Ideas of perfection

Hi Venerables and Dhamma Friends,

Lately I’ve been thinking about perfectionism and seeing how I have a conditioned belief that I’m practicing to be perfect. I started to question where this comes from. Obviously this is part of our Western/modern conditioning, but how does it appear in the way we read the EBTs?

Looking at the suttas in Pali and various English translations. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhante @Sujato Mourice Walshe and the Amaravati English chanting which we chant regularly they all say that the Buddha is perfectly enlightened and perfect in conduct and understanding. Looking at he Pali it seems to be words that more closely render to ‘fully’ or ‘completely’ such as in ‘iti pi so…’ or the traditional Thai homage ‘arahaṁ …’ such as sammāsambuddho. In other places paripūrati is used to describe when a monastic is perfect in an aspect of training. This seems closer to perfect but could also be ‘fully’ or ‘completely’.

I’m curious as to why perfect, perfected and perfectly appear so much. I’m not trying to dismiss the training or awesomeness of the Buddha in anyway whatsoever. It jut occurred to me that arahants do make mistakes and have their own personality quirks. We see this is the suttas and in tales of the great teachers since.

I’m interested to hear people thoughts and understanding on these translations. Especially those of you who have done the translating :wink:



I think ‘perfect’ (as opposed to the slightly less ‘absolute’ meaning of ‘perfected’) is diametrically opposed to the idea of dukkha! The Buddha is imperfect for some, because he left his family to seek enlightenment, for himself and others!

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Once you get read one by one, progressively from the the biggest to the smallest, cravings, aversions/ill-wills, delusions, then you have eliminated the fetters of sensual desires and ill-will and eventually reached the perfection of a worthy one (arahat). This state of so-called perfection does not prevent you to make mistakes as the Buddha often did: e.g. giving the wrong teachings to a group of monks who later kill themselves or ask someone to kill them; changing again and again the vinaya rules, etc. The aim is not to be perfect from a wordling point of view but to end all cravings.

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Thanks so much for the Q, Venerable. I thoroughly relate to what I understand you to be interested in here. Curiously, for me, much as I absolutely recognize the linguistic tension pertaining to a horribly brutal, widely lived problem, I find myself quite at ease with respect to this particular word in this particular context.

I think “perfect” can have a lot of ‘semantic breadth’ and as abstract (and in turn quite likely, unhelpful and imperfect a response) as it may be, I sort of think of it in terms of trembling… the inner trembling. Here I conceive of “perfect” as completely still, or even, or untrembling, even further “fundamentally unable to be pulled into a state of trembling”. It is so beautiful and quiet it is one “perfect” I just don’t feel intimidated by.

Yours randomly,


I’ve at the moment one very tangential contribution. I’ve found the text only in german and do not know whether the author has also an english translation.
The work is about some patterns in speech, correlates with (at least, if not causes) restrictions in thinking and mind’s constructs. Specifically he discusses the observation, that some speakers/thinkers/old philosophy is based on static constructs (“it is or it is not”, already in old greece) and another route of speaking/thinking/philosophing based on “processes” , the “becoming” (“archetypical” dichotomy for european thinking between Parmenides and Heraklit). He assigns the latter route to the buddhist thinking. The mental concept of some term like “perfection” would be sign of the “it is or is not”-thinking, and consequences for the general approach to the world are likely to follow. He even discusses consequences for the grammar of a language and its favored structure of thinking as a framework for the evolving mind of human being.

You see, I’m just trying to scribble things together, I’ve never really systematically delved into this although there is possibly something of great value in it.
Here is the link to his (Andreas Goppold) homepage, and first chapter “shunyata” and below a short excerpt from the table-of-contents to provide some of the keywords which are surely recognizable also for the english reader and possibly give an idea whether it may be interesting at all. As I said: I’d like to see this in english as well, but don’t know whether an english translation exists. And also: your question rings some big bell in me, but I’ve not yet much to contribute…

1. Einleitung

2. Die Wendezeit der Weltkulturen

2.1. Das gesellschaftliche Umfeld zur Zeit des Buddha
2.1.1. Die erste Eroberung Indiens durch die Arier
2.1.2. Die Entstehung des indischen Kastensystems
2.1.3. Die brahmanische Opferreligion der Arier
2.1.4. Buddhismus und der Kulturkampf der arischen und drawidischen Systeme
2.2. Der Pfeil, der nie geflogen ist

3. Nagarjuna formuliert die Madhyamika-Lehre
4. Sein oder Werden, das ist hier die Frage

4.1. Das Seiende als sprachliche Kategorie
4.2. Die Ontologie als Epiphänomen der Sprachstruktur
4.2.1. Das Seiende als Sprachmagie
4.2.2. Heraklit verliert gegen Parmenides
4.3. Die Logik des Werdens
4.4. Wenn das Wörtchen “Werden” nicht wär
4.5. Das Nirvana als Verlassen des Werdens-Prozesses
4.6. Die Sprachstrukturen des Seienden
4.7. Die Shunyata als quasi-formaler Operator


Goppold’s thesis seems connected with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In fact, Goppold mentions it in paragraph 4.6. But the idea that language shapes thought has been criticized, e.g. in chapter 3 of The Language Instinct.

