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

Revised May 17, 2018

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” while we exist anywhere in the 31 realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhammā“.

2. There is also a reason for calling what we “pile up” as “san“. In Pāli and Sinhala, the word for numbers is “sankhyā“, and sankhyā = “san” + “khyā“, meaning (add &multiply) + (subtract & divide), i.e., sankhyā is what is used for addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division.  From this, “san” gives the idea of “piling up” (addition and multiplication); “khyā” 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.
  • These “san” are nothing else but dasa akusala.
  • khyā” or “Khaya” is used to indicate removal. nibbāna is attained via removal of defilements (rāga, dōsa, mōha), and thus nibbāna is “rāgakkhaya“, “dōsakkhaya“, and “mōhakkhaya“.
  • One is bound to this world of 31 realms because one has not removed the tendency to do dasa akusala. This can be stated in various ways: one’s gati, āsava, anusaya, samyojana, etc; see, “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna“.  As long as one has any types of gati, āsava, anusaya, samyojana, one has the ability to pile up more “san” or to do dasa akusala.
  • When all  gati, āsava, anusaya, samyojana are removed vai the four stages Nibbāna, one becomes atta or in full control; see, “Dasa Akusala and Anatta – The Critical Link“.

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

3. However, a distinction needs to be māde between sankhāra and abhisankhāra. 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 sankhāra until Parinibbāna or death.

  • Some sankhāra arise from with alōbha, adōsa, or amōha as a root cause; see, “Kusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“. The other types of sankhāra arise from avijja (ignorance), and have lōbha (greed), dōsa (hatred), or mōha (delusion)as a root cause; see, “Akusala-Mula Paticca Samuppada“.
  • The prefix “abhi” means “stronger” or “coarse”. Sankhāra become abhisankhāra by engaging in the “wheeling process”; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“. The sansaric process or the rebirth process is fueled by abhisankhāra.
  • The bad things we acquire – with lōbha (greed), dōsa (hate), mōha (delusion) – contribute to rebirth in lower four realm; these are apunnabhi sankhāra. The good things we acquire via alōbha, adōsa, amōha help gain rebirth in humān realm and above; these are punnabhi sankhāra.  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 “sammā” which comes from “san” + ““, which means “to become free of san“. For example:

  •  hoti jati, jati“, means “māy I be free of repeated birth”.
  •  mé bäla samāgamö” means “māy I be free of association with those who are ignorant of Dhammā”.

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

  • Sankhāra = san + kāra =  actions done while in existence anywhere in the 31 realms. All actions are ceased only at Parinibbāna, i.e., when an Arahant dies.
  • Abhi sankhāra =  “Abhi” + sankāra = strong/repeated actions for prolonging rebirth process. Please note that even meritorious actions are included here.
  • Sansāra (or samsāra) = san + sāra (meaning fruitful) = perception that “san” are good, fruitful. Thus one continues in the long rebirth process with the wrong perception that it is fruitful.
  • Sammā = san +  (meaning eliminate) = eliminate or route out “san”. Thus sammā Ditthi is routing out the wrong views that keeps one bound to sansāra.
  • Sannā = san + (meaning knowing) = knowing or understanding “san”. This actually happens when one attains nibbāna. Until then the saññā 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 nibbāna is attained. Thus it is said that until we attain nibbāna, we have distorted (vipareetha) saññā.
  • Sanditthikō = san + ditthi (meaning vision) = ability to see “san”; one becomes sanditthikō at the Sotapanna stage. Most texts define sanditthikō with inconsistent words like, self-evident, immediately apparent, visible here and now, etc.
  • Sangayānā = 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 was held to systemātize his teachings, just 3 months after the Parinibbāna 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 samādanan 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.
  • Sanvēga (or “samvega”) = san + vēga (meaning speed) = forceful, strong  impulses due to “san”
  • Sanyōga  (or “samyoga“) = san + yōga (meaning bond) = bound together via “san
  • Sansindheemā = san + sindheemā (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.
  • Sancetanā = san + cetanā = 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 dhammā hetu pabbavā, te  san hetun Thathagatho āha, Te san ca yō nirodhō, evan vadi māhā Samānō

Te = three,   hetu = cause,  pabbava = pa +bhava or “repeated birth” (see, “Pabhassāra Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavanga“, nirodha = nir+uda = 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 three “san”s: rāga, dōsa, mōha. The Buddha has shown how to eliminate those “san”s and thus stop such dhammā from arising”

7. We will encounter māny 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 māghadhi language that the Buddha spoke, it is Sinhala (or Sinhalese) that is closely related to māghadhi (māghadhi= “māga” + “adhi” = Noble path).

  • Tipitaka was written in Pāli with Sinhala script; Pāli is a version of māghadhi suitable for writing down oral discourses in summary form suitable for transmission.
  • Each Pāli word is packed with lot of informātion, and thus commentaries were written to expound the meaning of important Pāli words.
  • A good example is the key Pāli word “anicca“. In Sanskrit it is “anitya“, and this is what normālly translated to English as “impermānence”. But the actual meaning of anicca is very clear in Sinhala: The Pāli 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”; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.

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

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