A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms
This glossary covers many of the Pali words and technical terms that you may come across in the books and articles available on this website. The " " link that follows some entries will take you to a more detailed article on the selected topic.
(1) In the discourses of the Pali canon, this term simply means "higher Dhamma," and a systematic attempt to define the Buddha's teachings and understand their interrelationships. (2) A later collection of analytical treatises based on lists of categories drawn from the teachings in the discourses, added to the Canon several centuries after the Buddha's life.
Intuitive powers that come from the practice of concentration: the ability to display psychic powers, clairvoyance, clairaudience, the ability to know the thoughts of others, recollection of past lifetimes, and the knowledge that does away with mental effluents
Timeless; unconditioned by time or season.
Non-returner. A person who has abandoned the five lower fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth (see saṃyojana), and who after death will appear in one of the Brahma worlds called the Pure Abodes, there to attain nibbāna, never again to return to this world.
Inconstant; unsteady; impermanent.
Gradual instruction. The Buddha's method of teaching Dhamma that guides his listeners progressively through increasingly advanced topics: generosity (see dāna), virtue (see sīla), heavens, drawbacks, renunciation, and the four noble truths.
Obsession; underlying tendency. (The etymology of this term means "lying down with"; in actual usage, the related verb (anuseti) means to be obsessed.) There are seven major obsessions to which the mind returns over and over again: obsession with sensual passion (kāma-rāgānusaya), with resistance (paṭighānusaya), with views (diṭṭhānusaya), with uncertainty (vicikicchānusaya), with conceit (mānānusaya), with passion for becoming (bhava-rāgānusaya), and with ignorance (avijjānusaya).
State of deprivation; the four lower levels of existence into which one might be reborn as a result of past unskillful actions (see kamma): rebirth in hell, as a hungry ghost (see peta), as an angry demon (see asura), or as a common animal. None of these states is permanent.
Heedfulness; diligence; zeal. The cornerstone of all skillful mental states, and one of such fundamental import that the Buddha's stressed it in his parting words to his disciples: "All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful!" (appamādena sampādetha).
A "worthy one" or "pure one"; a person whose mind is free of defilement (see kilesa), who has abandoned all ten of the fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth (see saṃyojana), whose heart is free of mental effluents (see āsava), and who is thus not destined for further rebirth. A title for the Buddha and the highest level of his noble disciples.
Preoccupation; mental object.
Noble Wealth; qualities that serve as 'capital' in the quest for liberation: conviction (see saddhā), virtue (see sīla), conscience, fear of evil, erudition, generosity (see dāna), and discernment (see paññā).
Noble Truth. The word "ariya" (noble) can also mean ideal or standard, and in this context means "objective" or "universal" truth. There are four: stress, the origin of stress, the disbanding of stress, and the path of practice leading to the disbanding of stress.
See also kāyagatā-sati.
See also moha.
Becoming. States of being that develop first in the mind and can then be experienced as internal worlds and/or as worlds on an external level. There are three levels of becoming: on the sensual level, the level of form, and the level of formlessness.
 the four frames of reference (see satipaṭṭhāna);
 four right exertions (sammappadhāna) — the effort to prevent unskillful states from arising in the mind, to abandon whatever unskillful states have already arisen, to give rise to the good, and to maintain the good that has arisen;
"A being (striving) for Awakening"; the term used to describe the Buddha before he actually become Buddha, from his first aspiration to Buddhahood until the time of his full Awakening. Sanskrit form: Bodhisattva.
The brahman (brahmin) caste of India has long maintained that its members, by their birth, are worthy of the highest respect. Buddhism borrowed the term brahman to apply to those who have attained the goal, to show that respect is earned not by birth, race, or caste, but by spiritual attainment. Used in the Buddhist sense, this term is synonymous with arahant.
The name given to one who rediscovers for himself the liberating path of Dhamma, after a long period of its having been forgotten by the world. According to tradition, a long line of Buddhas stretches off into the distant past. The most recent Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama in India in the sixth century BCE. A well-educated and wealthy young man, he relinquished his family and his princely inheritance in the prime of his life to search for true freedom and an end to suffering (dukkha). After seven years of austerities in the forest, he rediscovered the "middle way" and achieved his goal, becoming Buddha.
