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.

Medicine Buddhas

These teachers of the sacred medical tantras are considered very holy. They are usually depicted sitting in Dhyanasana  wearing monastic robes, no ornaments, but they bear the urna and the usnisa. There are two groups of medicine Buddhas, totalling 17 in all.




The discipline of meditation  leads to state of super-consciousness. It is the focusing of the mind (for the attainment of spiritual insight) on a chosen subject, be it a complex object like an internal abstract or an external object such as a flower or an image.




The result of "good karma" which is acquired through virtuous actions, both mental and physical.



Middle Way , The

Described by the Buddha  in his first sermon that the noble eightfold path is the middle way between all extremes, that leads to Nirvana .



Milarepa  (T)

"The Cotton Garbed". (1038-1122 AD). The great poet-saint of Tibet . He was also a magician and a powerful influence on the Buddhism  of his time. He was a founder of the Kargyut-pas . He is shown as holding his right ear as if listening to his many songs and poems that he composed.




A nomadic people  from the Steppes of Central Asia . During the 13th and 14th centuries they founded a great empire in Northern Asia . During this and later periods they repeatedly sacked the monasteries  of Tibet . The 16th century Lamaism , was adopted by the Mongol people. Mongol are members of the Gelug-pa sect. The Chinese  Emperor Kublai Khan (1259-1294 AD) a Mongol and a Buddhist, built many monasteries in Asia during his reign.



Monlam Chenmo  (T)

"The Great Prayer Festival". A celebration initiated by Tsong-khapa to remember Buddha 's victory over his sceptical contemporaries.




See Nakula .



Mudra  (Sk)

Ritualized symbolic pose of the hand or hands.



Myrobalan  (Sk)

A prune-like oval shaped fruit symbol of manla.




Naga  (Sk)

"A Serpent ". In Tibet  a snake with an ambivalent divine power. A symbol of the Dharmapala . In India  it is protective and an initiate of wisdom, and in China  it is a guardian dragon.




Nakula  (Sk)

Mongoose . Symbol of Jambhala  and Kubera . Often shown vomiting a string of precious stones.




Namaskara-mudra  (Sk)

"Homage" A posture of worship. The hands are at chest level in the usual devotional way, with the palm and the fingers touching. Symbol of Avalokitesvara , when having more than two arms.





Birth place of Buddha  at Lumbini  in 563 BC. Buddhism  entered Nepal via the Emperor Asoka  (270-230 BC) and became a great centre of Buddhist literature and art. Its paintings  and sculptures  are much superior to many of its Tibetan  influences, due to the superb natural craftsmanship  of the Nepalese artists corrupted by the mythologies of the Hindu  tantras Buddhism was replaced and eventually became the second religion  in Nepal .



Nirvana  (Sk)

"The State Beyond Despair". The end of earthly desire  and the complete release from rebirth . This is the ultimate ambitions of Buddhists. Nirvana is enlightenment .




See Pasa.



Norbu  (T)

See Ratna .



Nyingma-pas  (T)

Red Hat sect of 'The Vajrayanas' founded by Padmasambhava  in the 8th century. It is the oldest of the schools of Tibetan  Buddhism .




Ornaments can be divided into two sections; the Bodhissatva  ornaments which are princely, bejewelled and mild and the Dharmapala  ornaments which are fierce and often terrifying, consisting of skull-faced crowns, snakes, etc. It is possible, however, to find pacific and angry ornamentation in both categories. See Tibet  Buddhist Art  section.



Padma  (Sk)

"Lotus  Flower". A symbol of, among others, Padmapani , Avalokitesvara , and Manjusri .




Padmapani  (Sk)

"Lotus  Holder". A form of the Bodhissatva  Avalokitesvara . Seated in Lalitasana  on a lotus base or standing, using varada and vitarka-mudras. Symbols are a small figure of Amitabha in crown. He also holds a padma stem and a kalasa. (See Photo 35.)



Padmasambhava  (Sk)

"Lotus  Born" (Guru  Rinpoche (T)). An Indian Buddhist scholar  of the 8th century AD who went to Tibet  in 747 AD at the invitation of the Buddhist king Trisong-Detsen. He is thought of, and worshipped as the father of Lamaism . Many other sources credit him with being the founder of the Nyingma-pas  order, although there is precious little mentioned of this school earlier than the 12th or 13 the centuries. His symbols are, two wives, one on each side (although not in every case), Khatvangha , Patra  and Vajra . He always wears a peaked hat, surmounted by a half Vajra. See Tibet and its History section. (See Photo 36.)



Panchen Lama  (T)

"A Great Scholar". The Panchen Lama only ranks second to the position of Dalai Lama. His temple  is the Tashilumpo at Shigatse , Tibet . He is often called the Tashi-lama because of his association with Tashilumpo. He is believed to be the manifestation of Amitabha, the Buddha  of Infinite Light. The position of Panchen Lama was inaugurated by the "Great Fifth Dalai Lama", during the 17th century. On the death  of the Panchen Lama, the new title-holder is discovered by finding the secret sacred signs in or on the body of a young boy-child.




Atapatra . A symbol.




Parasu  (Sk)

Axe. Tantric symbol of the Dharmapala .




Pasa  (Sk)

A noose. A symbol.




Patra  (Sk)

Begging bowl. A symbol.





A support for Amitabha and Sarasvati .



