The primary purpose of this glossary is to provide definitions for terms used in this site, whose aim is to make the teachings of the Tibetan Mind Training proverbs accessible to English speakers. Most, but not all, of the terms defined form part of the terminology of Tibetan Buddhism.

Search engines often point to this site, because of the number and variety of relatively rare terms it defines. We want to point out that the definitions given relate to the use made of the terms within the site, and make no pretence to accuracy in other contexts.

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alaya 'Source consciousness'. Pure, primary awareness untainted by life experiences, judgements, or preconceptions. Called in Zen 'the face you had before your parents were born'.
Ananda The historical Buddha's brother and one of his chief disciples, responsible for organization and discipline. Comes through in some of the stories about him as being something of a prig who thinks the teaching is a set of rules rather than a way of life.
anatta Literally, 'no-self'. This Buddhist doctrine holds that what we call our 'self' is just a convenient name for bundling certain phenomena, in the same way that the word 'crowd' can refer to the spectators of a football game while the game is on, but loses its usefulness for describing them when the game is over. One very important implication is that all the effort we spend on defining, defending, and extending the boundaries of the 'self' is a complete waste of time (and of course the cause of a lot of unhappiness.)
aperture of Brahma The energy spot at the top of the head (also known as the seventh chakra). Gateway for energy of higher consciousness.
Atisha Atisha is the teacher who brought the Mind Training teaching from Sumatra to India and then transmitted it to Tibet. He was born in India in A.D 982. He was first initiated into, and became an adept in, the esoteric and magical practices of Tantra, which were very popular in India at the time, and in fact were to soon to absorb and extinguish Indian Buddhism.

However, when already a well-established practitioner of Tantra, he underwent a change of heart and made a decision to renounce the search for magical power. Wishing to develop compassion and selflessness, at the age of thirty he took Buddhist vows. Wishing to study with the master of compassion Dharmakirti (Tibetan: Serlingpa), he traveled to the faraway land of Suvarnadvipa (present-day Sumatra). He stayed there for twelve years, learning, among many other things, the Mind Training practice. Such was Atisha's gratitude to Dharmakirti that he was unable even to hear his name without bursting into tears.

On his return to India, Atisha taught for fifteen years at different monasteries and was recognized as both the most learned and the most personally realized teacher in all India. He started to receive invitations to teach in Tibet, which he initally refused. (Tibet at that time had an enormous hunger for true Buddhist teaching but an almost total lack of reliable teachers, due to the brief but severe persecution of Buddhism by the insane King Langdarma.)

Once, in his role as head of discipline at the Vikramsila monastery, he concurred in the expulsion of a monk for drinking alcohol as part of a tantric ceremony. The goddess Tara, his yidam, then came to him in a dream and said that he was responsible for the expulsion of a sincere practitioner, and that as penance he should go to Tibet and teach. The next time the Tibetans invited him, he accepted. The story is told that he had heard that the Tibetans were very open and friendly, so that he would have no-one to challenge him in his compassion practice. So he took along his sulky, bad-mannered Bengali tea boy so that he would have someone to stimulate him in his Mind Training.

He had difficulty getting permission to go from the head of Vikramsila, since his prestige in India was so great. Eventually was allowed to go to Tibet only on condition that he return in three years. However, the need for him and his teaching in Tibet was so great that he never returned, but died there twelve years later.

The information in this biography is mainly taken from Atisha and Tibet,by Alaka Chattopadhaya. There are a lot of uncertainties in this history, fully explained by Mr Chattopadaya, which the above account glosses over.

bardo The intermediate state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan world-view. Tibetans believe that this state, which bears some similarities to a dream, is an opportunity to let go of the previous life and learn its lessons, as well as to orient the soul towards a suitable future birth. The main thing to be avoided, just as in life, is letting the spirit lose awareness and get sucked into compulsive habitual patterns (perhaps leading, for instance, to an animal rebirth.)

