Abhidhamma: (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 treatises collating lists of categories drawn from the teachings in the discourses, added to the Canon several centuries after the Buddha’s life.

Ājīvaka: An ascetic belonging to any one of a group of schools that, for various reasons, taught that morality was nothing more than a social convention and that human action was either unreal, totally predetermined, or powerless to effect results. See DN 2.

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.

Asura: A member of a race of beings who, like the Titans in Greek mythology, battled the devas for sovereignty in heaven and lost.

Bhikkhu: A Buddhist monk.

Bodhisatta: “A being (striving) for awakening;” the term used to describe the Buddha before he actually became Buddha, from his first aspiration to Buddhahood until the time of his full awakening. Sanskrit form: Bodhisattva.

Brahman: In common usage, a brahman is 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.

Brahmā: An inhabitant of the heavenly realms of form or formlessness.

Deva: Literally, “shining one.” An inhabitant of the terrestrial or heavenly realms higher than the human.

Dhamma: (1) Event; action; (2) a phenomenon in & of itself; (3) mental quality; (4) doctrine, teaching; (5) nibbāna (although there are passages describing nibbāna as the abandoning of all dhammas). Sanskrit form: Dharma.

Gandhabba: (1) A celestial musician, the lowest level of celestial deva. (2) A being about to take birth.

Gotama: The Buddha’s clan name.

Indra (Inda): King of the devas of the Heaven of the Thirty-three. Another name for Sakka.

Jhāna: Mental absorption. A state of strong concentration focused on a single sensation or mental notion. This term is derived from the verb jhāyati, which means to burn with a steady, still flame.

Kamma: Intentional act. Sanskrit form: Karma.

Māra: The personification of temptation and all forces, within and without, that create obstacles to release from saṁsāra.

Meru: A mountain at the center of the universe where devas are said to dwell.

Nāga: A magical serpent, technically classed as a common animal, but possessing many of the powers of a deva, including the ability to take on human shape. Sometimes this term is used metaphorically, in the sense of “Great One,” to indicate an arahant.

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.

Nigaṇṭha: Literally, one without ties. An ascetic in the Jain religion.

Pali: The name of the Canon that forms the basis for the Theravāda and, by extension, the language in which it was composed.

Paṭicca-samuppāda: Dependent co-arising; dependent origination. A map showing the way ignorance and craving interact with the aggregates (khandha) and sense media (āyatana) to bring about stress and suffering. As the interactions are complex, there are several different versions of paṭicca samuppāda given in the suttas. In the most common one (given, for example, in SN 12:2), the map starts with ignorance. In another common one (given here in DN 15), the map starts with the interrelation between name (nāma) and form (rūpa) on the one hand, and sensory consciousness on the other.

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

Pavāraṇā: Invitation; a monastic ceremony marking the end of the rains retreat on the full moon in October. During the ceremony, each monk invites his fellow monks to accuse him of any offenses they may have suspected him of having committed.

Rāhu: An asura who, according to legend, tried to swallow the sun. He is now a head with no body who still tries to swallow the sun and moon—thus causing solar and lunar eclipses—but his lack of a body means that such eclipses last only a short while.

Rakkhasa: A fierce spirit said to dwell in bodies of water.

Sakka: King of the devas of the Heaven of the Thirty-three. Another name for Indra.

Sakya: The Buddha’s family name.

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; the process of wandering through repeated states of becoming, with their attendant death and rebirth.

Saṁvega: A sense of chastened dismay over the meaninglessness and futility of life as it is ordinarily lived, combined with a strong sense of urgency in looking for a way out.

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: A memorial to a dead person, derived from the form of a burial mound.

Sutta: Discourse. Sanskrit form: sūtra.

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) or is truly gone (tathā-gata)”: 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.

Uposatha: Observance day, coinciding with the full moon, new moon, and half moons. Lay Buddhists often observe the eight precepts on this day. Monks recite the Pāṭimokkha on the full moon and new moon uposathas.

Vinaya: The monastic discipline, whose rules and traditions comprise six volumes in printed text. The Buddha’s own term for the religion he founded was “this Dhamma & Vinaya.”

Yakkha: Spirit; a lower level of deva—sometimes friendly to human beings, sometimes not—often dwelling in trees or other wild places.


Although I have tried to be as consistent as possible in rendering Pali terms into English, there are a few cases where a single English term will not do justice to all the meanings of a Pali term. Although the rule of one English equivalent per one Pali word makes for consistency, any truly bilingual person will know that such a rule can create ludicrous distortions in translation. Thus, while I have generally tried to avoid using one English term to translate two different Pali terms, there are cases where I have found it necessary to render single Pali terms with two or more English terms, depending on context. Citta in some cases is rendered as mind, in others as heart, and in still others as intent. Similarly, loka is rendered either as cosmos or world, manas as intellect or heart, āyatana as medium or dimension, upādāna as clinging or sustenance, and dhamma as phenomenon, quality, or principle. If you see the word heart in a prose passage, it is translating citta; if in a passage of poetry, it is translating manas.

