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Key Buddhist Concepts


In Sanskrit samsara means “that which flows together.” It is the rhythm of the universe and of our experience, which is a continuing cycle of birth, life, and death (like a perpetually flickering on and off switch). Samsara encompasses all mental and physical events.

In a more negative sense, as it is used in Buddhist discourse, samsara refers to the wandering of beings who are not (yet) awakened. 


Nirvana is literally “blown out,” referring to an extinguished fire that no longer draws from fuel. The fuel is our desires, fears, anger and hatred (and the ignorance at the root of it) that keep us bound to the wheel of samsara. When the fuel burns up, the fire achieves complete ease and freedom.

The Three Dharma Seals

These are the three characteristics of samsara (life as we know it):

  • No-self
  • Impermanence
  • Unreliability (deep dissatisfaction)


In esoteric Hinduism, the denial of the existence of a self refers to a belief that all individual entities depend upon, and are really manifestations of, the infinite Brahman (Absolute). The deepest practice of Hindu yoga is on differentiating Atman (real Self) from anatta (not self).

Buddhist doctrine has a subtle twist in this idea of no-self in that the phenomena we experience are dependent on each other for their existence, rather than a metaphysical substrate (see “dependent arising”), with some schools of Buddhism advocating a no-self (na-atta) metaphysics.

The Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi
s teachings of vicara (investigation) in which the yogi recites the negation neti, 
neti” (meaning “not this) to all that manifests is actually very similar to Buddhism (see: 

Buddhism does not deny the existence of awareness (indeed, liberation would not be possible without training, utilizing, and refining this resource). However, this is not held onto as an object of self. See Shunyata.

In the context of Buddhist contemplation, there is a recognition that identification (consciously or not) is an active process that limits us. We could even call this process selfing.” This habit is progressively dropped on the Buddhist path, as each skanda (see below) is burdensome when held onto.

important to recognize is that:

  • Self is habit-energy  
  • Being/becoming is a complex pattern of dependent factors.


The typical things we rely on to give us satisfaction are unreliable (or inconsistent in that our satisfaction is impermanent). The Buddha gave six examples of situations we all face that are unavoidable: the trauma of birth, illness/disease, aging, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and dying. In other words, youth, health, and life itself are impermanent, and delusion/confusion, greed, and aversion binds us to a cyclical existence. The good news is that the teachings and practice of Buddha Dharma are reliable. 

It's important to note that the three marks of existence are an applied teaching, not an academic one. It's part of vipassana (insight) - reflecting on your experience by seeing that a conditioned phenomena is inconstant, stressful, and not worthy as claiming as me or mine. Moreover, at the most advanced stages of meditative absorption, this reflection helps the yogi not get stuck and fully release by seeing that even the unconditioned is not a self, it is not an agent that produces or consumes experiences or fabricates reality, that is, a thinker of thoughts, feeler of feelings, or doer of deeds (indeed, the feeling that there is such a being deludes the person from the beginning of the practice). The illusion of a self that thinks, feels, and does is just more instances of thinking, feeling, and doing.


Dependent Arising

This describes the factors of samsara as it relates to us (Buddhist cosmology generally has a psychological tone). One could look at it as the cycle of mental states within our present life – birth to death, year to year, day to day, minute to minute, etc. Or it could be the process of rebirth from life to life for millions of eons. There are twelve links in this chain. I’ll use the Pali terms as they appear in the Tripitaka (the Theravada canon) instead of the more familiar Sanskrit terms:

  • Ignorance (avijja) is a condition for cause/effect, or reactivity (kamma) to arise  – due to intentional actions and their leftover impressions (sankhara) in memory
  • Kamma/sankhara is a condition for self-oriented consciousness (vinnana) to arise
  • Ego is a condition for attachment to body-mind forms (nama-rupa, or “name and form”), identity and personal preference to arise
  • This activates the sense bases (salayatana) or sensory gates
  • Sense bases are a condition for contact (phassa) with objects to arise 
  • Contact is a condition for sensation/feeling (vedana) to arise
  • Sensation/feeling is a condition for craving (tanha) to arise
  • Craving is a condition for clinging (upadana) to arise
  • Clinging is a condition for becoming (bhava) to arise
  • Becoming is a condition for birth (jati) to arise
  • Birth is a condition for aging and death to arise, and on it goes 


The contemplative aspect of the eightfold path involves giving bare attention to the skandas (clinging-compounds) involved in worldly experience. Vipassana (insight) requires that this investigation happen in a depersonalized, detached manner, i.e. that these phenomenon are not considered intrinsic to one’s being.

They are:

  • Physical forms/matter (rupa): the senses and their objects
  • Sensation/feeling (vedana): the feelings that arise from the senses
  • Perception/cognition (sanna): the organization of sensations into recognizable forms
  • Mental formations/fabrications (sankhara): mental habits, thinking, emotions, desires, decisions 
  • Mundane consciousness/discrimination (vinnana): the stream of consciousness that glues the other skandas together

Brahma Viharas

These sublime states of mind, meaning “divine realms,” relate to the second part of the eightfold path, which focuses on intention and emotion.

  • Metta: loving-kindness towards all beings      
  • Karuna: compassion towards those who suffer  
  • Mudita: feeling happiness for others                               
  • Upekkha: calmness, steadiness under stress

Each state has a far-enemy, or a direct opposite, and a near-enemy, or a different quality that’s easily confused with it. The far-enemies are: hatred, cruelty, jealousy, and attachment/aversion. The near-enemies are: possessiveness, sorrow, flattering others, and cold indifference.    

There is one other quality not specifically listed in the Brahma Viharas that Mahayana considers the best one of all. When compassion unites with wisdom (bodhi) we get bodhichitta (awakened mind/heart). As we are all subject to some kind of suffering, and ignorance, we should be humbled by this fact, inspiring us to reach Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

The Ten Paramitas

The paramitas (virtues) are qualities that benefit the practitioner on the path. They are:

  • Generosity  (dana)                                  
  • Persistence (viriya)
  • Patience (khanti)                                
  • Loving-kindness (metta)
  • Level-headedness (upekkha)
  • Determination (addhithana)   
  • Truthfulness (sacca)                          
  • Virtue/ethical conduct (sila)
  • Renunciation (nekkhama)                  
  • Wisdom (panna)

The Five Precepts

This is basics of all Buddhist ethics, whether one is a householder or monastic. These are the foundation of healthy karma, without which the mind cannot be peaceful. They are:

  • To refrain from killing, especially intentional violence
  • To refrain from stealing (taking that which is not given)
  • To refrain from sexual misconduct
  • To refrain from false or abusive words
  • To refrain from intoxicating substances that lead to carelessness

The precepts in depth