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Glossary of terms


An explanation of some terms, names etc on this or related websites that may be unfamiliar to you. This list may seem daunting to beginners, so please only use it to find explanations of new words and terms to you, so that your understanding will grow in an organic, natural way.

(Any terms in explanation marked with “ ° “  are, themselves, explained elsewhere in this alphabetical list):

Ananda was one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, in today’s terms, his “personal assistant” who was endowed with a phenomenal memory of the Buddha’s Dharma Talks°.

Avalokiteshvara / Avalokitesvara “Listening deeply to the cries of the world”, or “the one who looks down (in every direction)” the Bodhisattva° of Compassion (aka Avalokita, Kuan Yin, Guanyin (female – far east), Chenrezig (Tibetan), Kanzeon (also female, Japan) and Quan The Am (pr. Quan Tai Am) (Vietnamese). The personification of deep compassion.

Bodhicitta (pr. bode-e-chitta) the mind of enlightenment°, mind of love; deepest, innermost request to realise oneself and work for the wellbeing of all.

Bodhisattva (pr. bode-e-sat-va). A term meaning an “awakened being” traditionally short of being a Buddha, but someone where the Bodhicitta° has arisen and he or she vows to save all beings from suffering. The term also applies to personifications of Enlightened states.

Bodhi Tree (or Bo Tree). A tree of the fig family (Ficcus Religiosa) under which the Buddha° gained Enlightenment°.

“Buddha” means ‘one who has awakened (to the truth)’ and refers to Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in northern India more than 2,500 years ago who sought the cause of suffering in this world, discovered it, and taught the way to overcome it. It is important to know that the Buddha is not a “God” and never claimed to be, but was nonetheless an extraordinary man who experienced direct Insight into the true nature of existence. He then taught, over a period of forty-five years, a method for living in a mindful and ethical way to help others achieve the same Insight into reality, sometimes referred to as achieving “Nirvana°”.

Buddha-Nature. Our true nature, our potential for realising Enlightenment°.

The “Community of Interbeing (CoI)” is the Sangha that Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick nat han) founded in the 1960s to which hundreds of Sanghas around the world are affiliated.

The “Dharma” (Sanskrit; or Pali word, “Dhamma”) literally translates as that which “upholds” or “supports” and is a term used to refer to the teachings that the Buddha° gave and the teachings and commentaries that have followed over the centuries.

Dana:  generosity, giving.

Dharma Talk. A spiritual teaching.

Dukkha: ill-being or suffering.

Dhyana. Meditative state.

The Eightfold Path. The fourth “truth” of the “Four Noble Truths°, namely: Right* View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. (* translated from Sanskrit word meaning upright, true “perfect”.

Emptiness or Sunyata. A profound Buddhist Insight and teaching about the true nature of all things. All things, including ourselves, are a manifestation of elements and conditions, empty of a separate self. Thây° commonly refers to “Interbeing”, meaning “(inter-)connected to and with everything” and therefore not separate. 

Engaged Buddhism is the English translation of a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, more recently referred to as ‘Applied Buddhism’. In a recent talk in Hanoi (2008), Thây° revealed that his concept dates as far back as 1954. During the Vietnam War, he and his Sangha made efforts to respond to the suffering they saw around them. They saw this work as part of their meditation and mindfulness practice, not apart from it. At least in the West, Engaged Buddhism applies to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights° from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, and economic suffering and injustice.

Enlightenment. Awakening. A unique experience which partially or wholly transforms an individual from his or her previous state. Siddartha Gautama “became” a Buddha° when he experienced Enlightenment. On being asked “how to achieve enlightenment”, Thây° said: “There is no way to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the way. Every small step if taken in full mindedness leads to small enlightenment, which will lead to the big enlightenment.”

Four Noble Truths. The first teaching from the Buddha. 1. There is suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, some malaise in the body or mind; 2. There is an origin, cause and arising of this unease; 3. The cessation of this unease by identifying the causes and refraining from repeating them; 4. The path that leads to the end of suffering – the Eightfold Path°. Thây° often speaks in terms of identifying ill-being and developing well-being.

Gathas are short verses to recite to help us be mindful during daily activities.

The Heart Sutra. Arguably the most important Sutra° (although, technically speaking was probably composed as a mantra°). Its profound message is the teaching of Emptiness° or Sunyata.

“Insight” refers to a realisation of the true nature of things, on the journey to full Enlightenment° and can come about as the result of day-to-day occurrences in our lives. It is born through mindfulness and reflection – looking deeply. Through these insights, we can transform our states of mind and our lives, and relieve suffering – for both ourselves and others.

Interbeing. A word was created by Thây° expressing the inter-connectedness between us all, and the world in which we live. See also Emptiness°.

The Three Jewels (or Gems) are the Buddha°, the Dharma° and the Sangha°. So called because they are all precious.

Karma. The natural law of cause and effect.

Lotus. The lotus is one of Buddhism’s most common symbols. It is a symbol of enlightenment° and purity of the mind. The lotus symbolizes many aspects of the path to enlightenment. As the lotus grows out of the still water and mud of the pond (samsara°), it leaves the mud (worldly existence) behind to emerge straight toward the sky, appear clean on the surface (purity), and blossoms into a beautiful flower (Enlightenment°). The flower opens its petals to catch the warm sun rays, reveals its beauty and purity, and shares its fragrance with the world. It is therefore a symbol of transformation. Thây° uses four words “No mud – No lotus” for his teaching on suffering. Thay explains: “……Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate…. Happiness is the lotus flower, and the suffering is the mud. So the practice is how to make use of the suffering, make use of the mud, to create the flower, the happiness, and this is possible.”

