liberation' is particularly associated with the 'lower scope' of the Hinayana traditions. A group of sixteen arhats are traditionally listed and depicted as the direct lineal disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. The Sanskrit term arhat means worthy one or elder, and its Tibetan equivalent (dgra-bcom-pa) means foe-destroyer.


(Tib. lha-ma-yin)

The asuras are the demi-gods, titans or 'jealous gods' who live on the lower slopes of Mt Meru. They are always at war with the higher gods over possession of the wish-fulfilling tree, the roots of which grow in the lower asura realm, and the fruits of which blossom in the deva or god realm. As one of the six realms of existence the asura realm is characterized by jealousy, envy and hostility.


(Skt. upakaranam; Tib. yo-byad 'tshogs-chas)

Emblem, insignia or ritual implement of a deity



(Skt. antarabhava, anubhava; Tib. bar-do)

The intermediate state between death and rebirth, which symbolically is believed to last for forty-nine days. There are three phases to the bardo experience. The first is known as the chikai bardo, which is experienced at the time of death. The second is known as the chonyi bardo, which is the main intermediate state when the peaceful and wrathful deities manifest. The third is the sidpa bardo, or the bardo of seeking rebirth.


(Tib. byang-chub kyi-sems)

Bodhichitta, meaning 'mind (chitta) of enlightenment' (bodhi), has two distinct meanings in the Mahayana tradition. The first is known as conventional bodhichitta, which is the altruistic aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. The second is known as ultimate bodhichitta, which refers to the discriminating awareness or wisdom that directly realizes emptiness. Within the tantric traditions bodhichitta also refers to the subtle 'drops' or 'seminal essences' that are experienced and activated within the psychic energy channels (nadi) of the subtle body. These drops are of two kinds: white drops, which are equated with the male seminal essence of semen; and red drops, which are equated with the female seminal essence of menstrual blood. The white drops predominate at the crown chakra or 'wheel of great bliss', and the red drops predominate at the navel chakra or 'wheel of emanation'. The Kalachakra Tantra is unique in assigning four kinds of drops for each of the main chakras (crown, throat, heart and navel) - with the 'body drop' at the crown giving rise to the waking state, the 'speech or dream drop' at the throat giving rise to the dream state, the 'mind or deep sleep drop' giving rise to the state of deep sleep, and the 'deep awareness drop' at the navel giving rise to the experience of sexual bliss.


(Tib. byang-chub sems-dpa')

The bodhisattva or 'awakening hero' is a spiritual practitioner who has progressed far upon the spiritual path, and one whose essential aim is to lead all beings to enlightenment through his or her altruistic aspiration of bodhichitta. The Mahayana teachings list ten 'grounds' (Skt. bhumi) or stages on the bodhisattva path to full enlightenment, but this number is increased to thirteen levels in some of the tantric literature. Within the Buddhist pantheon of deities the bodhisattvas are the spiritual heirs or 'sons and daughters' of the Five Buddha Families. The most prominent of these spiritual heirs are commonly grouped into the eight male and eight female bodhisattvas, and the sixteen male and sixteen female bodhisattvas. See Eight Close Sons.


(Tib. byang-chub sems-dpa')

The bodhisattva or 'awakening hero' is a spiritual practitioner who has progressed far upon the spiritual path, and one whose essential aim is to lead all beings to enlightenment through his or her altruistic aspiration of bodhichitta. The Mahayana teachings list ten 'grounds' (Skt. bhumi) or stages on the bodhisattva path to full enlightenment, but this number is increased to thirteen levels in some of the tantric literature. Within the Buddhist pantheon of deities the bodhisattvas are the spiritual heirs or 'sons and daughters' of the Five Buddha Families. The most prominent of these spiritual heirs are commonly grouped into the eight male and eight female bodhisattvas, and the sixteen male and sixteen female bodhisattvas. See Eight Close Sons.



(Tib. gcod)

The Tibetan term chöd means 'cutting', and this unique meditation practice was brought to Tibet by the Indian Mahasiddha Phadampa Sangye, who in turn transmitted the teachings to his female Tibetan disciple, Machik Labdron (1055-1152). The chöd practice is aimed at severing the self-cherishing attachment to the ego, and employs the powerful visualization technique of cutting up one's own body and offering it to the hungry spirits. The chöd practice was often performed at night in the terrifying solitude of an isolated charnel ground.

