Understanding Samma

There is much discussion about correctly translating/understanding the Pali word samma. In an attempt to better my own understanding of the Dhamma, I’ve tried to understand the original meaning of the word as imagined by the Buddha. Input and corrections are much appreciated!

  • If samma was purely moral/ethical then describing the buddhist path in terms of SILA/samadhi/panna makes little sense. If we follow this interpretation of the path, we are developing morality/ethics with samma-vaca, samma-kammanta, samma-ajiva.

  • In not trying to add to the mess of giving the term a brand new english translation, I propose we do our best to understand the original meaning while using whatever translation best fits the context of the situation.

  • When samma is used to describe the buddha (sammasambuddha) or arhants (sammagata) it denotes someone who can see clearly now that they have fully realized the path.

  • Seeing as the buddha and the noble ones lived/wandered in a very mountinous region and often resided on peaks (Vultures Peak), they must have noticed how clearly one could see things from a summit.

  • Thus, I believe it would be best to see the path in terms of having to climb a mountain in order to eventually see clearly from the summit.

  • Ditthi (view) is usually listed first and I believe this is extremely important. In the example of climbing a mountain, we can only view things from where we are on the mountain and the further we climb up the clearer things become. “Right” view or “wrong” view are only relative to our current situation. Ultimately there is no right or wrong, just actions that will lead us up the hill or back down it.

  • In this context, samma is the summiting of the path and when one has fully incorporated the eightfold path into their life they can see clearly just like the buddha and the noble ones.

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It does make sense when experience is observed to reveal sila gives rise to samadhi as part of a causal sequence:

"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
"For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
"For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
"For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
"For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated.”

Virtue does require an act of will.

—Anguttara nikaya 11.2

From the Buddha’s own pre-awakening experience:

“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with renunciation arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding.”

Majjhima Nikaya 19

This is correct. Views determine perceptions, changing view changes perceptions.

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Pāli ‘sammā’ is derived from Sanskrit ‘samyañc’ and is an adjective meaning complete/entire/total/whole/full/perfect/proper etc.

Do you know of examples from pre-Buddhist sanskrit? It seems to be one of those words that is used very prominently in Buddhism, but is that the case in the Vedas or satapatha for example?

The word appears to be common enough in all stages of Vedic (early, middle, late etc) & EarlyBuddhist-era Sanskrit, such as in the following:

Ṛgveda - Early-vedic
Atharvaveda (Paippalāda rescension) - Early-vedic
Atharvaveda (Śaunaka rescension) - Early-vedic
Maitrāyaṇīsaṃhitā - Early/Middle-vedic
Taittirīyasaṃhitā - Early/Middle-vedic
Vājasaneyisaṃhitā (Mādhyandina) - Early/Middle-vedic
Taittirīyāraṇyaka - Middle-vedic
Jaiminīya-Upaniṣad-Brāhmaṇa - Middle-vedic
Jaiminīyabrāhmaṇa - Middle-vedic
Pañcaviṃśabrāhmaṇa - Middle-vedic
Taittirīyabrāhmaṇa - Middle-vedic
Aitareyabrāhmaṇa - Middle-vedic
Śatapathabrāhmaṇa - Middle/Late-vedic
Baudhāyanagṛhyasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Bhāradvājagṛhyasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Hiraṇyakeśigṛhyasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Kauśikasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Mānavagṛhyasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Vārāhaśrautasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)
Āpastambaśrautasūtra - Late-vedic (Classical Sanskrit)

From the Aitareya-Brāhmaṇa:

  1. samyañco vā ime lokāḥ samyañco 'smā ime lokāḥ śriyai dīdyati
  2. samyaṅ dvipād bhavati tasmāt samyañco bhūtvā
  3. te samyañco vaiśvāmitrāḥ sarve sākaṃ sarātayaḥ

From the Atharvaveda (śaunakīya):

  1. samyañcaṃ tantuṃ pradiśo 'nu sarvā antar gāyatryām amṛtasya
  2. samyañco 'gniṃ saparyatārā nābhim
  3. bradhnaḥ samīcīr uṣasaḥ sam airayan

From the Jaiminīya-Upaniṣad-Brāhmaṇa:

  1. ya u enat samyag veda ye samyañco lokās tāñ
  2. samyaṅ tvam asi
  3. samīco manuṣyān aroṣī ruṣatas

From the Kṛṣṇa-Yajurveda (Maitrāyaṇīya rescension):

  1. samīcīr diśaḥ spṛtāḥ
  2. saṃvasethāṃ svarvidā samīcī urasātmanā

From the Ṛgveda (Śākalya rescension):

  1. samyak sravanti sarito na dhenā antar hṛdā manasā
  2. śukraḥ śuśukvāṁ uṣo na jāraḥ paprā samīcī divo na jyotiḥ
  3. śatanītham ājiṃ yat samyañcā mithunāvabhyajāva
  4. sakhāyaḥ saṃ vaḥ samyañcam iṣaṃ stomaṃ cāgnaye
  5. prati prāśavyāṃ itaḥ samyañcā barhir āśāte