What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra)

Revised May 17, 2018; December 18, 2018; February 16, 2020; July 19, 2021

1. A key Pāli 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” through our moral/immoral deeds.

  • By understanding this root word, one can easily see the meanings of many important Pāli words, without looking for roots in Sanskrit.

2. There is a reason for calling what we “acquire or add” to be “san.” In Pāli and Sinhala, the word for numbers is “sankhyā,” and sankhyā = “san” + “khyā,” meaning add and subtract. Addition and subtraction involve sankhyā.  

  • From this, “san” gives the idea of “acquiring or adding.”
  • In the same way, “khyā” implies “removal or subtraction.”

3. Therefore, “san” indicates things we do to lengthen our saṃsāric (or saṃsāric) journey. See below for examples.

  • These “san” are nothing else but dasa akusala (that lead to rebirth in the apāyā) and also puñña kamma (that lead to rebirths in the “good realms”); see, “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma.”
  • One may wonder why “san” includes moral deeds or puñña kamma. That is because they also lead to rebirths (“add” to saṃsāric journey).
  • However, one MUST do puñña kamma to avoid rebirth in the apāyā.

4. Similarly, “khyā” or “Khaya” indicate the shortening of the saṃsāric journey.

  • Removal of defilements (rāga, dōsa, mōha) leads to Nibbāna. Thus Nibbāna is “rāgakkhaya“, “dōsakkhaya“, and “mōhakkhaya“.
  • Those three words have roots in “khaya” or “subtraction or removal.” For example, rāgakkhaya comes from “rāga” + “khaya,” which combine to pronounce as rāgakkhaya.
  • Thus it is quite clear that rāgakkhaya means “removing rāga.” Same for “dōsakkhaya,” and “mōhakkhaya.” Removal of rāga, dōsa, and mōha leads to Nibbāna.

5. Just by grasping these key ideas, it is possible to understand the roots of many common words, such as saṅkhāra, saṃsāra, saññā, sammā, etc. Let us analyze some of these words.

  • We “add to” our rebirth process when we do “san.” The Pāli word for “doing” is “khāra” (Sinhala word is “kāra” or කාර). That is the origin of the word “saṅkhāra” (“san” + “khāra“); the Sinhala word is sankāra or සංකාර).

6. From Paṭicca Samuppāda, all sufferings start with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā.” Thus, when one gets rid of avijjā completely, all saṅkhāra are stopped, and one attains Nibbāna. That is accomplished at the Arahant stage.

  • From the Manasikāra Sutta (AN 11.8): “‘etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ, yadidaṃ sabba­saṅ­khā­ra­sama­tho sabbū­padhipa­ṭi­nissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti.
  • Translated: “It is peaceful, it is serene, the expelling of all saṅkhāra, breaking of bonds, removing greed and hate; Nibbāna.” So, it is quite clear that by stopping all saṅkhāra, one attains Nibbāna.

7. However, a distinction needs to be made between saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkhāra. The prefix “abhi” means “stronger” or “coarse”.

  • Sankhāra 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 saṅkhāra until Parinibbāna or death.
  • Sankhāra become abhisaṅkhāra by engaging in the “wheeling process”; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“. The saṃsāric process or the rebirth process is fueled by abhisaṅkhāra.

8. The bad things we acquire – with lōbha (greed), dōsa (hate), mōha (delusion) – contribute to rebirth in the lower four realms; these are apunnābhisaṅkhāra (or apuñña abhisaṅkhāra). Here “apuñña” means “immoral.”

  • The good things we acquire via alōbha, adōsa, amōha help gain rebirth in humān realm and above; these are punnābhisaṅkhāra (or puñña abhisaṅkhāra).  Here “puñña” means “moral.”
  • Thus, both kinds contribute to lengthening the rebirth process. Still, we DO need to do punnābhisaṅkhāra for two reasons: (i) it prevents us from doing bad things, (ii) done with the right intention, punnābhisaṅkhāra will help purify our minds, i.e., puñña kamma can become kusala kamma; see #18 below.

9. Another important term is “sammā,” which comes from “san” + “,” which means “to become free of san.” Here “” means “becomes free of.” For example:

  •  hoti jāti, jāti” means “may I be free of repeated birth.”
  •  mé bāla samāgamō” means “may I be free of association with those who are ignorant of Dhammā.”

10. The keyword sandiṭṭhikō comes from san + diṭṭhi (meaning vision), i.e., ability to see “san” or defilements.

  • One becomes sandiṭṭhikō (one who can see “san” clearly) at the Sōtapanna Anugāmi stage.
  • Most texts define sandiṭṭhikō with inconsistent words like self-evident, immediately apparent, visible here and now, etc.

11. Another critical word is saññā, which comes from san +ñā (meaning knowing) = knowing or understanding “san.” This actually happens when one attains Nibbāna. Until then, one has a distorted perception (saññā) of this world. See, “Saññā – What It Really Means.”

