Tibetan Buddhism from A to Z


Adept. A highly realized master -- either the bodhisattva ("seeker of full enlightenment") of exoteric Buddhism, or the siddha ("highly accomplished one") of esoteric Buddhism.

Ananda. Sakyamuni Buddha's first cousin, one of his foremost disciples, and his contestant attendant for his last twenty-five years.

Artisan Manifested-Body (Skt., silpin nirmanakaya; Tib., bzo sprul sku). One of the four kinds of manifested-bodies of the Buddha.

Asanga (fourth century). One of the two greatest scholars and writers of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the founder of the Mind Only school.

Atisa (980-1054). A great bodhisattva and scholar from Vikramasila Monastery in Bengal, India, who invigorated and refined Buddhism in Tibet. His chief disciple, Dromton, founded the Kadam school.


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Avalokitesvara (Tib., spyan ras gigs). Also known as the Buddha of Loving-Kindness or the Buddha of Compassion. In meditations he is an object of prayer with devotion, a source of blessings, and the means of transforming oneself into the mind and actions of loving-kindness.

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Bardo (Tib., bar do). The "intermediate state," the period between death and rebirth that every being travels through after death.

Birth Manifested-Body (Skt., janma-nirmanakaya; Tib., skye ba sprul sku). One of the four manifested-bodies of the Buddha taking the forms of ordinary beings. This is the main basis of the tulku tradition of Tibetan Buddhists.

Blessed Tulku (Tib., byin gyis brlabs pa'i sprul sku). A tulku who is not the actual rebirth of the identified deceased lama, but is recognized as the tulku so that he or she can serve others on behalf of the deceased lama.

Bodhicitta (Tib., byang ch'ub kyi sems). Enlightened aspiration, the intention or aspiration for all to become buddhas and the vow to lead all to peace, joy, and buddhahood.

Bodhisattva (Tib., byang ch'ub sems dpa'). The "seeker of enlightenment," one who has developed bodhicitta, the vow to lead all beings to happiness and enlightenment without self-interest.

Buddha. A fully enlightened one or fully enlightened state. According to Buddhism, it is the ultimate nature and qualities of all. Full enlightenment consists of attaining three Buddha bodies (dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya) and it is the ultimate goal of Buddhist training. The term buddha can be singular or plural. To indicate the absolute Buddha, which is the unity of all, Buddha is used in the singular. To indicate the manifestations of Buddha, which are infinite, the plural is used.

Buddha of Loving-Kindness. See Avalokitesvara.

Buddha Sakyamuni. The name of the historical Buddha. He is also known as Gautama Buddha or the Buddha.

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Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama.
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Dalai Lama. The most important tulku lineage in Tibet. The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth.

Diverse Manifested-Body (Tib., sna tshogs sprul sku). One of the four kinds of manifested bodies of the buddhas that appear in various forms.

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Enjoyment-Body (Skt., sambhogakaya; Tib., longs sku). One of the three bodies or aspects of buddhahood; the subtlest form-body.

Enlightened Aspiration. See bodhicitta.

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Final Five-Hundred-Year Period. The last five hundred years of the five thousand years of Buddhism's expected life. It is a synonym for the degeneration of Buddhism.

Four Ways of Gathering Others (Skt., samgraha-vastu; Tib., bsdu ba rnam pa bzhi). The four ways through which the bodhisattvas bring others to the Dharma.

Five Buddha-Families or Buddha Lineages (Skt., pancabuddhakula; Tib., rgyal ba rigs lnga). It is the state of being in all phenomena -- physical and mental, as the union of the five male buddhas and the five female buddhas.

Five Certainties (Tib., nges pa lnga ldan). The five everlasting and never-changing qualities of the enjoyment-body of buddhahood: (1) the place is self-appearing or self-present, free from dimensions; (2) the teachers are the Buddhas of the five classes or families; (3) the disciples are infinite and inseparable from the teacher; (4) the teachings are great luminescent vision, ineffable beyond concepts or words; (5) the time is changeless and timeless time.

Fivefold-Wisdom (Skt., pancajnana; Tib., ye shes lnga). The fivefold-wisdom of buddhahood: (1) the Wisdom of the Ultimate Sphere; (2) the Mirror-like Wisdom; (3) the Wisdom of Equanimity; (4) the Distinguishing (or All-knowing) Wisdom; (5) the Wisdom of Accomplishment.

