Anicca – True Meaning

1. It is best to start with the opposites: nicca, sukha, atta.

  • The Pali word “icca” (pronounced ichchä), means “liking”. We encounter this word also in the correct explanation of paticca samuppada, the causal theory of Buddha Dhamma; see, “Paticca Samuppada – Introduction“.
  • Nicca (pronounced nichchä) is the PERCEPTION that one can maintain things that one likes to one’s satisfaction. If this is indeed the case, then one is happy, i.e., sukha arises, or at least suffering does not arise. In that case one is in control, and there is something fruitful to be had, i.e., atta. Thus even if one needs to work hard to get something that can be maintained to one’s satisfaction, at the end one can find permanent happiness, and one is in control of one’s own destiny.
  • If something is not to one’s liking it is “anicca” (pronounced anichchä).

2. The reality is that EVERYTHING in “this world” is in constant flux. There is nothing in “this world” that can be maintained in an stable state in the LONG TERM. Of course, we can maintain a car for a long time (with constant repairs), but there comes a point when that car dies. Even if some things appear to last long, say a valuable gem, the owner has to give it up when he/she dies. Thus the reality of this world is anicca.

  • In the Dhamma Cakka Pavattaana Sutta, The Buddha said, “yam piccham na labathi thampi dukkham”, or “if one does not get what one likes or wants, then that leads to dukha”. If the “want” is not there, there will be no suffering.
  • Thus the cause of suffering is NOT impermanence, but the inability to perceive the consequence of that in one’s mind. In a world that IS inherently impermanent (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“), one CAN avoid suffering by comprehending anicca, and by not struggling to achieve the impossible.
  • Impermanence by itself does not lead to suffering. If that is the case, since no one can change that fact, no one will be able to end the suffering (and to attain Nibbana). But it is the wrong perception of nicca that leads to suffering. The correct perception of anicca (once accepted by the mind), will lead to cessation of suffering.

Also see, “Does Impermanence Lead to Suffering?“, ………..

3. When one realizes that one cannot maintain something that desired after a long struggle, one becomes distraught, depressed, unsatisfied. Thus the wrong perception of nicca (or a sense of possible fulfilment of one’s desires) ALWAYS leads to dukha or suffering at the end.

  • The mindset is that even if something is not permanent and breaks down, one can always replace it with a new one and get the sense fulfilment one desires. It is not the impermanence that gives sense of invincibility but the mindset that one can always find a replacement for it and maintain one’s happiness.
  • But if one carefully examines the wider world view of the Buddha, one can easily see that this mindset of the possibility of “long lasting happiness in this world” is an illusion.
  • No matter what we achieve in this life, we HAVE TO leave it all behind when we die.
  • And in the new life, we start all over; this is what we have been doing from beginningless time.
  • And of course we make it worse by doing immoral things “trying to maintain things to our satisfaction” and thus generating bad kamma vipaka.

4. When one realizes that one is not in control of one’s own affairs in “this world”, i.e., one realizes that one is truly helpless. This is anatta. Thus the perception of atta is an illusion, the reality is anatta.

  • The Buddha said, “asarattena anatta”, or, “anatta means there is nothing substantial, nothing fruitful to be had”, meaning all life struggles within “this world” are in vain at the end . Then we start a new life and do it all over again, and so on…

5. Now let us go back to the relationship among anicca, dukkha, anatta with the correct interpretations:

yadaniccam tan dukkham, tan dukkham tadanatta”, or,

– “if something cannot be maintained (or managed depending on the case) to one’s satisfaction, suffering arises, therefore one is helpless in the end”.

– And the reverse of it:

“if something can be maintained (managed) to one’s satisfaction,  suffering does not arise, therefore one is in control”.

6. Let us consider the same examples that we considered in bullet #6 of previous post “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.

  • If we take a “headache” as the “something”, the first statement now reads:  “if a headache cannot be maintained (managed is a better word here) to one’s satisfaction (i.e., if one cannot get rid of the headache), suffering arises, therefore one is helpless”.
  • Similarly, you can substitute anything that we considered in the previous post and see that it will hold.

7. Now let us consider the second statement: “if something can be maintained to one’s satisfaction,  suffering does not arise, therefore one is in control”.

  • Then it reads: if a headache can be maintained to one’s satisfaction (i.e., one can get rid of the headache), suffering does not arise, therefore one is in control”.
  • Anything in this world, if can be maintained to one’s satisfaction, will not lead to suffering: a disease, poverty, association with someone disliked, moving away from someone liked, etc.
  • However, in the long run, NOTHING can be maintained to one’s satisfaction. Thus the net result of the rebirth process (or sansara) is stated by the first statement.

8. In some cases, which statement holds  true depends on who is doing the evaluation. For example, when Bin Laden was killed, second statement held true for many people and they were happy; but for the followers of Bin Laden, the first statement was true.

9. Permanence/Impermanence are PROPERTIES of “things” (living beings and physical things) or “events”. On the other hand, nicca/anicca are PERCEPTIONS IN ONE’S MIND about those “things” and “events”.

  • Here is an interesting set of pictures that describe the concept of anicca clearly :
  • We need to realize that we all will go through this inevitable changes as we get old; no matter how hard we try, it is not possible to maintain ANYTHING to our satisfaction. It is the nature of “this world”.
  • Now, of course any of these celebrities (or their fans) will be saddened to see the comparison; they have not been able to maintain their bodies to their satisfaction. However, a person who is in bad terms with any of these celebrities could be happy to see the picture, because that person’s wish is to see something bad to happen to the celebrity (in this case to lose their “looks”).
  • Thus “impermanence” is something that is inevitable; it is a property of anything in this world. But “anicca” is in someone’s mind. In the above case, celebrities bodies ARE impermanent; but that did not necessarily cause suffering to ALL.
  • These pictures provide the visual impact that we do not normally get. We don’t see changes in ourselves because the change is gradual.

10. The key to attaining the Sotapanna stage is to contemplate on these concepts, using real life examples. This is true meditation. When one’s mind accepts that there is no lasting happiness anywhere in the 31 realms of “this world”, one loses the desire to crave for “things”. One becomes determined to get out of “this world” as soon as possible, and to attain permanent happiness, Nibbana.

11. No one in “this world” is exempt from these three characteristics.  Even though one may be able to find happiness at certain times, nothing we do can get us out of the realities of getting old, sick, and finally dying. Then the cycle repeats in the next life, and next, ….

12. But the good news is that we can gain a kind of happiness that will not go away, especially if one attains at least the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“, and “Nibbana – Is it Difficult to Understand?“.

13. In the Tipitaka, Anicca has been explained in many different ways. Another way is discussed in, “Anicca – Repeated Arising/Destruction“.

Next, “Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings“, ………

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