Anicca Nature- Chasing Worldly Pleasures Is Pointless

Anicca is incorrectly translated as mere impermanence. But the primary meaning of anicca is that seeking long-lasting happiness in worldly/sensual pleasures is a waste of time. Understanding that is the key to the Sotapanna stage of Nibbāna.

September 16, 2023

An Average Human’s Response to Unpleasurable Situations

1. When encountering an “unpleasurable situation/sensory input,” an average human (puthujjana) knows only two responses: (i) to try to avoid it or (ii) to compensate for it by seeking a “pleasurable sensory input.”

  • However, no sensory pleasure can satisfy a mind for long. After a while, one gets bored with even the most luxurious vacation; a drug addict gets “saturated” and would want increasingly higher doses with time. 
  • Furthermore, one’s efforts seeking such “pleasurable situations” often involve “immoral deeds” (akusala/pāpa kamma). That leads to future rebirths in lower realms (apāyās), where there is much more suffering. This incorrect way of understanding the world is sañjānāti; see “Cognition Modes – Sañjānāti, Vijānāti, Pajānāti, Abhijānāti.”
  • Of course, sometimes people also engage in moral deeds (kusala/puñña kamma) out of compassion, and kamma vipāka of such “good/moral deeds” lead to rebirth in human, Deva, and Brahma realms. This category of people (even if they are not exposed to Buddha Dhamma) examine things with an open mind (vijānāti,) which is a better understanding than sañjānāti. 
  • That is essentially the basis of the “saṁsāric suffering” or the “cycle of rebirths,” mostly filled with suffering. Even though lives in the Deva and Brahma realms are mostly “pleasurable,” such “better rebirths” are rare. Most humans are reborn in the apāyās because of the tendency to engage in immoral deeds when seeking pleasurable sensory experiences. See “Manussacutiniraya Sutta (SN 56.102).”
Previously Unheard Teachings of a Buddha

2. The astonishing truth discovered by the Buddha can be stated as follows: (i) A “suffering-free” state (pabhassara citta) lies deep within a mind; (ii) it is covered by layers of defilements accumulated over an unimaginable time span; (iii) those defilements can be removed and the suffering-free pure mind can be recovered by following the Noble Path; (iv) our actions seeking worldly pleasures only lead to generating more defilements and getting further away from Nibbāna (the “suffering-free” pure mind.)

  • I discussed those basic ideas in the subsection “Recovering the Suffering-Free Pure Mind.
  • In other words, until a Buddha comes to the world and teaches about the “hidden pure mind” (pabhassara citta), humans know of only one way to minimize suffering/depression. That is to seek more sensory pleasures. But that only causes more future suffering.
  • Thus, humans are trapped in the rebirth process filled with mostly suffering until they comprehend the above facts and start seeing the “dangers of sensory pleasures.”
  • One begins to understand that when becoming a Sotapanna Anugāmi and elevating the understanding to the pajānāti level. That is when one starts comprehending (or “seeing with wisdom”) the “anicca nature” of worldly or sensual pleasures. However, as discussed below, even a Sotapanna has not lost the desire to enjoy sensory pleasures. Note: Anicca is pronounced “anichcha.” See “Pāli Glossary – (A-K).”
  • Thus, “anicca nature” applies to anywhere in the 31 realms of this world: It is futile (pointless/unproductive) to seek long-lasting happiness in worldly pleasures.
Analogy for the “Hidden Pure Mind”

3. We work hard most of our lives to get a good job, build a business, etc., and “build wealth.” All our efforts are focused on maximizing happiness via “collecting pleasure-generating stuff” like houses, cars, etc.

  • But even if one becomes a billionaire and has access to any sensory experience one would like, one’s physical body will start decaying in old age. Then, one will leave all that “material wealth” behind at death. Even worse, one could have done many immoral deeds in that process of “building wealth” that could lead to rebirths in the apāyās. In other words, there is suffering “hidden in pleasure seeking.”
  • All this time, the suffering-free pure mind stayed hidden. All one needed to do was to start cleansing the mind and recover that pure mind.
  • Instead of seeking “pleasure for the moment” (with hidden suffering), one should seek a suffering-free permanent state by avoiding excessive sensory pleasure. That is the advice of all the Buddhas.

4. Let us consider an analogy. Suppose a poor farmer only has a small plot of land. He makes a living by growing vegetables there. Unknown to him, there is a deposit of precious gems several hundred feet under his land. Because he is unaware of that, his only option is to work hard in the field to make a living.

