Attā Hi Attanō Nāthō

March 4, 2017; revised February 15, 2021; October 3, 2023 

Attā hi attanō nāthō
kō hi nāthō parō siyā
attanā hi sudanténa
nātham labhati dullabham

(Dhammapada verse 160)

1. 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, attāmeans “a person.” There is no negation for attā” with this meaning.
  • The deeper meaning of “attā” (and also “atta” without the long “a”) is “beneficial,” “fruitful,” etc. The opposite of that is “anatta/anattā or “unfruitful.”
  • Depending on the context, one needs to pick the correct meaning. 

2. When one attains the true “atta” state (Nibbāna), one has become “nātha” or “sanātha” or “found refuge or salvation.” As long as one remains in the 31 realms (this world), one is “anātha” (which is the opposite of “sanātha“) or “helpless.” See, “Paṭhama Nātha Sutta (AN 10.17.)

  • “Attanō nāthō” means “the refuge is within oneself.” Thus, “Attā hi attanō nāthō” means “one’s refuge is within oneself.”
  • parō siyā” means “outside oneself.” Thus kō hi nāthō parō siyā” means “How can one find refuge outside oneself”?
  • “Sudda” means “clean.” Thus, “attanā hi sudanténa” means (by cleansing one’s own (mind)”
  • Labhati means get, dullabham means rare, and as we saw above, “nātha” is attaining Nibbāna. So, “nāthan labhati dullabham” 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 own mind

getting to the 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 posts “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?” and “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?

October 25, 2019: Attā is used as “a person” in many of the verses in the “Attavagga” of the Dhammapada.

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