Fallen Tulku (Tib., sprul rgod or sprul log). A tulku who has ceased to remain as a tulku.

False Tulku (Tib., sprul rdzun). One who has never been a tulku and has been designated as such falsely or by mistake.

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Gelug. One of the four major Buddhist schools of Tibet. It was founded by Je Tsongkhapa.

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Kadam. An important school, founded by Dromtonpa, the chief disciple of Atisa. Later, the Kadam teachings were disseminated and absorbed into the teachings of other schools.

Kagyu. One of the four major Buddhist schools of Tibet, founded by Marpa Chökyi Lodrö.

Karma. A habitual pattern sown in our mind-stream by our thoughts and deeds. Such karmic patterns determine what kind of life experiences we will have in the future.

Karmapa. One of the most important tulku lineages of Tibet. The present one is the seventeenth in the tulku lineage of Karmapas.

Khenpo (Tib., mkhan po; Skt., upadhyaya). An abbot; a designation of senior monks, whose roles are detailed in the vinaya scriptures of Buddhism.

King Trisong Detsen. A great king of Tibet, who was responsible for establishing Buddhism in Tibet in the ninth century.

Kor (Tib., dkor). Materials and services dedicated for Dharma purposes.

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Lama (Tib., bla ma; Skt., guru). One of the "superior ones"; a senior teacher of Buddhism.

Loving-Kindness (Skt., maitri; Tib., byams pa). The thought of wishing joy and enlightenment for all.

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Mahaparinirvana. Literally, "going beyond suffering"; the death of the Buddha or of any highly realized tulku or lama.

Mahayana. One of the two major divisions of Buddhism -- Mahayana means "the Great Vehicle," and Hinayana means "the Common Vehicle."

Manifested-Body (Skt., nirmanakaya; Tib., sprul sku). One of the three bodies of the Buddha, the one that appears in ordinary forms so that it can be seen by ordinary beings. In Tibetan this is called tulku.

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Nagarjuna (first to second century?). The preeminent proponent of emptiness philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism and the founder of the Middle Way.


Nalanda Monastery.
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Nalanda Monastery. One of the greatest academic institutes of the ancient mahayana tradition of India. Its ruins can be found in Bihar State of modern India.

Nyingma. Literally, "the Ancient One"; one of the four major Buddhist schools of Tibet, founded by Guru Padmasambhava in the ninth century.

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Openness. A translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata, which is a philosophical term that is often translated as emptiness. Openness denotes the unrestricted, uncontrived, unbounded, unhindered, nondual, unchanging, and fully-awakened state, Buddhahood.

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Padmasambhaba. Also known as Guru Rinpoche. One of the greatest adepts of India, who founded Buddhism in Tibet in the ninth century.

Path (Skt., marga; Tib., lam). In Mahayana Buddhism, one progresses through five paths and ten stages of training in order to attain buddhahood.

Pure Land (Skt., Buddhaksetra; Tib., zhing khams or dag pa'i zhing khams). A buddha paradise. There are two levels of pure lands: the pure land that belongs to the manifested-body of the Buddha, which can be seen by ordinary beings; and the pure land of the enjoyment-body of the buddhas.

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Rainbow Body (Tib., 'ja' lus). Some adepts totally dissolve their gross/mortal bodies at the time of their death, leaving only the nails and hair behind. This dissolution is called "the attainment of rainbow-body" since while their bodies totally dissolve, a mass of rainbow-lights in the form of beams and circles, and especially spheres of light (Tib., thigle) appear for days.

Rainbow Body of Great Transference (Tib., 'ja' lus 'pho ba ch'en po). The subtle body of light into which a great adept transforms his or her gross body in order to serve others.

Rebirth. What eventually occurs after one's death, which is not the end of one's existence. Again and again, after each death, one's mind, the consciousness, takes rebirth as another being.

Rebirths of Virtuous Lamas. See Virtuous lama.

Recognition. The term used in Tibet for the way realized lamas identify the rebirths of deceased lamas through their clairvoyance and spiritual power.

Renunciate (Skt., pravrajika; Tib., rab byung). One who has renounced household life and lives as an ascetic or a celibate monk or nun.

Returner from Death (Tib., 'das log). A person who has died and then, after a number of days, returned to life with vivid memories of his or her after-death experiences. A phenomenon known for centuries in Tibet and reported by many.

