March 4, 2017; revised November 13, 2018; October 25, 2019
“Attā hi attanō nāthō
kō hi nāthō parō siyā
attanā hi sudanténa
nātham labhati dullabham”
(Dhammapada verse 160)
This is an important verse where the word “atta/attā” (pronounced “aththa”/”aththā“) is used with two very different meanings in two places within the same verse.
- In the conventional sense, “attā” means “a person”.
- The deeper meaning when pronounced “atta” is “in full control”, the opposite of which is anatta (“helpless”) as in the Tilakkhana.
- Depending on the context, one needs to pick the correct meaning. In this verse, both meanings are used.
- When one attains the true “atta” state (Nibbana), one has become “nātha“, which is still used in Sinhala meaning “found refuge or salvation”. As long as one remains in the 31 realms (this world), one is “anātha” (which is the Sinhala word for anatta) or “helpless”.
- “parō siyā” means “outside oneself”. Thus “kō hi nāthō parō siyā” means “how can one find refuge outside oneself”?
- One becomes atta (attanō) by cleansing (one’s mind): sudantena (sudda means “clean”).
- Labhati means get and dullabhan means rare, and as we saw above “nātha” is attaining Nibbāna. So, nāthan labhati dullabhan means “it is not easy to get to salvation (Nibbāna)”.
Therefore, we can translate the verse as follows:
“One is one’s own refuge
how can another be a refuge to one?
one reaches salvation by purifying one’s mind
getting to refuge (Nibbāna) is rare”
Here is a recording of the verse recited by me (I could not find a recording by Venerable Waharaka Thero):
A detailed discussion on “atta/attā” is given in the post, “Pali Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?” that I just published.
October 25, 2019: Attā is used in the sense of “a person” in many of the verses in the “Attavagga” of the Dhammapada.