Better known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Or simply, the Eightfold Path

  • Sanskrit:  आर्य  अष्टाङ्ग  मार्ग arya ashtanga marga 
  • Pali: ariya  atthangika  magga
  • Chinese: 八正道 or 八支聖道 or 八聖道

I am always curious about the etymology and translation of  Buddhist terms.  Often, this can give us some insight into the intended meaning.  Personally, I find some of the standardized translations a bit misleading, as the nuance and cultural idiom can be slightly off.  In the case of ‘the Noble Eightfold Path,’ the translation process appears to be fairly straightforward, with only a few glitches in wording

Arya /ariya / 正 or 聖

In Buddhism, आर्य {arya} is primarily an adjective meaning noble; possessed of outstanding, admirable, and meritorious qualities. It can also be a masculine proper noun for a person who possesses meritorious qualities.  As you may know, the history of its use is a bit controversial.  It is derived from the self designated national identity of early speakers of the Indo-Iranian languages. However, in Buddhism,  a noble one is a person who does noble deeds. It is not a birthright, except in the broadest possible inclusive sense.

The original source of the word is lost to history. Most likely, it consists of a verbal root something like ‘ar’ plus the noun suffix -aya / -ya.  If I understand correctly,  the latter is a cognate of -ia, -ity, and -y.  It can indicate “person,  land, quality, or state of.’  The ‘ar’ verbal root probably meant to do some kind of skillful  deed.   So arya could mean ‘skillful one’ or ‘the condition of being skillful’.  Something like that.

The most commonly used Chinese translations appear to be 正 {pinyin zheng /  sino-japanese sho}  and  聖 (sheng / Sho) .  Of these,  正  means right,  correct, just, or true; and is a translation of samyak.  聖 (or 圣) is a more literal translation of arya; it is  closer in meaning to noble.  It means holy, saintly, or sacred. 

I see a couple problems with using the English word noble.  For one, it makes me think of “The Nobility” or the elite and privileged classes. The other thing is, I am surprised how often I see it written as ‘Nobel.’   A conflation or a typo?  Nobel is, of course, the surname of the Swedish Chemist who, via his last will and testament,  established and endowed the Nobel Prize(s).  Meanwhile, ‘Holy Eightfold Path’ as an alternative translation probably sounds a bit too religious for the average person.  We might be better served to just drop this adjective, for general purposes.

Ashtanga / atthangika / 八支

अष्टाङ्ग {ashtanga} is a compound word consisting of ashta and anga. अष्ट {ashta} simply means eight.  अङ्ग {anga} is both a neuter noun and an adjective. Literally, it seems to mean limb(ed)  or body part.  It appears that it can also mean member, component, constituent, branch,  supplementary part, or sub-division; as well the any adjective forms of those nouns.  The Chinese is 八支 , often shortened to 八 (ba/hachi).  The  八 is simply eight.  支 {zhe / shi} means branch or to branch off.  The English translation almost always renders ashtanga as ‘eightfold ‘ rather than ‘eight limbed’ or ‘eight branched.’ 

Marga/Marga / 道

मार्ग  {marga/magga} is a masculine noun meaning a trail, track, (traveled) road, passage,  (beaten) path, course, or way. It is derived from an ancient word for the tracks of wild game. Here, it is used figuratively to mean a way of life or of conducting oneself; which is the same idiom as often seen in English —   off the beaten path / wayward path / cross paths / the straight and narrow path. 

The Chinese is 道 {tao or dao/ do}. Yes, it is that Dao, as in Daoism.  It has many of the same meanings, literally and figuratively, and more, as the Sanskrit marga and English word oath. 

In English, when eightfold is paired with path,  the image formed tends to lead one toward a conflation of the eight limbs with steps,  implying a step by step process.  For example, the eight limbs or branches are often referred to as the eight steps of the path . ‘Limbs’ works better as an image,  because limbs are constituent parts of one whole. On the other hand, ‘eight-limbed path’ creates a kind of odd, mixed metaphor. The “Trail with Eight Branches?” That kind of implies forks in the road that might lead one astray. I guess we are stuck with the Eightfold Path as the best translation.

Perhaps we should just keep in mind that the steps are not a sequence, but rather interdependent aspects that work in concert; like rooms of a house or sections of an orchestra? We can also, if we wish,  think of it as a truly holy path and a way to restore the innate nobility we share with all beings and all of being itself.