The classic guide to the Bardo is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which in Tibetan culture is generally read to the dying person just before and also after death.

bodhi Clarity, enlightenment
Bodhicitta 'Enlightened Mind' or 'Enlightened Heart'. Another way of viewing the world than our normal limited and self-centered one. Divided into:
  • Relative Bodhicitta, universal compassion and kinship with all sentient beings
  • Absolute Bodhicitta, the direct perception of the falsity of our usual limited and conditioned world-view and of the pure unbounded nature beyond those limited concepts.
Bodhidharma Semi-legendary figure who bought Buddhism from India to China in the seventh century. Eccentric, totally dedicated, and fierce; the subject of many legends. Also reputed to be the originator of the Shaolin Temple, the Chinese martial arts, and some of the subtle energetic healing practices for which China is famous.
Bodhisattva One who is committed to the enlightenment of others before his or her own. This is not as unselfish as it seems, for no-one can be enlightened who does not see others as perfect also.
Buddha The founder of Buddhism, born a prince in Bengal, India in the sixth century B.C. Realized the futility of the life he was leading, left his wife, son and kingdom and went into the forest to meditate. Realized the true nature of reality, and despite his initial misgivings that his understanding would be impossible to pass on, came back to teach for over fifty years.<
Buddhadharma The teaching of the Buddha.
Chekawa The author of the basic text on the Seven Points of Mind Training. He saw a fellow monk's book open at the words: Gain and Victory for others, Loss and Defeat for Oneself. He was so intrigued by this teaching that he sought out a teacher in the lineage of the author of that text (who was already dead), and studied with him for twelve years. He lived with lepers, taught them these practices, and cured many of them.

It is said that on his death-bed he asked his disciples to pray that he be re-born in the hell-realms so that he could help the beings there: he wept tears of sorrow when he had a dream that night that revealed that he would instead go to the Pure Land of the great Buddhist masters.

Circumambulation Walking around a sacred shrine or mountain as a spiritual practice.
Deva Gods, goddesses, nature-spirits.<
dharma The way, the truth. Buddhist teaching.
dharmakaya One of the four Kayas. The unconditioned, the Absolute, the underlying truth.
Dharmapalas Protective deities, or wrathful deities, who protect the dharma and cut through negativity and hypocrisy. Often portrayed with numerous heads and arms, drinking blood, having sex with beautiful women or men, etc. Developments of the gods and spirits of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion.
Dharmic Relating to the Dharma (qv)
eternalism One of the 'two extremes' - eternalism and nihilism. The belief that things are not only 'really so' but have always been so and will continue to be so for ever.
Gampo Abbey Remote monastery in Nova Scotia in the tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Pema Chodron is its spiritual director.
Gautam Buddha The founder of Buddhism, born a prince in Bengal, India in the sixth century B.C. Realized the futility of the life he was leading, left his wife, son and kingdom and went into the forest to meditate. Realized the true nature of reality, and despite his initial misgivings that his understanding would be impossible to pass on, came back to teach for over fifty years.<
Gurdjeff Famous and eccentric Russian spiritual teacher active in the early part of this century who would pressure his students to go beyond their self-imposed limits by many methods, including apparent inconsistency and irrationality.
hinayana 'Lesser vehicle'. Name given to the earlier schools of Buddhism that emphasized the achievement of enlightenment through one's own effort in meditation.

The name was bestowed by the later Mahayana school, who took the view that trying to achieve enlightenment for yourself was a mistaken path that might actually increase your isolation, ego identification, and hence suffering.