Giving, liberality; offering, alms. Specifically, giving of any of the four requisites to the monastic order. More generally, the inclination to give, without expecting any form of repayment from the recipient. Dana is the first theme in the Buddha's system of gradual training (see anupubbī-kathā), the first of the ten pāramīs, one of the seven treasures (see dhana), and the first of the three grounds for meritorious action (see sīla and bhāvanā).
(1) Event; a phenomenon in and of itself; (2) mental quality; (3) doctrine, teaching; (4) nibbāna. Also, principles of behavior that human beings ought to follow so as to fit in with the right natural order of things; qualities of mind they should develop so as to realize the inherent quality of the mind in and of itself. By extension, "Dhamma" (usu. capitalized) is used also to denote any doctrine that teaches such things. Thus the Dhamma of the Buddha denotes both his teachings and the direct experience of nibbāna, the quality at which those teachings are aimed.
Element; property, impersonal condition. The four physical elements or properties are earth (solidity), water (liquidity), wind (motion), and fire (heat). The six elements include the above four plus space and consciousness.
Voluntary ascetic practices that monks and other meditators may undertake from time to time or as a long-term commitment in order to cultivate renunciation and contentment, and to stir up energy. For the monks, there are thirteen such practices:
(1) using only patched-up robes;
(2) using only one set of three robes;
(3) going for alms;
(5) eating no more than one meal a day;
(6) eating only from the alms-bowl;
(8) living in the forest;
(9) living under a tree;
(10) living under the open sky;
(11) living in a cemetery;
(12) being content with whatever dwelling one has;
(13) not lying down.
Singleness of preoccupation; "one-pointedness." In meditation, the mental quality that allows one's attention to remain collected and focused on the chosen meditation object. Ekagattārammana reaches full maturity upon the development of the fourth level of jhāna.
frame of reference:
"Inferior Vehicle," originally a pejorative term — coined by a group who called themselves followers of the Mahāyāna, the "Great Vehicle" — to denote the path of practice of those who adhered only to the earliest discourses as the word of the Buddha. Hinayanists refused to recognize the later discourses, composed by the Mahayanists, that claimed to contain teachings that the Buddha felt were too deep for his first generation of disciples, and which he thus secretly entrusted to underground serpents. The Theravāda school of today is a descendent of the Hīnayāna.
"Conscience and concern"; "moral shame and moral dread." These twin emotions — the "guardians of the world" — are associated with all skillful actions. Hiri is an inner conscience that restrains us from doing deeds that would jeopardize our own self-respect; ottappa is a healthy fear of committing unskillful deeds that might bring about harm to ourselves or others. See kamma.
This/that conditionality. This name for the causal principle the Buddha discovered on the night of his Awakening stresses the point that, for the purposes of ending suffering and stress, the processes of causality can be understood entirely in terms of forces and conditions that are experienced in the realm of direct experience, with no need to refer to forces operating outside of that realm.
Faculties; mental factors. In the suttas the term can refer either to the six sense media (āyatana) or to the five mental factors of saddhā (conviction), viriya (persistence), sati (mindfulness), samādhi (concentration), and paññā (discernment); see bodhi-pakkhiya-dhammā.
Mental absorption. A state of strong concentration focused on a single physical sensation (resulting in rūpa jhāna) or mental notion (resulting in arūpa jhāna). Development of jhāna arises from the temporary suspension of the five hindrances (see nīvaraṇa) through the development of five mental factors: vitakka (directed thought), vicāra (evaluation), pīti (rapture), sukha (pleasure), and ekaggatārammana (singleness of preoccupation).
Strings of sensuality. The objects of the five physical senses: visible objects, sounds, aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations. Usually refers to sense experiences that, like the strings (guṇa) of a lute when plucked, give rise to pleasurable feelings (vedanā).
Intentional acts that result in states of being and birth.
Literally, "basis of work" or "place of work." The word refers to the "occupation" of a meditating monk: namely, the contemplation of certain meditation themes by which the forces of defilement (kilesa), craving (taṇhā), and ignorance (avijjā) may be uprooted from the mind.
In the ordination procedure, every new monk is taught five basic kammaṭṭhāna that form the basis for contemplation of the body: hair of the head (kesā), hair of the body (lomā), nails (nakhā), teeth (dantā), and skin (taco).
