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

“Saṅ” is a keyword in Buddha Dhamma, whose meaning has been hidden for thousands of years. It is closely related to dasa akusala.

Revised May 17, 2018; September 21, 2022; rewritten February 5, 2023; revised February 2, 2024

Saṅ – Implies “Adding”

1. A key Pāli word, which has been hidden for thousands of years, is “saṅ” (commonly pronounced like son). In Pāli/Sinhala languages, it is pronounced as  “සන්” (saṅ) or “සං” (“sang” with an “ng” sound at the end like in “song.”) “Saṅ” is the term for “good and bad things we acquire” through our moral/immoral deeds.

  • Understanding this root allows one to 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 “saṅ. In Pāli and Sinhala, the word for numbers is “saṅkhaya,” and saṅkhaya = “saṅ” + “khya,” meaning add and subtract. Addition and subtraction involve saṅkhaya. When it is impossible to quantify, it is called “asaṅkheyya,” as in the case of how long a mahā kappa is.

  • From this, “saṅ” suggests “acquiring or adding (to this world, or to stay in the rebirth process).” 
  • In the same way, “khaya” implies “removal or subtraction.”
Saṅ – Adding/Helping Lengthen the Rebirth Process

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

  • The word “saṃsāra” comes fromsaṅ” + “sāra” where “sāra” means “good” or “beneficial.” Thus, one is trapped in the rebirth process because of the wrong view that “living in this world is beneficial.”
  • These “saṅ” 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.”)
  • One may wonder why “saṅ” includes moral deeds or puñña kamma. That is because they also can lead to rebirths (“add” to the saṃsāric journey); see “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma.”
  • However, one MUST do puñña kamma to avoid rebirth in the apāyā.
Khaya – Helping Shorten/Stop the Rebirth Process

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 combines to pronounce rāgakkhaya.
  • Thus it is quite clear that rāgakkhaya means “removing rāga.” Same for “dōsakkhaya,” and “mōhakkhaya.” Removing rāga, dōsa, and mōha leads to Nibbāna.
Many Critical Pali Words Have Roots in “Saṅ”

5. Just by grasping these fundamental 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 “saṅ.” The Pāli word for “doing” is “khāra” (the Sinhala word is “kāra” or කාර). That is the origin of the word “saṅkhāra” (“saṅ” + “khāra“); the Sinhala word is sankāra or සංකාර).
  • See “List of ‘San’ Words and Other Pāli Roots.”

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 clear that by stopping all saṅkhāra, one attains Nibbāna.
Saṅkhāra and Abhisaṅkhāra

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

  • Sankhāra involves EVERYTHING we do to live in “this world” of 31 realms; these include breathing, walking, eating, and pretty much everything. Even an Arahant has to be engaged in saṅkhāra until Parinibbāna or death.
  • Sankhāra becomes 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.
  • Note that some words are written and pronounced with emphasis on “m” rather than “n” because they rhyme better that way; a good example is samsāra, which can be written and pronounced either way. In Sri Lanka, it is pronounced as “sansāra.” 
  • See “Saṅkhāra – An Introduction.”
Different Types of Abhisaṅkhāra

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

  • Good things we acquire via the mundane version of alōbha, adōsa, and amōha help us gain rebirth in the 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. 
  • To attain Nibbāna, one must comprehend the more profound version of alōbha, adōsa, and amōha. See “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna)” and Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma.”
Several Keywords With “Saṅ”

9. Another critical term is “sammā,” which comes from “saṅ” + “,” which means “to become free of saṅ.” 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 saṅ + diṭṭhi (meaning vision), i.e., the ability to see “saṅ” or defilements.

  • One becomes sandiṭṭhikō (one who can see “saṅ” clearly) at the Sōtapanna Anugāmi stage.
  • Most texts define sandiṭṭhikō with inconsistent words like self-evident, immediately apparent, visible here and now, etc. See “Paṭhama­sandiṭṭhika Sutta (AN 6.47).”

11. Another critical word is saññā, which comes from saṅ +ñā (meaning knowing) = knowing or understanding “saṅ.” This 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. 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 (viparita) saññā.
  • Don’t worry about some of these deeper meanings if you are unfamiliar with them. At least one can see a connection to the root word “saṅ.” 
  • See “Mental Aggregates.”

12. Saṃvara (or sanvara) = saṅ + vara, where  vara means “remove”. Therefore, saṃvara means removing “saṅ” 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 daily, 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.”

  • Of course, that comes from saṅ + sāra, where “sāra” means fruitful. We do “saṅ” 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, so I am writing it as “samsāra.” See more examples in #15 below.
  • We have the wrong perception that “saṅ” is good and fruitful. Thus, we continue in the long rebirth process by doing saṅkhāra (and especially abhisaṅkhāra) with the wrong perception that they are fruitful.
Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā

14. An excellent example to illustrate the significance of “saṅ” is to examine the verse that Ven. Assaji uttered to Upatissa (the lay name of Ven. Sariputta, who was a chief disciple of the Buddha):

Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā, Tesaṃ (te saṅ) hetuṃ tathāgato āha; Tesañca (te saṅ 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 “saṅ”s: rāga, dōsa, mōha. The Buddha has shown how to eliminate those “saṅ”s and thus stop such dhammā from arising.”

Many More “Saṅ” Words

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

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

Over 70 Pāli words with the “saṅ” root are given inList of “Saṅ” Words and Other Pāli Roots.”

16. We will encounter many such instances where, just by knowing what “saṅ” is, one could immediately grasp the meaning of a particular verse. Most of these terms are easily understood in the Sinhala language.

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

17. The Tipiṭaka is in Pāli with Sinhala script (Pāli does not have its 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 characteristics: āsava, anusaya, samyōjana, etc.; see “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”

  • As long as one has any type of gati, āsava, anusaya, or samyōjana, one can pile up more “saṅ” or do dasa akusala.
  • Once one removes the strongest of the dasa akusala (and especially the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi), one can easily 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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