Buddhism Glossary Terms


An abbot or abbess is the title of the superior of a monastery or convent. Some scholars and practitioners have used these titles to apply to the ranking monk or nun of a Buddhist monastic community as well.


Amitabha Buddha, called Emituofo in China and Amida in Japan, is the Buddha of “Infinite Light.” This Buddha is the main focus of devotion in the Pure Land school of Chinese Buddhism, and the Pure Land (Shin) and True Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu) schools of Buddhism in Japan. This Buddha presides over Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land where anyone can be reborn by reciting his name with complete sincerity and concentration.


An arahant (Pali) or arhat (Sanskrit) is a “worthy one,” a Buddhist monk who has attained nirvana through living a monastic life in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, thereby extinguishing all defilements and desires. The arahant represents the model of ideal spiritual attainment in Theravada Buddhism.


The Asalha festival, especially important in the Theravada Buddhist traditions, commemorates the first sermon of the Buddha and his ascent to the second heaven, where he preached the Dharma to his mother. It is celebrated at the beginning of the three-month vassa, or rainy season, of Southeast Asia, thus signaling the advent of the annual period when itinerant Theravadin monks remain domiciled in a monastery.


Ashvaghosha (?80-?150 CE) was an Indian philosopher and poet who recorded one of the most well-known literary renditions of the Buddha’s life story in addition to many other works.


Assayuja, a day of special importance in Theravada traditions, marks the Buddha’s descent from second heaven, where he had preached the Dharma to his mother. The day also marks the end of the three-month vassa, or rainy season retreat for monastics, in Southeast Asia.


Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva who looks down with compassion upon the suffering of all beings. In East Asia, this bodhisattva came to be popular in female form as Guanyin (China), Kannon (Japan) or Kwan Um (Korea), holding a willow branch and vase symbolic of her miraculous healing power. In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara is known as Chenrezig; each Dalai Lama is regarded as the reincarnation of Chenrezig.

Baker-roshi, Richard

Richard Baker was one of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi’s earliest students in the United States. In 1971, Suzuki installed Baker as his successor and leader of the San Francisco Zen Center. Under Baker’s leadership the center and its two branches—Green Gulch (a farm and lay center) and Tassajara (a mountain retreat center)—grew rapidly. In the 1980s, Baker-roshi moved to Crestone, Colorado, where he has continued to teach.

Beat Zen

Beat Zen is a term used to refer to the views of Zen Buddhism made popular to the American public through the Beat poets. Such poets included Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.


The Buddhist Churches of America employs this term to refer to the organization’s major temples, such as those in San Jose, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.


Bhaishajya-guru or the Medicine Buddha is the Buddha of the Eastern Pure Land of Azure Radiance, best known for his determination to heal those whose faculties are imperfect. By removing diseases and giving perfect health of body and mind, he vows to enable everyone to achieve enlightenment.


Bhikkhus or Buddhist monks shave their heads and don a special robe to symbolize their renunciation of mundane pursuits. There are normally two levels of monkhood. the samanera, or novice monk, a role which may be assumed either temporarily, or as the first step toward becoming a bhikkhu, a fully ordained monk. In order to assure that the monastic community remains conducive to spiritual cultivation, Bhikkhus must comply with rigorous rules of restraint, typically approximately 250 in number.


Bhikkhunis are Buddhist nuns. Although the lineage of fully ordained women monastics died out long ago in the Theravada traditions of South Asia, it has been preserved in the Mahayana traditions of East Asia. In fact, there are currently more nuns than monks in the Chinese Buddhist communities of Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan. As with Buddhist monks, those who become bhikkhunis shave their heads and don special robes to symbolize their renunciation. While both monks and nuns vow to follow strict precepts to regulate their lives, nuns are subject to a much greater number of such rules.


The Buddhist Sanskrit term bodhi means enlightenment or awakening. It is a direct awareness or realization of the changing and interdependent nature of reality which is accompanied by the elimination of the defilements and clinging that bind one to the suffering characteristic of ordinary life.

Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree is the tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation when he reached enlightenment at Bodhgaya. The term is also used to refer to trees that were originally saplings of the Bodhi Tree.


A bodhisattva is one who has dedicated his or her life to the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The bodhisattva vows to postpone enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings realize liberation. In some cases, the bodhisattva is assumed to have already attained enlightenment, yet remains on this earth out of his or her boundless compassion. In its broadest sense, the term bodhisattva refers to anyone who aspires toward universal Buddhahood or Enlightenment, i.e. any Mahayana Buddhist.