By extension, the kammaṭṭhāna include all the forty classical meditation themes. Although every meditator may be said to engage in kammaṭṭhāna, the term is most often used to identify the particular Thai forest tradition lineage that was founded by Phra Ajaan Mun and Phra Ajaan Sao.
A ceremony, held in the fourth month of the rainy season, in which a saṅgha of bhikkhus receives a gift of cloth from lay people, bestows it on one of their members, and then makes it into a robe before dawn of the following day.
Mindfulness immersed in the body. This is a blanket term covering several meditation themes: keeping the breath in mind; being mindful of the body's posture; being mindful of one's activities; analyzing the body into its parts; analyzing the body into its physical properties (see dhātu); contemplating the fact that the body is inevitably subject to death and disintegration.
Heap; group; aggregate. Physical and mental components of the personality and of sensory experience in general. The five bases of clinging (see upadāna). See: nāma (mental phenomenon), rūpa (physical phenomenon), vedanā (feeling), saññā (perception), saṅkhāra (mental fashionings), and viññāṇa (consciousness).
Defilement — lobha (passion), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion) in their various forms, which include such things as greed, malevolence, anger, rancor, hypocrisy, arrogance, envy, miserliness, dishonesty, boastfulness, obstinacy, violence, pride, conceit, intoxication, and complacency.
Wholesome, skillful, good, meritorious. An action characterized by this moral quality (kusala-kamma) is bound to result (eventually) in happiness and a favorable outcome. Actions characterized by its opposite (akusala-kamma) lead to sorrow.
Path. Specifically, the path to the cessation of suffering and stress. The four transcendent paths — or rather, one path with four levels of refinement — are the path to stream-entry (entering the stream to nibbāna, which ensures that one will be reborn at most only seven more times), the path to once-returning, the path to non-returning, and the path to arahantship. See phala.
Middle; appropriate; just right.
Literally, "root." The fundamental conditions in the mind that determine the moral quality — skillful (kusala) or unskillful (akusala) — of one's intentional actions (see kamma). The three unskillful roots are lobha (greed), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion); the skillful roots are their opposites. See kilesa (defilements).
A term commonly used to refer to strong, stately, and heroic animals, such as elephants and magical serpents. In Buddhism, it is also used to refer to those who have attained the goal of the practice.
Mental phenomena. A collective term for vedanā (feeling), saññā (perception), cetana (intention, volition), phassa (sensory contact) and manasikāra (attention, advertence). Compare rūpa. Some commentators also use nāma to refer to the mental components of the five khandhas.
Name-and-form; mind-and-matter; mentality-physicality. The union of mental phenomena (nāma) and physical phenomena (rūpa), conditioned by consciousness (viññāṇa) in the causal chain of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda).
Liberation; literally, the "unbinding" of the mind from the mental effluents (see āsava), defilements (see kilesa), and the round of rebirth (see vaṭṭa), and from all that can be described or defined. As this term also denotes the extinguishing of a fire, it carries the connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace. (According to the physics taught at the time of the Buddha, a burning fire seizes or adheres to its fuel; when extinguished, it is unbound.) "Total nibbāna" in some contexts denotes the experience of Awakening; in others, the final passing away of an arahant.
Mental sign, image, or vision that may arise in meditation. Uggaha nimitta refers to any image that arises spontaneously in the course of meditation. Paṭibhāga nimitta refers to an image that has been subjected to mental manipulation.
Cessation; disbanding; stopping.
Private Buddha. One who, like a Buddha, has gained Awakening without the benefit of a teacher, but who lacks the requisite store of pāramīs to teach others the practice that leads to Awakening. On attaining the goal, a paccekabuddha lives a solitary life.
Complication, proliferation, objectification. The tendency of the mind to proliferate issues from the sense of "self." This term can also be translated as self-reflexive thinking, reification, falsification, distortion, elaboration, or exaggeration. In the discourses, it is frequently used in analyses of the psychology of conflict.
Perfection of the character. A group of ten qualities developed over many lifetimes by a bodhisatta, which appear as a group in the Pali canon only in the Jataka ("Birth Stories"): generosity (dāna), virtue (sīla), renunciation (nekkhamma), discernment (paññā), energy/persistence (viriya), patience/forbearance (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), determination (adhiṭṭhāna), good will (mettā), and equanimity (upekkhā).
See paṭipatti and paṭivedha.