  • Suppose a person with a “ground-penetrating radar” or a similar gadget surveys the ground in that area and sees a mine of gems under that farmer’s vegetable plot. He tells the farmer about his findings. Now, all that farmer has to do is start digging to find those gems.
  • Even with that knowledge, sometimes the farmer could be skeptical: What if that mine is not there? If I start digging, I need to take time away from working on the field and also sacrifice a good portion of the land to do the digging. 
  • The situation with Buddha’s teachings is similar. The Buddha says (and shows evidence) that the suffering-free mind stays hidden in all of us. All we have to do is to (i) learn the correct teachings to verify that the idea of a “hidden pure mind” makes sense and (ii) start “digging,” i.e., practicing the Noble Eightfold Path to get to the “hidden gem.”

5. Many people say, “I am busy with my job. I will start looking into it (let alone “digging”) when I retire.” But sadly, by the time most people retire, their brains do not work as efficiently (or they die soon after retiring.) It is sad to witness this situation. Some of my friends have already passed away without even looking into it. They were too busy “accumulating wealth” (starting a new business, trying to get a promotion, etc.)

  • Just like the “uninterested farmer” in the above analogy, they focused on making more money. In their mindset, acquiring more material wealth was the only way to happiness.
  • Most people can start seeing the truth about the “hidden pure mind” or the “pabhassara citta” if they spend a reasonable amount of time learning the teachings of the Buddha.
Anicca – To Realize the Futility of an Effort

6. Children like to build sandcastles. That activity gives them much pleasure. They believe such activities are of a “nicca nature,” i.e., fruitful. Note: Nicca is pronounced “nichcha.”

  • However, growing up, they lose interest in such activities because they can see that they are suitable only for children without a broader understanding of the world. Instead, they now focus on studying and getting a good job. It is evident to any adult that spending time building sandcastles is an unproductive/useless activity. Any sandcastle they build will be washed away or broken by those walking on the beach. 
  • Thus, we can say that building sandcastles — even though pleasurable at the time — has no long-term benefit. Sandcastles are of “anicca nature.” They cannot be kept in that likable form for too long. 
  • The Buddha describes that analogy in the “Satta Sutta (SN 23.2).” In that sutta, the Buddha defined a “satta” (sentient being) as one who craves worldly pleasures; they are like little children building sandcastles.

7. The anicca nature” of this world discovered by the Buddha is the basis of the uniqueness of his teachings. Even highly intelligent people can never realize that on their own. 

  • Of course, it is necessary to study to get a decent job and live comfortably to lessen the stresses of life. However, better happiness can be attained by stopping all future suffering that extends beyond this life. 
  • The anicca nature” of this world and the way to overcome it is not known to humans until a Buddha discovers it.

8. Thus, one must make wise decisions based on one’s current status. If one does not have enough resources to live a relatively worry-free, simple life, one must try to learn the necessary skills and get a decent job.

  • However, once one has enough to sustain a simple lifestyle, is it wise to try to make millions of dollars instead of uncovering the freely available pure mind (pabhassara citta)?
  • The pure mind that provides the “ultimate happiness” is there to be uncovered. Any activity related to “trying to build material wealth” is of  “anicca nature,” just like building sandcastles is of “anicca nature.”
  • That is the basis of Buddha Dhamma: to realize the “anicca nature” of worldly things or sensory pleasures, including “jhānic pleasures.” 
Seeing the Dangers of Worldly Pleasures

9. Many people say, “What is wrong with enjoying sensual pleasures as long as I don’t harm others?” If one understood the above discussion, one would not ask that question.

  • Of course, “living a moral life with sensual pleasures without harming others” is the starting point. One MUST live a moral life to be able to understand Buddha Dhamma. One can do that while being married and sustaining a family well past the Sotapanna stage and up to the Anāgāmi stage of Nibbāna.
  • See “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?”
  • The beginning of the Noble Path is to see the “anicca nature” of any worldly pleasures. That is the pajānāti level of understanding (i.e., same as Sammā Diṭṭhi or getting rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi.) With Sammā Diṭṭhi, a Sotapanna has removed wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi) that can lead to committing highly immoral deeds suitable for rebirth in the apāyās. We will discuss the connection to sakkāya diṭṭhi in the next post.
  • Please feel free to ask questions in the forum. These basic ideas form the foundation of Buddha Dhamma.
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