Author Topic: A Glossary of "intellectual" Buddhist terms for non-intellectuals  (Read 2273 times)

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Offline Sandra M. Lopes

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One of the difficulties I've struggled with when I started reading texts about Buddhism is that there are tons of concepts which have different meanings from what we usually think about them. This is not the fault of Buddhism itself. Those concept have very precise meanings in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali, etc., but the rendering of them in English often is not good enough.

It's also not the fault of English by itself. We have our own centuries of culture and of giving certain meanings to words, based on our own history and philosophy. To make matters worse, the first regular translators of Buddhist teachings in the West were probably the Theosophists, who had their own agenda, and their own philosophy, so they borrowed a lot of terms strongly connected with Christianity, but have quite different meanings when applied to Buddhism.

And sometimes things are way simpler than what most books tend to imply.

Taking all that into account, and knowing perfectly well that I'm not an expert, I still hope that this "glossary" is helpful to some.

Buddha

While it can be translated in several ways, "the Awakened One" is probably the simplest. What did Siddhartha awaken from? Well, mostly from believing that, like in a dream, we take appearances as being real. When we wake up, we immediately realize that we have been dreaming all along, but while we were asleep, we certainly believe that the dream is real!

The Tibetan word for Buddha is sangye, which means "getting rid of something, and adopting something". I'll explain this later!

Buddha nature

Shared by all sentient beings. No, it's not some complex mystic fantasy that "connects us to the One", or some metaphysical energy that flows inside all of us... like so many wrongly believe it is.

Instead, it's just simply the potential to "awaken", i.e., to realize that things are not as they appear to be. That's it. We all have that potential in ourselves. When Buddhists say, "we strive to realize our Buddha nature" what they mean is that they are working with their minds to realize things as they are, and not as they appear to be. Nothing mystical in that! It's just describing their training!

Buddhism and Buddhist

A Western word describing the teachings of the Buddha, and someone who follows them. In the East, Buddhists are merely called "practitioners" of the Buddhadharma, which are the teachings of the Buddha; it makes no sense to think of Buddhism as a "religion invented by the Buddha" because that's not what it is.

Also, just because you happen to like the Buddha and even read some teachings in a book, it doesn't make you a practitioner: for that, you need to get instructions directly from a teacher and put them into practice diligently. You can be a "sympathizer" of the Buddha (i.e. liking what Buddhism teaches, but not putting it into practice) or a "scholar" (someone who just reads lots of books on Buddhism), but that doesn't really make you a "Buddhist". Still, it's better than nothing!

Some schools require that practitioners take at least the Refuge vow, the point being that if you don't at least consider the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the noble assembly of practitioners) — as your refuge, then it's pointless to practice.

No-Self

A core element of the teachings of the Buddha, it actually means that the self does not exist inherently, but that it exists in dependence of many causes and conditions (for example, you need a living body, a working brain, etc.). It does not mean that the Self doesn't exist at all — Buddhism refutes nihilism!

Emptiness

A core element of the Mahayana teachings, which state that not only the self does not exist inherently, but all phenomena (also known as "appearances" — everything we perceive, inside and outside our bodies — which could be taken as meaning "the Universe") also do not exist inherently. A typical example is the rainbow, which anybody can see that it's an optical illusion requiring certain causes and conditions — lots of water vapour in the air, the sun shining at a certain angle, the observer at a specific location, etc. — but as soon as one of those causes or conditions ceases, the rainbow disappears. It's much harder to realize that everything, not only rainbows, are the same way: for example, a "car" is just an assembly of parts put together with a certain function. Break it apart and you just have a pile of junk. What exactly constitutes a car and what does not is merely a question of concepts (if it has two wheels, it's a motorbike; if it has 18, it's a truck; etc.). Someone who never saw a car in their lives will have no name for it, and might not understand what it's for. So the "car" doesn't exist by itself, but rather as a consequence of a lot of different things all put together — people have to manufacture those parts individually, assemble them together, then someone has to teach us what a car is, and so forth.

