Aniccaṁ Vipariṇāmi Aññathābhāvi – A Critical Verse

Aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi” is a verse that succinctly states the unfruitfulness of pursuing sensory pleasures. Understanding its true meaning can get one to the Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna

September 22, 2023; revised #1 March 14, 2024

Anicca Nature – Connection to the Five Aggregates

1. In the previous post, “Anicca Nature- Chasing Worldly Pleasures Is Pointless,” we discussed that average humans who have not understood Buddha’s teachings have only one option to overcome disliked sensory experiences or depressing situations: They seek more sensory pleasures.

  • However, as pointed out there, the Buddha has explained a previously unknown option. There is a “suffering-free pure mind” hidden underneath our defiled minds. When we seek worldly/sensory pleasures, our actions tend to conceal the “pure mind” further.
  • Thus, we concluded that seeking sensory pleasures, like building sandcastles, is unproductive. Even though children enjoy building sandcastles, growing up, they realize it is unproductive. So, they voluntarily give up that and focus on productive activities like studying or learning a specific trade. Building sandcastles is of “anicca nature,” meaning it is unproductive.  The Buddha discussed this analogy in the “Satta Sutta (SN 23.2).” In the same way, chasing sensory pleasures is an unproductive (and also dangerous) activity, as we will discuss in this series of posts.
  • The Buddha described how we move away from the “pure mind” when we seek sensory pleasures. Let us discuss that now. The Buddha described sensory experiences in terms of five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.) He explained that attaching to sensory experiences is the same as craving/upādāna for pañcakkhandha, i.e., craving sensory pleasures is the same as pañcupādānakkhandha.
Each Sensory Contact Adds to the “Five Aggregates” (Pañcakkhandha)

2. Each sensory experience involves two types of rupa: an external rupa (like a visual or a “vaṇṇa rupa“) and an internal rupa (like “cakkhu pasāda rupa“; it is not physical eyes that actually “see.”) There are six such pairs.

  • In a sensory event, an external rupa comes into contact with an internal rupa at hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind.) That leads to the rise of a number of mental phenomena: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. Briefly, vedanā is the sukha, dukkha, or neutral “feeling;” saññā is the recognition of the sense object; saṅkhāra includes a variety of mental factors (cetasika) that arise in the mind; viññāṇa is the totality of all those mental phenomena and also a possible expectation regarding the sensory input (whether to seek more or to avoid it.)
  • Those five entities — rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa — are traditionally called the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.) Here, they are called “aggregates” or “collections” (khandha) because the mind is not only aware of those entities arising at a given moment but also 11 types of them, including past experiences of them. Thus, pañcakkhandha (more correctly, pañcupādānakkhandha) provides a measure of our attachment to sensory inputs.
  • We can also look at it in a slightly different way as follows.

3. We experience pleasure/joy or displeasure/pain with thoughts, and thoughts arise with sensory input (ārammaṇa.) Thoughts arise when an internal rupa comes into contact with an external rupa. The “rupa aggregate” encompasses those two kinds of rupa ever experienced (in the sense that even though we don’t recall all of them, our current state of mind is influenced by them.) Thoughts encompass how we understand the external world, i.e., our sensory experiences.

  • The “mental factors” (cetasika) that arise with our thoughts embed multiple facets of each experience. We feel a sensory input (vedanā), recognize and form our perceptions about it (saññā), and then “mind-made vedanā” (saṁphassa-jā-vedanā) arise based on those initial vedanā and saññā. That is the basis of the vedanā and saññā aggregates (vedanākkhandha and saññākkhandha.)
  • Various other mental factors (like greed, joy, anger, etc.) arise based on vedanā and saññā, and the saṅkhāra aggregate (saṅkhārakkhandha) represents those. 
  • The total sensory experience is viññāṇa; it also includes our expectations regarding what we experience. That is the fifth aggregate of viññāṇakkhandha.
Each Sensory Experience Helps Hide the “Pure Mind” or “Pabhassara Citta

4. If we attach to any sensory input (ārammaṇa), we start accumulating saṅkhāra (or abhisaṅkhāra.) That means “kamma accumulation.” 

