Abhidhamma: (1) In the discourses of the Pāli Canon, this term simply means “higher Dhamma,” 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.

Apāya: Realm of destitution. One of the four lower realms of existence, in which beings suffer because of their bad kamma: hell, the realm of hungry shades, the realm of angry demons, and level of common animals. In the Buddhist cosmology, a person reborn in any of these realms may stay there for long or short periods of time, but never for an eternity. After the bad kamma has worked out, the person will return to the higher realms.

Arahant: A “worthy one” or “pure one;” a person whose mind is free of defilement and thus is not destined for further rebirth. A title for the Buddha and the highest level of his noble disciples.

Āsava: Effluent; fermentation. Four qualities—sensuality, views, becoming, and ignorance—that “flow out” of the mind and create the flood of the round of death and rebirth.

Brahmā: A deva inhabitant of the higher heavenly realms of form or formlessness.

Brahman: A member of the priestly caste, which claimed to be the highest caste in India, based on birth. In a specifically Buddhist usage, “brahman” can also mean an Arahant, conveying the point that excellence is based not on birth or race, but on the qualities attained in the mind.

Bodhisatta: “A being (striving) for Awakening;” a 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.

Deva: Literally, “shining one.” An inhabitant of the heavenly realms.

Dhamma: (1) Event; a phenomenon in and of itself; (2) mental quality; (3) doctrine, teaching; (4) nibbāna. Sanskrit form: Dharma.

Hīnayāna: “Inferior Vehicle,” 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 aimed at Arahantship, rather than full Buddhahood. Hīnayānists refused to recognize the later discourses, composed by the Mahāyānists, 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.

Idappaccayatā: This/that conditionality. This name for the causal principle the Buddha discovered on the night of his Awakening emphasizes the point that, for the purposes of ending suffering and stress, the processes of causality can be understood entirely in terms of conditions in the realm of direct experience, with no need to refer to forces operating outside of that realm.

Jhāna: Mental absorption. A state of strong concentration focused on a single sensation or mental notion.

Kamma: Intentional act. Sanskrit form: karma.

Maṇḍala: Microcosmic diagram, used as a power circle and object of contemplation in the rituals of Tantric Buddhism.

Māra: The personification of evil and temptation.

Nibbāna: Literally, the “unbinding” of the mind from passion, aversion, and delusion, and from the entire round of death and rebirth. As this term also denotes the extinguishing of a fire, it carries connotations of stilling, cooling, and peace. “Total nibbāna” in some contexts denotes the experience of Awakening; in others, the final passing away of an Arahant. Sanskrit form: nirvāṇa.

Pāli: The canon of texts preserved by the Theravāda school and, by extension, the language in which those texts are composed.

Pāṭimokkha: The basic code of monastic discipline, composed of 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns.

Samaṇa: Contemplative. Literally, a person who abandons the conventional obligations of social life in order to find a way of life more “in tune” (sama) with the ways of nature.

Saṁsāra: Transmigration; wandering through death and rebirth.

Saṅgha: On the conventional (sammati) 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.

Stūpa: 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.

Tādin: “Such,” an adjective to describe one who has attained the goal. It indicates that the person’s state is indefinable but not subject to change or influences of any sort.

Tathāgata: Literally, “one who has become authentic (tatha-āgata)” an epithet used in ancient India for a person who has attained the highest religious goal. In Buddhism, it usually denotes the Buddha, although occasionally it also denotes any of his Arahant disciples.

Theravāda: The “Teachings of the Elders”—the only one of the early schools of Buddhism to have survived into the present; currently the dominant form of Buddhism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma.

Vinaya: The monastic discipline, whose rules and traditions comprise six volumes in printed text.


Although I have tried to be as consistent as possible in rendering Pāli terms into English, there are a few cases where a single English term will not do justice to all the meanings of a Pāli term. The rule of one English equivalent per one Pāli word may make for consistency, but any truly bilingual person knows that such a rule can create ludicrous distortions of meaning in translation. Thus, while I have not consciously used one English term to translate two different Pāli terms, there are cases where I have found it necessary to render a single Pāli term with two or more English terms, depending on context. Citta in some cases is rendered as mind, in others as intent. Similarly, loka is rendered either as cosmos or world, manas as intellect or heart, āyatana as medium, dimension, or sphere, upādāna as clinging or sustenance, and dhamma as phenomenon, quality, or principle.

