Namaskaraya – What does it Really Mean?

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa”

This is normally translated to English as,

“I pay homage to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the fully Enlightened One”

1. Most Pāli verses have two (or more) meanings: one is the conventional (“padaparama”) meaning, and the other is the deeper meaning that helps understand the deeper idea behind the verse. Unfortunately, most times it is the conventional idea that that is brought out when translating even whole suttā.

  • In the case of suttā, a sutta that was delivered over an hour (sometimes many hours, like the Dhamma chakka pavattana sutta) is normally translated word-to-word in a few pages. As I explained in the post, “Preservation of the Dhamma”, most existing sutta translations are incomplete at best, and erroneous most of the time.
  • Even the conventional meaning can be useful in some cases, like in namaskaraya, Tisarana, and the five precepts. For those who do not have a deeper understanding, the deeper meanings may not serve the purpose of bringing “joy to the heart” or “citta pasäda” (pronounced “chittha pasäda“); for a deeper discussion on citta pasäda, see, “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power“.
  • Thus for those who are new to the deeper meanings in Dhamma, the conventional interpretations may be a good start. As knowledge in Dhamma grows, the second interpretation becomes clear without losing the first, i.e., reverence to the person himself can also only grow as one learns how valuable his Dhamma is.

2. What we have here is a short phrase that can be correctly translated in a short essay. Let us see what is really meant by this verse.

  • Namo” means incline as in accepting something with this reverence because of its value; “tassa” means “to this”. This is why we bend our heads to signify this.
  • bhaga” is to separate and “vata” is the usually translated as body, but it has more wider meaning to anything in this world. The Buddha, in trying to show that uselessness of clinging to one’s body, advised to separate the body into 32 parts and see that there is nothing substantial in any of the parts. Even though we highly value our bodies, it will decay with old age, and will eventually give us only sicknesses and ailments. And it will last only about 100 years.
  • In the wider sense, anything in this world can be divided into parts and be shown that there is nothing substantial in them.
  • Once we see that it is unfruitful to cling our bodies (and anythings in general), we lose the craving (“raha” in Pāli or Sinhala) and become “arahant”(from “a” + “raha”). The word Arahant also comes from this meaning, i.e., someone who has given up craving for worldly things, by comprehending the true nature.
  • As we saw in the post, “What is “San?” – the Meaning of Sansara”, “san” means accumulating worldly things. “ma” means become free of doing that. Thus “samma” (san+ma) means “stop accumulating worldly stuff that will only cause suffering in the end”.
  • The accumulation of worldly things lead to preparation of future births or “bhava”. Sambuddhassa (san+bhu+uddassa) means “remove from the root the causes for preparing bhava via accumulating san”, i.e., become free of the rebirth process or to work towards Nibbāna.

3. Now we can see the whole verse:

“By analyzing my body and other worldly things with wisdom, I have come to understand the unfruitfulness of clinging to such things, and I incline to rout out the rebirth process (i.e., existence in the 31 realms) and attain Nibbāna”.

  • Here incline means one keeps “bent on attaining that goal”. With deeper understanding of Dhamma one’s resolve will be strengthened. As with most things in Buddha Dhamma, it is always about one’s mind.
  • The resolve has to come through understanding. There is no one watching, and no one else monitoring the progress; it is one’s own mind that is doing all that.

4. Finally, the word namaskaraya (nama+as+käraya, where “nama” is one’s name, “as” pronounced like “us” means remove, and “käraya” means doing) conveys the idea that one is making a resolve to get rid of the attachment one has for one’s worldly things. It is a condensed version of the verse.

  • Of course the conventional meaning of “namaskaraya” is “paying homage”.
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