Dependent co-arising; dependent origination. A map showing the way the aggregates (khandha) and sense media (āyatana) interact with ignorance (avijjā) and craving (taṇhā) to bring about stress and suffering (dukkha). As the interactions are complex, there are several versions of paṭicca-samuppāda given in the suttas. In the most common one, the map starts with ignorance. In another common one, the map starts with the interrelation between name (nāma) and form (rūpa) on the one hand, and sensory consciousness (viññāṇa) on the other. [MORE: SN 12.2, DN 15 ]
Road, path, way; the means of reaching a goal or destination. The "Middle way" (majjhima-paṭipadā) taught by the Buddha; the path of practice described in the fourth noble truth (dukkhanirodhagāminī-paṭīpadā).
See also paṭivedha.
Direct, first-hand realization of the Dhamma.
A "hungry shade" or "hungry ghost" — one of a class of beings in the lower realms, sometimes capable of appearing to human beings. The petas are often depicted in Buddhist art as starving beings with pinhole-sized mouths through which they can never pass enough food to ease their hunger.
Body; physical phenomenon; sense datum. The basic meaning of this word is "appearance" or "form." It is used, however, in a number of different contexts, taking on different shades of meaning in each. In lists of the objects of the senses, it is given as the object of the sense of sight.
As one of the khandha, it refers to physical phenomena or sensations (visible appearance or form being the defining characteristics of what is physical). This is also the meaning it carries when opposed to nāma, or mental phenomena.
(exclamation) "It is well"; an expression showing appreciation or agreement.
Heaven, heavenly realm. The dwelling place of the devas. Rebirth in the heavens is said to be one of the rewards for practicing generosity (see dāna) and virtue (see sīla). Like all waystations in saṃsāra, however, rebirth here is temporary.
See also sugati.
Once-returner. A person who has abandoned the first three of the fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth (see saṃyojana), has weakened the fetters of sensual passion and resistance, and who after death is destined to be reborn in this world only once more.
Self-identification view. The view that mistakenly identifies any of the khandha as "self"; the first of the ten fetters (saṃyojana). Abandonment of sakkāya-diṭṭhi is one of the hallmarks of stream-entry (see sotāpanna).
Topics of effacement (effacing defilement) — having few wants, being content with what one has, seclusion, uninvolvement in companionship, persistence, virtue (see sīla), concentration, discernment, release, and the direct knowing and seeing of release.
(A being) searching for a place to take birth.
The oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it's normally lived; a chastening sense of one's own complacency and foolishness in having let oneself live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.
Fetter that binds the mind to the cycle of rebirth (see vaṭṭa) — self-identification views (sakkāya-diṭṭhi), uncertainty (vicikiccha), grasping at precepts and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa); sensual passion (kāma-rāga), resistance (vyāpāda); passion for form (rūpa-rāga), passion for formless phenomena (arūpa-rāga), conceit (māna), restlessness (uddhacca), and unawareness (avijjā).
On the conventional (sammuti) level, this term denotes the communities of Buddhist monks and nuns; on the ideal (ariya) level, it denotes those followers of the Buddha, lay or ordained, who have attained at least stream-entry (see sotāpanna), the first of the transcendent paths (see magga) culminating in nibbāna. Recently, particularly in the West, the term "sangha" has been popularly adapted to mean the wider sense of "community of followers on the Buddhist path," although this usage finds no basis in the Pali canon. The term "parisā" may be more appropriate for this much broader meaning.
Formation, compound, fashioning, fabrication — the forces and factors that fashion things (physical or mental), the process of fashioning, and the fashioned things that result. Saṅkhāra can refer to anything formed or fashioned by conditions, or, more specifically, (as one of the five khandhas) thought-formations within the mind.
Virtue, morality. The quality of ethical and moral purity that prevents one from falling away from the eightfold path. Also, the training precepts that restrain one from performing unskillful actions. Sīla is the second theme in the gradual training (see anupubbī-kathā), one of the ten pāramīs, the second of the seven treasures (see dhana), and the first of the three grounds for meritorious action (see dāna and bhāvanā).
Stream winner. A person who has abandoned the first three of the fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth (see saṃyojana) and has thus entered the "stream" flowing inexorably to nibbāna, ensuring that one will be reborn at most only seven more times, and only into human or higher realms.
