16 Buddhist words whose meaning and origin you may not know

How many Buddhist words do you know? Words like karma and nirvana have become commonplace in our language, though at times their usage deviates from the original meaning. Some terms are recognized by individuals who incorporate elements of Buddhist culture and practices into their lives. In this article, our goal is to give you a brief collection of Buddhist words–some relatively obscure–each carrying profound significance.


Some interesting facts about Buddhism


Buddhism is both a religion and philosophical doctrine, with a substantial following in Western society. During the 19th century, European explorers were captivated by its principles and wrote about its tenets. Moreover, Japanese migration to the United States beginning in 1850 also contributed to spreading its understanding.


Nevertheless, the most extensive and swift expansion of Buddhism took place during the 1960s. During that time, the Dalai Lama, accompanied by other monks and refugees, departed from Tibet and found refuge in Western countries, where they established centers for teaching. The essence of the philosophy resonated with many people who identified parallels between its ideals and the values of the time.


Have you ever wondered what language Buddha spoke? He used Magadhi, a Prakrit language derived from Sanskrit, which was spoken in ancient India. Magadhi was the language of his native region, Magadha.


For over 400 years after Buddha’s passing, his teachings were conveyed orally before being transcribed into Pali, another of the Prakrit languages, by Sri Lankan monks. The result is what is known as the Pali Canon–the oldest collection of Buddhist texts.


Buddhism finds its roots in the beliefs of the Vedic religions and in the pathways to enlightenment outlined by Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha(the awakened one). These pathways involve deep contemplation of life, meditation and letting go of attachments to pleasures and desires.


16 Buddhist words and their meanings


Now that we have set the context, here is our brief glossary of Buddhist words and their meanings:

  1. Agama. Originating from Sanskrit, it means source of doctrine. It refers to the compilation of Sutras.

  2. Ananda. Meaning joy, supreme happiness. It was the name of Siddhartha Gautama’s first cousin, who was one of his main disciples.

  3. Arya. Translated as noble in Sanskrit. In Buddhism, it denotes one who perceives reality as it is.

  4. Bodhisattva. Awakened one. This appellation is granted to compassionate individuals with altruistic hearts who delay their journey to nirvana–a well-known Buddhist term–to remain in this world and help others.

  5. Chitta. It can be interpreted as mind or spirit. In Buddhist teachings, it refers to mindfulness.

  6. Deva. Signifies heavenly, divine, excellence. It is used to name specific deities of Hinduism and constitutes one of Saṃsāra’s six realms of existence.

  7. Dharma. Rooted in Sanskrit, it conveys to bear, to uphold. It signifies reality and existing phenomena. Another connotation is Buddha's teachings harmonizing with cosmic law.

  8. Dhyana. A Sanskrit term meaning concentration. It corresponds to the Japanese term zen.

  9. Dukha. Suffering. A fundamental concept in Buddhist philosophy, underpinning the Four Noble Truths.

  10. Karma. A term of Sanskrit origin that translates to action, transcendent energy, stemming from individuals’ thoughts, words and deeds.

  11. Koan. It means edict. It represents a master’s teaching that presents a life paradox to a disciple, resolvable only through intuition.

  12. Manas. Derived from Sanskrit, it signifies mind. It refers to the mental faculty that renders individuals intelligent and moral beings.

  13. Mu. Conveys nothing, negation, though not in a pessimistic sense, rather as an absence of response.

  14. Nirvana. It literally means extinction. In Buddhism, it denotes complete liberation from the cycle of rebirth, a state transcending thought, language and nothingness.

  15. Saṃsāra. The cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Stemming from the Sanskrit saṃsāri, it evokes flowing together, traversing distinct states, wandering. In Buddhism, it signifies suffering and the material world subject to karma.

  16. Sutra. Each written text expounding teachings on paths to enlightenment. It means tread, string.

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