Also, for some of the Pali terms playing a central role in the teaching, I have chosen equivalents that do not follow general usage. In the following list I have marked these equivalents with asterisks. Explanations for these choices are provided at the end of the list.

acceptance — upasampadā

acquisition — upadhi

aggregate — khandha

alertness — sampajañña

appropriate attention — yoniso manasikāra

ardency — ātappa

awakening — bodhi

awareness — cetas

awareness-release — cetovimutti

becoming — bhava

clear knowing — vijjā

clinging* — upādāna

compunction — ottappa

contemplative — samaṇa

conviction — saddhā

cosmos — loka

craving — taṇhā

dependent co-arising — paṭicca samuppāda

desire — chanda

dimension — āyatana

directed thought — vitakka

discern — pajānāti

discernment — paññā

discernment-release — paññāvimutti

discrimination — vimaṁsā

disenchantment — nibbidā

dispassion — virāga

dissonant — visama

effluent* — āsava

emptiness — suññatā

enlightened one* — dhīra

establishing of mindfulness — satipaṭṭhāna

evaluation — vicāra

fabricated — saṅkhata

fabrication — saṅkhāra

fetter — saṅyojana

gnosis — aññā

goodwill — mettā

habit — sīla

harmonious* — sama

heart — manas; citta

identity — sakkāya

inconstant* — anicca

insight — vipassanā

intellect — manas

intent — citta

intention — cetanā

medium — āyatana

mind — citta

non-fashioning — atammayatā

not-self — anattā

objectification* — papañca

obsession* — anusaya

origination — samudaya

perception — saññā

persistence — viriya

phenomenon — dhamma

precept — sīla

property — dhātu

quality — dhamma

release — vimutti

resolve — saṅkappa

self-awakening — sambodhi

self-identification — sakkāya

sensuality — kāma

shame — hiri

skillful — kusala

stream-entry — sotāpatti

stress* — dukkha

sustenance* — upādāna

theme — nimitta

tranquility — samatha

transcendent — lokuttara

unbinding* — nibbāna

unfabricated — asaṅkhata

virtue — sīla

world — loka

Acquisition: Upadhi literally means “belongings,” “baggage,” “paraphernalia.” In the suttas, it means the mental baggage that the mind carries around. The Cūḷaniddesa, a late canonical work, lists ten types of upadhi: craving, views, defilement, action, misconduct, nutriment (physical and mental), irritation, the four physical properties sustained in the body (earth, water, wind, and fire), the six external sense media, and the six forms of corresponding sensory consciousness. The state without upadhi or acquisitions is unbinding.

Aggregate: Any of the five types of phenomena that serve as objects of clinging and as bases for a sense of self: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness.

Becoming: The processes of giving rise, within the mind, to states of being that allow for physical or mental birth on any of three levels: the level of sensuality, the level of form, and the level of formlessness.

Clinging/sustenance: The Pali term upādāna, which is used both on the physical and psychological levels, carries a double meaning on both levels. On the physical level, it denotes both the fuel of a fire and to the fire’s act of clinging to its fuel. On the psychological level, it denotes both the sustenance for becoming that the mind clings to, and to the act of clinging to its sustenance. To capture these double meanings, I have sometimes rendered upādāna as clinging, sometimes as sustenance, and sometimes as both.

Enlightened one: Throughout these suttas I have rendered buddha as “Awakened,” and dhīra as “enlightened.” As Jan Gonda points out in his book, The Vision of the Vedic Poets, the word dhīra was used in Vedic and Buddhist poetry to mean a person who has the heightened powers of mental vision needed to perceive the “light” of the underlying principles of the cosmos, together with the expertise to implement those principles in the affairs of life and to reveal them to others. A person enlightened in this sense may also be awakened in the formal Buddhist sense, but is not necessarily so.

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 “constructive activity.” However, “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.

Harmonious and Dissonant: Throughout ancient cultures, the terminology of music was used to describe the moral quality of people and acts. Dissonant intervals or poorly-tuned musical instruments were metaphors for evil; harmonious intervals and well-tuned instruments were metaphors for good. In Pali, the term sama—“even”—describes an instrument tuned on-pitch; visama means off-pitch. AN 6:55 contains a famous passage where the Buddha reminds Soṇa Koḷivisa—who had been over-exerting himself in the practice—that a lute sounds appealing only if the strings are neither too taut nor too lax, but “evenly” tuned. This same terminology came to be applied to human actions, with the connotation that good actions were not only appealing, but also in tune with the true nature of the laws of action.

Inconstant: The usual rendering for anicca is “impermanent.” However, the antonym of the term, nicca, carries connotations of constancy and reliability; and as anicca is used to emphasize the point that conditioned phenomena are unreliable as a basis for true happiness, this seems a useful rendering for conveying this point.

Objectification: The term papañca has entered popular usage in Buddhist circles to indicate obsessive, runaway thoughts that harass the mind. But in the suttas, the term is used to indicate, not the amount of thinking that harasses the mind, but the categories used in a particular type of thinking that harasses the mind and extends outward to create conflict with others. Sn 4:14 states that the root of the categories of papañca is the perception, “I am the thinker.” From this self-objectifying thought, in which one takes on the identity of a being, a number of categories can be derived: being/not-being, me/not-me, mine/not-mine, doer/done-to, feeder/food. This last pair of categories comes from the fact that, as a being, one has to lay claim to food, both physical and mental, to maintain that being (Khp 4). Thinking in terms of these categories inevitably leads to conflict, as different beings fight over their food. Because this harassment and conflict come from a self-objectifying thought that leads to the objectification of others as well, objectification seems to be the best English equivalent for papañca.

Obsession: Anusaya is usually translated as “underlying tendency” or “latent tendency.” These translations are based on the etymology of the term, which literally means, “to lie down with.” However, in actual usage, the related verb (anuseti) means to be obsessed with something, for one’s thoughts to return and “lie down with it” (or, in our idiom, to “dwell on it”) over and over again.

Stress: The Pali 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 most subtle 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 close look at ancient Indian views of the workings of fire (see The Mind Like Fire Unbound) shows 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.