This word is also mistakenly understood as "being empty" or "non-existing". "Emptiness" is the quality of being empty of intrinsic existence, i.e. not existing by itself.

Love/compassion

Pretty much all religions and moral systems define what love and compassion are, but Buddhism has very precise meanings!

Love, often also rendered as loving-kindness, is the strong desire that all sentient beings enjoy happiness.

Compassion is the strong desire that all sentient beings avoid suffering/insatisfaction.

Note that the "all" really includes everybody, including ourselves and our most fearsome enemies!

Equanimity

The quality of not distinguishing between ourselves, our friends and relatives, our enemies, and strangers we meet. A good Buddhist practitioner will train themselves to develop this quality, and apply love/compassion to all sentient beings.

Suffering/Insatisfaction

Buddhist is often criticized that it's a very "negative" philosophy because it is always looking at suffering! What about enjoying ourselves a little bit? :-)

The truth is that "suffering" is just one of the aspects of a more profound concept, known as dukkha. It includes aspects of suffering, yes, but insatisfaction would be a more closer meaning. This insatisfaction comes from things being temporary and impermanent: when they cease, due to our habitual tendencies, we tend to wish them to continue, and because that's not possible, we get sad/frustrated.

What the Buddhist teachings say is that we should observe how everything has in itself the seed of impermanence, and it's because we grasp at things wishing them to be permanent that we suffer from insatisfaction. This is known as the First Noble Truth.

A typical example: I love ice-cream. But I cannot eat it "forever". At some point, I have eaten enough. I still crave for more and more, but there is a limit to how much I can eat. At that point, my happiness due to eating ice-cream stops, and my craving for a "permanent" way to be able to eat more ice-cream sets in, giving me a certain feeling of sadness.

Another example: things do not make us happy on their own. If that were the case, the more we had of something, the happier we would be. Take sex as an example :) It feels awesome, but after hours and hours of "exercise", there is a limit to how much sex we can have, after which we are simply too tired to continue. This limit is what Buddhists mean with "insatisfaction": no matter how good something feels, there is a limit to how much I can have it.

Instead, Buddhist training takes all those moments of happiness, enjoying them fully, because they are fully aware that this feeling of happiness will, at some point, disappear. But while it lasts, we should enjoy them! When they disappear, we should recognize that this is the way of everything, it's pointless to be sad because of what is a fundamental law of Nature (Western scientists would call it "entropy"). Similarly, no matter how sad we feel, this sadness will also be temporary, so it's also pointless to fret as if that sadness is permanent, because it isn't.

Impermanence

Also rendered sometimes as "transitoriety". It simply means that nothing lasts forever; Western science calls that "entropy" and it's a fundamental law of Nature. A typical reaction from non-Buddhists is that only Buddhists experience impermanence, so they wish to avoid it by ignoring Buddhist thinking, but obviously that would be as stupid as claiming that just because you haven't taken Physics classes, you can avoid entropy...

In other words: things change. It's in their nature to change. After a while, they cease to be. Everything is like that, from a simple thought, to our bodies, to anything around us in the Universe. Some things cease quickly — like a sneeze! — some take a long time to fade — like the pyramids in Egypt. But at some point in time, things will fade and disappear.

The reverse side of the coin is also true: things also appear, as soon as the required causes and conditions are appropriate for that. At a very basic level of training, for example, if we feel sad because something faded and disappeared (say, a beloved friend or family member who died), then we learn the techniques to create in ourselves the causes and conditions for happiness to rise again in our minds.

Recognizing these causes and conditions for our suffering is known as the Second Noble Truth.

Of course, as soon as these causes and conditions disappear, our (temporary) happiness will also go. But our temporary sadness can also be removed, if we just know what its causes and conditions are. This is known as the Third Noble Truth.

Finally, the method to get rid of those causes and conditions can be learned and trained by anyone. This is known as the Fourth Noble Truth.