Jon Kabat-Zinn Founder of the 'Full Catastrophe Living' program, teaching meditation to hospital patients who have suffered a stress-related medical episode such as a heart attack or stroke.<
Kadampa One of the main schools of Mahayana Buddhism.
Kagyu One of the primary lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, characterized by a 'whispered transmission' of oral instructions passed on by a master to his student. Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa are the first four teachers in this lineage.
Karma The impact of your past imprinting on your present and your future.
Kayas Dharmakaya (the Absolute), Nirmanakaya (the embodied), Sambhogakaya (realm of life energy and visualization) and Svabhavakaya (emptiness).
klesha The kleshas are emotions and/or habitual patterns that defile or confuse, such as anger, fear, and resentment.
kleshas Emotions and/or habitual patterns that defile or confuse, such as anger, fear, and resentment.
Kundalini Hindu term for life force supposed to reside in the spine.
Lao Tzu Semi-legendary Taoist sage who (reluctantly) authored the Tao Te Ching (the classic text of Taoism) because a customs official refused to let him cross the border into the mountains where he wished to seclude himself until he has written down his knowledge.
lojong Mind training - the mental discipline of the fifty-nine proverbs that are associated with the tonglen (taking and sending) practice and help to keep the practice on track and in balance. A particular way of looking at the world with total acceptance and joy.
Madhyamaka Tibetan theological term. Very roughly, the Tibetans believe that the things we believe exist are not real in the way we think they are, but are the result of the categorizing and interpretation of our minds. This position falls between two extreme positions of Nihilism, which holds that nothing exists at all and everything is imaginary, and Eternalism, which holds that things are just as solid as we naively think they are.
Mahayana 'Great Vehicle', in which one does not distinguish between self and other, and so does not try to achieve liberation for one's own sake alone but either:
  • Strives to help all sentient beings liberate themselves or
  • Holds the view that they are already liberated, so that any fault we may see in them is due to our own faulty perception.
maitri Unlimited and universal loving-kindness
Mandala Sacred diagram or spiritual map of the universe. May take various forms such as an elaborate sand painting that takes days to create, a hand position with the fingers of the two hands interleaved in a particular manner, or a pattern of heaps made with rice or jewels on a plate representing the corners of the universe.

The ngondro preliminary practices include the creation and destruction of 100,000 mandalas.<

Mara God of, or embodiment of, illusion. By illusion is meant: taking the commonly-accepted constructs, lies, and simplifications we all live by as ultimate truth.
maras Demons of illusion
Milarepa Famous Tibetan yogi of the 11th century who was born in extreme poverty and, at his mother's urging, studied black magic and used it to take revenge on his aunt and uncle who had stolen the family's possessions. The extreme remorse and fear of the karmic effects of what he had done led him to study the Dharma with several teachers of whom only one, Marpa, was able to get through to him, and that only by using seemingly irrational cruelty and hardness of heart toward his disciple.

Marpa denied him instruction and initiation, and forced him to build several towers out of stone, single-handed. As soon as a tower was nearing completion Marpa would find some trivial fault with it, or simply change his mind, and make Milarepa tear it down and start over.

Eventually Marpa relented and gave him instruction. He meditated under Marpa's guidance for a number of years, then returned home to see if his mother was still alive. She had passed away, the family home was in ruins, and his sister was a wandering beggar.

There followed a period in which he meditated with periodic visits from the aunt and uncle who had taken his possessions, his sister, and the girl to whom he had been betrothed. Slowly these relationships were resolved through renunciation and forgiveness on both sides, and Milarepa took a vow to meditate intensely in total isolation until he either achieved total realization or died.

Milarepa meditated for years without any apparent result at all, during which time his skin turned green from the nettles that were for a long time his only food. He finally achieved total enlightenment. Among his many disciples was Gampopa, the founder of the most prominent school of modern Tibetan Buddhism.

See 'The Life of Milarepa', translated by Lopsang P. Lalungpa, and 'The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa', translated by Garma C.C. Chang.

Mother Teresa Romanian nun who devoted her whole life to serving the poor and orphaned of the slums of Calcutta - whom she saw as 'Jesus Christ in His distressing disguise'.
Nelson Mandela South African political leader and spiritual teacher, mainly responsible for the peaceful transition from the racially repressive apartheid system to democratic representative government. First president of a democratic South Africa. He spent many years (most of his adult life) imprisoned by the white regime.

