A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?


Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

11 thoughts on “A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms”

  1. This is very helpful and thought-provoking. Plus I never knew there is an official Kadampa glossary. Sometimes Google just doesn’t understand.

  2. This is wonderful, I used it with students I’m working with who are in the beginning stages of their practice and it helped them so much. I find it useful for myself to have a solid understanding of the words and a true understaning.

  3. Hi Luna,
    I am not a Buddhist, though were I not a Spiritual Atheist, Buddhism might be a viable choice–I walked through Buddha to become what and who I am. As a temporary Buddhist, I once believed in Karma. I no longer do so. The mechanics of the cosmos would be hard-pressed to keep track of all the positive or negative actions of karma in order to always stay balanced. That would be a job not for the Buddha, but for a god. Seeing as there is no such god, there cannot be karma.
    That is the simplistic answer. In reality (the cosmic kind) karma is actually a quite preposterous theory. It would almost deny the possibility of change. What would be the purpose of karma to an individual like Ghengis Khan, Adolphe Hitler, Paul of Tarsis, or even Donald J. Trump? Balancing the scales for beings such as they would take a very long time, an eternity of time one might suggest. That would deny the value of change. Having committed their ultimate atrocities, I don’t think these beings could ever waste their lives so uselessly ever again, and their incarnations would have to be better than the ones for which they would be being punished (given negative actions). No, I must disagree with you, Karma does not make sense.
    It is about the equivalent of heaven and hell in Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam. You get rewarded for doing good, or punished for doing bad. There is no such things as good or bad, heaven or hell. There is only life, and life cannot be divided in such terms. Please feel free to dispute these claims. I would appreciate a response.
    Thank you,

    1. No one has to balance any scales. Karma is not about reward or punishment. Karma refers to the internal law of cause and effect as applied to our own mental intentions or actions causing our experiences, over a period of many lifetimes. It is a natural law like gravity and doesn’t require the involvement of any external creator such as God.

  4. Here would be my short definitions:

    Delusions: Our mind projecting a false reality that we nonetheless relate to as if it were true.
    Attachment: Mistakenly thinking external objects are causes of our happiness.
    Self-cherishing: Thinking we are more important than others.
    Dharma: Teachings of Buddha on how to attain lasting inner peace.
    Samsara: Rebirth without freedom or control.
    Karma: The quality of our actions determines the quality of our future experience.
    Self-grasping: Thinking we are the body and mind we normally see in the mirror.
    Inherent existence: Created by something other than our mind.
    Emptiness: Realizing nothing is created by something other than our mind.
    Sangha: Our spiritual friends who show us a good example and give us good advice.
    Wishfulfilling Jewel: A good heart.

    1. Impressively concise, Ryan, thank you so much!

      I will show these to my parents and see if they pass the test … 😄

      (ps, I think the emptiness one could do with a rewrite so it is clearer that it is the object of that realization and not a mind. And would you say that inherent existence feels created at all? Or it is just there, independent of everything?)

    2. wow. thank you. very concise, and precise too.

      “Samsara: Rebirth without freedom or control”

      Just this, buddha would be proud. 🙂

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