Ringsel (Skt., sarira; Tib., ring-bsrel ). Highly respected sacred relics materialized from the cremated bones of highly accomplished masters. They are pellets that might look like small pearls, hard and shiny; they are mostly white, but they could also be in various colors. Ringsels are produced from the cremated bones of meditators and they are believed to be great signs of their high realization.

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Sakya. One of the four major Buddhist schools of Tibet, founded by Khon Könchok Gyalpo.

Sangha (Tib., dge 'dun). Dharma communities: the communities of monks, nuns, tantrikas, or devotees.

Seeker of Enlightenment for All. See bodhisattva.

Siddha. A highly accomplished master who has reached high attainment through trainings in the esoteric teachings of Buddhism.

Sixty Aspects of Melodious Voice. The various wondrous qualities of the speech and voice of the Buddha.


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Santaraksita (ninth century). A great mahayana scholar of ancient India, who established the monastic ordination lineage in Tibet.

Stages (Skt., bhumi; Tib., sa). According to Mahayana Buddhism, one must advance through ten stages and five paths to reach the goal, buddhahood.

Supreme Manifested-Body (Skt., uttama-nirmanakaya; Tib., mch'og gi sprul sku). The supreme among the four classes of the manifested-bodies of the Buddha that appear in ordinary forms, such as the historical Buddha.

Sutra (Tib., mdo). The exoteric, common teachings of Buddhism taught by the historical Buddha himself.

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Tathagata . Literally, "such gone"; an epithet of the Buddha.

Tantra (Tib., sngags). The esoteric or uncommon teachings of Buddhism taught by the historical Buddha or other buddhas.

Tantrika (Tib., sngags pa). A follower of esoteric teachings, the tantra.

Ter or Terma (Tib., gter or gter ma). Literally, "the treasured or hidden ones." Unique esoteric teachings concealed and discovered through enlightened power. In Tibet, most of them were concealed by Guru Padmasambhava in the ninth century and discovered by the tulkus of his disciples starting in the eleventh century and continuing until today.

Tertön (Tib., gter ston). Literally, "treasure discoverer." A master who discovers the ter teachings through his or her enlightened mystical power.


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Thigle (Tib., thig le). The Tibetan word thigh generally means a circle, sphere, disc, or drop. However, in the context of thigle of light in esoteric teachings such as Dzogchen, it is a sphere of rainbow light -- small or big -- made of single or multiple colors. Thigles are neither the beams nor the empty circles made of rainbow-like lights, but are spheres of colorful light fully filled with light. Highly accomplished meditators might see them as Buddha images or might see Buddha images inside them. Thigles are one of the signs that the particles of the physical body of the deceased meditator have been, or are being, transformed into pure light in order to unite with the mother luminous light of wisdom, the ultimate pure body of Buddhahood, which ordinary eyes cannot see as it is.

Thirty-two Major and Eighty Minor Excellent Marks . The 112 extraordinary physical attributes of the supreme manifested-body, such as the historical Buddha.

Three Buddha-Bodies (Skt., trikaya; Tib., sku gsum). The ultimate-body, the enjoyment-body, and the manifested-body of the Buddha.

Tulku (spiral sprul sku; Skt., nirmanakaya). The manifested-body. One of the three bodies of the Buddha. In Tibetan tradition, however, we find three divisions within tulku itself: the tulkus of the Buddha, the tulkus of the adepts, and the tulkus of the virtuous or meritorious lamas.

Tusita Heaven (Tib., dga' ldan). One of the six heavenly fields of the desire realm.

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Ultimate-Body (Skt., dharmakaya; Tib., ch'os sku). One of the three bodies or aspects of buddhahood -- the absolute and emptiness or openness nature of buddhahood and of all.

Unrecognized Tulku. One type of the infinite tulkus of buddhas and adepts who, with the exception of a few, mostly remain unrecognized.

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Virtuous Lama or Virtuous Friend (Skt., kalyanamitra or guru; Tib., gde ba'i bshes gnyen or bla ma). A teacher who has not yet attained the level of an adept or a buddha, but has generated virtuous deeds or meritorious karmas and whose rebirths will benefit many. Most of the tulkus of Tibet could belong to the rebirths of such lamas.

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Zangdok Palri (Tib., zangs mdog dpal ri). The Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain. A manifested pure land, where Guru Padmasambhava remains in his rainbow body of great transference.

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From Incarnation, by Tulku Thondup, © 2011 by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.