The Key Tibetan and Sanskrit Terms for Tibetan Buddhist Art A Glossary



Where possible the major words or terms will be identified by (T) for Tibetan and (Sk) for Sanskrit. Any idiosyncrasies in the spellings are entirely the personal responsibility of the author. As some of the words are so difficult to read and pronounce, he has opted for the most straightforward version.

Click on term to hear how it is pronounced (requires .wav player).

Abhaya  (Sk)

Gesture of protection






The process in which good action produces happiness and vice versa.



Acala  (Sk)

Acala-Vajrapani , is a member of the dharmapala. (See Photos 45, 46.)



Adi-Buddha (Sk)

"The Primordial Buddha" The unsubstantiated source of the cosmic mind.



Ahimsa  (Sk)

Compassion for all life forms.



Ajanta  (Sk)

Rock caves in the Deccan , India , with fabulous Buddhist sculptures . 2nd century B.C. - 7th century A.D.



Akshobya  (Sk)

One of the Dhyani Buddhas.



Amitayus (Sk)

"Buddha  of Infinite Life". One of the five Dhyani Buddhas; in fact, another form of Amitabha. Seated in Dhyanasana  or standing. Holds a kalasa in Dhyani-mudra. Never with Sakti .



Amoghapasa  (Sk)

A tantric  form of Avalokitesvara . (See Photos 32, 33.)



Amoghasiddhi (Sk)

"Unfailing Power". One of the Dhyani Buddhas. (See Photo 26.)



Amulets  (Sk)

Gahu . Amulet boxes are usually made of bronze  or copper  and are inscribed with religious diagrams. The boxes can contain seeds, bits of cloth, votive clay  plaques, images of the deity who the owner believes protect them and folded prayers and sometimes even a tatty photograph of the present Dalai Lama . Amulet boxes are worn about the neck, waist or hang from the saddle of a horse or yak. (See Photo 9.)



Ananda  (Sk)

Main disciple of Buddha . The word loosely translates also into the phrase "spiritual ecstasy".



Anjali-mudra  (Sk)

A greeting posture. Both arms are stretched upwards and both palms are also turned upwards with all fingers extended.




Ankusa  (Sk)

Elephant goad . Tantric symbol.





Sanmudras . Human bone  apron. (See Photo 11.)



Apsara  (Sk)

A female nature spirit or fairy.



Ardhaparyankasana  (Sk)

Dancing posture. Standing on one foot.



Arhat  (Sk)

A Bodhissatva .




See Sara



Arya  (Sk)

A superior being.



Aryan  (Sk)

Noble, as in worthy.



Asana  (Sk)

Position of lower limbs.




A self mortification and renunciation of all worldly pleasure for the ultimate reward of total pleasure and release from suffering . The Buddha  rejected asceticism as useless and selfish.




Great Buddhist emperor of India  (270-230 BC)




A red flower with small jagged leaves.




Asvaghosa (Sk)

The 5th century AD scholar and teacher, revered by many as the true founder of Mahayanist Buddhism.



Atapatra  (Sk)

Parasol. A symbol.




Atisa  (Sk)

A deified Hindu  priest, AD 982-1054, who became a Buddhist and founded the Kadam-pa sect .



Atman  (Sk)

The soul.



Aum Mani Padme Hum  (T)

"Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus ." A most holy invocation repeated to prevent rebirth .



Avalokitesvara  (Sk)

See also Chenresi . Also called Padmapani . A Bodhissatva  who cares for the people  on earth. He has 108 forms!



Avatar  (Sk)

An incarnation.



Bardo  Thodol (T)

A tantric  work describing the process of how a dying person passes through the realms of death  and rebirth . See section on wheel of life.



Beg-tse  (T)

Brother-sister. One of the Dharmapala .




See Ghanta .



Bhadrasana  (Sk)

A both legs pendant posture.



Bhairava  (Sk)

Also known as Yamantaka  one of the Dharmapala  (See Photos 55, 56.)



Bhaisajyaguru  (Sk)

Manla  (T) "Supreme Doctor". See Medicine Buddhas .



Bhikshu  (Sk)

Monk who has dedicated himself to the path of rigid observance of the Buddhist religion .



Bhumisparsa-mudra  (Sk)

The earth-touching position in which the Buddha  calls the earth to witness his sacrifices to achieve Nirvana .




Bhutadamara  (Sk)

Gesture of awe. Inspiring.




Bodhi  (Sk)




Bodhissatva  (Sk)

Buddha  of the future. Those who work for the good of mankind, refusing voluntarily to enter Nirvana .



Bon  (T)

The pre-Buddhist religion  of Tibet .



Book cover

Carved in wood , highly decorative. Used to contain sacred texts. (See Photo 14.)




See Capa.




"The Enlightened One" Siddharta  Gotauma . The seventh century BC prince who renounced his position to become an ascetic and a teacher, founding the Buddhist philosophy . (See Photo 24.)



Buddha -gaya (Sk)

The place where Buddha attained Nirvana . The actual spot is marked by a Bo-tree, still there, but protected from the devoted. Bihar , India .



Buddhasramana  (Sk)

Gesture of salutation.





One who accepts the teachings of Buddha  as his religion .



