Revised August 16, 2019; February 25, 2020; June 8,2020
Aniccā vata saṅkhārā
Uppāda vaya dhamminō
Tesaṃ 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)saṅkhāra! We need to stop creating abhisaṅkhāra (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) and also in a short sutta: “Parinibbāna Sutta (SN 6.15)“
A common and incorrect 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, “yaṃ samādānaṃ taṃ vataṃ. Saṃvaraṭṭhena sīlaṃ,“ 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 saṅkhāra. They are all thoughts (we cannot even lift a finger without an associated thInking). Those saṅkhāra lead to viññāṇa via “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa” in Paṭicca Samuppāda. Strong viññāṇa produced via “abhisaṅkhāra” (or strong saṅkhāra) lead to future rebirths. But all births end up in death. See, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka.”
- Thus the first line implies that any rebirth (which inevitably arises due to our abhisaṅkhāra 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 “those,” and thus “tesaṃ” (“te” + “san“) means those (three) “san” or lōbha, dōsa, mōha; see, “What is “San”?“.
vüpa sama means “remove and get to samādhi.” In the Paṭisambhidā Magga Pakaraṇa (Jhāna Vibhaṅga section) on p. 55, it explains that “vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā” means “getting rid of vitakka and 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):Download
- This verse is a very good kammaṭṭhāna (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 kammaṭṭhāna will also cultivate the “udayavaya ñāna” or “the knowledge about arising and decay of a sankata.” See, “Udayavaya Ñāna.”