Revised September 27, 2017; January 30, 2019; April 18, 2020; June 28, 2020
Arōgyā paramā lābhā
vissāsa paramā ñāti
Nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ
(Dhammapada verse 204)
Here is a recital by the Venerable Thero:
1. As with many Dhammapada verses (and sutta interpretations), the conventional (or “padaparama“) interpretation is the one that is widely known, which goes as: “Health is the ultimate profit, happiness is the ultimate wealth, a trusted friend is the best relative, Nibbāna is the ultimate bliss”.
- The deeper meaning remains hidden for many. In some hospitals in Sri Lanka, the verse, “Arōgya Parama Lābhā“ is displayed in big letters to emphasize the benefits of being healthy.
- While it is good to abide by those conventional meanings while we live this life, we should also try to grasp the deeper meanings to embark on the Noble Eightfold Path; see, “Buddha Dhamma in Chart” and “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma“.
2. First “parama” means “ultimate” or “prominent”. By the way, the word “padaparama” above means the interpretation that makes the “conventional meaning of a word prominent”; “pada” is “word”. Now let us look at the other words in the verse.
3. “Rōga” means “disease”, so arōgya means not subject to disease. The bodies of all beings below the Deva lokā (human and below) are subject to disease. We cannot remove the possibility of the disease until we remove causes for us to be reborn in the human realm or the lowest four realms, i.e., attain the Sakadāgāmi stage of Nibbāna.
- “Lābha” is “profit”. The ultimate profit (better than any amount of wealth) of “disease-free” status is attained at the Sakadāgāmi stage of Nibbāna.
4. “Santuṭṭhi” comes from “san” + “tuṭṭhi” or removing “san“. Santutthi and the more common Sinhala word “santhosa” means happy. When one removes “san“, one gains the niramisa sukha of Nibbāna or “cooling down”.
- “Dhanaṃ” means “wealth”; Sinhala word is “dhanaya“. Thus ultimate wealth is achieved by getting rid of “san” or defilements of greed, hate, and ignorance; see, “What is “San”?”.
5. “Vissāsa” comes from “vis” + “āsā”, where “āsā” means “āsava” or cravings. Thus it means getting rid of cravings that make one bound to the saṃsāra (round of rebirths).
- “Ñāti” means “relative.” Thus ultimate relative or refuge is reached via giving up the cravings for worldly things.
6. The last one, Nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ, or “Nibbāna is the ultimate bliss” is the only one that has the same meaning as the conventional or “padaparama” version in #1 above.
- Therefore, when one embarks on the Sotāpanna magga, one should be able to understand the correct version.
7. Buddha dhamma has no language, cultural, social barriers. But the Buddha advised never to translate Tipiṭaka to any language, particularly to Sanskrit, because the meanings of certain words can get distorted; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma“.
- It is ironic that this is exactly what has happened during the past 1500 years or so, at least since Buddhaghosa wrote Visuddhimagga, probably even earlier. The most damaging are the replacement of Pāli words anicca and anatta by the Sanskrit words anitya and anātma. The latter likely to have happened more recently. See, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
- On the other hand, the Buddha also advised that what really matters is to get the “meaning of a given word or phrase across”. He said to use the words and phrases (and examples) appropriate for a given locale to convey the MEANINGS of these key Pāli words. While we should keep the Tipiṭaka intact in Pāli, we should interpret its content in a way that most conducive to get the ideas across depending on the audience.
- The correct way to interpret the Tipiṭaka material is outlined in “Sutta – Introduction“.
8. It is interesting to note that this verse was a popular one among the Vedic brahmins of the day of the Buddha. In the Māgandhiya Sutta (MN 75), it is described how Māgandhiya brahmin tells the Buddha that his teacher also taught him the same verse. When the Buddha asked him to explain the meaning that his teacher taught him, Māgandhiya gave the same interpretation that was given in #1 above.
- The Buddha told Māgandhiya that this gāthā (verse) came to the Vedic literature from the previous Buddha (Buddha Kassapa), whose Buddha Sāsana had since disappeared: “Pubbakehesā, māgaṇḍiya, arahantehi sammāsambuddhehi gāthā bhāsitā.“
- (It is important to note that there had been three Buddhas before Buddha Gotama in this mahā kappa, and there will be another, Maithree Buddha, in the future after the present Buddha Sāsana disappears in about 2500 years).
- This is why only “conventional meanings” of pure Dhamma survives when Ariyā (Noble Persons) who can correctly interpret the deep meanings in the suttā and verses like this are absent for long times in this world. Either a Noble Person or a Buddha has to be born to bring back the true meanings.
- This is exactly what has happened during the past hundreds of years, where true meanings of many keywords like anicca, dukkha, anatta, Paṭicca Samuppāda, and Ānāpānasati bhāvanā, have been not known. See, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
9. For those who like to dig deeper into Tipiṭaka, the “Santuṭṭha Sutta (SN 16.1)” clearly illustrates that “santuṭṭha” is with one who lives a simple life, with minimal cravings, as Ven. Kassapa did: “..Santuṭṭhāyaṃ, bhikkhave, kassapo itarītarena cīvarena, itarītaracīvarasantuṭṭhiyā ca vaṇṇavādī; na ca cīvarahetu anesanaṃ appatirūpaṃ āpajjāti; aladdhā ca cīvaraṃ na paritassati; laddhā ca cīvaraṃ agadhito amucchito anajjhāpanno ādīnavadassāvī nissaraṇapañño paribhuñjāti.”.