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On the term sammaa

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  • Piya Tan
    Evelyn & friends, This is my response to Evelyn s question on the Pali term sammaa: In many English translations of Buddhist texts the word is rendered as
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 26, 2001
      Evelyn & friends,

      This is my response to Evelyn's question on the Pali term sammaa:

      In many English translations of Buddhist texts the word is rendered as
      “perfect”. So sammaa-sambuddha becomes “the Perfect Self-enlightened One”;
      sammaa-di.t.thi is “Perfect View” or “Perfect Understanding” or “Perfect
      Vision”, and so on. A simpler and more common rendition is “right”, as in
      “Right View” etc.

      I think the Pali sammaa is cognate with Latin summa, from which we get such
      words as “summit”, “consummate” (con + summa). The Greeks and Romans have
      an interesting notion of “summa” which derives from “sum”, meaning
      “total”. In their calculations, they had the habit of doing it upwards
      (where do it downwards!). So the final total is the “sum” – the top, the
      summit, the highest thing.

      Incidentally, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Pali all belong to the same
      language family (Indo-Aryan). So we can see some interesting parallels here.

      Let’s analyse the term sammaa-sambuddha, “the perfect self-enlightened
      one”. He is so called because Buddhahood is the ultimate level of human
      evolution, that is to say, the pinnacle of spiritual evolution itself. If
      the meaning of life is to evolve, to grow, then the consummation of this
      growth is Buddhahood. The Buddha is the one who has experienced the most
      of life (through his many lives), and knows whatever is needed to know
      (liberating knowledge) through his Buddha vision. As such, he is

      The Noble Eightfold Path comprises the eight “perfect” limbs: Perfect
      Vision, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect
      Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, Perfect Concentration (D
      2:312, M 1:61, 3:251, Vbh 235). This is the Path of the Saints
      (Stream-winner upwards). For the worldling (puthujjana) I think sammaa is
      better translated as “right”, as “perfect” sounds a little exaggerated here.

      So the Pali term sammaa (like many Pali terms) are polysemic (having
      multiple meanings). They are “pregnant” terms, filled with different shades
      of meanings. Where one word is used in Pali, we may need different words
      in English, depending on the context.

      For the Saints, their Eight Path is “perfect” because of their attainments,
      that is, spirituality which guarantees their ever-shorter journey towards
      enlightenment. For the worldling, the Eightfold Path reflects a spiritual
      attempt to become better people in imitation of the Buddha and his Saints
      (ariyaa-saavakaa). The fulfillment of the Right Path leads to entry into
      the Perfect Path.

      For other questions and answers, do visit my website: www.dharma.per.sg :)

      Piya Tan.
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