A Glossary of Misunderstood Buddhist Terms

Buddhism is a vast, sprawling heterogeneous and internally inconsistent tradition dying and flowering over and over in various times and places over around 2500 years.  Anyone who tells you its “core” teachings or practices is ignorant or lying.  This is okay; as long as you know it is so.

I am not making any such claim here.  These are some notes on a few aspects of Buddhist terminology and its translations.  Many important and beautiful flowerings of Buddhist doctrine are absent.  These wordings and explanations are based on my own understanding; they are not especially controversial, but differ, in places, from the mainstream.  I offer them in humility to those who may be interested.

Buddha himself probably did not exist.  The teachings attributed to him are at least 2500 years old.  It is said that after spending seven days and nights meditating under a tree, he saw the Morning Star and exclaimed, “I along with all other beings am completely awakened forever!”  The word बुद्ध, buddha, means “one who has waked up” in Sanskrit.

This “awakening” is often thought of as something mystical, but it is probably not.  What he waked up to are the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Facts, and the Eight-Lane Path.

The Three Marks of Existence are three things that are true of all existence without exception.  They are:

  • Selflessness; nothing, anywhere, has a self separate from everything else.
  • Impermanence; nothing, anywhere, is unchanging or unending.
  • Unsatisfactoriness; this basically means that we would like our world to be made of discrete, unchanging entities (and indeed speak of it as if it were), but as just noted it is not like that, and so we are doomed to dissatisfaction.  Based on this observation, classic Buddhism follows a chain of logic summarized in the Four Facts.

The Four (Common) Facts

In Buddhist writings, these are referred to as “noble” facts.  The word “noble” is a translation of the Sanskrit अार्य, ārya.  Originally an endonym for pastoralists of the Iranian plateau, this became a term for a race and class elite in ancient India, and was later made famous by elitist psychopaths in Twentieth Century Germany.  “Noble” is a correct translation, but I don’t like the word, or the concept, and these facts seem universal to me, so I think of them as common facts, or just facts.  They are:

First, that everything is unsatisfactory.  This is the same observation made above.  The word here in Sanskrit is दुःख, duhkha, which simply means “sorrow”; “suffering” is the English word normally used to translate.  I think “unsatisfactory” is a little less dramatic and accords better with our feelings.  People are very reasonably put off by being told that “everything is suffering” when, in fact, there is lots of stuff in life besides suffering, some of it quite wonderful.  But the point is, that as long as we expect the world to be made of discrete, unchanging entities, and ourselves to be like that also, we will not be satisfied; there will be, for us, a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction underlying our lives, and our pleasures will turn to ashes in our mouths, and we will die in fear and loneliness.

Second, that the cause of unsatisfactoriness is grasping.  Grasping to what we like, which, because of its and our impermanence and changeability, is going to be taken from us, and trying to avoid what we don’t like, which, for the same reasons, we are not going to be able to avoid.

Third, that the cure for unsatisfactoriness is unclenching.  The Sanskrit word here is निर्वाण, nīrvāṇa, a word which is understood and translated many ways; the word itself means “to blow out” or “without breath.”  It was used in Sanskrit literature around Buddha’s time to mean “death.”  It is often left untranslated, and imagined to have some mystical or ecstatic meaning; sometimes it is translated as “enlightenment,” which is no help at all; sometimes it is translated as “extinguishment.”  Other than the careful description in the Fourth Fact, which most people ignore, Buddha’s recorded teachings do not define this word.  For me, “extinguishment” is the least bad rendering; but because it implies an event that takes place in time, rather than a process that continually deepens, I find it misleading.  I take to word to mean “blowing out” in the sense of heaving a big sigh, rather than blowing out like a lamp; and personally I think “unclenching” is the most helpful word in English.

Fourth, that the cause of unclenching is the Eight-Lane Path.

These four facts conform to Indian medical diagnosis of the time.  Given a symptom (unsatisfactoriness), look for a cause (grasping); then look for a way to end the cause, and thus the symptom (unclenching), and finally look for a medicine to produce this cure.

The Eight-Lane (Common) Path

Again, the word used in Buddhist scripture is अार्य, arya, and again I demur.  The “eight lanes” are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  The exact list is given differently in different teachings of the time, and for our purposes is unimportant.  What is important is that the cause of unclenching, the medicine which effects that cure, is simultaneously undertaken in all aspects of one’s being, inner and outer; that it is a whole lifestyle, which continues and deepens forever.

What is this lifestyle, though?  The word “right,” above, is an accurate translation of the Sanskrit सम्यक्, samyak, which means “correct” or “complete.”  This is rather vague.  Helpfully, Buddha is said to have clarified his meaning; “right,” in the above categories, means leading to “wholesome” (कुशल, kuśala) states, and leading away from “unwholesome” ones.  At first, the distinction “wholesome/unwholesome” may give us pause; but here a happy accident of etymology intervenes.  The English word “wholesome” is actually quite suggestive.  If we consider “wholesome” states to be those that benefit the whole, or take it into account, and “unwholesome” states as those which don’t, we may be getting somewhere.  “Wholesome” actions, thoughts, and words would then be those that acknowledge non-separation; that are on behalf of the whole.  My advice would be to try practicing this, with the other aspects of life Buddha awakened to in mind, and see what happens.  It probably can’t hurt.