  • That strengthens our saṁsāric bonds (saṁyojana) and hidden defilements (anusaya.) 
  • Even if they don’t accumulate significant kamma or add to saṁyojana or anusaya, an average person (puthujjana) can NEVER start “cleansing existing defilements.” 
  • To put it another way: A puthujjana ALWAYS moves in one direction, away from the “pure mind” or Nibbāna, sometimes slowly and other times faster, depending on the level of attachment to sensory inputs. In Pāli, this is called “ācayagāmi(pronounced “aachayagaami”) or “moving away from Nibbāna.”
  • One can go the other way (apacayagāmi; pronounced “apachayagaami”; see Ref. 1) only when one becomes a Noble Person (Ariya) and starts following the Noble Path. 
  • The Buddha gave an analogy in several suttās: A flood (“ogha” in Pāli) will carry a person away from refuge. A puthujjana (an average human) is like that helpless person, getting carried away by the “flood” or the saṁsāric journey. When one becomes at least a Sotapanna Anugāmi, one can start seeing how to go against the flood and reach safety. See, for example, “Oghapañhā Sutta (SN 38.11).”
Adding to the Pañcakkhandha Is of “Anicca Nature”

5. Therefore, it should be clear by now the following fact: Each time one attaches to a sensory input (ārammaṇa), that only helps one move AWAY from the suffering-free “pure mind” or the “pabhassara citta.” Any action or anything that causes one to move away from the ultimate release from suffering is unfruitful, i.e., of “anicca nature,” just as building sandcastles is!

  • If one can understand that, one would have made significant progress in reaching the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage.
  • In numerous suttās, you have probably seen the Buddha asking a bhikkhu the following question: cakkhuṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vā” ti?” The correct translation of that verse is: “Is the eye (cakkhu) of nicca or anicca nature?” Then, the question is repeated for the other five sense elements: ear (sota), nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), body (kāya), and mind (mano.) See, for example, “Cakkhu Sutta (SN 18.1).” (Note: The English translation in the link is incorrect, as is the case with many critical translations at Sutta Central and generally with most English translations.)
  • Depending on the sutta, the same question may be asked of the corresponding external rupa (rupa, sadda, gandha, rasa, phottabba, dhammā); see, for example, “Rūpa Sutta (SN 18.2).”
  • In other suttās, the question is asked of the five aggregates (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa); see, for example, “Anicca Sutta (SN 22.12).” Here, all six types of rupa are bundled under “rupa” (i.e., the rupa aggregate or rupakkhandha), and the same is true for the other four aggregates.
  • The point here is that every time we attach to a sensory input not only the internal and external rupa come into play, but the pañcupādānakkhandha grows too — in the ācayagāmi” or the “wrong direction” away from Nibbāna.
Aniccaṁ Vipariṇāmi Aññathābhāvi – Correct Mening

6. The “Cakkhu Sutta (SN 25.1)” explains how understanding the above leads to the Sotapanna stage. It is a short sutta; we can cover its key points.

The Buddha says: “Cakkhuṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi” which is INCORRECTLY translated in the above link as “Mendicants, the eye is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.” Then, the verse is repeated for sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, and mano, the other types of sense faculties or “internal rupa.

  • The correct interpretation can be understood by seeing that any time cakkhu (eye) is used to enjoy sensory pleasures (as a puthujjana), one moves away from Nibbāna or is carried by the “flood” away from the refuge, as explained in #4.
  • Using eyes to enjoy sensory pleasures is like building sandcastles for a “fleeting momentary pleasure,” i.e., it is an unproductive activity. That is the meaning of “aniccaṁ” in that verse.
  • Vipariṇāma is the opposite of pariṇāma. Let us understand the meanings of those two words. In English, evolution (pariṇāma) means the time progression of something where it gets better with time. For example, Darwin’s “theory of evolution” (“pariṇāma vāda” in Pāli/Sinhala) says monkeys progressed with time to become humans. Vipariṇāma is the opposite of evolution (devolution), where things move in the wrong/opposite direction with time. When one uses the eyes to enjoy sensory pleasures, one moves away from Nibbāna.
  • Aññathābhāvi means “to move away from its natural/preferred state,” whereas “aññatha” means “deviate for the worse” and is the opposite of “ittha” or the “stable state of Nibbāna.” In many suttās, the following verse indicates attaining the Arahanthood: “Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ, kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ, nāparaṁ itthattāyā” ti abbhaññāsi.” See, for example, “Dutiyaanuruddha Sutta (AN 3.130).” Thus, aññathābhāvi is the opposite of “itthattāya” and has a very similar meaning to “vipariṇāmi.”
  • Therefore, the correct meaning of that verse, stated very briefly, is: “Bhikkhus, using cakkhu to achieve sensory pleasures is like building sandcastles; thus cakkhu is of anicca nature; it will take you away from Nibbāna (the pure mind) and toward more suffering (on a downward path).”
  • We must never forget that if we don’t start “moving TOWARD Nibbāna” or become apacayagāmi (see #4),” future rebirth in an apaya remains open. 