A major innovation of his was the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission'. The main idea of this commission was that what the blacks wanted to make up for the atrocities of the apartheid period was not punishment of those responsible, but rather full and open acknowledgement by them of what had happened, and a determination on all sides that such atrocities would never be repeated. This model has also been used with success in other countries with turbulent and repressive histories.

Mandela's insight was that in a repressive system the oppressors suffer just as much as the oppressed.

Neti Neti Sankrit term meaning 'Neither...Nor.' The experience of actual reality that arises when the mind ceases its habitual tendencies to judge, categorize, distinguish, and divide.
nihilism Misunderstanding of emptiness - the position that since nothing inherently exists apart from our experience of it, therefore nothing matters and we may as well just zone out. A much more serious misunderstanding than its opposite, eternalism, which takes things too seriously. A nihilist essentially disengages from reality and it can take a long time to get engaged again.
nirmanakaya The Ultimate as actually experienced in concrete reality on this planet through words, deeds, and relationships. Analogous to the Christian concept of an incarnate God (the Son).
Nirvana Much misunderstood term, perhaps due to the fact that most commentators have experienced samsara (qv) and know something about it, whereas those who have experienced nirvana very rarely write dictionaries. It may possibly mean something like: the direct undistorted experience of reality. The distortions might be hope, fear, attachment, aversion, ignorance, clinging to self-concepts etc - things we know something about and can discuss for days. About how we might experience reality without such distortions, most of us are not very well qualified to speak.

Nirvana is not some other world, or an after-death experience like the Christian heaven. It is, as Kalu Rinpoche said, 'So Simple, So Close'. You could easily experience it this very second - in fact, it would be more relaxing than all the effort you put into maintaining your illusions.

Non-Referential Compassion Compassion that goes beyond the distinction between self and other, where you no longer hold the other person as separate from you, or their suffering (or joy) as different from your own. Beyond the limited realm of the 'three spheres' , which are:
  • self
  • other
  • the actions or relationships that connect (i.e. divide) self and other.
nondiscursive Free from distracting thoughts
nonduality Reality beyond distinction of right and wrong, self and other, sacred and profane. Same as 'Neti, Neti'
Patanjali Hindu sage. Author of classic treatise on meditation and spiritual practice that is at the root of the Hindu Yoga tradition (the 'Yoga Sutras').
Patrul 19th century Tibetan sage known for his eccentricity as well as his wisdom - author of 'Words of my Perfect Teacher'.
phowa 'Ejection of consciousness'. Tibetan practice of letting go of the present body at the moment of death.
pranayama Yoga breath control practice.
prostrations Tibetan Buddhists have a practice called 'ngondro' (pronounced 'nudro') in which the practioner makes 100,000 sacred diagrams (mandalas), recites 100,000 sacred mantras, and does 100,000 prostrations. When doing prostations, the practitioner touches the crown of the head, the 'third eye', and the throat (standing for body, speech, and mind), lies down full-length on the floor, then comes back to a standing position and starts over. Most Tibetan Buddhists also prostrate three times on entering any sacred space such as a temple of shrine, to show respect and let go of mundane concerns.
reify Literally 'turn into a thing'. Create a pigeonhole for an experience by giving it a name.
sabbodhi 'Awareness of truth'. Seeing things as they are.
sadhanas Spiritual practices.
Samadhi Word for enlightenment in the Hindu tradition. Also means something like 'trance': sometimes has the implication of being disconnected from everyday reality or even spaced out.
Sambhogakaya 'Enjoyment body'. If the kayas correspond to the Trinity, then Sambogakaya would be the Holy Spirit, a similarly unclear concept and for similar reasons. A bridge whereby the Absolute may be experienced in the world of form, not as a form like all others (that would be Nirmanakaya, or the Son) but retaining some of its own transcendent nature.