See, it all gets tied together in Buddhism :-)

Refuge

It means "protection", and everybody takes refuge in something or someone when we are afraid. If we're kids, our parents are a refuge. If it's raining, we take refuge under an umbrella. If we're very frustrated and cannot deal with our problems, we might take refuge in alcohol and drugs; if we are ill, we take refuge in a doctor. So "refuge" is not something that just Buddhists do, but we do it all the time.

Buddhists, however, take refuge in the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, Sangha — because they are the Ultimate Refuge: it means that we get protection from everything. In the Mahayana schools, this is explained in the following way: by taking refuge in the Buddha, we wish to develop in ourselves the same qualities as the Buddha has — namely, having achieved enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. So we wish to become enlightened as well. If we achieve that, then we have nothing else to fear — and we become refuge for others. This is what is meant with Ultimate Refuge: not because the Buddha is "special" or "god-like" and has special powers, but because he showed us the way to get enlightened and, through that, be able to stop being afraid, stop suffering, and become a valid refuge for others (who might learn from us how to achieve enlightenment).

Note that Buddhist schools can explain this very differently :-)

Sangha

It can be translated as (noble) assembly, by which it was originally meant the group of monks ordained by the Buddha, who later achieved the state of Arhat (more on that later). Commonly it refers to a group of practitioners (not necessarily monks) who are following the teachings of the Buddha diligently.

It is also the Third Jewel, something that is often confusing: why is the Sangha an object of refuge? Basically speaking, if there were no practitioners, then there would be no Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) — once nobody practices any more, the knowledge of those teachings is lost. So it's thanks to all those practitioners that continue to learn, practice, and achieve enlightenment, that we can still learn the teachings of the Buddha today. We should not only be grateful for that, but view all these people as being following a path that will turn them into better human beings, and rejoice with them, desiring to have the same qualities.

Difference between Arhat, Bodhisattva, Buddha...

This is a rather tricky subject and one prone to a lot of discussion, so I should mention it briefly.

Each Buddhist school has its own vision of what they're attempting to achieve. The result can be slightly different depending on the training.

The first set of teachings of the Buddha taught people how to deal with their emotions, namely insatisfaction and suffering, and how to get rid of that. If you train accordingly, you will reach a state where there is no more suffering and insatisfaction, and this is known as the state of an Arhat. In the Buddha's own time and shortly thereafter, lots of people achieved that state rather quickly. We still have Arhats today.

The core of the training comes from realizing that our self has no intrinsic existence. When we realize that, we are able to discard all bits from this 'self' that causes suffering and insatisfaction.

A more profound set of teachings explained that just becoming rid of our suffering is not enough: what about all other sentient beings? Thus, we learn how to develop this profound desire to rid not only ourselves from suffering and insatisfaction, but to help others to do the same. Unfortunately, merely wishing for that is not enough (it's just a good starting point). Because each and every being has different needs and understanding, we need to be able to know exactly what to do in order to lead all beings to that state without suffering. But to do it for all, we have no choice but to become Buddhas ourselves. A Bodhisattva is an advanced practitioner who is doing precisely that — trying very hard to become a Buddha, so that he or she might help all other beings.

The core of the training is the generation of bodhicitta (to be addressed later), but also to realize that not only our self lacks intrinsic existence, but all phenomena (i.e. the Universe) also has no intrinsic existence as well. This is way harder to realize than just understanding how our self lacks inherent existence, and thus, the Bodhisattva training is harder than the Arhat training.

