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Glossary of Buddhist Terms

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


Four Absorptions

(Skt. catursamapatti; Tib. snyoms-'jug bzhi)

The four most refined states of mental absorption, the attainment of which leads to rebirth in one of the four formless heavenly realms. These four absorptions are known as: (1) limitless space (akashanantya); (2) limitless consciousness (vijnananantya); (3) nothingness (akinchaya); (4) neither cognition nor non-cognition (naivashanjnanasamjna).

Four Activities or Rites

(Skt. caturkriya; Tib. las-bzhi)

The 'four rites' are the functions of an enlightened being's activities, and in Buddhist tantra their application is usually expressed in the fire ritual of homa. These four activities are: (1) pacifying; (2) increasing; (3) subjugating; (4) wrathful activity. Pacifying means purifying and calming through removing hindrances and illnesses. Increasing means enriching or bringing prosperity and longevity. Subjugating means influencing or attracting power to give control over situations. Wrathful, destructive or forceful activity means annihilating confusion and obstacles. A fifth rite of spontaneous or all-purpose activity is sometimes added to this list when it corresponds to the Five Buddha Families.

Four Classes of Tantra

(Skt. caturtantra; Tib. rgyud-sde bzhi)

The fourfold division of the deity-yoga practices of the Vajrayana, which are classified into (1) kriyatantra (Tib. bya-rgyud) or 'action tantra'- which mainly emphasize external activities and ritual practices; (2) caryatantra (Tib. spyod-rgyud) or 'performance tantra' - with an emphasis on both external ritual practices and internal visualization practices; (3) yogatantra (Tib.rnal-'byor-rgyud) or 'union tantra' - which mainly emphasize internal yoga or meditation practices; (4) anuttarayogatantra (Tib. rnal-'byor bla-med-pa'i rgyud) or 'highest yoga tantra' - which place the greatest emphasis on the internal visualization practices of the 'generation and completion stages'.

Four Common Preliminaries

(thun-mongs-kyi sngon-'gro bzhi)

Also known as the four Contemplations, these four topics are meditated upon during the preliminary practices (sngon-'gro) in order to overcome attachment and develop a strong spiritual foundation. The first is contemplation on this precious human birth. The second is reflection upon death and impermanence. The third is contemplation on karma as the law of cause and effect. And the fourth is contemplation upon the sufferings and miseries of cyclic existence or samsara.

Four Concentrations

(Skt. caturdhyana; Tib. bsam-gtan bzhi)

The four concentrations or samadhis are the four stages of meditative absorption that can lead to a rebirth in the highest form realms of the gods. These four concentrations are characterized by an absence of: (1) physical pain or discomfort; (2) mental or emotional unhappiness; (3) pleasurable excitement; (4) mundane experiences of joy.

Four Doors of Liberation

The methods through which one can approach realization: (1) emptiness; (2) signlessness or absence of attributes; (3) wishlessness or lack of aspiration; (4) the ultimate emptiness or lack of composition of all phenomena.

Four Elements

(Skt. caturbhuta; Tib. 'byung-ba bzhi)

The four material elements of earth, water, fire, and wind (air), which internally correspond to the bodily properties of solidity, fluidity, warmth, and energy. See five elements.

Four Emptinesses

(Skt. catursunyata; Tib. stong-nyid bzhi)

The four voids or emptinesses are: (1) emptiness (sunya); (2) highest emptiness (atisunya); (3) great emptiness (mahasunya); (4) universal emptiness (sarvasunya). In the tantric systems these four emptinesses correspond to: (1) the emptiness of self or body; (2) the emptiness of mind; (3) the emptiness of the contents of mind; (4) the emptiness of all phenomena. The four emptinesses may also be classified as: (1) the emptiness of things; (2) the emptiness of non-things; (3) the emptiness of nature; (4) the emptiness of transcendental nature. See also emptiness, two emptinesses, four emptinesses, and sixteen emptinesses.