Originally, a tumulus or burial mound enshrining relics of a holy person — such as the Buddha — or objects associated with his life. Over the centuries this has developed into the tall, spired monuments familiar in temples in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma; and into the pagodas of China, Korea, and Japan.
Happy destinations; the two higher levels of existence into which one might be reborn as a result of past skillful actions (see kamma): rebirth in the human world or in the heavens (See sagga). None of these states is permanent.
Literally, "thread"; a discourse or sermon by the Buddha or his contemporary disciples. After the Buddha's death the suttas were passed down in the Pali language according to a well-established oral tradition, and were finally committed to written form in Sri Lanka around 100 BCE.
More than 10,000 suttas are collected in the Sutta Piṭaka, one of the principal bodies of scriptural literature in Theravāda Buddhism. The Pali Suttas are widely regarded as the earliest record of the Buddha's teachings.
The purifying "heat" of meditative practice.
Literally, "one who has truly gone (tatha-gata)" or "one who has become authentic "(tatha-agata)," an epithet used in ancient India for a person who has attained the highest spiritual goal. In Buddhism, it usually denotes the Buddha, although occasionally it also denotes any of his arahant disciples.
See also Hīnayāna.
The Buddhist (Pali) Canon. Literally, "three baskets," in reference to the three principal divisions of the Canon: the Vinaya Piṭaka (disciplinary rules); Sutta Piṭaka (discourses); and Abhidhamma Piṭaka (abstract philosophical treatises).
Of swift understanding. After the Buddha attained Awakening and was considering whether or not to teach the Dhamma, he perceived that there were four categories of beings: those of swift understanding, who would gain Awakening after a short explanation of the Dhamma; those who would gain Awakening only after a lengthy explanation (vipacitaññu); those who would gain Awakening only after being led through the practice (neyya); and those who, instead of gaining Awakening, would at best gain only a verbal understanding of the Dhamma (padaparama).
Observance day, corresponding to the phases of the moon, on which Buddhist lay people gather to listen to the Dhamma and to observe special precepts. On the new-moon and full-moon uposatha days monks assemble to recite the Pātimokkha rules.
The ancient name for the Indian lunar month in spring corresponding to our April-May. According to tradition, the Buddha's birth, Awakening, and Parinibbāna each took place on the full-moon night in the month of Visakha. These events are commemorated on that day in the Visakha festival, which is celebrated annually throughout the world of Theravāda Buddhism.
Evaluation; sustained thought. In meditation, vicāra is the mental factor that allows one's attention to shift and move about in relation to the chosen meditation object. Vicāra and its companion factor vitakka reach full maturity upon the development of the first level of jhāna.
Release; freedom from the fabrications and conventions of the mind. The suttas distinguish between two kinds of release. Discernment-release (paññā-vimutti) describes the mind of the arahant, which is free of the āsavas.
Awareness-release (ceto-vimutti) is used to describe either the mundane suppression of the kilesas during the practice of jhāna and the four brahma-vihāras [see AN 6.13], or the supramundane state of concentration in the āsava-free mind of the arahant.
The monastic discipline, spanning six volumes in printed text, whose rules and traditions define every aspect of the bhikkhus' and bhikkhunīs' way of life. The essence of the rules for monastics is contained in the Pātimokkha.
Consciousness; cognizance; the act of taking note of sense data and ideas as they occur. There is also a type of consciousness that lies outside of the khandhas — called consciousness without feature (viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ) — which is not related to the six senses at all.
Clear intuitive insight into physical and mental phenomena as they arise and disappear, seeing them for what they actually are — in and of themselves — in terms of the three characteristics (see ti-lakkhaṇa) and in terms of stress, its origin, its disbanding, and the way leading to its disbanding
Corruption of insight; intense experiences that can happen in the course of meditation and can lead one to believe that one has completed the path. The standard list includes ten: light, psychic knowledge, rapture, serenity, pleasure, extreme conviction, excessive effort, obsession, indifference, and contentment.
Directed thought. In meditation, vitakka is the mental factor by which one's attention is applied to the chosen meditation object. Vitakka and its companion factor vicāra reach full maturity upon the development of the first level of jhāna.
One of a special class of powerful "non-human" beings — sometimes kindly, sometimes murderous and cruel — corresponding roughly to the fairies and ogres of Western fairy tales. The female (yakkhinī) is generally considered more treacherous than the male.