Phurba  (T)

A ritual dagger which symbolises the energy of the deity Vajrakila , "The Dagger of Indestructible Reality". The Phurba is wedge-shaped and the blade is triple sided. The hilt is surmounted by a head or three heads of the horse-headed deity, Hayagriva ; between this and the blade is a vajra or a half vajra. The Phurba was made of either wood  or metal: in the latter case the hilt is of bronze  and the blade of iron. In rare cases meteoric metal was remelted and forged as blades for the Phurba. The Phurba might be the size of a small (and even tiny!) hand dagger or two metres in height and set in a based socket. Its function was to hold in subjugation, the noxious and evil demons  which were summoned up in the course of the tantric  ritual. (See Photo 3.) The author was told by the late Abbot of the Jokhang, that when a tree was identified as having been struck by lightening, monks rushed to retrieve the remaining wood for the making of Phurbas, believing them to be now spiritually charged with supernatural energies.




Potala , The

The 17th century palace in Lhasa , a residence of the Dalai Lama . See illustration and read Tibet  and its History section.



Prajna  (Sk)

"Transcendental Wisdom".



Prajnaparamita  (Sk)

One of the feminine Bodhissatvas .



Pratyalidhasana  (Sk)

Standing posture. Steps to right, right leg bends at knee while left leg is straight.



Prayer Wheel

A indispensable item to every Tibetan  worshipper. It is a cylinder on a stem, the cylinder is hollow and contains a prayer -scroll on which is printed the sacred "Aum Mani  Padme Hum " many times. The cylinder revolves when twirled, and thus with each turn more merit is earned. These objects come in all shapes and sizes, from the table-top design to the giant wall-held barrels in monasteries , to the ubiquitous hand-held prayer wheel as mentioned above that has an attached weight on a chain, that helps to propel it on its axis. (See Photo 2)



Pustaka  (Sk)

Book. A symbol.




Radong  (T)

'Trumpet'. Made of hammered copper , often telescopic and bound with rings of brass. Used to announce services, etc.



Rajalilasana  (Sk)

'Royal Repose'. A seated posture in which the right knee is raised, left leg is in dhyanasana and the right arm hands down over the right knee. Avalokitesvara  and Manjusri .



Ratna  (Sk)

Jewel. See Cintamani .




Ratnapani  (Sk)

"Jewel Bearer". One of the five Dhyanibodhissatvas .



Ratnasambhava  (Sk)

"Cherished Birth". One of the five Dhyani Buddhas.



Red Hats

See Nyingma-pas .



Rolang  (T)

A living corpse, a zombie.




See Mala .



Sadaksari  (Sk)

A form of Avalokitesvara . There is a peaceful form and a tantric  form often in yab-yum with his sakti.



Sakti  (Sk)

"Energy". Female energy of a god, also his subordinate power. See Yab-yum.



Sakya  (Sk)

The name of the tribe to which the Buddha  belonged.



Sakyamuni  (Sk)

"All Righteous". The Buddha .



Samadhi  (Sk)

A state of mind that transcends reality and is usually a prelude to enlightenment .



Samvara  (Sk)

A protective deity one of the yi-dam. (See Photo 48.)



Sangha  (Sk)

"An Assembly". The Buddhist order of monks , believed to be the oldest order of monks  in history.



Sankha  (Sk)

See Conch .




Sanmudras  (Sk)

See apron. (See Photo 11.)





The classic standard language of ancient India .



Sara  (Sk)

An arrow. Symbol of among other, Avalokitesvara .




Sarasvati  (Sk)

"Harmonious Voice". One of the feminine Bodhissatvas .



Sariputra  (Sk)

See Disciples .




See Conch .





See Naga.



Shambala  (Sk)

Dejung (T)"Place of Peace". A mythical kingdom. See Tibet  and its History Section.




A Buddhist country in the Himalayas  where Tibetan  Buddhism  is practised, and where the artistic endeavour of the people  are quite remarkable for their taste and delicacy. The people of Sikkim are called Lepchas.



Simha  (Sk)

Lion .



Simhanada  (Sk)

A medicine Buddha .



Simhasana  (Sk)

"Lion  Throne". Support of a god.



Simhavaktra   Sk )

A lion-headed dakini. (See Photo 57.)



Singing Bowl

A so-called musical instrument. (See Photo 18.)



Sitabramha  (Sk)

"White Brama". One of the Dharmapala .




See Kapala . (See Photo 16.)




See Damaru .




See Naga.



Sridevi  (Sk)

Also Lhamo  (T) "The Wondrous Goddess". One of the Dharmapala , the only feminine member. There are several forms of this deity. The most after seen is sitting sideways on a small horse or mule. She has base pendulous dried up breasts and wears Dharmapala ornaments. Very fierce expression with grotesque fangs and rides on a sea of blood and bones of the wicked.




Tibetan  King (630-698 AD). A great patron and benefactor of Buddhism . His two wives were from Nepal  and China , and both converted him to Buddhism. See Tara  and read Tibet  and its History section.




Sacred finial.




Stupa  (Sk)

"Burial Mound". See Caitya .(See Photo 1.)



Surya  (Sk)

Sun. Symbol.




Sutra  (Sk)

A Buddhist teaching.



Swastika  (Sk)

"Revolving Cross". The personal symbol of Buddha . Its meaning is vague and is open to many concepts and interpretations. Aside from being a good luck symbol in China  and Japan  it is supposed to represent the constant rotation of centre to periphery. The correct form is (sign). However, in Bon  Tantricism the form is reversed to (sign) and is used in black magic . The swastika seems to be a universal symbol that crops up in cultures as far away as some American Indian tribes.





See Khadga.



Symbolic hand postures

See Mudra.