Buddhist Vocabulary To Know


Recently, I visited the Rissho Kosei Kai temple again this Sunday.  Last week, I came during a special service, so this time around, I wanted to see what a regular service looked like.  The service this week was split into an English service and a Japanese service, and the English service had a few people there.  Two of the people were pretty new to Buddhism, so after we recited the Lotus Sutra, there was a general discussion, and it was interesting to see the kinds of questions people asked like “what is a Buddha?” and so on.

So, I wanted to compile a lot of basic “vocabulary” for people who are new to Buddhism.


  • A Buddha – A Buddha is a being who has achieved full enlightenment.  In the process, he has completely lost all ego, and also any selfish desire.  He is perfectly content and peaceful.  A Buddha appears only very rarely, and usually only when the Dharma (see below) is totally forgotten.  So, when the Dharma is forgotten, a Buddha appears and “sets the wheel in motion” again.
  • A Tathagata – This is just another word for a Buddha. If you study Sanskrit and such, yes, there is a slight difference, but for practical purposes: A Tathagata == A Buddha.
  • The Dharma – The Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha.  But is also means “the way things are”.  Like the laws of Physics, it helps to explain how things work and why.  Whether you believe it or not is up to the individual.  But it still works the same.  So, the Buddha is one who “articulates” or “explains” the Dharma, but he didn’t invent it.
  • The Sangha – The Sangha is the Buddhist community.  In the narrow sense, it can mean a particular temple, monastery, etc.  It can also mean the Buddhist community as a whole.  The idea is that the Sangha is support one another on the Buddhist path.
  • A Bodhisattva – A Bodhisattva is a person who wants to become fully enlightened, wants to become a Buddha (see above).  A Bodhisattva is both a great teacher and a being of great compassion toward others.  The path of a Bodhisattva can be very, very long and take many lifetimes, but if they accomplish they’re goal, they reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.  Some Bodhisattvas are legendary, and are popular sources of devotion and inspiration like Kannon (Guan-yin), Jizo, and Maitreya.  Some Bodhisattvas are more down to earth and might be people you know.  😉
  • Karma – Karma is a frequently misunderstood term. In the Buddha’s own words: Intention, I tell you, is kamma (karma). Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect. Intention, thoughts and action are like seeds scattered in the ground. Under the right conditions, those seeds grow and come to fruition and create further constraints and conditions later for a person. So in a mundane sense, the Buddha encourages people to avoid making negative karma, but in a higher sense, stop creating karma altogether so one can untangle themselves from the mess they’ve created. (Thanks to reader “Han” for the reminder about this one 🙂 )
  • Samadhi – Samadhi means a state of supreme concentration.  The idea is that if one follows certain Buddhist practices and practices them enough (months, years, etc), they will reach a profound, deep state of concentration that allows them to perceive the truth in a way that’s very difficult in mundane life.  Not everyone accomplishes samadhi, nor do they have to.  It’s one avenune along the Buddhist path.
  • Sutra – A sutra is the most fundamental Buddhist text.  Unlike Western religions, there is no single text.  Instead, the Buddha’s teachings and conversations were committed to memory and then written down later.  Some sutras came after the Buddha and try to “encapsulate” the Buddha’s teachings into a single narrative.  Either way, they are the fundamental source we have for what the Buddha taught, and how to follow the path ourselves.
  • Kalpa – A kalpa is a very, very long period of time.  Buddhism “thinks big” with regard to time and space, so a kalpa is one way of expressing this.  There is no set, mathematical measurement, but think of a kalpa as long an “eon” or a really long, long period of time.
  • Koti – A koti is a really big number in ancient Indian culture.  You might see something in Buddhist sutras (see above) like “kotis of kalpas” just means “tons of eons”, or a really, really, really long period of time.

I’ll update this list as I come up with more topics.  🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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