The Vajrayana teachings go a step further, and train to realize that conventional reality (i.e. things as they appear they are) and ultimate reality (things as they really are) are one and the same. This seems to be a contradiction in terms, but it's not — it's just not obvious to grasp intellectually :) When we achieve that realization, we become mahasiddhis — sometimes translated as "saints", or "holders of crazy wisdom". Mahasiddhis are most definitely Buddhas, but the training is quite different from the Mahayana schools. This can quickly get very technical so I'll skip it :)

The most highest teachings, known in some schools as Anuttarayoga Tantra, Mahamudra, or Dzogchen (they are not the same techniques, but they achieve the same results), go even one step further, and state that we are already enlightened (if we weren't, we would be unable to become something which we're not!) — our very nature is being enlightened. Sadly, due to our habitual tendencies, we tend to believe we're not — we pretend we're just plain human beings and that enlightenment is something that requires eons of study and practice. These teachings are a super-fast shortcut to get almost instant enlightenment, i.e. in a lifetime, by simply pointing out that we're already enlightened and that's it — we just have to recognize it. So, we're already Buddhas, we just fail to recognize our own Buddhahood. This is what the historical Buddha is supposed to have achieved, during a relatively short period of time — after a few years of meditation, he realized that he was already enlightened from the start. And this is also the reason why he hesitated in explaining what he discovered, because it seemed so simple and basic that nobody would believe him :) Fortunately for us, he was persuaded to teach, and was able to give a vast variety of different teaching according to the needs and abilities of each of us, most of which require very complex philosophical backgrounds in order to persuade themselves to do some practice :)

Needless to say that this method is not obvious at all, and while it is relatively easy to recognize the enlightened nature of one's own mind (the Zen schools call that a moment of satori), recognition by itself is not enough: once it has been recognized, the actual training begins. A Buddha is said to be in the state of recognizing the nature of its own mind at all moments. Just doing it sporadically once or twice is nothing worth bragging about :)

My point here in explaining these things is that sometimes people say that "this training is better, this is faster, this will reach further" but all those comparisons are nonsense. All methods will eventually lead to the same result. But depending on our own tendencies, we might be more comfortable with one method or another, and that's why the Buddha taught so many methods. For instance, if you cannot genuinely generate bodhicitta, it's pointless to try a "quick" method to recognize the nature of your mind, because you will never recognize it. Rather, a better path might be simply to recognize the non-intrisic nature of one's self, which is far easier to do. A good teacher should be able to figure out what method works best for each student, and that's why we need teachers to tell us what method to use: we might just get too excited by hearing some "advanced" teachings but be completely unable to follow them and thus think that Buddhism is a fraud and worthless. Instead, we ought to follow a method that works for us, gives us some results, and, by doing so, enhances our confidence that we're doing the right thing and progress much swifter in our own path.

Bodhicitta

This is the profound wish to stop the suffering and insatisfaction of all beings (including, of course, both our enemies as well as our friends and strangers...) and to become enlightened in order to know how to do that.

This is the core of the Mayahana schools and what distinguishes them from the Theravada schools. In the Theravada system, practitioners become Arhats to escape the suffering in Samsara, and teach others to do the same thing, due to their loving-kindness and compassion. Mahayana teaches that Samsara and Nirvana are merely states of mind, and one has to go beyond both — by becoming enlightened as the Buddha was enlightened — and this is only achievable by generating bodhicitta.

A simplistic way of putting this is that it's pointless to get enlightened if you do not have the wish to help others to become enlightened as well. If you don't have that wish, then you won't reach enlightenment (no method will work). You can still achieve a state where suffering and insatisfaction ceases.

This is also a way that I personally use to figure out claims of people having attained enlightenment, because there are always claims like that. Bluntly put, if you have no bodhicitta, you aren't enlightened. And it's quite easy to test if someone really does have it or not :)

While compassion is at the root of bodhicitta, you don't need bodhicitta to be compassive. Thus, from the perspective of classical Mahayana Buddhism, the existence of "divine beings" is not refuted; what is refuted is that these "divine beings" are enlightened. For example, a religion proclaiming that their deity has compassion towards all worshippers, and wishes them all to go to Heaven, certainly has some degree of compassion, but absolutely no bodhicitta — because only worshippers are "worthy" of going to Heaven (the rest can rot in Hell).

Morals and ethics

Technically, there is no "good" and "evil" in Buddhism, in the sense used by Hindusim and Christianity (Good is "God's will"). Instead, everything positive is that which relieves suffering from other beings and brings them happiness; anything negative is something that prevents that from happening.