Forms such a bridge might take might be visions, mystical experiences, or life energy associated with the breath (the Latin 'spirit', the Chinese 'Chi', the Hindu 'prana', and the Greek 'anemos' (from which we get 'animate' etc) all mean 'breath' in their respective languages).

samsara Cyclic nature of action and reaction. State of mind in which there is no freedom: all action comes out of habitual tendencies.
samsaric Arising out of the misconception that there is an independent self and that security and possibly happiness can be obtained by protecting and defending its borders. 'Samsara' is a term used for the world or state of being that arises when either oneself or the world as a whole acts consistently out of this misperception.
Sangha Community of Buddhist practitioners who support each other's practice.
Sechibuwa Disciple of Chekawa who took notes on Chekawa's teachings.
Seuss Author of instructive and humorous illustrated children's books such as 'The Cat in the Hat' and 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas'.
Seven Point Posture Seated meditation posture, cross-legged with spine erect. The points are: seat, eyes, spine, shoulders, back of the neck, mouth and tongue, breathing.
Shakyamuni Family name of the historic Buddha.
shamatha-vipashyana Awareness and insight meditation. For more details see e.g. Pema Chodron's 'The Wisdom of No Escape' or Thich Nhat Hanh's 'The Miracle of Mindfulness'.
Shantideva Author of a famous Mahayana text closely related to Mind Training, 'Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life'.
shunyata Literally, 'emptiness'. Perhaps better translated as 'freedom from limitation'.<
siddha Practitioner who has advanced far enough to have certain spiritual powers.
sutra Buddhist or Hindu holy text. Sometimes meaning a basic text, as opposed to 'Tantra', advanced text.
Suzuki Famous Zen teacher - one of the first to bring Zen Buddhism from Japan to the West. Author of the classic 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind'
swabhavakaya One of the four kayas. The realm of emptiness.
tantra Advanced spiritual practice. Includes deity visualization practices and practices of 'equal taste' such as chod designed to dismantle attachment and aversion. Also sometimes used for visualization practices during sexual intercourse in which the partner is experienced as a manifestation of a god or goddess.
tantric Relating to Tantra, or advanced spiritual practice. Includes deity visualization practices and practices of 'equal taste' such as chod designed to dismantle attachment and aversion. Also sometimes used for visualization practices during sexual intercourse in which the partner is experienced as a manifestation of a god or goddess.
the Three Jewels Objects of refuge in Buddhism, namely
  1. The Buddha
  2. The Dharma (the truth, or Buddhist teachings and scriptures)
  3. The Sangha, or community of Buddhist practitioners.
For a fuller explanation, see
Theravada School of Buddhism, now mainly represented in South-East Asia, that particularly emphasizes self-cultivation and awareness through such meditation practices as watching the breath (as opposed to later schools in which much more weight is given to compasssion and relationship to other beings (Mahayana) or deity visualization and embodiment practices (Vajrayana)
tonglen Literally, 'sending and taking'. The fundamental practice of Mind Training, in which the practitioner takes in all the world's sorrow on the in-breath and sends it all his joy on the out-breath.
Vajrasattva Deity visualized over the crown of the head in purification practice. In ngondro this visualization is maintained through 100,000 repetitions of the 100-syllable purification mantra.
Yidam Visualized representative of your enlightened energy, or Buddha-nature. Tricky concept for Westerners; closest concept might be that of a patron saint in Catholicism, except that a yidam is not a historical figure and is not necessarily supposed to 'exist' in the same way human beings do. Other related concepts might be a totem or power animal in the Native American tradition, or even the fairy godmother in children's tales.

Probably the most commonly used yidam is the 'god' or 'goddess' (terms used very loosely) of universal compassion, known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Chenrezig in Tibetan, and Kuan Yin in Chinese.

yoga Sanskrit word meaning 'Union, unity'. Generally used in these commentaries to refer to any kind of method used for ends of spiritual development.
Glossary Texts
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