Glossary of terms

Glossary of Terms


This is actually a process wherein the practitioner finally experiences a profound letting-go of the causes of suffering. This happens by realizing at a visceral level, the impermanence and insubstantiality of all elements of her or his experience. S/he then attains ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ which allows this sense of ‘letting go’.
Though awakening is a fundamental, formative process, it is often referred to as if it were a status or a state of being. Awakening is sometimes called ‘enlightenment’, and also implies the liberated state of mind called nirvana (nibbana in Pali).
When we awaken, the delusion of ego, of separate selfhood that causes our anguish, falls away (see 'not self' below). We then realise our interconnection with all of life, so experiencing unobstructed friendliness, compassion, shared joy and equanimity.
Awakening is not a matter of all or nothing. As we progress towards it, the heart and mind become freer, more positive and peaceful. Our way of being in the world and relating to others is enriched and becomes less troublesome.
It is through understanding and implementing the Buddha’s teachings that we can gradually achieve this wellbeing. (Modern psychology is today reaching many of the same conclusions, about how to be a healthy, happy human, as the Buddha did over 2500 years ago.)

brahma viharas (four)

Literally ‘the divine abodes’, these are often referred to as ‘the four immeasurables’. These are the four emotional tones of the awakened mind and are the tell-tale signs of awakening. They are:
  1. friendliness: (often called universal loving kindness), which refers to a feeling of kindness and good will towards all sentient beings (human and otherwise)
  2. compassion: an understanding, empathic care towards all others in their moments of suffering
  3. empathic joy: this is often called ‘sympathetic joy’ – it refers to a genuine happiness at others’ joy, merits or good fortune.
  4. equanimity: a calm, positive emotional balance in the face of both good and bad fortune


Buddha is a title that means ‘one who is awake’. ‘The Buddha’ refers to an individual, Siddhattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit) (c 480-400 BCE) who awakened fully at the age of 35 and spent the rest of his long life instructing others (he lived until he was 80).


Dana means ‘generosity’. In the context of a sangha, dana refers to the voluntary donations from participants to the teacher as a form of gratitude for the teaching. The idea here is that it supports teachers who have spent a lot of time learning about and practising the dharma, and who, out of their own generosity, are freely sharing that learning with others.
This reciprocal relationship has underpinned the dharma tradition since its appearance two and a half millennia ago.


The term dharma (dhamma in Pali) refers in the first instance to the Buddha’s teaching, but this Sanskrit word also means ‘the truth’ and ‘the lore’. The dharma is also a living tradition to which many awakened teachers have contributed (and continue to contribute) since the Buddha’s death.
In contrast ‘Buddhism’ is a concept invented in Europe in the nineteenth century as a catch-all for the many varieties of dharma practice that European travellers ‘discovered’ in Asian countries. Today it still functions as a term of rough and ready convenience.

factors of awakening (seven)

coming soon

foundations of mindfulness (four)

This term (satipatthana in Pali) is perhaps better translated as four focuses of awareness, and refers to facets of our ordinary experience to which we should pay special attention. In fact, they go to the heart of insight meditation, and the Satipatthana sutta is the Buddha’s main guiding teaching for the practice.
In this teaching we are asked to contemplate these four facets repeatedly, observing for ourselves that every experience we have can contains the seeds of suffering, is impermanent and devoid of any reference to a separate ego (see not-self).
Once we directly and consciously experience these ‘markers’ of daily experience in this way, we’re in the process of breaking out of the world view that has trapped us for so long and consistently led us into error – the world view that suggests that our experience should always be wonderful, can be made permanent, and is all about ‘me’.
By working with these focuses we cultivate presence, that is, awareness of what is happening right now. The more we can dwell in the here and now, rather than re-hashing the past, or fantasising about the future, the happier we will be, the less suffering we will endure, and the closer we will come to ‘letting go’ of our ego (the cause of most of our suffering).
Secondly, as we learn to see our experience as being made up of these impermanent, selfless components, it becomes easier to abandon the stream of disturbing emotions that our ego-centred thoughts tend to produce – emotions that obstruct our efforts to be kind, compassionate, peaceful and joyful.
It’s like watching a puppet show. If all you can see is the stage and the puppets, you can be swept along with the story as if it were reality. However if you can see the puppeteers pulling strings and putting on funny voices, the puppet show becomes less alluring, less powerful over your emotions. You can see it for what it is.
If we can see the four components of our being and start to be aware of the patterns that occur between them, we can stop being ruled by our mind and emotions and start making choices that are more in line with the noble eightfold path (the Buddha’s ‘to-do list’ on how to live).
The four foundations or focuses of mindfulness are:
  1. Body: the physical sensations we feel, internally and through our physical senses
  2. Feeling: the spontaneous reaction (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) we have to everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste or think of. This can also be thought of as our automatic feeling of:
    • desire or liking
    • a neutral reaction, or
    • a desire to avoid or push away.
  3. Mind: emotions, moods and other mind states. These are referred to as mind states because the Buddha saw what modern psychology now recognises, that thoughts and feelings are inextricably connected.
  4. ‘Phenomena’ (dhammas): under this heading we systematically contemplate all elements of direct experience in terms of sets of central teachings that the Buddha developed in list form, starting with the five hindrances, and ending with the four noble truths. In each case we test the teaching against our own direct, intimate experience, and we note how the potential for suffering, impermanence and not-self is present in every element of experience.