Mantra. A mantra is a sound, syllable, word or group of words that are considered capable of “creating transformation”. The most famous mantra is “Om Mani Padme Hung” and is connected with Avalokiteshvara°. A rough translation is “the jewel in the lotus°” but not all mantras are translatable.

Mental Formations. In this tradition of Buddhism we are taught that there are fifty-one categories of mental formations, some positive, some negative.

Metta (also maitre): Loving kindness.

Mind Consciousness. Our consciousness may be described as having two layers, or two parts. The upper part is mind consciousness where mental formations manifest, and underneath there is the Store Consciousness where the fifty-one Mental Formations° are preserved.

Mindfulness: the energy to be here and to witness deeply everything that happens in the present moment, aware of what is going on within and without.

“Nirvana” is often referred to as the “goal” of Buddhist practice. It is translated as “extinction”, but this rather nihilistic translation is often misunderstood. Thây° explains that this does not mean that we cease to exist: it refers to the extinction or absence of notions and concepts. It therefore really refers to the ultimate experience of the Inter-connectedness of all beings and phenomena, that Thây° refers to as “Interbeing”, where the realisation of no individual “self” is achieved. Liberation and Peace are associated with this term. Thây° discourages direct talk of Nirvana: the practice is to live every moment fully in the here and now, and not concern ourselves with the nature of Nirvana.

Noble Truths. See under “Four…”

Prajna. Wisdom. From the threefold path of Sila (ethics), Samadhi (meditation or mindfulness) and Prajna (wisdom).

Prajñaparamita:  meaning “understanding gone beyond”; Buddhist literature developed later in the written Buddhist texts, also personified into a Bodhisattva° referred to the Mother of All Buddhas as there can be no Buddhas without wisdom.

Present moment, wonderful moment. “Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” Thây.

Pure Land. In our tradition, reference to the “Pure Land” is the realisation that we have all the ingredients to be happy in our lives, here and now. Once we realise that Buddha-nature° is within ourselves we will see that the Pure Land is here and now, not just in the future. Pure Land practice puts us in touch with the beauty in our own world and brings us security, solidity, and freedom we need in order to truly enjoy it. (Thây° frequently refers to the Pure Land as equivalent to the ‘Kingdom of God’ in the Christian tradition.

Part of a poem by Thây:

Here is the Pure Land
The Pure Land is here
I smile in mindfulness
And dwell in the present moment
The Buddha is seen in an autumn leaf
The Dharma is a floating cloud
The Sangha body is everywhere
My true home is right here.

The Three Refuge(s) / taking Refuge.  Putting one’s trust in (or placing one’s heart upon) the Buddha (as a teacher, not a god), the Dharma (the teachings that guide) and the Sangha (fellow-practitioners who can help and support us).

I take refuge in the Buddha,

the one who shows me the way in this life.

I take refuge in the Dharma,

the way of understanding and of love.

I take refuge in the Sangha,

the community that lives in harmony and awareness.


Samadhi. Meditation or mindfulness. From the threefold path of Sila (ethics), Samadhi (meditation or mindfulness) and Prajna (wisdom).

Samsara. The “mundane” world in which we live, the world of suffering, of the “rounds of birth and death” – as opposed to the “Pure Land”°

The “Sangha” refers to those people, lay or monastic, that follow and live these teachings and regard them as central in their lives. (One of the three Jewels° or Refuges°.) It is also used to refer to a specific group who practice together in a particular area: e.g. the Wild Geese in Edinburgh are a Sangha.

Shakyamuni: name given to the Buddha° after his enlightenment°; meaning “sage of the Shakya clan”

Shariputra. A principle disciple of the Buddha renowned for his wisdom. It is he who is having the conversation with Avalokiteshvara° in the Heart Sutra°.

Sila. Ethics. From the threefold path of Sila (ethics), Samadhi (meditation or mindfulness) and Prajna (wisdom).

The Five Skandhas (pr. scan-daz). The Five Skandhas describe the human being as divided into five aspects:

¨       form

¨       feelings

¨       perceptions

¨       mental formations

¨       consciousness.

The Heart Sutra° reminds us that these aspects do not exist as separate entities, but the image of them as segments can help us with our understanding. Western science tends to approach the individual with different divisions, such as anatomy, physiology and psychology. As with the skandhas, these are simply conventional designations.

Store Consciousness. Our consciousness may be described as having two layers, or two parts. The upper part is mind consciousness where mental formations manifest, and underneath there is the Store Consciousness where the fifty-one Mental Formations° are preserved.

Sunyata – see Emptiness°

Sutra. A discourse or teaching ascribed to the Buddha°.

Tathagata: meaning “one who comes from suchness” or “one who will return to suchness”; an epithet of the Buddha°.

“Thây” (nearest pronunciation in English is ‘tie’). Vietnamese word for “teacher” used to address Buddhist monks in Vietnam; generally refers to Thich Nhat Hanh when used within the Sangha, the Community of Interbeing

Zen : school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasises meditation as its primary practice; Zen derived from the Chinese Ch’an, in turn from the Sanskrit Dhyana meaning meditation.


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