And supposedly there is a scientific basis for these assumptions: the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity, stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers. People who remember little else from their college education can rattle off the factoids: the languages that carve the spectrum into color words at different places, the fundamentally different Hopi concept of time, the dozens of Eskimo words for snow. The implication is heavy: the foundational categories of reality are not “in” the world but are imposed by one’s culture (and hence can be challenged, perhaps accounting for the perennial appeal of the hypothesis to undergraduate sensibilities).

But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.


Robbie - thanks for your comment. Unfortunately at the moment I cannot take any stance and am just beginning to reread a bit into this - that kind of thoughts is just much interesting for me. Similarly vague I remember the criticism that you mention: I’ll have food to chew on for the next days :slight_smile:


I’d want to see a whole heap of evidence before I could accept this. Back in the ‘olden days’ when I studied Psychology and linguistics, it was certainly accepted that the formation of language and the formation of conceptual thought were inter-related. Indeed in my own experience of being raised bilingual, and then learning another language as an adult (while being immersed in it in another country - living it - ie not learning it through a mode of translation) gave me clear examples where conceptual differences in things were identifiable across language groups - at a much more fundamental level than cultural beliefs (culturally conditioned belief systems). Indeed it could be seen that the language was ‘conditioning’ thought.

Apologies Venerable Pasanna, for running off to a tangent on your thread :anjal:


This is also an experience of mine, only perhaps I’d expressed it in less precise terms. For me, when I’ve started my visits in Kenya and have been forced to talk and think in english (instead of in german) I observed how my style of speaking changed (shorter sentences, somehow more “action-orientated” instead of “static descriptives” or so-to-say, I’ve never put this in serious terms), and after I started to even dream in english language also my thinking and part of my approach-to-the-(current)-world adapted.
That is also the bell, which rang when the OP asks for a possible role of a term like “perfect” or “perfected” and the implications of when such terms are used at core expressions insteead for example “completed” or so.

That personal experience with the new language was also why I have been somehow excited when I came (accidentally) across the text of Goppold and also across the philosophical/psychological concept of “constructivism” and such. (As I’ve said in my previous comment: I’ll have to put this in more serious consideration before I can say something with more substance about it)


Same for me. I found an overview of the field at Oxford Bibliographies, though part of the content is paywalled. I was surprised to learn that—despite its contested past—linguistic relativism is an active research area and seems to be doing fine.


When it comes to the epithets like sammāsambuddho, it’s probably because it sounds more praising or superlative, which is the voice I would assume the original text would use.

In Chinese translation the “sam” was often rendered as “equal,” but I translate it as complete, perfect, or full, depending on the passage. The English adjective “perfect” can mean “nothing lacking” and so has the same meaning as complete, but I do understand your point. It’s a secondary meaning that not all modern readers will understand clearly.

Translators are between a rock and a hard place when they translate ancient religious texts, especially if there’s already a body of translations that their readers know. They have to consider what their readers expect or understand, what they as translators think the source text really means, and whether or not the target language can even express it exactly. Many words lack good equivalents, or they require different English words in different usages. On top of all of that, translators have to deal with the static that happens when they break with established conventions. Being that these are religious texts, readers often will obsess over the exact word choices and become very attached to one reading or another. The difference between “perfect” and “complete” isn’t really that great until we’re talking about religious figures.



Thank you everyone for your thoughts.
If my German extended further than ‘family Christmas German’ Nessie’s links would be great! I too am interested in how language shapes us. I grew up in a multilingual environment for a few years and almost everyone at the monastery speaks at least 2 languages fluently and I feel it does shape people’s outlook. So I’m happy for the divergent discussion.

I’ve been tossing this whole perfection thing over in terms of the Buddha,and can see both points of view. Since starting to learn Pali well enough to read suttas it’s allowed me to investigate meanings further. For that reason I can recommend some Pali study!



My understanding is that apart from using the same approach as would be used for a theistic religion which Buddha’s teachings isn’t, we need to find other reasons why someone at the time he was alive, and afterwards, might wish to see him in that way - has he done anything for you, worth remembering. The movement to render the Buddha of the triple gem into ‘enlightenment’ or ‘wisdom’ misses the point, of what it is that was forgotten about him as a person. What character traits can you elicit from his life story and how has it impacted you as a person? How do you feel about him and his life story?


Yes, I think a translator should whenever possible try to understand the author he is translating in the same way an interpreter does for a speaker. With these anonymous ancient texts, that’s obviously problematic. The author is actually an entire lineage of oral tradition speakers combined, and they aren’t available for interviews. We can get a sense of how they were speaking and why through internal commentary. It’s about the best we can do without going to later commentaries, which are really later opinions.


Yes, but can we get to what they were feeling…

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By which I mean emotions stirred by insight exclusive to the dhamma. Stream entry and the faculty of faith for example…