Also, with some of the Pāli terms that are central to the teaching, I have chosen equivalents that do not follow general usage. In the following list I have indicated these equivalents with asterisks; explanations for these choices are provided at the end of the list.


aggregate — khandha

alertness — sampajañña

appropriate attention — yoniso manasikāra

Awakening — bodhi

awareness — cetas

becoming — bhava

clear knowing — vijjā

clinging — upādāna

craving — taṇhā

compunction — ottappa

contemplative — samaṇa

conviction — saddhā

cosmos — loka

dependent co-arising — paṭicca samuppāda

desire — chanda

dimension — āyatana

directed thought — vitakka

discern — pajānāti

discernment — paññā

discrimination — vimaṁsā

disenchantment — nibbidā

dispassion — virāga

effluent — āsava

evaluation — vicāra

fabricated — saṅkhata

fabrication — saṅkhāra

fetter — saṅyojana

frame of reference* — satipaṭṭhāna

gnosis — añña

good will — mettā

heart — manas

inconstant* — anicca

insight — vipassanā

intellect — manas

intent — citta

intention — cetanā

letting go — vossagga

medium — āyatana

mind — citta

non-fashioning — atammayatā

not-self — anattā

obsession — anusaya

origination — samudaya

perception — saññā

persistence — viriya

pertinent — opanayika

phenomenon — dhamma

prerequisite — upanisā

property — dhātu

quality — dhamma

release — vimutti

relinquishment — paṭinissagga

requisite condition — paccaya

resolve — saṅkappa

self-awakening — sambodhi

sensuality — kāma

shame — hiri

skillful — kusala

sphere — āyatana

stream-entry — sotapatti

stress* — dukkha

Such — tādin

sustenance — upādāna

theme — nimitta

this/that conditionality — idappaccayatā

tranquility — samatha

transcendent — lokuttara

transmigration — saṁsāra

Unbinding* — nibbāna

Unfabricated — asaṅkhata

violence — vihiṅsā

world — loka

Fabrication: Saṅkhāra literally means “putting together,” and carries connotations of jerry-rigged artificiality. It is applied to physical and to mental processes, as well as to the products of those processes. Various English words have been suggested as renderings for saṅkhāra—such as “formation,” “determination,” “force,” and “construction”—but “fabrication,” in both of its senses, as the process of fabrication and the fabricated things that result, seems the best equivalent for capturing the connotations as well as the denotations of the term.

Frame of reference: The literal rendering of satipaṭṭhāna is “foundation of mindfulness,” “establishing of mindfulness,” or “application of mindfulness,” all of which require a great deal of explanation to make them intelligible in English. However, the actual function of satipaṭṭhāna in practice is precisely that of the English idiom, frame of reference. Although adopting this rendering requires some inconsistency in translating sati—using “reference” here, and “mindfulness” otherwise—this seems a small price to pay for instant intelligibility in an otherwise obscure term.

Inconstant: The usual rendering for anicca is “impermanent.” However, the antonym of the term, nicca, carries connotations of constancy and dependability; and as anicca is used to emphasize the point that conditioned phenomena cannot be depended on to provide true happiness, this seem a useful rendering for conveying this point.

Stress: The Pāli term dukkha, which is traditionally translated in the commentaries as, “that which is hard to bear,” is notorious for having no truly adequate equivalent in English, but stress—in its basic sense as a strain on body or mind—seems as close as English can get. In the Canon, dukkha applies both to physical and to mental phenomena, ranging from the intense stress of acute anguish or pain to the innate burdensomeness of even the subtlest mental or physical fabrications.

Unbinding: Because nibbāna is used to denote not only the Buddhist goal but also the extinguishing of a fire, it is usually rendered as “extinguishing” or, even worse, “extinction.” However, a study of ancient Indian views of the workings of fire (see The Mind Like Fire Unbound) will reveal that people of the Buddha’s time felt that a fire, in going out, did not go out of existence but was simply freed from its agitation and attachment to its fuel. Thus, when applied to the Buddhist goal, the primary connotation of nibbāna is one of release and liberation. According to the commentaries, the literal meaning of the word nibbāna is “unbinding,” and as this is a rare case where the literal and contextual meanings of a term coincide, this seems to be the ideal English equivalent.