Ariyo vs. ariya

In future, can you please provide links and references if you want an answer? Also, when the site is somewhat busy, I don’t necessarily read every post, so use @sujato if you want to catch me!

I’m not aware of the phrase ariyo maggo, certainly it is not common. The normal phrase is ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo. In this case, it’s a little too long to compound the words together nicely, so they are separated, and declined in agreement. It doesn’t affect the meaning; it’s just stylistic. Ariyaṭṭhaṅgikamaggo would be equivalent, if it occurred.

No. Wikipedia articles on Buddhism are unreliable, and Williams is not a good scholar, best ignore him.

The Pali makes a clear distinction between contexts where ariya is used. It is used as both a substantive (“noble one(s)”) and an adjective (“noble”).

In cases like ariyasacca or ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo it is declined in agreement with the term it qualifies, and thus should be translated as “noble truth”, etc.

In other contexts, such as the very common ariyassa vinaye (misquoted in Wikipedia), ariya is declined in the genitive; the phrase should be translated “in the training of the noble”. Here, the singular can be read as referring to the noble (ones) as a group. But more likely, since it is the Buddha’s training, it refers to the Buddha specifically, thus “in the training of the noble one”. However, either interpretation is grammatically sound.

This is a very common idiom. We can confidently conclude that if the Buddha wanted to say ariyassa aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo (the eightfold path of the noble), he would have.

In the jhana formula, ariyā is a nominative plural, i.e. the subjects of the verb, and is translated “the noble ones declare …”.

Remember, the lifeblood of academics is publication. And you don’t get published by saying, “previous scholars were right”. You have to make some new contribution, or at least make it sound as if you do. So, unfortunately, most cases where Buddhist scholars make claims about new or corrected interpretations are just a waste of time.

In its typical style, Wikipedia says:

An alternate rendering of ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo is “eightfold path of the noble ones”,[5][14][15]

It sounds nice and neutral, and it has three solid references to back it up, so it seems authoritative. Unfortunately, one of these is a text on Japanese Buddhism, one is on Tibetan Buddhism, the other is an encyclopedia article. Although I don’t have access to the sources, it seems safe to assume that none of them are actually based on a knowledge of the Pali, which is, of course, the language of the term under consideration.

In any case, the grammar of the phrase does not support this translation. It certainly is an “alternate” rendering. It’s also an incorrect one.


I will use references and @s bhante…

There is an indirect confirmation of the normal reading as ‘noble truths’ in this paper by Norman:

While he apparently left no stone unturned in the formula(s), he didn’t see any problem in reading “noble truths”

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@sujato for the sake of completeness, in his article “Why Are the Four Noble Truths Called “Noble”?” (which was a follow-up to the the before mentioned article) K.R. Norman elaborates a bit on the matter. He quotes Buddhahosa on ariyasaccani

  • digha commentary: the truths which cause nobleness
  • anguttara commentary: 1.the truths which cause nobleness 2. the truths which are penetrated by the nobles
  • vissuddhimagga (Viss XVI. 20-22): 1. nobles penetrate them 2. truths of the noble Buddha 3. the ennobling truths

He agrees with these possibilities if one interprets the tatpurusa in a genitive or dative way.

Norman concludes that we can’t know the original meaning of ariyasaccani, and that maybe all of them should resonate. In choosing ‘noble truths’ we are “probably choosing the least important of the possible meanings”…

Hey Gabriel, thanks for checking. A couple of points, just to clarify.

First up, the different commentarial readings need not be taken literally, they play around with this kind of thing all the time.

And secondly, while ariyasacca might be construed in a few different ways, in ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, since the terms are declined, we don’t have such ambiguity. This is also the case in many other terms, such as ariyo samādhi, ariyo tuṇhibhāvo, ariyena sīlena, ariyena ñāṇena, ariyāya vimuttiyā, ariye ñāye, and so on. Clearly in doctrinal terms the standard use is for ariya to function as adjective.

So while not disagreeing with Norman, I think his conclusion is a bit weak; it seems to me very likely that “noble truth” is the correct reading, and should be accepted unless a new textual witness proves otherwise.


Thanks Bhante,

of course Buddhagosa is a creative spirit when it comes to etymologies and such, but it makes him fun to read, plus he is mostly ready to present them as possibilities which is very decent…

But okay, I take it as given now that ariya means just ‘noble’ as an adjective. When it comes to the meaning of ‘noble’ I guess we’re getting closer again to Norman & Buddhagosa? It’s not that the truth is ‘noble’ as in having good eating manners or owning land - it either means that it comes from a noble source (the Buddha), or that its value is supreme, or that it ennobles, or all three of them. In your intuition from the texts, how do you take the meaning of ariya sacca or ariyo maggo?

Well, we really just have the contextual meaning. Almost always, of course, it’s associated with awakening in some way, so it is clearly a term of highest praise. Any racial or class-based connotation is entirely absent (so far as I can recall). So sure, “noble” works fine, I guess.

Slightly off topic, but also not worth to have an extra topic…
An article from 2011 explores the genetic diversity in India based on a very large sample, and coming to the conclusion that there was not a major genetic diversification 3.500 years ago as proposed by the ‘Aryan-Invasion-Theory’. Rather a new large genetic influence would have occurred more than 12.500 years ago.

It’s still possible though that ‘the invasion’ was not by a large number of people, but rather a small number with highly developed power-tools, that allowed them to establish themselves as the elite leading high caste.

Or it was not a genetic invasion, but a cultural one, e.g. locals who ventured into the north-west and came back with knowledge about farming, who brought back animals, technology and language. I don’t know how that can make sense for that time, but English for example has also gained prominence in parts of the world disconnected from a genetic spread.