Zen Glossary

There are a number of terms and references in Zen literature that require context to aid in understanding.

Below is a selection of some of the more common ones that frequently arise. For a more exhaustive list, check out Lion’s Roar Buddhist Glossary

Absolute/Relative

The two interrelated, mutually arising aspects of reality.

Absolute is oneness, emptiness, the true nature of reality.

Relative is its phenomenal manifestation.

Bodhi Mind

The state of mind in which the aspiration for enlightenment has been awakened.

The impulse that moves one towards self-realization.

Bodhicitta

The mind that strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Bodhissatva

The Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated Bodhicitta to attain Buddhahood (enlightement) for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Dharma

Has several meanings all at once –

  • Universal truth or law;
  • the Buddha’s teachings;
  • all phenomena that make up reality.

Dogen

12th century founder of the Soto school of Zen.

Author of the Shobogenzo, an important collection of Dharma essays

Dukkha

An important Buddhist concept, commonly translated as “suffering”, “pain” or “unsatisfactoriness”. It refers to the fundamental dissatisfaction and painfulness of mundane life.

It is the first of the Four Noble Truths (Life is suffering).

Enlightenment

The direct experience of one’s true nature.

Equanimity

The state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

The virtue and value of equanimity is extolled and advocated by a number of major religions and ancient philosophies.

Hara

Physical and spiritual center of one’s body / mind.

Area in the lower belly used to center one’s attention in meditation and any activity.

Karma

The universal law of cause and effect.

The linking of an action’s underlying intention to that action’s consequences.

Mara

In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is associated with death, rebirth and desire.

The demon that tempted Prince Siddhartha (Guatama Buddha) by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara’s daughters.

Nekkhamma

Pali word meaning “renunciation” or “the pleasure of renunciation”.

Also conveys more specifically “giving up the world and leading a holy life” or “freedom from lust, craving and desires.”

In Buddhism’s Eightfold Pathnekkhamma is the first practice associated with “Right Intention.”

Prajna

Innate wisdom.

Not the type which is possessed, but that which is directly and thoroughly experienced.

Samadhi

Derived from the Sanskrit, sama, meaning “together,” and dhi, meaning “mind.”

A complete state of concentration. The mind’s ultimate state of being. Enlightenment. The preliminary state to nirvana.

Samsara

The endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The world of suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha).

The opposite of nirvana, which is being free from this cycle of suffering. Nirvana is realized through enlightenment.

Tao

The Way. The Universal Reality.

The nameless and unnameable source of all things.

Three Poisons

Greed, Anger and Ignorance.

The characteristics of human existence that arise out of a deluded view of the universe.