Four Immeasurables

(Skt. catvary-apramanani; Tib. tsha-med bzhi)

Also known as the four Divine States of mind or the 'Four Abodes of Brahma' (catur-brahma-vihara; tshangs-pa'i gnas-pa bzhi). The four immeasurables are compassion, love, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Immeasurable compassion (karuna) is the altruistic wish that all beings be free from suffering. Immeasurable love (maitri), or loving kindness, is the wish that all beings enjoy happiness. Immeasurable joy (mudita) is the wish that all beings abide in the bliss of liberation. Immeasurable equanimity (upeksha) is the wish that all beings may abandon attachment and aversion, and perceive each other as equals.

Four Joys

(Skt. caturananda; Tib. dga'ba bzhi)

The 'four joys of tantra' are experienced when the white bodhichitta drop ascends from the lowest chakra at the sex-tip to the navel, heart, throat, and crown chakras, causing an increasing experience of great bliss to be generated. These four joys are: (1) joy (ananda); (2) perfect joy (paramananda); (3) joy of cessation (viramananda); (4) innate joy (sahajananda). The four joys are given a metaphorical sexual interpretation in the Hevajra Tantra, with the first 'joy' being the contact of the lotus and vajra (vagina and penis), the second 'perfect joy' being the desire for more, the third 'joy of cessation' being the release from the urge of passion after orgasm, and the fourth 'innate joy' being the dreamy state of fulfillment or satisfaction that arises from the preceding joy. Eight and sixteen joys may also be enumerated in the tantras: with eight joys arising through the ascent and descent of the white bodhichitta drop through the four main chakras, and sixteen joys arising through the ascent and descent of both the white and red bodhichitta drops.

Four Maras

(Skt. caturmara; Tib. bdud-bzhi)

Mara - meaning 'the destroyer or tempter' - was the demonic 'evil one' who attempted to obstruct the Buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi-tree and was vanquished in the process. Traditionally Mara was identified with Kamadeva - the Vedic god of love and desire, and the king of the gods in the highest celestial desire realm - and in this form he was recognized as Devaputra Mara or the 'mara of the son of god', a title that has resonance with Satan's temptation of Jesus. In the early Buddhist sutras Mara's army was described as having four divisions, and in later Mahayana Buddhism these four divisions were personified as the four maras and represented in the forms of Hindu gods. The first of these four maras is Skandha Mara (phung-po'i bdud) - the demon of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, motivation, consciousness), who appears in the form of yellow Brahma. The second is Klesha Mara (nyong-mongs-pa'i bdud) - the demon of emotional defilements, who appears in the form of white Vishnu. The third is Mrtyu Mara ('shi-bdag-gi bdud) - the demon of death, who appears in the form of blue Maheshvara. The fourth is Devaputra Mara (lha'i bu'i bdud) - the 'son of god' and the personification of Mara as the demon of divine pride and lust, who appears in the form of black Indra. They may also be depicted in the forms of Brahma (Skandha Mara), Yaksha (Klesha Mara), Yama (Mrtyu Mara), and Indra (Devaputra Mara). As a personification of Mara himself, Devaputra Mara may also be represented in the red form of Kamadeva. Iconographically the four maras may be depicted as being crushed under the feet of deities such as Hevajra and Vajrabhairava, or the blood of the four maras may appear in the skull-cups of many wrathful deities. In Vajrayana Buddhism the armies of Mara represent all of the mental and emotional delusions that arise as 'demonic enemies or fiends', and the function of many of the weapons held by Vajrayana deities are to slay, crush, pierce, cut and sever the negative or evil influences of the four maras.

Four Noble Truths

(Skt. catuharyasatya; Tib. 'phags-pa'i bden-pa bzhi)

The teaching upon the Four Noble Truths was the first discourse given by Shakyamuni Buddha in the deer-park at Sarnath. The first truth is the truth of suffering; the second the truth of its origin; the third the truth of its cessation; and the fourth the truth of the path leading to its cessation. See Eightfold Noble Path.

