Right and Perfect Paths

- Tan Chade Meng

I would humbly suggest that the word "Right" in "Right Livelihood", "Right Speech", etc, was the result of a mistranslation. The Pali word used is "Samma", as in "Samma Ajiva" for "Right Livelihood". The proper translation of the word "Samma" should be "Perfect". For example, "Samma Sambuddha" for "Perfectly Enlightened One".

The Noble Eightfold Path should, therefore, be Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, Perfect Concentration and Perfect Understanding.

The implications of the proper translation is pretty enormous. "Right" suggests that there is a correct and wrong way to do something. It encourages the practitioner to judge themselves and others on what is "wrong". The word "Perfect", however, puts aside the issue of correct and wrong, and emphasizes instead on the idea of perfection.

I suggest that this difference in attitude is very important to a meditator. Firstly, it encourages tolerance and understanding. With this attitude, what we see practiced by others is no longer "wrong", but simply "imperfect" (ie, can be improved upon). The Buddha described his own Dharma as "The Elephant's footprint", which all other teachings are subsets of. He did not say that they were "wrong", he only said that they're incomplete and that their coverage is insufficient. I suggest this tolerance and understand is one of the cornerstones of living Buddhism.

Secondly, this change in attitude puts many of our own problems in proper perspective. In his discourses, the Buddha seldom refered to Greed, Hatred and Ignorance as "wrong". He preferred to use the words "unwholesome" and, very interestingly, "unskillful". To me, this change in attitude was important.

When I saw Greed etc was "wrong", I saw myself as this evil horrible person whose only hope in life was to "destory" his own evilness. But when I began to see Greed etc as "unskillful", I understand that I do what I do because I'm imperfect, uncultivated, & unskillful with my own mind. What I should do now is not to "destroy my evil", but to perfect myself as a human being. To work towards perfection of my thoughts, my speech, my actions, my livelihood etc. Quite simply, I found it easier to accept myself as I am, and in doing so, I put myself in a better position to change, cultivate and perfect myself.

I think this "Right/Perfect" issue is so important in living Buddhism that if and when I have the proper resources, I would consider organizing an international effort to correct the translation. I feel that would save a lot of beginners plenty of unnecessary struggle with themselves.