7. The suttās SN 25.2 through SN 25.9 repeat the same verse for various entities that arise in a sensory contact: each of the following entities that arise in such sensory contacts: rupa, viññāṇa, phassa (saṁphassa), vedanā, saññā, cetanā, taṇhā, and dhātu. The last sutta in the series (SN 25.10) makes a summary by repeating the verse for the five aggregates: rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.

  • That critical error in translating the key verse in #6 appears in almost all conventional English translations. Unless explained by a Noble Person, that interpretation makes sense for the average human (puthujjana) who has not heard the correct explanation.
  • It is essential to realize that most terms discussed in the suttās refer to mental phenomena. When the Buddha discusses “cakkhu,” it is not about the physical eyes but about using the eyes as an “āyatana” (i.e., cakkhāyatana) for enjoying sensory pleasures; same with the other five “internal āyatana.” When referring to the six types of “rupa,” it is not about external rupa, but the ‘mind-made versions” of them created by the mind, i.e., rupāyatana, saddāyatana, gandhāyatana, rasāyatana, phottabbāyatana, and manāyatana.
  • That should be clear from the above series of suttās, which apply the verse in question to strictly mental entities (viññāṇa, phassa (saṁphassa), vedanā, saññā, cetanā, etc.) as well as for the internal and external rupa
Incorrect Interpretation of “Aniccaṁ Vipariṇāmi Aññathābhāvi”

8. In most English translations, the above verse refers to the physical eye or a physical rupa. Thus, many people think it is about the physical body getting old and dying. For example, the English translation of “Cakkhu Sutta (SN 25.1)” discussed in #6 above translates “Cakkhuṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi” as “Mendicants, the eye is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.” 

  • Most translators mechanically translate the verse for mental attributes such as viññāṇa the same way. For example, in the “Viññāṇa Sutta (SN 25.3),” the verse “Cakkhuviññāṇaṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi” is translated as “Mendicants, eye-consciousness is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.”
  • However, any viññāṇa rises and perishes (or a physical body is born and dies). Does a Buddha need to explain such an obvious fact?
Those Who Begin to Understand the Above are, at Minimum, Sotapanna Anugāmis

9. Continuing with theCakkhu Sutta (SN 25.1)the Buddha says:Yo, bhikkhave, ime dhamme evaṁ saddahati adhimuccati—ayaṁ vuccati saddhānusārī..” That means, “If someone understands the meaning of that verse (in #6) with faith (based on understanding), then that person is a saddhānusārī.” (Note: Again, the English translation is not entirely clear). Then the Buddha further clarifies: “A saddhānusārī is incapable of any deed which would make them be reborn in hell, the animal realm, or the ghost realm. Also, they will not die without becoming Sotapannās.” 

  • In the next verse (at marker 2.1), the Buddha says: “Yassa kho, bhikkhave, ime dhammā evaṁ paññāya mattaso nijjhānaṁ khamanti, ayaṁ vuccati: ‘dhammānusārī..” meaning, “If someone understands the meaning of that verse (in #6) after contemplating with a degree of wisdom, then that person is a dhammānusārī.”  Then, the Buddha further clarifies that a dhammānusārī will also become a Sotapanna before death.
  • In the final verse (at marker 2.4), the Buddha states: “Yo, bhikkhave, ime dhamme evaṁ pajānāti evaṁ passati, ayaṁ vuccati: ‘sotāpanno avinipātadhammo niyato sambodhiparāyano’” ti OR “A Sotapanna who has fully comprehended the meaning of the above verse is guaranteed to be released from rebirth in the apāyās, and is destined to attain the Arahanthood.”
  • I have discussed saddhānusārī and dhammānusārī in the post “Sōtapanna Anugāmi – No More Births in the Apāyā.”
Understanding the Above Verse Is One Way to Remove Sakkāya Diṭṭhi

10. If one has started comprehending the verse “Cakkhuṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi” then one has seen (with wisdom) that chasing sensory pleasures is an activity of “anicca nature” and will never be able to embark on the Noble Path to go “against the flood” and towards the pure mind. That understanding is the same as the removal of sakkāya diṭṭhi and also the other two saṁyojana of vicikicchā and silabbata parāmāsa.

  • There are many ways of getting to the Sotapanna stage or getting rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi. So, there is no need to worry if you had previously not thought about stating the “anicca nature” as described above. But once explained, it should be understandable if one had already been a Sotapanna/Sotapanna Anugāmi.

1. Those who are unaware of the unique “Tipiṭaka English” writing format adopted many years ago, see “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.” The English version of the Tipiṭaka was written in this format in the early 1900s, and that is the version used today in most English websites, including Sutta Central. It is essential to understand how to pronounce Pāli words correctly.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email