Four Obscurations

(Tib. sgrib-pa bzhi)

The obscurations of: (1) body; (2) speech; (3) mind; (4) the subtle and collective obscurations of body, speech and mind.

Four Ways of Gathering Disciples

(Tib. bsdu-ba'i ngos-po bzhi)

The four methods by which a Bodhisattva attracts disciples: (1) through generosity; (2) through wise and eloquent speech; (3) through teaching in accordance with the disciple's needs; (4) through putting into practice what one teaches.


Great Bliss

(Skt. mahasukha; Tib. bde-ba chen-po)

In the Anuttarayogatantra practices 'great bliss' refers to the ecstatic experience of joyful bliss that arises when the practitioner enters into union with a partner or consort - either visualized or actual. When this experience of ecstatic bliss is simultaneously generated with a direct experience of emptiness, the resulting state is known as the 'union of great bliss and emptiness'.



(Tib. sbyin-sreg)

The homa ritual or 'fire-puja' is traditionally performed at the end of a long tantric retreat, in order to purify any transgressions that may have arisen during the retreat. It may also be performed for a specific religious or secular purpose, such as removing obstacles or increasing wealth. The homa ritual involves an invocation to the fire-god Agni, and the offering of various substances as burnt offerings into the sacred fire, such as woods, grasses, grains, seeds, honey and ghee. The hearths or fire-pits that are specifically constructed for these rituals are generally of four kinds, and correspond to the four activities or rites of tantra. A circular white fire-hearth is employed for pacifying rituals. A square yellow fire-hearth is employed for rituals of increase. A bow-shaped red fire-hearth is employed for subjugating rites. A triangular black fire-hearth is employed for wrathful or destructive activities.


Illusory Body

(Skt. mayadeha; Tib. sgyu-lus)

In the 'completion stage' of the Highest Yoga Tantras the mind of the practitioner arises from the stage of 'clear light' in the transformed and white 'illusory body' of the particular yidam deity. The attainment of this illusory body - whereby the mind becomes completely identified with the deity's pure light form or body - is particularly emphasized in the 'father tantras' cultivation of method or skilful means; whereas attainment of the clear light is particularly emphasized in the 'mother tantras' cultivation of wisdom or discriminating awareness. In Vajrayana Buddhism there are said to be seven types of illusory body: (1) the symbolic; (2) the apparitional; (3) the dream body; (4) the bardo body of the intermediate state between death and rebirth; (5) the body of inner radiance; (6) the emanation body; (7) the body of pristine awareness.

Indestructible Drop

(Skt. vajrabindu; Tib. rdo-rje thig-le)

The indestructible drop is formed from the essence of the white and red bodhichitta drops at conception from the fertile semen and menstrual blood of our parents. This drop contains the most subtle mind of the incarnating consciousness of the being seeking rebirth, and this drop remains unchanged at the heart center throughout life. At the time of death the indestructible drop 'melts' and opens, allowing the most subtle mind and the 'wind' upon which it rides to travel on to its next incarnation.


Method or Skilful Means

(Skt. upaya; Tib. thabs)

The practices of method or skilful means refer to the accumulation of merit, which is cultivated through the five 'male' perfections of generosity, moral conduct, patience, effort and meditative concentration. The perfection of skilful means is also included as one of the ten perfections, where it implies the dedication of one's merit for the benefit of all beings. In the 'father tantra' practices of the anuttarayogatantras the development of skilful means also refers to the sexual techniques (sbyor-ba), which are activated through the psychic energy channels, winds and drops. As a 'male' symbol the attributes of 'method' are held in the right hands of deities.