Caitya  (Sk)

Stupa  (Sk) Chorten  (T) A shrine reliquary. The most venerated Buddhist artifact. Reputed to contain the mortal remains of the Buddha . Most often contains the ashes of a great Lama  or Abbot. The shape of a stupa is often described philosophically as representing from bottom to top (A) the earth, (B) steps of attainment, (C) water, for transformation, (D) fire, of endeavour, (E) breath , (F) moon, for spirit and light. The practice of anthill worship in Indian prehistoric times has been suggested as a possible beginning to the history of the stupa and its worship.





Class distinctions of Aryan  and non Aryan existed during Buddhas life. No class distinctions occur in the monastery .



Cakra  (Sk)

Buddhist wheel. Perfection and completeness. Eight spokes.




Camara  (Sk)

The tail of a horse or yak used as a fly whisk. A tantric  symbol.




Campa  (Sk)

A white flower.




Candra  (Sk)





Capa  (Sk)

Bow  (as in arrow).





Mostly paper , either to be eaten as a cure against disease, or worn as a protection against evil spirits or forces. See Amulet, Gahu .



Chenresi  (T)

See Avalokitesvara .



Chien Lung  (1736-1796)

Chinese  Buddhist emperor. A great patron of the arts. He gifted his mother the empress a huge collection of bronze  images, constituting a Lamaist pantheon.



Child Buddha

Siddharta  Gotauma  as a baby. Sometimes depicted in Chinese  sculpture, but rarely in Tibetan  art.



Chopen  (T)

A five pointed crown worn in ceremonies.




(T) See Caitya .



Churi  (Sk)

A curved dagger. A tantric  symbol.




Cintamani  (Sk)

Sacred jewel.





Colours, like symbols, tend to identify the family group to which the particular item belongs. The problems of regional differences in Tibet  which cause such deviations in use of colour are too complex to allow explanation in the space this booklet allows. Let it be said that each deity possesses its own special colour when invoked for a particular purpose. The paint usually red (fierce) or blue (pacific) is often visible on bronze  images even after the passing of centuries, as it gets trapped in the grooves and engraving about the hair, behind the crown and adorning the usnisa. There are many variations to these colours.




A sacred seashell used as a trumpet. See Sankha .




Ritual items of brass or bell-metal used in the music of ritual. See Dingsha .



Dakini  (Sk)

Lower ranking goddesses  who assist in Tantric rites, often seen dancing and holding sacred symbol. There are many dakinis, but the 'Group of Five' which correspond to the 'Five Buddhas of Space', East, West, North, South and the historical Buddha  as the Zenith, are the most well known. (See Photo 58.)



Dalai-Lama  (T)

Precious Protector. Spiritual and temporal monarch of Tibet  and also head of the Gelugpa sect . See Tibet and its history. (See Photo 38.)



Damaru  (Sk)

A drum made of two skulls, one male and one female, fitted, sometimes with human-skin. A tantric  symbol.  (See Photo 10.)




Danda  (Sk)

A staff with a vajra or skeleton top. A tantric  symbol.




Deva  (Sk)

An angel, both good and bad.



Dharma  (Sk)

Buddhist law. Although the Buddha  left no written record of his teachings - his disciples are believed to have committed them to memory and transmitted them orally from generation to generation.



Dharma -cakra-mudra (Sk)

"Spinning the Wheel of the Law." A teaching posture in which the right hand is held at the breast, with the united tips of the index finger and thumb touching one of the fingers on the left hand.




Dharmapala  (Sk)

"Defenders of the Buddhist Law." Also known as the 'Eight Terrible Ones', they are often shown in ferocious aspect. They are Beg-tse , Hayagriva , Kubera , Mahakala , Sitabramha , Sridevi , Yama  and Yamantaka .



Dhyanasana  (Sk)

A posture of meditation . The legs are locked in full-lotus position, with the soles of the feet upwards and visible.



Dhyanibodhissatvas  (Sk)

Meditative future Buddhas. These are the five creators of the universe. Avalokitesvara , Samantabhadra, Vajrapani , Ratnapani  and Visvapani . There is a further group of eight more.



Dhyanibuddhas  (Sk)

Meditative Buddhas. These are the five spiritual sons of the 'Primordial Buddha .' They are: Vairocana , Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava , Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi .



Dhvaja  (Sk)

Victory banner.




Dhyani-mudra  (Sk)

A posture of meditation . The hand lie in the lap, right over left with fingers extended and palms upwards. Also called Samadhi  (Sk).




Dingsha  (T)

Small cymbals on a chain used in exorcism ritual.



Dipankara  (Sk)

'Enlightened One'. In an earlier word cycle he was the historical Buddha 's teacher.




The two most popular disciples of Buddha  depicted in paintings  and accompanying sculptures  are: Maudgalyayana  and Sariputra. They are usually shown on each side of Buddha and wear the robes of a monk.



Dorje  (T)

See Vajra . (See Photo 7.)



Drilbu  (T)

Ghanta . A bell of bronze  with a vajra handle used in most rituals . See Ghanta.



Dzogchen  (T)

'The Great Perfection' A Nyingma-pa  tradition in which the stabilisation of awareness is taught via the tantric  practice in which the generation and completion stages are effortlessly present.



Eight Precious Emblems

Found engraved, written or cast on many ritual items, they are: the endless knot, wheel of life, lotus, standard, vase, two fish (tail to tail) and (mouth to mouth), white parasol and conch shell.



Elephant goad

See Ankusa .




Usually supports or mounts for deities .



Endless Knot

Ancient Chinese  symbol of longevity.