Bon Odori

Bon Odori is the traditional outdoor dance performed during the summer Obon festival in Japan—and in America among the Japanese American population.

Boorstein, Sylvia

Sylvia Boorstein is a practicing psychotherapist and an active teacher of vipassana at Spirit Rock Center, located north of San Francisco. She also leads an annual retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. As is readily apparent in her book, Happiness is Simpler Than You Think: Buddhist Wisdom for Everyone, Boorstein emphasizes that meditation can easily and perhaps most effectively be practiced in ordinary, daily activities.

bowing meditation

Buddhist meditation sessions often begin and end with bowing, an act considered a sign of respect to the Buddha. Repetitive and mindful bowing is also a form of meditation because it helps to rid the mind of self-centered desires.


Buddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that there have been many Buddhas, but the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions particularly emphasize that Shakyamuni is only one of a variety of Buddhas. Other prominent Buddhas include Amitabha, Bhaishajya-guru, and Vairochana.

Buddha hall

The Buddha hall is the main sanctuary of a Buddhist temple in which there are images of one or more Buddhas. Major ceremonies take place here. For meditation, however, there will often be a separate chamber away from the clamor of other temple activities.

Buddha Nature

According to Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, every sentient being possesses Buddha Nature and therefore has the potential to realize enlightenment, regardless of the level of existence it currently occupies. The precise nature of this True Nature is debatable, but most agree that it is immutable and eternal, and fully realized only in enlightenment.

Buddha’s Birthday

The anniversary of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama is a major Buddhist celebration, although the date of observance differs in the various traditions. For the Theravada tradition, Visakha (or Vesak) usually falls in May and celebrates simultaneously three great events—the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (bodily death and final liberation) of Siddhartha Gautama. In the Japanese tradition of the Buddhist Churches of America, the Buddha’s birthday is observed on April 8, a day called Hanmatsuri. For all Buddhists, the Buddha’s birthday is an opportunity to visit the temple, think deeply about the meaning of Buddhahood, and once again commit oneself to Buddhist ideals.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

The Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, also called Bodhi Day, is observed in East Asian Mahayana traditions during December.


Buddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—share the conviction that one can gain liberation from the suffering inherent in life through mental attentiveness, moral cultivation, and compassionate service. Today, large Buddhist communities can be found in South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and East Asia, with ever increasing communities in North America and Europe.

Buddhist Churches of America

The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) is the institutional name of Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Buddhism in the U.S. This Buddhism of Japanese immigrants regards the chanting of the name of Amida as the most appropriate form of practice in the current degenerate age. From 1899, when the first True Pure Land temple was established in San Francisco, until World War II, the American branch of this organization was known as the Buddhist Mission of North America. The adoption of the name Buddhist Churches of America occurred in 1942 as part of the assimilative effort by Japanese Americans to demonstrate their loyalty as citizens. In addition to the BCA’s national headquarters in San Francisco, it has six main temples (betsuin) and about 55 branch temples.

Buddhist meditation

Buddhist meditation is the practice of quieting the mind and bringing it to full attention, as did the Buddha in the meditative practice that led to his enlightenment or awakening. Cultivating an alert, wakeful consciousness through meditation is practiced in several distinctive schools: the vipassana tradition of insight-meditation or mindfulness; the Tibetan schools of visualization; and the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Zen traditions.

Buddhist precepts

(also: five precepts; samaya voces' bodhisattva vows) For Buddhists, spiritual progress typically requires the acceptance of an ever-greater number of moral precepts. Upon taking refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), most Buddhists will participate in a five precepts ceremony, in which they formally vow to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicants. In the Theravada tradition, monastic novices and very devout lay Buddhists observe an additional five precepts: refraining from eating after noon, using ornaments, watching entertainment, lying on a luxurious bed, and handling money. Monks, nuns, and devote lay members of the Mahayana tradition observe these 10 samaya vows, and supplement them with additional bodhisattva vows—the most important addition being the pledge to attain awakening for the sake of all beings. In both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, fully ordained monks observe approximately 250 precepts and nuns follow more than 300.

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajrayana temples, Sakyamuni will be accompanied by a variety of bodhisattvas and other Buddhas.

Carus, Paul

Paul Carus (1852-1919), a German immigrant, was attracted to Buddhism and made the argument that it could be understood rationally as compatible with science. He edited The Open Court, a journal which investigated religion and science. His book The Gospel of Buddhism, published in 1894, compiled passages from various Buddhist scriptures. D.T. Suzuki translated the book into Japanese and came to work with Carus in Illinois.
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