hindrances (five)

These are five disturbing energies we often experience in meditation and in daily life. They contract the heart or mind as if it were a cramped muscle, and obstruct our access to more supple, expansive states of mind. They are not ‘bad’ things to be pushed aside, but rather the result of our own mental habits that we need to engage with so as to overcome them. In this sense they are our (temporary) teachers.
When you experience a hindrance (or more than one simultaneously!), the most helpful thing to do is simply notice what’s happening and name the hindrance of the moment (see the “puppeteer” as referred to in the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”) and put your attention on it. Notice how it feels to experience this and just stay there with the feeling.
The five hindrances are:
  1. Craving for sense contact: we have five physical senses plus the mind understood in the dharma as a sixth sense. We have cultivated the habit of having each sense continuously stimulated. When we meditate, we go against this habit, and so craving for stimulation arises.
  2. Aversion: negative reactions of any sort – anger and ill-will, but also boredom (which is a negative reaction to what is happening in the moment).
  3. Sloth and torpor: sloth refers to physical lethargy, which takes the form of slouching in meditation, and torpor is the mental dullness and sluggishness which accompanies it.
  4. Restlessness and anxiety: even when we’re asleep, our bodies are constantly moving and squirming. When we sit still in meditation, we thwart its usual restlessness, which can in turn induce anxiety in the mind.
  5. Doubt: lack of self-confidence that we can practise successfully, and lack of conviction or trust in the methods and benefits of the practice. This ‘shilly-shallying’ doubt simply obstructs practice; it is quite different to the bracing, no-holds-barred questioning (‘great doubt’) that the dharma encourages (there is no ‘blind faith’ required to learn of the dharma).


At the heart of this term is the concept of friendliness, though it’s often translated as ‘universal loving kindness’. However, in this day and age, the feeling of friendliness and goodwill towards all other sentient beings (human and otherwise) comes closest to the spirit of metta.

noble tasks (traditionally: noble truths - four)

These are better understood as the four noble tasks – which bring grace to our daily lives as we work with them. They are not metaphysical propositions, dogmas or beliefs, but rather inquiry questions and practical challenges.
  1. There is suffering ('dukkha' – also implies unsatisfactoriness, anguish, stress, distress, unease, not-quite-rightness) which is to be deeply understood. We all experience suffering, but we are not always aware of it. Even when we are (half) conscious of it, we often try to ignore it or blame others or our ‘fate’ for it. The dharma requires us instead to notice it, take responsibility for it, and investigate and get to know it.

    One of the most common mistranslations of this truth is ‘life is suffering’, which is radically different from the Buddha’s actual teaching. We all experience both suffering and joy. Gotama defined 'dukkha' as birth, sickness, old age, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don't want and being parted from things and people we love. It's pretty clear that these things entail suffering for human beings. Our challenge is to get to know this suffering process intimately.
  2. With dukkha arises craving. When we look deeply into our experience of suffering we discern that most of it arises from our self-ishly clutching at ‘pleasant’ experiences and objects of desire, and pushing away what we experience as unpleasant. It comes from our unwillingness to accept that unpleasantness is a part of life. When we begin to weaken these impulses to automatically reject unpleasant experiences, we weaken the causes of most of the suffering in our lives. Eventually we can let go of them altogether. (Note: This whole process depends ultimately on the delusion that each of us is a separate entity, a ‘self’, however this concept is often hard to grasp when beginning your exploration of the dharma - don’t let that put you off.)

