Aniccā vata Sankhārā…

Aniccā vatha sankhārā

Uppāda vaya dhamminō

Uuppajjitvā nirujjhanti

Te san vūpa samō sukhō

(Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta)

This verse is actually 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 in order to emphasize the “fleeting nature” of life. It actually has a much deeper meaning, and explains why we face sorrow inevitably (because death is inevitable), and how it can be permanently removed to attain the Nibbānic bliss.

  • This verse is said to have been uttered by Sakka, the King of the Dēvas, just after the Parinibbāna (passing away) of the Buddha.

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”) is the combined word for “body (gatha) and mind (sitha)”. Thus it is about the “person” who has passed away. By the way, these are all Sinhala (as well as Pali) words.

(There are other meanings for “vata“: In the verse, “yam samadanan tam vatan, sanvarattēna seelan“, or “reciting precepts is a ritual, moral behavior 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).

Sankhāra is “what we think” (what we speak, and do, also come about via thoughts or sankhāra; we cannot even lift a finger without an associated thought). Here it is specifically meant “abhisankhāra“, those that lead to rebirth; see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka“.

  • Thus the first line says, “any vata” or a “person” (that is a result of past abhisankhāra) cannot be maintained to our satisfaction”.

2. Uppāda means arise and vaya means 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 fade away”  (and thus lead to sorrow). That is a natural process that holds anywhere in the 31 realms.

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“.

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 right):

  • In fact, this is a very good kammatthāna (meditation subject) for cultivating the “anicca saññā“. One could recite the verse and contemplate on its meaning. Think about all those loved ones who passed away and led to much suffering. And one’s own 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 own demise, at each and 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 really cultivate the “anicca saññā“; see, “How to Cultivate the Anicca Sanna“.
  • By the way, this kammatthāna will also cultivate the “udayavaya ñāna” or “the knowledge about arising and decay of a sankata“. I have not written a post specifically on the udayavaya ñāna yet, but the following post describes what it is NOT: “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.
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