Revised August 16, 2019
Aniccā vata sankhārā
Uppāda vaya dhamminō
Te san vūpa samō sukhō
(Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta)
This verse is not in the Dhammapada, but it is a very common verse. In Sri Lanka (and possibly in other Buddhist countries), it is displayed at funerals to emphasize the “fleeting nature” of life. It has a deep meaning and explains why we face sorrow inevitably (because death is inevitable). We generate our future rebirths via our own (abhi)sankhāra! We need to stop creating abhisankhāra (with lōbha, dōsa, mōha) to attain the Nibbānic bliss.
- This verse was uttered by Sakka, the King of the Dēvas, just after the Parinibbāna (passing away) of the Buddha. It is in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 16).
A common translation is:
- All things are impermanent
- They arise and pass away
- Having arisen they come to an end
- Their coming to peace is bliss
Let us examine the correct interpretation of the verse.
1. Anicca is, of course “cannot be maintained to our satisfaction.” It is NOT just impermanence, because even permanent things (relative to our lifetime) cannot be maintained to our satisfaction; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations.”
Vata (pronounced as “vatha”) here means “surely” or “indeed.”
(There are other meanings for “vata“: In the verse, “yam samādānam tam vatam, sanvarattēna seelan,“ or “reciting precepts is a ritual, moral behavior, or sila, is attained by controlling “san’.” Thus, there “vata” means ritual. Another meaning is “action.” One needs to pick the right meaning for the given situation).
We think, speak, and take actions based on our manō, vaci, and kāya sankhāra. They are all thoughts (we cannot even lift a finger without an associated thInking). Those sankhāra lead to viññāna via “sankhara paccayā viññāna” in Paticca Samuppāda. Strong viññāna produced via “abhisankhāra” (or strong sankhāra) lead to future rebirths. But all births end up in death. See, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka.”
- Thus the first line implies that any rebirth (which inevitably arise due to our abhisankhāra cannot be maintained to our satisfaction. Any birth ends up in death and suffering.
2. Uppāda means to appear, and vaya implies destruction. Uuppajjitvā means that which arises, and nirujja means fading away. Dhamminō (or dhammathā) means the “Nature’s way.”
- Thus the second and third lines say, “whatever arises is bound to cease or fade away” (and thus lead to sorrow). That is a natural process that holds for any birth (including that of the Buddha in this case).
3. Te means “three,” and thus “te san” means three “san” or lōbha, dōsa, mōha; see, “What is “San”?“.
vüpa sama means “remove and get to samādhi.” In the Patisambhida Magga Pakarana (jhana vibhanga section) on p. 55, it explains that “vitakka vicāra vupa sama” means “getting rid of vitakka vicāra and attaining savitakka, savicāra.” See, “Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra.”
Sukha is happiness.
- Thus the fourth line says, “by removing lōbha, dōsa, mōha (three bad “san“s) from our minds; we can reach (the ultimate) happiness or Nibbāna.”
Here is a recording of the verse by the Venerable Thero (repeated three times; note the volume control on the right):
- This verse is a very good kammatthāna (meditation subject) for cultivating the “anicca saññā.” One could recite the verse and contemplate its meaning. Think about all those loved ones who passed away and led to much suffering. And one’s death is also inevitable.
- We have been through this process in perpetuity, being distressed as loved ones are lost and also thinking about one’s demise, at every birth.
- But there is a way to stop this suffering, by following the Path.
- Thus, instead of getting depressed about the inevitability of death, one WILL start feeling better if one can cultivate the “anicca saññā“; see, “How to Cultivate the Anicca Sanna.”
- This kammatthāna will also cultivate the “udayavaya ñāna” or “the knowledge about arising and decay of a sankata.” See, “Udayavaya Ñāna.”