Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – According to Some Key Suttas

Revised: January 20, 2016 (meaning of “Jiguccati” in the Girimananda Sutta).

The key to understanding the First Noble Truth (dukkhā Sacca; pronounced “dukkhā sachcha”) is to understand the Three Characteristics of “this wider world of 31 realms”, i.e., anicca, dukkhā, anattā. Let us discuss how these concepts are presented in some key suttas.

Dhamma Cakka Pavattāna Sutta

1.How suffering arises from Anicca is explicitly described in the very first sutta, Dhamma Cakka Pavattāna Sutta (SN 56.11). Here is the text from the sutta:

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkham ariyasaccam:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhāṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhāṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

2. Bhikkhus, What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

  • jāti api dukkhā” means “birth of something that is not liked by one causes suffering”.  “jarā pi dukkhā” means, “decay of something that is liked causes suffering”, and “maranan pi dukkhā” means, “Death of a liked causes suffering”.
  • Then comes, “..appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho” meaning, “it brings sorrow when a loved one has to depart, and it also brings sorrow to be with a hated person”.
  1.  And then the summary of all that:  “yamp’iccham (yam pi iccham) na labhati tam’pi dukkhām”. Here we see, “ichcha” that we encountered in both anicca, dukka, anattā and also in paticca samuppada (“pati+ichcha” “sama+uppada”). And “labhati” means “get”.
  • Thus, “If one does not get one likes, that leads to suffering”. This phrase has everything condensed. This is anicca. It does not say suffering arises because of impermanence.
  • This is explained in more detail in “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.

Anattā Lakkhana Sutta

1. In the second sutta, the Anattā Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59) (which was also delivered to the five ascetics within a fortnight of the first sutta), the questions that the Buddha was asking the ascetics and their responses are given:

Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃaniccaṃ vā”ti?

  • “Aniccaṃ, bhante”.

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā”ti?

  • “Dukkhaṃ, bhante”.

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipari­ṇāma­dhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ: ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti?

  • “No hetaṃ, bhante”. 

2. The first question was, “Bhikkhus: is any rūpa nicca or anicca?” or “Bhikkhus: can any rūpa (material entity) be kept to one’s satisfaction or it cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction?”

And the bhikkhus answer: “It cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, Venerable Sir”.

  • Here it is to be noted that “rūpa” can be either internal or external. There are many rūpa in this world that are “permanent” at least compared to our lifetimes. For example, an item made of gold or a diamond can last millions of years. But neither can be kept to “our satisfaction” since we will have to give them up when we die.

3. The second question is: “Will such an entity lead to suffering or happiness?” And the bhikkhus answer: “Suffering, Venerable Sir”.

  • Here it is important to see that if an entity is not permanent, whether that will lead to suffering: How many people suffered when Bin Laden got killed? Only those who liked him to live! Many people rejoiced in his demise; this is also discussed in detail in “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.

4. The third question is: “Will such an entity that cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, that leads to suffering,  and is a viparināma dhamma, should be considered as “myself or mine, or has any substance?” And the bhikkhus answer: “No reason to think so, Venerable Sir”.

5. Here we need to pay attention to the sequence of the three questions. The Buddha was pointing out that no “rūpa” can be kept to our satisfaction, therefore that (i.e., forming attāchment to such rūpa) will lead to suffering, and therefore there is no reason to consider of them having any substance. Anicca leads to dukkhā and to anattā, because we have nicca saññā about such (anicca) rūpa.

6. The Buddha was talking about “rūpa” in general, which could be external objects or one’s own body (which are included in the pancakkhandha or the twelve ayatanas, i.e., anything in the “whole world”).

  • The second question is, “any such entity, whether in one’s own body or in the outside world will eventually lead to suffering or happiness?”, and the bhikkhus answer “Suffering”.
  • Then the third question is “If my body is such an entity, is it suitable to call it mine? if an external object is such entity, is it suitable to be called mine? and is there any substance in any of those?”
  • Thus “attā” at the end meant “substantial or fruitful or worthy“. Thus what is meant is EVERYTHING IN THIS WORLD is without substance, i.e., anattāwhich is the opposite of attā. This is why it is “sabbe dhamma anattā“, even the nama gotta that do not decay do not have any substance; see, “Difference Between Dhamma and sankhāra (Sankata)

7. Thus it is important to realize that the Buddha was not referring to just one’s body; anicca applies to all sankhāra and sankata. Nothing in this world can be kept to our satisfaction: “Sabbē sankhāra aniccā“.

  • This becomes clear when we think about it in depth. There are many external objects in this world that do not decay within our lifetimes: gold or diamonds are two good examples.
  • We may not be able to keep a gold necklace to “our liking”, for example if have to sell it to raise money if we go bankrupt. But the point is that even if we do not lose it due to such an event, we WILL lose it when we die. Either the desired object or our body WILL BE lost, i.e., we do not have the ability to maintain ANYTHING to our satisfaction.
  • Thus nicca/anicca is not “permanent/impermanent”, rather “can be /cannot be kept our satisfaction”. If suffering arises because of impermanence, then suffering cannot be stopped from arising, because impermanence is a fact of nature and CANNOT be be altered.
  • The “anicca” character does not reside in the object or the rūpa. It is in our mind. We CAN remove the wrong perception of nicca from our minds and CAN stop suffering from arising in future rebirths.
  • Then the same set of questions are repeated for vedana, saññā, sankhāra, and vinnana. None of those can be maintained to our satisfaction, i.e., they all are anicca. Thus we eventually suffer, and thus all struggles to keep them to our satisfaction are in vain and therefore, we are helpless in this rebirth process. This is anicca, dukkhā, anattā.

8. We strive to accumulate “good stuff” but will have to leave them all behind at death. When we go through the rebirth process, we just repeat this process in each life.

