In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mārga (Path)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Modern Buddhist Interpretations of the Path
  • Anthropological and Personal Approaches
  • Buddhist Path in Comparison
  • Path and Philosophy

Buddhism Mārga (Path)
Pierre-Julien Harter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0242


The concept of the path or the way (mārga) is without a doubt one of the most important Buddhist concepts, and beyond Buddhism, of many Asian traditions. The Sanskrit word seems to play on the metaphor of the hunt: mārga comes from the verbal root mr̥g, to seek or to chase. Hence mr̥ga is what is being chased, that is, the game, and the mārga is what is used for the chase, namely, the track which the hunter follows to catch the game. Mārga, in Sanskrit and in Indic Buddhist literature in general, is not just “a way of doing something”; it is a path one takes to get to the object of one’s desire. As such, it embraces the notions of destination, of departure, of travel, and of seeker. The concept thus offers a “totalizing” aspect. When the concept arrives in China and gets translated as the dao, it starts to oscillate between two meanings, path and way: the dao is not just an instrument to get to awakening (bodhi), it might be the way the Buddha is and acts, which means that it is not something to practice for an external goal; the path becomes the goal. All these meanings still point at the totalizing nature of the Buddhist path. But if we come back to fundamental Buddhist principles, the path represents in some sense only one aspect of the Buddhist doctrine: it is, after all, just one of the four nobles’ truths (āryasatya), the last one, which indicates the method through which suffering can be discarded. But in another sense, the idea of the path encompasses the whole of Buddhist teaching and practice: it designates the process of transformation that leads a practitioner from an ordinary state (pr̥thagjana) to the state of perfect buddhahood, or of lesser goals such as arhat or bodhisattva. From this perspective, the first three nobles’ truths are all included in the fourth, since the method of discarding suffering entails an understanding of suffering, of its cause, and of the possibility of its cessation. However, Buddhist writers also dedicated some of their texts to the specific topic of the path, and did so in many different ways. A broad distinction can be proposed between an overall consideration of the path (or macro-perspective), which considers the path in its totality and is often a sequential description of what path a practitioner is supposed to follow to progress toward buddhahood, and a perspective that concentrates on special topics or aspects within the path. This bibliography will limit itself to works that specifically, and preferably explicitly, address the issue of the path. The path is not simply practice, even though it includes practice, just as it includes intellectual investigation, contemplation, realization, and so on. What matters is that these notions are framed within the larger topic of the path, which puts awakening as its end.

General Overviews

There are very few secondary resources that try to engage comprehensively and specifically with the notion of the path, whether from a historical or a conceptual point of view. Buswell and Gimello 1992 is the only volume that was entirely dedicated to bringing a conversation specifically on this topic from a general point of view, as well as by bringing together perspectives from different Buddhist traditions. However, much of its proposed intellectual program remains to be done. One finds few overall presentations, such as De La Vallée Poussin 1927, Gethin 1998, Chu 2003, and Williams 2008 even though they are always influenced by one tradition in particular. Since, however, the multiple Buddhist traditions have emerged from South Asia, accounts of the path drawn from the Indic tradition can serve as general introductions to this notion. Dayal 1932 can serve as a quick reference thesaurus for technical terms and is quite exhaustive when it comes to the technical lexicon of the path in Sanskrit Buddhism.

  • Buswell, Robert E., and Robert M. Gimello, eds. Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought. Studies in East Asian Buddhism 7. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1992.

    This is the only volume to date that specifically focuses on the notion of the path in different Buddhist traditions. The introduction gives an overview and synthesizes the notion. The essays developed micro-studies on specific conceptions of the path in many Buddhist traditions.

  • Chu, William. “Path.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert Buswell, 635–640. New York: Macmillan, 2003.

    An excellent summary of many religious and philosophical aspects of the concept of the path. A great starting point to dismiss the superficial understanding of the path as a merely descriptive notion. The analysis is more conceptual than historical, and draws more from Pāli Buddhism.

  • Gethin, Rupert. “The Buddhist Path: The Way of Calm and Insight.” In The Foundations of Buddhism. By Rupert Gethin, 163–201. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Chapter 7 attempts to give a comprehensive outlook on the path from Pāli Buddhism to Mahāyāna Buddhism.

  • De La Vallée Poussin, Louis. “Esquisse du Chemin du Nirvāṇa.” In La Morale Bouddhique. By Louis De La Vallée Poussin, 93–117. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie Nationale, 1927.

    The account, drawn from Pāli and Sanskrit sources, connects together many important basic themes such as concentration, the concern for truth, the mystical nature of prajñā, moral training, the three wisdoms, and so on.

  • Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1932.

    A very useful guide to the bodhisattva path in Sanskrit. The glossary at the end makes it easy to navigate in the book. The book can be used as a reference work for technical terms of the Mahāyāna and to some extent the Theravāda paths.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

    See Chapter 9 (pp. 187–208) which, despite being focused on Mahāyāna ideas about the path, lays out the theoretical frameworks that brought about questions regarding the path in late Indian and in Tibetan Buddhism (especially as they crystallized at the Samyé—bsam yas—debate), together with summaries regarding bodhicitta and stages of the path (among them the ten grounds or bhūmis). It is an excellent descriptive and theoretical summary of the notion from the late Indian and Tibetan point of view.

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