Let me give you a typical example. Adultery, in most theistic religions, is condemned as an abomination at the eyes of whatever god is worshipped. So, fearing the wrath of that god, worshippers abstain from committing adultery.

In Buddhist ethics, the focus is on the individual. By committing adultery, we will make at least one person suffer (the cheated husband or wife). But when we're discovered, we will hurt, too, and so will our lover. So Buddhists abstain from adultery not because the Buddha told us so, but because we understand that this will make people suffer. It doesn't matter much if the cheated husband or wife is a friend or an enemy, or if they treat their partner badly, etc. — we Buddhists do not worry directly about other people's faults, but just refrain from harming anybody.

Similarly, Buddhists refrain from killing other beings. Not necessarily because "life is a precious gift" (which is certainly the case, too) or because "Buddha or a God told us so", but just because we understand that there is no bigger pain than dying. So we try very hard not to kill any being, and prevent, as far as we can, other beings from dying. This is a reason why many schools of Buddhism propose vegetarianism (but not all!), and why many Buddhist teachers tend to become doctors or health care specialists.

Buddhism has long lists of things to abstain from doing, and things that are encouraged to be done. However they have always to be seen in this light of harming/benefitting beings, not because "our teacher made us promise not to do that". If you don't understand the consequences of harming others, those ethical rules make no sense. All of them are logical :) For example, if we're drunk, we lose control of our minds, and might harm others without noticing (think of driving drunk!), or even ourselves. To prevent that, Buddhists generally abstain from drinking, or, if they do, they will avoid getting drunk. But it's not because Buddha had something against alcohol or drugs :)

The Law of Cause and Effect

One of the many teachings of the Buddha is that we ought to realize that everything has causes and conditions, and, when those are present, there is a result. The causes might be uncountable (and generally are!) but that doesn't mean they aren't there! (This, btw, is also a refutation of nihilism, where things happen by chance). The Law of Cause and Effect is a natural law; it's not a doctrine of the Buddha that we have to "believe" in. Rather, we just have to recognize that it's part of the Universe, and that we cannot avoid it. But we can certainly use it in our benefit: by assembling the causes and conditions, we can enjoy the effects. A typical example: if we get all ingredients together, we can cook a decent meal, and enjoy it. But if we don't get all of them — some causes are missing — the meal will be spoilt. This doesn't happen because "the Universe is conspiring against us" or "it is our fate to always eat spoilt meals" or "some deity decided that the meal would be spoilt, and I have to accept the consequences" — but just because we didn't assemble all causes and effects!

One consequence of the Law of Cause and Effect, of course, is that if we assemble all causes for enlightenment, then the result will be, indeed, enlightenment. Similarly, if we eradicate the causes of suffering and insatisfaction, we will never suffer again. This is not "magic" or "mystical" — it's just a consequence of the Law of Cause and Effect.

Unfortunately, the name for this law in Sanscrit is karma, which is a very loaded word with tons of different (and usually wrong) interpretations. The Law of Cause and Effect is not fate, nor destiny, nor something we cannot do anything about. It's true that if we have assembled the causes and conditions for something bad to happen to us, this will indeed happen. But it's up to us to remove some of those causes and conditions, and then we will avoid the effects (or, rather, we will get a different result).

A typical example: we might be aggressive towards our partners, and this is one of our habitual tendencies. So what happens is that every time we engage in a relationship, by being angry with them, sooner or later they will leave us. But it's not our "fate". Instead, we can try hard to stop being angry at our partners. When that happens, the effect is that they will not leave us. The choice of being angry or not comes from us; we might have a predisposition to be "naturally angry" (this comes from our habitual tendencies), but that doesn't mean that we can stop being angry!

