Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
Buddhist practitioners today are familiar with such words as dukkha, sati, and panna, as these words are frequently mentioned in dharma talks by Buddhist masters and appear often in magazine articles and books on Buddhism. In contrast, samvega is likely to be an unfamiliar word for many practitioners, for it is rarely, if ever, mentioned in dharma talks and appear in magazine articles and books. Nevertheless, samvega is an important word for Buddhist practitioners whose role in our practice needs to be re-examined, especially in the unsettling world of COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to inflict a heavy toll on families, communities, and nations.
One reason why the word samvega is not as widely known as other Buddhist words is because it is a Pali word that is difficult to translate into other languages, including English. Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is well known among practitioners for his accessible English translation of the Pali Canon, admits as much when he says that there is no English equivalent to samvega. What he proposes as an English translation is a makeshift word like “a sense of urgency.” In his commentary on Anguttara Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi offers this explanation: “Samvega might be described as the inner commotion or shock we experience when we are jolted out of our usual complacency by a stark encounter with truths whose full gravity we normally refuse to face.”1
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Abbot of Metta Forest Monastery, concurs with Bhikkhu Bodhi in admitting the difficulty of translating samvega into other languages. For him, it is a hard word to translate “because it covers a complex range—at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of dismay, terror and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.”2 Since he does not know any single English word that adequately covers all three clusters of feelings, what Thanissaro Bhikkhu recommends is that we simply adopt the word as it is as an English word.
While it is difficult to find a good English equivalent for it, it is not difficult to see that it was samvega that the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first encounter with aging, illness, and death. It was indeed “a stark encounter with truths whose gravity we normally refuse to face.” It is not difficult to imagine how this encounter led the young Prince Siddhartha into “a chastening sense of [his] own complicity, complacency, and foolishness in having let [himself] live so blindly.” Driven by “a sense of urgency,” as we all know, the young Prince Siddhartha decided to leave his comfortable life in the palace in search for an answer to the question of why there is aging, illness, and death.
The answer the young Prince Siddhartha found when he became the Buddha, an enlightened one, can be captured by another Pali word anicca, which is usually translated as “impermanence.” In one of the discourses recorded in Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha offers this simile in explaining the limited and fleeting nature of human life: “Just as a drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long, so too, Brahmins, human life is like a drop of dew. It is limited and fleeting; it has much suffering, much misery.”3 Given the limited and fleeting nature of human life, it becomes important for Buddhist practitioners to develop “mindfulness of death”: “Bhikkhus, mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the deathless, having the deathless as the consummation.”4 The deathless the Buddha is talking about can be captured by the word pasada, which Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates as “clarity and sense of confidence,” though it, too, covers a complex range of feelings. As referring to the mental state that keeps samvega from turning into despair, pasada can perhaps be replaced by more familiar Pali words, samatha and vipassana, or “serenity and insight.”
As Buddhist practitioners, what we are asked to do is to cultivate samvega, or a sense of urgency about the meaningless cycle of birth, aging, and death, and develop it into pasada, or a sense of serenity and insight, so that we can find our way towards nibbana, or liberation. For us Buddhist practitioners, suffering that accompanies illness, separation, and death is the first noble truth, the reality of our existence in the world. The unsettling world of COVID-19 pandemic is indeed an opportunity for us Buddhist practitioners to cultivate samavega and develop it into pasada. As Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, said it clearly, “Realizing that the cycle of birth and death is nothing but nibbana, do not reject the circle of birth and death as something to be abhorred, or seek nibbana to escape from it. Only when we succeed in this do we gain insight that enables us to transcend the cycle of birth and death.”5
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega and Pasada”, Noble Strategy: Essays on the Buddhist Path, Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 1999.
- Anguttara Nikaya 7:74.
- Anguttara Nikaya 6:19, 20.
- Dogen, Shobogenzo 92: “Life and Death”.