Revised September 27, 2017; revised January 30, 2019
Arōgyā paramā lābhā
santutthi paramam dhanan
vissāsa paramā nāthi
Nibbānan paramam sukhan
(Dhammapada verse 204)
Here is a recital by the Venerable Thero:
1. As with many Dhammapada verses (and sutta interpretations), the conventional (or “pada parama“) 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, Nibbana is the ultimate bliss”.
- The more 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 “pada parama” 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 arögya means not subject to disease. The bodies of all beings below the Deva lokas (human and below) are subject to disease. We cannot remove the possibility of disease until we remove causes for us to be reborn in the human realm or the lowest four realms, i.e., attain the Sakadagami stage of Nibbana.
- “Lābha” is “profit”. The ultimate profit (better than any amount of wealth) of “disease free” status is attained at the Sakadagami stage of Nibbana.
- Actually “arogya” is a Sanskrit word that has become standard. The actual line is, “Aröga parama lābha”.
4. “Santutthi” comes from “san” + “tutthi” or removing “san“. Santutthi and the more common Sinhala word “santhosa” means happy. When one removes “san“, one gains the niramisa sukha of Nibbana or “cooling down”.
- “Dhanan” 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. “Vissasa” comes from “vis” + “āsā”, where “āsā” means “āsava” or cravings. Thus it means getting rid of cravings that makes one bound to the sansara (round of rebirths).
- “Nātha” means “refuge”; the opposite of that is “anātha” in Sinhala means “helpless”. “Nātha” is also another word for the Buddha. Thus ultimate refuge is reached via giving up the cravings for worldly things.
6. The last one, Nibbanan paramam sukhan, or “Nibbāna is the ultimate bliss” is the only one that has the same meaning as the conventional or “pada parama” version in #1 above.
- Therefore, when one embarks on the Sotapanna magga, one should be trying to adhere to the correct version.
7. Furthermore, the correct Pāli version of the gāthā is:
Arōgā paramā lābhā
san tutthi paramam dhanan
vis āsa paramā nāthi
Nibbānan paramam sukhan
- Buddha dhamma has no language, cultural, social barriers. But the Buddha advised never to translate Tipitaka 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 anicca by the Sanskrit word anitya, and paticca samuppada by Pratītyasamutpāda.
- 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 Tipitaka 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 Tipitaka material is outlined in “Sutta – Introduction“.
8. It is interesting to note that this gātha 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, Magandhiya gave the same interpretation that was given in #1 above.
- The Buddha told Magandhiya that this verse came to the Vedic literature from Buddha Kassapa (“Pubbakehesā, māgaṇḍiya, arahantehi sammāsambuddhehi gāthā bhāsitā:”), whose Buddha sāsana has since disappeared (it is important to note that there had been three Buddhas before Buddha Gotama in this mahā kalpa, and there will be another, Maithree Buddha, in the future after the present Buddha sasana disappears in about 2500 years).
- This is why only “conventional meanings” of pure Dhamma survives when Ariyas (Noble Persons) who can correctly interpret the deep meanings in the suttas 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, paticca samuppāda, and anāpāna, have been not known; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
9. For those who like to dig deeper into Tipitaka, the “Santuṭṭha Sutta (SN 16.1)” clearly illustrate that “santuttha” is with one who lives a simple life, without minimal cravings, as Ven. Kassapa did: “..Santuṭṭhāyaṃ, bhikkhave, kassapo itarītarena cīvarena, itarītaracīvarasantuṭṭhiyā ca vaṇṇavādī; na ca cīvarahetu anesanaṃ appatirūpaṃ āpajjati; aladdhā ca cīvaraṃ na paritassati; laddhā ca cīvaraṃ agadhito amucchito anajjhāpanno ādīnavadassāvī nissaraṇapañño paribhuñjati.”.