Clear Light

(Skt. prabhasvara; Tib. 'od-gsal)

The 'clear light' is the most refined or subtle level of mind, which is only revealed when the gross levels of mind are no longer active. Although the inner radiance of the clear light is innately present in all beings, it is usually only experienced when the grosser levels of mind have dissolved at the time of death. In the completion stage techniques of the Anuttarayoga tantric systems the practitioner learns how to control all of the vital energies within the subtle body, and to awaken the 'mind of clear light' that resides in the heart as the indestructible drop - thereby simulating the death experience. The tantras make a distinction between the 'mother clear light' of the death experience, and the 'son clear light' that is cultivated through meditation.


(Skt. vijnana; Tib. shes-pa, rnam-shes)

Consciousness or 'knowledge-awareness' is categorized into six or eight types. The six consciousness are the five sense consciousnesses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch), and mental consciousness. The two additional consciousnesses that create the group of eight are, the intrinsic 'store consciousness' (alayavijnana), and the 'deluded consciousness' (klishthamanovijnana).



(Skt. bindu; Tib. thig-le)

See Bodhichitta and Indestructible Drop


Eight Attires of the Charnel Ground

(Tib. dur-khrod-kyi chas brgyad)

The eight attires or requisites of extremely wrathful deities - the first three of which are facial attributes, the second three bodily attributes, and the last two limb, head and neck adornments. They are: (1) human cemetery ash applied to the forehead (thal-chen-gyi tshom-bu); (2) fresh spots of blood applied to the 'three bulges' of the nose and cheeks (khrag-gi thig-le); (3) human fat applied to the chin or throat (zhag-gi zo-ris); (4) a flayed elephant-skin stretched across the back (glang-po-che'i pags-pa); (5) the flayed human skin of an enemy draped around the neck (zhing-lpags-kyi yang-gzhi); (6) a tiger-skin loincloth (stag-lpags-kyi sham-thabs); (7) the 'revolting serpent ornament' of the five castes of nagas; (8) the head ornament of a five-skull crown, and the neck ornament of fifty dry skulls or freshly severed heads. The wings of a garuda and a blazing mass of wisdom-fire may also occasionally be counted as the ninth and tenth of a wrathful deity's attires.

Eight Close Sons

(Skt. asta-upaputra; Tib. ne-ba'i sras brgyad)

The Eight Close Sons are the eight great male Bodhisattvas: (1) Manjushri ('Jam-dpal) or Manjugosha ('Jam-dbyangs); (2) Avalokiteshvara (sPyan-ras-gzigs); (3) Vajrapani (Phyag-na rdo-rje); (4) Maitreya (Byams-pa); (5) Samantabhadra (Kun-tu-bzang-po); (6) Akashagarbha (Nam-mkha'i snying-po); (7) Kshitigarbha (Sa'i snying-po); (8) Nivarana-vishkambhin (sGrib-pa rnam-sel). These eight Bodhisattvas are symbolized by the eight lions that support Shakyamuni Buddha's throne.

Eight Consciousnesses

(Skt. astavijnana; Tib. shes-pa brgyad)

See Consciousness

Eight Fears

(Skt. astabhaya, astaghora; Tib. 'jigs-pa brgyad)

The causes of the eight perils or fears are: (1) fire (anger); (2) water or drowning (attachment); (3) lions (pride); (4) elephants (ignorance); (5) imprisonment or punishment (greed); (6) nagas or poisonous snakes (jealousy); (7) demons or witches (doubt); (8) thieves (false views). Arya Tara and Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara are the two Bodhisattvas who protect from these eight fears.

