--by Sramanerika Heng Hsien

Namah Sarvajnaya.

“Namo to the One with All Knowledge.”

      Last issue’s Sanskrit lesson introduced the Sutra title; Sukhavativyuha, “layout of the Land of Happiness.” Now we will read the Invocation Namah Sarvajnaya, “Homage to the One Who Knows All”. namah, ‘homage’ or ‘reverence’, literally means ‘bowing’. It refers to taking refuge and returning the life in worship. Because namah, has so many meanings, it generally is not translated at all, and the Sanskrit word itself is used. When you go to a Buddhist Temple, whatever the language of the ceremony, you will hear the word namo used frequently:

      Namo Buddhas of the ten directions.
      Namo Dharma of the ten directions.
      Namo Sangha of the ten directions...

This namo is the same word as namah. Looking the word up in the dictionary, you will find it written namas. These three are all the same word.

      By now you’ve probably guessed: the Sanskrit writing system is designed to represent as closely as possible the actual sounds people say when they speak. Whether you speak Sanskrit, English, or Cantonese, the end of a word is especially likely to be influenced by the sound with which the next word begins. The two sounds may even merge to form one sound. Sanskrit writing always indicates this change in pronunciation. And so, depending on what sound follows, we write namo, namah, or namas. In most cases, however, the sound changes to the form namo, which is not the ‘original’, or dictionary form, but just the form into which the word most frequently changes. This change occurs not only with namas, but happens often with other words as well, and can be said to be a regular feature of Sanskrit.

      When borrowing namas into another language, you might expect the dictionary form to be used. But because namo and not namas is the form most often heard, that form of the word most naturally becomes an English or Chinese word. Then instead of changing the pronunciation of the borrowed word, namo, according to the sound, which follows it, as in Sanskrit, the one form namo is used in every case, thereby conforming to the grammatical rules and inflectional endings of English and Chinese. But in Sanskrit itself, before a word beginning with s, it is pronounced namah. This accounts for the form in Namah Sarvajnaya. Sarvajnaya means ‘to the All-Knower’, ‘to the Omniscient One’. The All-knowing One is the Buddha. Before beginning the Sutra we worship and take refuge with the Buddha:

            What you don’t know he knows;
            What you’ve not figured out he has;
            What you don’t see he sees.

      Sarvajna is the ‘stem’ or dictionary form of the word. Is the ending aya then a sound change as we had in namah above? No, this ending shows how the word is used in its phrase, and is a mark of its function. In English we say ‘to’ the All-Knowing One’; aya represents the English ‘to’. Homage, namah, is ‘to’ the Buddha, we bow ‘to’ the Buddha. In reciting the Buddha’s name, the phrase is Namo ‘mitabhabuddhaya. This is made up of the words namas, Amitabha, and Buddha. The final –as, of namas, and the initial a of Amitabha combine to make one sound o, but the words are still two separate words. Between Amitabha and Buddha there is no sound combination even though the two words are joined to make one word. You can tell this has happened because the function marker aya is placed only after Buddha instead of after both Amitabha and Buddha as would be the case were they separate words. So the translation of Namo’mitabhabuddhaya is ‘Homage to the Buddha Amitabha.” If you can recite this with one mind in perfect sincerity, the of unfolds before you and you see the Buddha


1 Practicing, you will hear how the s of namas can't be fully heard when
  pronounced before another word which begins with s, but ends up a kind
  of pufff of air which is written as the letter h. In English we cheat
  and say a kind of z before an s, as in 'hear sounds'.

2 The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua's lecture on National Master Ch'ing
  Liang's commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra, June 25th, 1972.

3 This is the Dative, indirect object, case.