Habitual tendencies

When we do something repeatedly over and over again, it becomes easier, to the point that it becomes an acquired behaviour. Think about how you learned how to walk, to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to read, and so forth. Doing things over and over again makes us learn them, and, once something is learnt in that way, we don't even need to think about them any longer — we just react in a conditioned way, automatically.

Unfortunately, we don't acquire only positive or useful behaviours; we also acquire negative ones, that harm us and others. This is often what people mean when they say "I know I should have done that, but it was stronger than me". This is also what we commonly say about our emotions: we have to act upon them, we have no choice, we're constrained by our emotions to react in a certain way.

Buddhist training is all about breaking that illusion, and be watchful for our habitual tendencies, and recognize them when they appear. If we're quick enough — and this comes very easily with training! — then we can step aside from the conditioned behaviour, let the emotion or feeling subside (it will fade on its own), and act in a more functional way. This is the whole point of the training: to become a better person by avoiding to react in a conditioned way coming from our habitual tendencies.

An Arhat or a Buddha are beyond habitual tendencies. They still have feelings, emotions, and so forth, but they can safely ignore the consequences of acting in a conditioned way. Another word for enlightenment could also be "acting unconditionally" or even "having free will".

---

Well, I admit that one of my habitual tendencies — laziness and a desire for rest! — has now stepped in, so I'm afraid I'll leave you with this very incomplete glossary. I hope it's useful and not full of many errors. Feel free to ask for more words and concepts for clarification. One thing that I have learned is that most translations of Buddhist concepts are very "loaded" in Western language, and, as such, we tend to think they mean completely different things. This is a handicap we Westerners have. So, the best we can do is to stick with the words we got, but try to learn what they actually mean in Buddhism, and avoid mixing them up with the quite different meaning that some religions attach to them.

I'm really thankful to my peerless teachers, who are so good at explaining these things. I have to admit that once I've learned what Buddhism meant with all those concepts, it not only became logical and obvious, but much easier to understand. There is a strong "intellectual" barrier to overcome at the beginning. Thankfully, my teachers helped me to understand what all those words mean, and now it all makes so much more sense to me!

May this glossary be useful to at least some of you.
Don't judge, and you won't be judged.

Offline Anatta

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Re: A Glossary of "intellectual" Buddhist terms for non-intellectuals
« Reply #1 on: January 25, 2014, 08:07:38 pm »
Kia Ora Sandra,

Thank you for sharing this...(  ::) A thread just for me- the non-intellectual  ;D)

This thread (along with the other similar threads you have made)will be a very useful reference point/resource for those trans-people who are interested in Buddhism, but have some difficulty with Buddhist terminology...

May your week be full of blissful moments ...

Happy Mindfulness :)

Metta Zenda :)
"The most essential method which includes all other methods is beholding the mind. The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included !"   :icon_yes:

amZo

Re: A Glossary of "intellectual" Buddhist terms for non-intellectuals
« Reply #2 on: January 25, 2014, 08:21:09 pm »
Reading for non-intellectuals must be short enough and simple enough to be read easily during the average bathroom stop.  :police:

Offline Anatta

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Re: A Glossary of "intellectual" Buddhist terms for non-intellectuals
« Reply #3 on: January 25, 2014, 08:54:13 pm »
Reading for non-intellectuals must be short enough and simple enough to be read easily during the average bathroom stop.  :police:

Kia Ora Nikko,

 ::) I think Sandra with her insight has catered for this...because you managed to understand it, so all is well, it must covers all levels  ;) :D

Metta Zenda :)

"The most essential method which includes all other methods is beholding the mind. The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included !"   :icon_yes:

Offline Sandra M. Lopes

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Re: A Glossary of "intellectual" Buddhist terms for non-intellectuals
« Reply #4 on: January 29, 2014, 11:31:25 am »
Reading for non-intellectuals must be short enough and simple enough to be read easily during the average bathroom stop.  :police:

Haha :) Well put :-) "Simple" I can do, "short" I'm afraid is beyond me. Perhaps I could do audiobooks instead :-)
Don't judge, and you won't be judged.

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