Eight Great Charnel Grounds

(Skt. astamahasmasana; Tib. dur-khrod chen-po brgyad)

The eight great charnel grounds were prominent cemeteries of ancient India, where many Buddhist mendicants and tantric yogins developed deep renunciation and attainments (siddhi). Mythologically they are said to have arisen from the eight dismembered parts of the demon Rudra's body, and were incorporated into the mandala's of many wrathful Vajrayana deities as an outer protection wheel. Each of the eight great charnel grounds has a specific tree, lake, cloud, fire, directional protector, realm protector, naga, Mahasiddha, mountain and stupa, as well as various kinds of corpses, spirits, animals, yogins, yoginis, and knowledge holders. They are commonly listed as the four cardinal cemeteries: (1) East - Very Ferocious (gtum-drag); (2) South - Skeleton Place (keng-rus-can); (3) West - Blazing Vajra (rdo-rje 'bar-ba); (4) North - Dense Thicket (tshan-tshing 'khrigs-pa): And the four inter-cardinal cemeteries: (5) South-east - Cool Grove (bsil-ba'i tshal); (6) South-west - Intense Darkness (mun-pa drag-po); (7) North-west - Sounds of kili, kili (ki-li ki-li'i sgra sgrog-pa); (8) North-east - Ha Ha Laughter (ha-ha rgod-pa).

Eight Liberations

(Tib. rnam par thar pa brgyad)

(1) The liberation which regards outer forms to be a magical display of appearance and emptiness because the apparitions of [one's own] inner form are unimpeded, and which thus regards the mistaken apprehension of the true existence of appearances as a dichotomy of subjective and objective forms. (2) The liberation which regards outer forms without reference to [one's own] inner form, and which thus regards the release from the apprehension of the true existence of outer and inner phenomena not as a subjective form but as an objective form. (3) The liberation which regards all things as emptiness of a single savor, and which thus is a pleasant release from all subjective grasping. (4) The liberation which perceives the space-like significance of mind-as-such, and which thus is the activity field of infinite space. (5) The liberation which realizes all things to be a display of mind and pristine cognition, and which thus is the activity field of infinite consciousness. (6) The liberation which is without the subject-object dichotomy in all respects, and which thus is the activity field of nothing-at-all. (7) The liberation which pacifies the entire range of conceptual elaboration and signs, and which thus is the activity field of neither perception nor non-perception. (8) The liberation which never has objective reference or subjective apprehension with respect to all things of samsara and nirvana and so forth, and which thus is cessation.

(Taken from Guhyagarbha-tantra Ch.1, as translated by Gyurme Dorje, and written in accordance with an oral commentary by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche).

Eight Sufferings or Faults of Samsara

(Skt. astadukha; Tib. sdug-bsngal brgyad)

The sufferings of: (1) birth; (2) illness; (3) old age; (4) death; (5) being separated from that which one likes; (6) encountering that which one dislikes; (7) not attaining that which one desires; (8) losing that which one possesses.

Eight Worldly Dharmas

(Tib. 'jig-rten chos-brgyad)

The eight dualistic mundane concerns of gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.

Eightfold Noble Path

(Skt. astangamarga; Tib.'phags-lam yan-lag brgyad)

The eightfold noble path directly evolved from the last of the four noble truths, which the Buddha taught in his first sermon at the deer park in Sarnath - the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. The eightfold path is the method that leads to the cessation of suffering and to the cultivation of the enlightened attitude of the bodhisattva. This path consists of: (1) correct view or understanding; (2) correct thought or analysis; (3) correct speech; (4) correct action; (5) correct livelihood; (6) correct effort; (7) correct mindfulness; (8) correct concentration or meditative equipoise.


(Skt. sunya, sunyata; Tib. stong-pa-nyid)

The ultimate nature of reality, which is the total absence of an independent and inherently existing 'self' within both oneself and the whole of phenomenal existence. Emptiness is synonymous with the terms 'ultimate truth', 'actual reality' (dharmata: chos-nyid), and 'suchness' (tathata). The Mahayana sutras list either two, four, sixteen or twenty kinds of emptiness.


Fifty Sanskrit Vowels and Consonants

The long garlands of fifty freshly severed heads or white skulls worn by wrathful deities symbolize purification of speech as the sixteen vowels and thirty-four consonants of the Sanskrit alphabet or their Tibetan equivalents. In many tantric visualization practices the vowels (ali) and consonants (kali) are generated in circling 'rosaries of speech', with the sixteen 'male' or white vowels circling in a clockwise direction and the thirty-four 'female' or red consonants circling in an anticlockwise direction. These 'mantra rosaries' often correspond to the melting and movement of the white and red bodhichitta drops through the channels or nadi of the subtle body. In certain sadhanas the number of vowels may be increased to forty and the mantra rosaries doubled - with the two circles of white vowels numbering thirty-two, and the two circles of red consonants numbering eighty. These numbers correspond to the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of an enlightened being.