    The call to action here is to truly accept and embrace the impermanent and insubstantial nature of all things. To relish the various forms of joy while they’re here and to let them go when they pass. To experience the various forms of suffering when they come and to let them go when they, too, pass.
  3. Suffering ceases and this is to be experienced and recognised. Suffering, like everything else, depends on causes and preconditions. If we cease to renew the causes of suffering, then it too must cease. Dharma practice deliberately undermines these causes (the automatic reactions to unpleasantness) until eventually they are entirely eradicated.

    In moments of deep meditation, and even in moments of total contentment in a life well lived, the causes of suffering temporarily exhaust themselves, and without warning we experience a plush, sublime stillness and joy. This is a foretaste of full awakening. We need to cultivate the awareness of this experience to know when one of these moments has come, to savour it, and to let it inform and inspire our practice. In this way we ‘realise’ even the most fleeting moment of bliss - we recognise it, cultivate it, and build it into our known experience.
  4. The path leading to the end of suffering which is to be lived. The Buddha taught a methodical, systematic path to put an end to suffering and attain liberation.

    In general terms he called it ‘the middle way’ which avoids extremes, in the first instance those of self-indulgence on the one hand, and self-mortification on the other.

    Then he charted a detailed ‘eightfold path’ that focuses our attention on the important ‘headings’ in our lives – our working assumptions and reality constructs, our emotions and intentions, our ethical conduct, how we communicate, how we earn a living, our efforts towards spiritual development, our awareness, and the alignment of our attention and mental/emotional life. This is his not-so-little ‘to-do list’ for a meaningful, examined life leading ultimately to awakening. 


The Buddha did not deal in metaphysics, and refused to say whether there is such a thing as a self or soul. What he emphasised repeatedly was: if we pin our identity down to any aspect of our experience, be it the body, feelings, emotions or thoughts, we are falsifying who we truly are in a way that will lead us to act in self-defeating ways. His doctrine of not-self (anatta) does not deny the ultimate existence of a self, but rather erects a warning sign around anything we might latch onto in order to support the delusion of being a Robinson Crusoe-type separate ego.

This idea does not deny the existence of a physical self. It denies the existence of a fixed, solid, enduring, independent 'me' that exists outside of the flow of causes and conditions that produce our experience in any moment. It posits that 'I' am the outworkings of that flux of cause and conditions. These include internal conditions such as my physical and mental/emotional state, personality, my historical emotional associations with things, as well as the external conditions - other people, the environment etc. 'I' am not a fixed identity that is independent of these things. The concept of not-self is also at odds with the idea of rebirth - if 'I' do not exist outside of these conditions, when my body stops living, 'I' am dead. What is it that would be re-born? For more on this concept see the blog post Bloody Not-Self.

refuges (or jewels - three)

These are the central inspirations and orientations of the dharma practitioner. They give our lives direction and meaning – clarity without closure – as we follow the path to awakening and the end of suffering.
In the face of the fragility and uncertainty of our lives, which inevitably end in loss and death anyway, we all ‘go for refuge’ to something – wealth, fame, career, relationships, entertainments, fantasies about all of the above, insurance policies, and whatever else we can find to distract us from our actual experience (obsessive busyness, drugs, overindulgence in music and television, fanaticisms and so on).
These are all ineffective refuges; they ultimately fail, and usually make matters worse. But the three refuges of Buddhism can never be taken away from us, they are always there for us, and tackle ‘the great matter of life and death’ directly:
  1. The Buddha: in this context the term refers mainly to our human potential to awaken and in a way that makes life both meaningful and joyful. The fact that the Buddha was a human being too and he achieved awakening, is an encouragement to us.
  2. The dharma: refers to the teachings of the Buddha and of the many contributors since who have maintained the dharma as a living tradition. The dharma is to be practised and realised, not merely contemplated intellectually. Nor is it a belief system or a philosophy.
  3. The sangha: refers in the first instance to our spiritual friends with whom we practise, but more generally to our fellowship with all dharma-farers everywhere (mahasangha – the great sangha).


This term translates as community. In context, it refers to the spiritual community of people who are following the Buddha’s path to awakening.


The main original teachings of the Buddha are expressed in suttas, or discourses. This oral tradition was eventually committed to writing some centuries after his death. Before and after this process, the teachings were chanted as a way of preserving and diffusing them. 

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