A vulgar misunderstanding of Buddhist teaching identifies this “unclenching,” nīrvāṇa, with the end of desire and aversion, with “freedom from passion.”  This is not at all what is meant.  Desire, aversion, and passion do not go anywhere, ever.  To unclench, sometimes called “being unattached,” is, quite the contrary, to be able to experience desire and aversion and their attendant happiness and sorrow more and more deeply and completely; it is to cease resisting passion.  From the clenched perspective, whenever desire is felt, it is experienced as unpleasant, as a state that must be ended as soon as possible, by the attainment of the desired object.  Aversion is experienced the same way, as an unpleasant feeling that must be ended by avoiding the undesired.  Unclenched, desire and aversion are not problems to be solved, but ecstasies to be explored.  It is seen clearly that desire will never end; that desired objects never live up to expectations; that once one desire is satisfied another (sometimes opposite) one arises.  The more you unclench around this understanding, the less of a problem it is for you.  Desire and aversion, joy and sorrow, laughter and weeping blossom in your expanded, compassionate awareness, and you have no need to resist your life and its passions.

This misunderstanding is probably a result of translation issues and infection by moral teachings alien to the spirit of Buddhism; however it is remarkably widespread.

The Bodhisattva Vow

After Buddhism had existed as an independent tradition for many centuries, a new movement arose within it.  This movement was more oriented to practice in the world, rather than demanding monastic separation from it.  It called itself महायान, nīrvāṇa, or the “large vehicle,” as opposed to the older tradition which it called हीनयान, hīnayāna or “small vehicle.”  These two terms are often translated “greater vehicle” and “lesser vehicle,” but this comparative sectarianism is alien to their origin; the original sense is of a small vehicle in which only a few can fit and a larger one which seats a multitude.  The Mahāyāna gave rise to an extensive body of mythological and philosophical innovations; unifying them all was the idea that the path of unclenching is undertaken, not to benefit one person, but for the benefit of all.

This is expressed with astonishing succinctness in the Bodhisattva Vow:  I vow not to attain unclenching until all other sentient beings attain it with me.  We can rephrase this as:  I vow not to let go of grasping until all other beings have let go of grasping too.

The analogy of “reaching the further shore” is often used for unclenching in early Buddhism, and the बोधिसत्त्व, Bodhisattva (or “awakening being”) is imagined as one who, having figured out how to get to the further shore, remains on this shore, the realm of suffering and delusion, ushering others across, and does not herself taste the joy of unclenching until she is the very last one to do so.  An interesting logical extrapolation of this image is that, if everyone took this vow, no one would ever cross over to the further shore; and indeed, if everyone behaved with such selflessness and compassion, this world of suffering and delusion might, in a certain sense, be transformed into a kind of earthly paradise; indeed may already be.


The concept of शुन्य, śunya, “emptiness,” plays an important role in Mahayana philosophy, which has led to innumerable misunderstandings.  The implication, in European philosophy, is that if things are “empty” they are also “meaningless” or “pointless”; and Buddhism has thus been imagined to be a kind of Nihilism.  Although the word śunya  literally means just “empty” or “hollow,” some Buddhist teachers prefer to render it with a word like “boundless.”  Myself, I think “empty” is pretty good,  I think here is a reason Buddhism proceeds by negation, not affirmation; and I think it pays off in the long run.  “Emptiness” does require a little explanation though.

For the Mahāyāna, “empty” means “empty of own-being,” which, in turn, means “lacking any separate existence independent of the rest of the universe.”  Objects are seen as empty of own-being in several ways.  The pen in my hand, for instance, has no existence separate from plastic or ink, from the machines that formed it, from the petroleum that made the plastic and ore of which those machines were made; nor has existence separate from the fingers that hold it, the paper it glides over, the air that surrounds it; nor has existence separate from my perceiving it.  The same kind of analysis can be performed on every other object I encounter, and even myself.

This is the sense in which Mahāyāna Buddhism declares everything to be empty.  It must be admitted, a peculiarly ecstatic kind of emptiness.  Yet emptiness is what it is.  Empty, like a bowl is empty; something we had imagined was there is seen, in fact, not to be.

Mind Only and the Middle Way

Two important philosophical schools of the Large Vehicle were called योगाचार, Yogācāra, and माध्यमक, Madhyamaka Yogācāra or “yoga practice” was concerned with careful analysis of the generation of the experience of self and objects from an undifferentiated field of awareness and its storehouse of impressions.  Because of this, it was known in India as the “Mind Only” (चित्तमत्र, cittamatra) School; and European philosophers duly regarded it as a kind of Idealism, or solipsism:  the view that there is no objective reality, but only mental phenomena.   This is a misunderstanding.  The “mind” that Yogācāra writers said was all that exists is not a subject, does not belong to a person; it is, you could say, (ontologically) “prior” to the division into subject and object.  Thus it is prior to the distinction between Idealism and Realism.  This can be a little hard to grasp in normal states of consciousness, but it’s a good bit of conceptual apparatus to have on board when you’re tripping your ass off, or have fallen in love, for example.

Madhyamaka in Sanskrit means “midmost.”  Its teachings are also very complicated, but an important concept for us is that of the “Middle Way.”  This has nothing to do with moderation!  The Middle Way is a path that navigates “Two Truths”  the ultimate truth, that all is empty of own-being, and the conditional truth, that self and others exist.  For Madhyamaka thinkers, one who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow must never rest either in truth or delusion, nor need be obstructed by either, but courses freely from one to the other as the situation warrants, finding truth in delusion and delusion in truth, forever.  A useful phrase to keep in mind here is:  “Not One, Not Two.”  Self and objects are nonseparate, nor are they the same.

Again, these understandings, translations, wordings arise out of 30 years of study and meditation and will probably be different in another 30 years; they are not definitive.  Your mileage may vary.  They may help clarify a few aspects of Buddhist thought, or, perhaps, obscure them in a beneficial way.  Try them out and see how they affect practice.