On the term sammaa
- 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.
Lets 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.
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