The sixteen vowels are: A, AA, I, II, U, UU, RI, RII, LI, LII, E, AI, O, AU, AM, AH

The thirty-four consonants are divided into seven phonetic groups: KA, KHA, GA, GHA, NGA; CHA, CHHA, JA, JHA, NYA; DA, THA, TA, DHA, NA; DRA, THRA, TRA, DHRA, NA; BA, PHA, PA, BHA, MA; YA, RA, LA, WA; SHA, KA, SA, HA, KYA

Fifty-one Mental Factors

(Skt. chaitasika; Tib. sems-byung)

When a long garland (Tib. do-shal) of fifty-one severed heads or skulls are described as being worn by a wrathful deity, it symbolize the purification of the fifty-one mental factors or thought processes. These fifty-one mental factors or 'events' are listed and classified in the early Buddhist abhidharma texts, especially those of the Chittramatra or 'mind only' philosophical school. Only forty-six of the abhidharma's 'defiled thought processes' are listed in the Vaibhashika philosophical school.

Five Buddha Families

(Skt. panchakula; Tib. rigs lnga)

The Five Buddhas of the 'Enlightened Families' are commonly, but erroneously known, as the Five Dhyani Buddhas. The conceptual assembly of the Five Buddhas was first revealed in the early tantric texts of the Manjushrimulakalpa and the Guhyasamaja Tantra (circa 6th century AD), and their assembly forms the basis for the geometric mandala plan of a central Buddha and four surrounding directional Buddhas. The Five Enlightened Families represent the purified manifestations of the five aggregates, elements, wisdoms, senses and sensory perceptions. Each of the Five Buddhas is assigned a direction, a color, a consort, a progeny of Bodhisattvas and deities, an animal throne, a specific mudra, and a symbolic emblem or attribute. To this list were added an array of pentad qualities, such as: the five tastes, sounds, precious substances, times of the day, internal and external elements, and seasons (spring, summer, rainy season, autumn and winter). Essentially the Five Buddhas represent the five purified aggregates and the transmutation of the five poisons into the five transcendental Wisdoms of the Five Buddhas.

Five Elements

(Skt. pancabhuta; Tib. 'byung-ba lnga)

The five great elements of earth, water, fire, wind (air), and space, which internally correspond to the bodily properties of solidity (bones), fluidity (vital organs and fluids), heat (complexion), energy or movement (breath), and vacuity (consciousness). Symbolically earth is represented by a yellow square (Ratnasambhava - south); water by a white circle (Vairocana - east or center); fire by a red triangle (Amitabha - west); wind by a green bow-shaped hemisphere (Amoghasiddhi - north); and space by a dissolving blue dot or flame-tip (Akshobya - center or east).

Five Poisons

(Skt. pancavisha; Tib. dug lnga)

The five negative emotions of: (1) ignorance, delusion or confusion; (2) attachment, lust or desire; (3) aversion, hatred or anger; (4) jealousy, envy or worldly ambition; (5) pride. These five emotional defilements are characteristic of the various realms of existence - ignorance (animal realm), attachment (hungry ghost realm), aversion or hatred (hell realm), jealousy (asura realm), pride (god realm). The sixth, human realm is characterized by less extreme manifestations of all five of these dissonant emotions. Sometimes a sixth poison of wrong view is added to this list. The transmutations of these five poisons also correspond to the colors and qualities of the Five Buddhas - ignorance (white Vairocana), attachment (red Amitabha), aversion (blue Akshobya), jealousy (green Amoghasiddhi), and pride (yellow Ratnasambhava).

Five Supernatural Knowledges

(Tib. mngon-shes-lnga)

(1) Miraculous abilities (Tib. rdzu-'phrul gyi mngon-par shes-pa); (2) clairvoyance or 'divine sight' (Tib. lha'i mig-gi mngon-par she-pa); (3) clairaudience or 'divine hearing' (Tib. lha'i rna-ba'i mngon-par shes-pa); (4) knowledge of others minds or 'mind-reading' (Tib. gzhan-gyi sems shes-pa); (5) recollection of former lives (Tib. sngon-gyi gnas rjes-su-dran-pa).

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