  • In most rebirths the suffering is great, and in some there is happiness (human, deva and brahma realms), but such “good rebirths” are encountered very rarely. The Buddha said that the lowest four realms are the “home base” for the living beings; they may visit other realms once-in-a-while, but always have to come back and spend most time in the home base.
  • This is why the Buddha said this never-ending process of the cycle of rebirths, where we suffer so much, is fruitless and one is truly helpless. This is anattā.
  • It does not make sense to say because of anicca and dukkhā, we have “no-self” or “no-soul”. Rather, as long as we have the wrong perception of anicca about anything in “this world”, we are subject to suffering and thus we are truly helpless, anattā.

Girimananda Sutta

1. Girimananda Sutta (AN 10.60) is another key sutta in the Tipitaka that describes anicca in the deepest sense. The Buddha delivered this sutta to Ven. Ananda (for him to recite to Ven. Girimananda who was in pain due to an ailment). Here is a key phrase (in the middle of the sutta):

Katamā cānanda (ca Ananda), sabba­saṅ­khā­resu anicchā saññā?

Idhānanda (Idha Ananda) bhikkhu sabba­saṅ­khā­resu aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati.

Ayaṃ vuccatānanda (vuccati Ananda), sabba­saṅ­khā­resu anicchā saññā.

Translated:

“Ananda, What is the (correct) perception of all sankhāra?

“Ananda, all sankhāra are like meatless bones, without substance, to be rejected like urine and feces”

“That is Ananda, how one should perceive all sankhāra

2. Here the Buddha is describing the characteristics of any and all sankhāra (“sabba” is “all”).

  • Atti” is “bone”. A dog really enjoys chewing a bone. But a bone has no nutrition or taste. Most of the time, the dog’s gum starts bleeding and that is what it tastes. But the dog does not realize that and values a bone very highly.
  • Hara” is “substance”, and “harāyati” is without substance.
  • Jee” and “goo” are the Pali and Sinhala words for “urine” and “feces”. As we already know, “icca” (Pronounced “ichcha”) means “like”. Thus “jiguccati” (pronounced “jiguchchathi” means “it is no different than liking urine or feces”. All (abhi)sankhāra should be treated as such things.

3. Another key point here is to note that the Buddha was talking about the “anicca saññā“, where saññā or perception is one of the main mental factors or cētasikaAnicca is a perception in our minds as we pointed out in the discussion on the Anattā Lakkhana Sutta above.

  • Impermanence is a physical reality of anything in the universe. Scientists know quite well that nothing in our universe, including the universe itself, is permanent; but that does not provide them with the perception of anicca. No scientist can attain Nibbāna via comprehending impermanence.

4. Thus it is quite clear that anicca has nothing to do with “impermanence”. Once one understands the true nature of the world, one will realize that any sankhāra (thought, speech, and action that is focused on attāining pleasurable things) is not to be valued, because none can be maintained to one’s satisfaction and will only lead to suffering at the end.

  • Actually, the fruitlessness of ALL sankhāra is perceived only at the Arahant stage. We cannot even beginning to comprehend that yet. This is why an Arahant is said to see the burden associated with even breathing (which is a kāya sankhāra). Anything we do to live in this world is a sankhāra.
  • Initially, we should try to comprehend the unsuitability of apunnābhi abhisankhāra, those associated with immoral actions. Since we can grasp the consequences of such immoral actions, we CAN get our minds to reject them. This is enough to get to the Sotapanna stage.
  • Once we do that, our cleansed minds can begin to see the fruitlessness of punnābhi abhisankhāra, and then even the pleasures of jhānic states (anenjhabhi abhisankhāra).

Iccha Sutta (Samyutta Nikāya)

It is also called Iccha Sutta (see, “Iccha Sutta“); pronounced “ichcha suththa”.  This sutta clearly describes what “icca” (and thus what anicca) is:

Kenassu bandati loko? kissa vinayaya muccati? kissassa vippahanena, sabba jindati bandanthi?

Iccaya bandathi loko, icca vinayäya muccathi, iccaya vipahanena, sabban jindathi bandanthi

Translated: 

“What binds the world together? How does one get released? How can one gain release?

The world is bound by icca, one becomes free by losing icca, one becomes free of all bonds by losing icca

The word “icca” means “liking” and is closely related to “nicca“. Of course “nicca” means the perception that one can maintain those things  to one’s satisfaction (and “anicca” means the opposite). The perception of nicca leads to icca, i.e., one believes that worldly things can provide everlasting happiness and thus one likes to hold on to them. Just like an octopus grabs things with all its eight legs and will not let go, humans (and other beings too) grab onto to worldly things with the hope of enjoying them.

The Key Problem with Sutta Interpretations

There are many, many suttas in the Tipitaka that describe anicca, dukkhā, anattā. But if one starts off with the wrong interpretations, some of those suttas can be interpreted the wrong way, because the suttas themselves are not designed to describe the concepts in detail. Rather the suttas provide brief descriptions or the niddēsa version, and commentaries (Sinhala atthakatha) were supposed to provide the detailed (patiniddēsa) descriptions; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.

  • The root cause for the confusion has been the acceptance of the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa as THE key commentary by the Theravada tradition.
  • Nowadays, most bhikkhus do not read the Tipitaka or the remaining three original commentaries that are in the Tipitaka; they just follow what is in the Visuddhimagga. This has been the single-most obstacle for people attāining Nibbāna for the past many hundreds of years.
  • Luckily, we have three of the original commentaries (Sinhala atthakatha) preserved in the Tipitaka; see, “Misinterpretations of Buddha Dhamma” and “Preservation of the Dhamma“.

Next, “If Everything is Anicca Should We Just give up Everything?“, ………..

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