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Twelve words worth knowing if you don’t want to look like a plonker

This began as a list of 10 useful words, but I soon saw that there is so much jargon in Buddhism that even 20 would be a very small start. You can download an illustrated PDF file of 20 words that beginners will find useful from here. The page you’re reading now is a bit shorter.

  • Buddha

We should start with the big one, don’t you think?

Buddha statue at Namo Buddha
Buddha statue at Namo Buddha

First off, “the Buddha” was born in Nepal around 560 BC. This is the person often called the “historical Buddha”, though the events were not recorded in writing at the time. He is usually represented in monastic robes, often holding a begging bowl.

He is often called “Gautama”, which was his personal name, “Shakyamuni”, which means the “sage from the Shakya family”, or Siddhartha.

“Buddha” is more of a title than a name, and means an awakened or enlightened person. Actually, Buddhas are a bit more than just enlightened for their own sake – a full Buddha is not just enlightened, but is able to teach others, to “turn the wheel of the law”, as the traditional phrase has it, which is why he is still so revered today.

  • Dharma

Short meaning: the teachings.

Wheel of Dharma
Wheel of Dharma

The importance of the Buddha is therefore, most of all, that of a founding teacher, and his legacy is his teaching. A Buddha does not control our lives, but the teaching of a Buddha, the dharma, is something we can take to our hearts and put into practice.

    • Sangha

The “noble” sangha is the community, without which Buddhism would never have survived past the death of the Buddha himself. It can mean ordained monks and nuns. It also means the “near-Buddhas” who are thought to live on a higher plane and actively help us – Chenrezi is probably the most famous example. Sometimes the word is used to refer simply to one’s Buddhist friends.

Chenrezi figurine
Chenrezi figurine

Taken together, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha are known as the three refuges, three jewels, or the three precious ones.

  • Karma

Action. Shorthand for “action and result”. The idea is that whatever you do, say, or think leaves a trace in your mind, and in the long run this will draw you to corresponding circumstances. It emphatically does not mean that everything that happens to you is the result of your past karma.

  • Mantra

A group of syllables recited for spiritual purposes.
Perhaps the best-known mantra, the one you are most likely to hear at pilgrimage sites, is the “Mani”:

Om Mani Peme Hum

Om Mani Peme Hum
Om Mani Peme Hum in Tibetan script

There is a vast amount that can be said about what it means. Take my tip, and ignore any attempts to “translate” it in a simple way (I’m thinking of things like “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”). And if you hear somebody pronouncing the fourth and fifth syllables something like “pad may” then you know they may well have got it from a book.

  • Mandala

The word “mandala” means something round; the Tibetan translation means something more like “circle and centre”. But not just any attractive, round design makes a mandala in this sense: the details specified by the tradition are very precise.

Most mandalas represent a deity (a form of the Buddha) in his or her palace.


The universe is often offered in imagination to the Buddhas, for which purpose it is pictured as a circular mandala.
There is a good bit more detail in the PDF file.

  • Sutra

The sutras (discourses) are the texts held to have been spoken by the Buddha himself.
Although the sutras are enormously revered, Buddhism is not a “religion of the book”, and the teachings do not amount to a one-size-fits-all truth. The Buddha’s teachings were – necessarily – incomplete and sometimes provisional.

  • Tantra

In Tibetan Buddhism, tantra and sutra are two approaches to the teachings. In the sutras, enlightenment is approached bit by bit, working on generosity, ethics, philosophical analysis, meditation and so on for a long time.
The tantras focus on a new way of seeing experience, in which we are, in a sense, already Buddhas and the universe is already a mandala.

A fierce tantric deity. The green horse’s head peeping out of his hair tells us that this is Hyagriva, a wrathful aspect of Chenrezi. This kind of thing is not usually for beginners, but it can be kind of inspiring all the same.
  • Vajrayana

Buddhism includes a “small path” in which we take vows of renunciation so as to become liberated. Monks and nuns are the classic example of this. Then there is the “great path”, the Mahayana, which emphasises compassion for all sentient beings and stresses the wish to become enlightened in order to liberate them. The vajrayana is the path of the tantras. When practised properly, the vajrayana turns the here and now into a sacred Buddha-field. Sounds great, eh? Don’t forget to read the small print.

  • Lama

Lama, or guru. A teacher, but in a heavy-duty sense.

The lama can be the person who is your main connection to the teachings, or can be the main holder of the teachings of a school – the Karmapa, for example. The lama can also express the power of enlightenment that gives life to the teachings and the practice. In the latter case lama might take the form of Guru Rinpoche, or perhaps the form of Dorje Chang (Vajradhara), who was the form that the Buddha took to teach the tantras.

This does matter, because devotion to the lama is a very significant part of Tibetan Buddhist practice. If we only have an understanding of the first sense, we can end up licking our lama’s boots, taking his every idle whim as a command and trying to emulate his political views, tastes in music and turns of phrase.

Dorje Chang
Dorje Chang, one way the lama can be visualised
  • Stupa

Stupas! Things like this:

Stupas at Namo Buddha
Stupas at Namo Buddha
  • Empowerment

Also called “initiation”. The word has three particularly important meanings:

1) A ceremony in which a lama transmits the authority to perform the practices associated with a particular deity.
2) Part of a meditation practice in which a visualised deity transfers the blessing of its body, speech and mind.
3) “The four empowerments”, which are four stages of experience that unfold in the course of tantric practice.

Dorje and bell
Dorje and bell

So that was about a dozen. Don’t forget that these, and a few more terms*, are described more fully (and with more pictures!) in a PDF which you can download here.

*Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Three refuges, Karma, Shiné, Mantra, Mandala, Mala, Sutra, Tantra, Three yanas, Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Lama, Stupa, Sadhana, Empowerment, Vajra, dorje

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