A Linguistic and Etymological Clarification of the “Noble Eightfold Path”

The Noble Eightfold Path (ariyo atthangiko maggo) is the conventional English translation of the Fourth Noble Truth (ariyyasaccani) of the Buddha, which exposes the spiritual praxis by which the Third Noble Truth, i.e., the cessation of existential suffering (dukkha), articulated in the first three noble truths, is realized. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight “limbs” (anga) and is conventionally translated as:

  1. Right View (samma ditthi)
  2. Right Intention (samma sankappa)
  3. Right Speech (samma vaca)
  4. Right Action (samma kammanta)
  5. Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
  6. Right Effort (samma vayama)
  7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
  8. Right Concentration (samma samadhi)

Later in His career, the Buddha reformulated the Noble Eightfold Path in terms of three primary attainments: Wisdom (panna), Morality (sila), and Meditation (samadhi). Dr. Peter Masefield has severely criticized the conventional translation of ariya as “noble,” but in fact almost every word of the conventional English translation is inadequate and misleading, both intrinsically and in terms of their connotations in English. The conventional English translations are too broad, too general, and too vague to express what is in fact the eight critical constituents of the Buddhist praxis. In particular, the translations do not express the sequential nature of the path, a point made emphatically by Dr. Masefield in his Ph.D. thesis and subsequent publication, Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon. Thus, the impression that is left on the English reader is that this is a set of injunctions, not dissimilar from the injunctions of ethical and belief-based religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, rather than a yoga. This vagueness has been taken up by religious Buddhists, both Western and Asian, so that the Noble Eightfold Path becomes little more than a belief system and an ethical system culminating in the vague notion of “meditation,” which in popular thinking connotes little more than relaxation therapy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consequently, many Westerners practice “meditation” based on little more than an intellectual assent to a system of doctrines and the following of basic ethical rules as not killing, not stealing, chastity, not lying, and not drinking or taking drugs. As I have shown elsewhere, the Buddha Himself disparaged both religion (Brahmanism) and ordinary ethics, which He designated as “elementary matters of mere morality.” This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of the word samma, which does not mean “right” or even “righteous,” but rather connotes “completeness” and even “perfection.” Similarly, the word ariya does not primarily mean “noble,” with the English racialist and aristrocratic connotations, but rather “high,” “ideal,” “pure,” “perfect,” and “sublime.” Even these words do not properly connote the meaning of the word “ariyan” which refers specifically to the ancient Indian or Vedic way of the rishis that the Buddha sought to restore to its primordial purity. Thus, it also connotes “spiritual” as distinct from “religious” (in the bad or superficial sense, i.e., a system of mere observances), except that the connotation of the English word “spiritual” is too weak. “Exalted” is better.

The following translation is my attempt to find an English version of the Noble Eightfold Path based on these and additional considerations based on a profound re-examination of the literal and etymolological meaning of the Pali, for which I have relied heavily on the Pali-English Dictionary of the Pali Text Society, rooted in the primary understanding of the path as a system of yoga based on a univeralist understanding of spiritual aspiration and experience.

The Fourth Sublime Fact

The Sublime Eight-Part Method

Gnosis (Wisdom)

Perfect Understanding

Perfect Intention

Self-Discipline

Perfect Speaking

Perfect Acting

Perfect Living

Mental Concentration

Perfect Striving

Perfect Realization

Perfect Transcendence

When one looks at the Sublime Eight-Part Method in this way, the structure of the way as a reflection of the anatomy of the person becomes self-evident. Thus, the first two parts correspond to the faculty of thinking, the following three parts correspond to speaking and action, thus completing the triad of thought, word, and deed. The concluding, supermundane parts correspond to will, consciousness, and transcendent or transdual consciousness respectively. Students of anatta (the doctrine of “no-self”) may also be disconcerted to discover that sati also means “self-possession,” “self-consciousness,” i.e., the sentience of sentience in itself, as distinct from the sentience of phenomena.

The most disconcerting element of this exegesis, which also forms a critical aspect of Dr. Masefield’s analysis, is that the first part of this method does not refer merely to intellectual or philosophical belief, but rather to the perfection of the salvific knowledge of dharma – a detail that is almost entirely neglected in the West, and thus (according to this interpretation) vitiating or at best diminishing the nearly exclusive Western emphasis on meditation.  The anti-intellectual prejudice is so ingrained in certain circles of Western Buddhism that anyone who actually thinks about the teachings is disparaged as a mere academic and non-practitioner. I actually received an email stating as much from a representative of Aro Buddhism, for whose founder I have the utmost esteem. This merely mirrors the Western prejudice against philosophical speculation and the widespread ignorance that characterizes North American society in particular. Certain religionists would also have it that ethics or morality constitute the basis of the method, followed by meditation, with wisdom as the culmination of the path. This interpretation is precisely opposite to the exposition of the Buddha Himself.

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