  • For example, when we see people, we identify them according to our familiarity with them or based on our perceptions of them. We do not “see” the true nature of anything until Nibbāna is attained. Thus it is said that until we attain Nibbāna, we have distorted (vipareetha) saññā.
  • Don’t worry about some of these deeper meanings if you are not familiar with them. At least one can see a connection to the root word “san.”

12. Saṃvara (or sanvara) = san + vara, where  vara means “remove”. Therefore, saṃvara means removing “san” via moral behavior, also called “sīla.”

  • Yaṃ samādānaṃ taṃ vataṃ. Saṃvaraṭṭhena sīlaṃ” means just trying to live by set precepts would not work. Moral behavior comes automatically upon one becoming a Sandiṭṭhikō (a Sōtapanna Anugāmi or a Sōtapanna.
  • Saṃvara sīla will be automatically enforced 24 hours a day, not just on specific days. That is because it comes naturally, with understanding.
  • On the other hand, “Yam samādanam tam vatam” means observing the five precepts or eight precepts on specific days is just a ritual, or “vata.” Such rituals are good starting points but will be “upgraded to” Saṃvara sīla when one gains wisdom (paññā).

13. Another keyword is saṃsāra or sansāra, which means “rebirth process.”

  • That, of course, comes from san + sāra, where “sāra” means fruitful. We do “san” willingly because we perceive them to be good (“sāra”). Then we get trapped in the rebirth process.
  • Note that sometimes it is natural to pronounce with the “m” sound; that is why writing it as “samsāra.” See more examples in #15 below.
  • We have the wrong perception that “san” are good and fruitful. Thus one continues in the long rebirth process by doing saṅkhāra (and especially abhisaṅkhāra) with the wrong perception that those are fruitful.

14. 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 dhammā hetuppabhavā, Tesaṃ (te san) hetuṃ tathāgato āha; Tesañca (te san ca) yo nirodho, Evaṃvādī mahāsamaṇo

Te = those,   hetu = cause,  pabbava = pa +bhava or “repeated birth” (see, “Pabhassāra Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga“, nirōdha = nir+udā = stop from arising.

  • The translation is now crystal clear:

“All dhammā that give rise to the rebirth process arise due to causes arising from the “san”s: rāga, dōsa, mōha. The Buddha has shown how to eliminate those “san”s and thus stop such dhammā from arising”

15. Knowing the correct meaning of such terms leads to a clear understanding of many terms:

  • Sangāyanā = san + gāyanā (meaning recite)= recite and categorize “san” (and ways to remove them) in organizing Dhammā for passing down to future generations. The first Sangāyanā took place just 3 months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.
  • Samyutta Nikāya of the Tipiṭaka contains suttā that explain “san“: “san” + “yutta,” with “yutta” meaning “connected with” (it rhymes as “samyutta”). Note that most English translations refer to Samyutta Nikāya as “Connected Discourses, but do not say connected to what.
  • Sanvēga (or “samvega”) = san + vēga (meaning speed) = forceful, strong  impulses arising due to “san”.
  • Sanyōga  (or “samyoga“) = san + yōga (meaning bond) = bound together via “san”.
  • Sansindheema = san + sindheema (meaning evaporate, remove) = removing san, for example,  via the seven steps described in the Sabbāsava Sutta. This leads to nirāmisa sukha or Nibbānic bliss.
  • Sansun = san + sun (meaning destroy) = with the removal of “san” (“sun” rhymes like soup), one’s mind becomes calm and serene.
  • Sancetanā = san + cetanā = defiled intentions.
  • Samphassa = san + phassa = defiled sense contact.

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

16. 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 the Sinhala language.

  • Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Sanskrit closely related to the māgadhi language that the Buddha spoke. It is Sinhala (or Sinhalese) that is closely related to māgadhi (māgadhi= “maga” + “adhi” = Noble path).

17. The Tipiṭaka is in Pāli with Sinhala script (Pāli does not have its own alphabet). Pāli is a version of māgadhi suitable for writing down oral discourses in a summary form suitable for transmission; see, “Preservation of the Dhamma.” More posts on that at “Historical Background.”

18. One’s tendency (i.e., gati) to do dasa akusala gets one bound to this world of 31 realms. Until one removes such “bad gati,” one will have the following associated characteristics: āsava, anusaya, samyōjana, etc.; see, “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”

  • As long as one has any type of gati, āsava, anusaya, samyōjana, one has the ability to pile up more “san” or to do dasa akusala.
  • Once one removes the strongest of the dasa akusala (and especially the 10 types of micchā diṭṭhi), one will be able to grasp the Tilakkhana.
  • Then one’s puñña kamma will become kusala kamma, leading to the four stages of Nibbāna. This is a subtle point but is explained in simple terms in the post, “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?“.
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