Nine Yanas

(Skt. navayana; Tib. theg-pa rim-pa dgu)

The early Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism classifies the entire Buddhist path into nine progressive 'vehicles' or yanas, which are based on the three 'sutra vehicles', the three 'outer tantra' vehicles, and the three 'inner tantra' vehicles. These nine yanas are: (1) Shravaka or 'pious listeners'; (2) Pratyekabuddha or 'solitary realisers'; (3) Bodhisattva or 'spiritual heroes'; (4) Kriyatantra or 'action tantra'; (5) Caryatantra or 'performance tantra'; (6) Yogatantra or 'union tantra'; (7) Mahayoga or the 'generation stage' practices; (8) Anuyoga or the 'completion stage' practices; (9) Atiyoga or the 'great perfection' transmission of Dzogchen (rdzogs-pa chen-po).


(Tib. rNying-ma)

The Nyingma or 'ancient translation school' (snga-'gyur rnying-ma) is the oldest of the four main Buddhist traditions of Tibet. It dates back to the eighth century when teachers such as Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra first introduced the Buddhist teachings from India. The other three main Buddhist schools of Tibet; Kagyu (bKa- brgyud), Sakya (Sa-skya), and Kadam (bKa' gdams), are known as the Sarma (gsar-ma) or 'new translation schools' (gsang-sngags gsar-ma). The Kadam tradition later evolved into the Gelug (dGe-lugs) or 'New translation' school, which was founded by Tsong Khapa (1357-1419). The Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools are often identified as the 'red hats', and the Gelug school as the 'yellow hats'.


Seven Branches or Limbs

(Skt. saptanga; Tib. yan-lag bdun-pa)

The seven limbed practice is used to purify defilements and accumulating merit, and consists of: (1) prostrations; (2) offerings; (3) confessing non-virtuous actions; (4) rejoicing in the virtuous actions of oneself and others; (5) requesting the Buddhas to turn the wheel of dharma; (6) requesting the Buddhas to remain in this world; (7) dedication of merit.

Seven Noble Treasures

(Skt. saptadhana; Tib. 'phags-pa'i nor bdun)

The seven spiritual wealths or noble treasures are: (1) faith or self-confidence; (2) morality or ethical discipline; (3) generosity; (4) learning; (5) conscientious behavior; (6) modesty; (7) wisdom. These seven great wealths accompany the birth of the chakravartin.

Six Perfections

(Skt. satparamita; Tib. phar-phyin drug)

The six transcendent perfections are: (1) generosity; (2) morality or ethical discipline; (3) patience; (4) joyful effort or perseverance; (5) meditative concentration; (6) wisdom or discriminating awareness. The first five of these perfections are the 'male' perfections of method or skilful means, and constitute the accumulation of merit (punya). The last perfection of wisdom is 'female', and constitutes the accumulation of pristine cognition (jnana).

Six Realms

(Skt. sadloka; Tib. rigs drug)

The six realms of samsara or cyclic existence are graphically illustrated in the Wheel of Life painting. Birth into one of these six realms is characterized by a particular mental state or poison: (1) the god or deva realm (pride); (2) the jealous demi-god or asura realm (jealousy); (3) the human realm (desire, or all five poisons); (4) the animal realm (ignorance or delusion); (5) the hungry ghosts or pretas (greed and miserliness); (6) the hell realms (anger and hatred). The first three realms are considered favorable, and the last three miserable. Sometimes only five realms are listed, with the devas and asuras forming a single realm in the Wheel of Life.

Sixteen Emptinesses

(Skt. sodashashunyata; Tib. stong-nyid bcu-drug)

