What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)

1. A key word, the meaning of which has been hidden for thousands of years, is “san” (pronounced like son). “San’ is basically the term for “good and bad things we acquire” while we exist anywhere in the 31 realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.

2. There is also a reason for calling what we “pile up” as “san“. In Pali and Sinhala, the word for numbers is “sankhyä“, and sankhyä = “san” + “khyä“, meaning (add &multiply) + (subtract & divide), i.e., sankhya is what is used for addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division.  From this, “san” gives the idea of “piling up” (addition and multiplication); “khyä” gives the idea of “removal” (subtraction and division).

  • Therefore “san” is used to indicate things we do in the sansaric journey; see below for examples.
  • Khyä” or “Khaya” is used to indicate removal. Nibbana is attained via removal of defilements (raga, dosa, moha), and thus Nibbana is “ragakkhaya“, “dosakkhaya“, and “mohakkhaya“.

Just by knowing this, it is possible to understand the roots of many common words, such as sankhara, sansara, sanna, samma, etc. Let us analyze some of these words.

3. However, a distinction needs to be made between sankhara and abhisankhara. Sankhara involves EVERYTHING that we do to live in “this world” of 31 realms; these include breathing, walking, eating, pretty much everything. Even an Arahant has to be engaged in sankhara until Parinibbana or death.

  • Some sankhara arise from with alobha, adosa, or amoha as a root cause; see, “Kusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“. The other types of sankhara arise from avijja (ignorance), and have lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), or moha (delusion)as a root cause; see, “Akusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“.
  • The prefix “abhi” means “stronger” or “coarse”. Sankhara become abhisankhara by engaging in the “wheeling process”; see, “Nibbana – Is it Difficult to Understand?“. The sansaric process or the rebirth process is fueled by abhisankhara.
  • The bad things we acquire – with lobha (greed), dosa (hate), moha (delusion) – contribute to rebirth in lower four realm; these are apunnabhi sankhara. The good things we acquire via alobha, adosa, amoha help gain rebirth in human realm and above; these are punnabhi sankhara.  Thus, both kinds contribute to lengthening the rebirth process, but we DO need to acquire good things for two reasons: (i) it prevents us from doing bad things, (ii) done with right intention, it will help purify our minds.

4. Another important term “samma” which comes from “san” + ““, which means “to become free of san“. For example:

  •  hoti jati, jati“, means “may I be free of repeated birth”.
  •  mé bäla samägamö” means “may I be free of association with those who are ignorant of Dhamma”.

5. Knowing the correct meaning of such terms, leads to clear understanding of many terms:

  • Sankhara = san + kära =  actions done while in existence anywhere in the 31 realms. All actions are ceased only at Parinibbana, i.e., when an Arahant dies.
  • Abhi sankhara =  “Abhi” + sankära = strong/repeated actions for prolonging rebirth process. Please note that even meritorious actions are included here.
  • Sansära (or samsara) = san + sära (meaning fruitful) = perception that “san” are good, fruitful. Thus one continues in the long rebirth process with the wrong perception that it is fruitful.
  • Sammä = san +  (meaning eliminate) = eliminate or route out “san”. Thus Samma Ditthi is routing out the wrong views that keeps one bound to sansara.
  • Sannä = san + (meaning knowing) = knowing or understanding “san”. This actually happens when one attains Nibbana. Until then the sanna is clouded or distorted. When we identify some object, say a rose, we just identify it in a conventional way as a flower. We do not “see” the true nature of anything until Nibbana is attained. Thus it is said that until we attain Nibbana, we have distorted (vipareetha) sanna.
  • Sandittiko = san + ditthi (meaning vision) = ability to see “san”; one becomes sanditthiko at the Sotapanna stage. Most texts define sandittiko with inconsistent words like, self-evident, immediately apparent, visible here and now, etc.
  • Sangayänä = san + gäyanä (meaning recite)= recite and categorize “san” (and ways to remove them) in organizing Dhamma for passing down to future generations. The first Sangayana was held to systematize his teachings, just 3 months after the Parinibbana of the Buddha.
  • Sanvara = san + vara (meaning behavior) = Eliminate “san” via moral behavior. “Sanvarattena seelan” means sila is moral behavior. It is to be cultivated 24 hours a day, not just on specific days. “Yam samadanan tam vathan”, means observing the five precepts or eight precepts on specific days is just a ritual, or “vatha”. Such rituals are good starting points, but need to be discarded as one gains wisdom.
  • Sanvëga (or “samvega”) = san + vëga (meaning speed) = forceful, strong  impulses due to “san”
  • Sanyöga  (or “samyoga“) = san + yöga (meaning bond) = bound together via “san
  • Sansindheema = san + sindheema (meaning evaporate, remove) = removing san, for example,  via the seven steps described in the Sabbasava Sutta. This leads to niramisa sukha or Nibbanic bliss.
  • Sansun = san + sún (meaning destroy) = when “san” is removed (“sún” rhymes like soup) one’s mind becomes calm and serene.
  • Sancetana = san + cetana = defiled intentions
  • Samphassa = san + phassa = defiled sense contact

6. A nice example to illustrate the significance of “san”, is to examine the verse that Ven. Assaji delivered to Upatissa (the lay name of Ven. Sariputta, who was a chief disciple of the Buddha):

Ye dhamma hetu pabbava, te  san hetun Thathagatho aha, Te san ca yo nirodho, evan vadi maha Samano

Te = three,   hetu = cause,  pabbava = pa +bhava or “repeated birth” (see, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“, nirodha = nir+uda = stop from arising.

  • The translation is now crystal clear:

“All dhamma that give rise to the rebirth process arise due to causes arising from the three “san”s: raga, dosa, moha. The Buddha has shown how to eliminate those “san”s and thus stop such dhamma from arising”

7. We will encounter many such instances, where just by knowing what “san” is, one could immediately grasp the meaning of a certain verse. Most of these terms are easily understood in Sinhala language. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Sanskrit that is closely related to the Maghadhi language that the Buddha spoke, it is Sinhala (or Sinhalese) that is closely related to Maghadhi (Maghadhi= “maga” + “adhi” = Noble path).

  •  Tipitaka was written in Pali with Sinhala script; Pali is a version of Maghadhi suitable for writing down oral discourses in summary form suitable for transmission.
  • Each Pali word is packed with lot of information, and thus commentaries were written to expound the meaning of important Pali words.
  • A good example is the key Pali word “anicca“. In Sanskrit it is “anitya“, and this is what normally translated to English as “impermanence”. But the actual meaning of anicca is very clear in Sinhala: The Pali word “icca” (pronounced “ichcha”) is the same in Sinhala, with the idea of “this is what I like”. Thus anicca has the meaning “cannot keep it the way I like”.

Over 70 Pāli words with the “san” root are given atList of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots“.

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