The Prajnaparamita-sutras list sixteen categories of emptiness (shunyata) which may be applied to the different manifestations of phenomena: (1) emptiness of internal entities or phenomena (nang stong-pa-nyid); (2) emptiness of external entities or phenomena (phyi stong-pa-nyid); (3) emptiness of both internal and external phenomena (phyi-nang gnyis-ka stong-pa-nyid); (4) voidness or the emptiness of emptiness (stong-pa-nyid stong-pa-nyid); (5) great emptiness, of everything in the ten directions (chen-po stong-pa-nyid); (6) ultimate emptiness, of nirvana and of the third noble truth of cessation (don-dam-pa stong-pa-nyid); (7) emptiness of conditioned phenomena ('du-byas stong-pa-nyid); (8) emptiness of unconditioned phenomena ('du-ma-byas stong-pa-nyid); (9) emptiness of that which is beyond the extremes of interdependent origination (mtha'-las 'das-pa'i stong-pa-nyid); (10) emptiness of that which has neither beginning nor end, of samsara or cyclic existence (thog-ma-dang mtha'-ma med-pa stong-pa-nyid); (11) emptiness of that which is not to be abandoned, the Mahayana path (dor-ba med-pa stong-pa-nyid): (12) emptiness of phenomena's self-nature (rang-bzhin stong-pa-nyid); (13) emptiness of all phenomena or composite things (chos thams-cad stong-pa-nyid); (14) emptiness of definition or self-defining characteristics (rang mtshan-nyid stong-pa-nyid); (15) emptiness of the non-referential, of the past, present and future (mi-dmigs-pa stong-pa-nyid); (16) emptiness of the absence of substantiality, of the non-true existence of phenomena (dngos-po med-pa'i stong-pa-nyid). In terms of emptiness these sixteen categories are all essentially the same, namely the ultimate voidness of any internal self-identity or external phenomena. Lists of two, four, eight, sixteen and twenty emptinesses are also found in other Mahayana sutras.


Ten Directions

(Skt. dasadik; Tib. phyogs bcu)

The four cardinal directions, the four inter-cardinal directions, the zenith and nadir. The center may also be included to create an eleventh direction, as in the symbolism of Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara.

Ten Non-virtues

(Skt. dasa-akusalani; Tib. mi-dge-ba bcu)

(1) Harming or killing; (2) stealing; (3) sexual misconduct, (three non-virtues of body) (4) lying; (5) divisive or slanderous speech; (6) cursing or harsh speech; (7) gossip or idle speech, (four non-virtues of speech); (8) covetous thought; (9) malicious thoughts; (10) bigoted thoughts or distorted views, (three non-virtues of mind). The ten virtues (Skt. dasakusalani; Tib. dge-ba bcu) are refraining from the ten non-virtues listed above.

Ten Perfections

(Skt. dasaparamita; Tib. phar-phyin bcu)

(1) Generosity; (2) moral conduct; (3) patience; (4) joyful effort; (5) meditative concentration; (6) wisdom or discriminating awareness; (7) skilful means; (8) power; (9) aspiration or inner strength; (10) pure awareness or pristine cognition. See Six Perfections.

Ten Powers

(Skt. dasabala; Tib. dbang bcu)

The ten powers of a Buddha, or of a Bodhisattva who has reached the 'eighth stage' (astabhumi) of the Bodhisattva path. These ten powers are: (1) power over life - prolonging life (Tib. tshe la dbang-ba); (2) power over mind - ability to enter meditative absorption (samadhi) at will (Tib. sems la dbang-ba); (3) power over matter - ability to bestow valuable necessities upon all beings (Tib. yo-byad la dbang-ba); (4) power over karma - ability to choose one's place, time and manner of birth etc. (Tib. las la dbang-ba); (5) power over birth - ability to be born in a sensual realm without departing from concentration (Tib. skye-ba la dbang-ba); (6) power over aspiration or creative imagination (Tib. mos-pa la dbang-ba) - ability to perform the Eight Great Siddhi; (7) power over resolution or prayer - ability to fulfill one's own and others intents (Tib. smon-lam la dbang-ba); (8) power over miracles - ability to inspire beings through the performance of miracles (Tib. rdzu-'phrul la dbang-ba); (9) power over knowledge - perfect understanding of all dharmas (Tib. ye-shes la dbang-ba); (10) power over dharma or presentation - ability to inspire all beings by a single discourse upon the dharma (Tib. chos la dbang-ba).

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