Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Distortion Timeline

Anicca, dukkha, and anatta are fundamental concepts in Buddhism. Their true meanings “went underground” with the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism only about 500 years after the Buddha.

July 10, 2023


1. As discussed below, anicca, dukkha, and anatta (commonly represented by the word Tilakkhana) are fundamental concepts that are at the root of Buddha’s teachings. They are at the level of the Four Noble Truths and Paṭicca Samuppāda. If one understands Tilakkhana, one would understand the Four Noble Truths and Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • The correct interpretations of Buddha’s teachings “went underground” with the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism only about 500 years after the Buddha. We discussed that timeline in the post “Counterfeit Buddhism – Current Mainstream Buddhism,”
  • Here we will focus on Tilakkhana.
Commonly Accepted Worldview – The Opposite of Tilakkhana

2. The common view/belief of average humans is that the world is a “good place;” if we work hard enough, we can live happy and prosperous lives. That may seem to be accurate, especially for wealthy and healthy people.

  • Most religions teach how to live a moral life and the way to minimize suffering by living a moral life.
  • They also teach one will be either in Heaven (with the Creator) or Hell (where suffering is great) FOREVER after this life. One will be judged solely on how one lives the present life and ends up in Heaven or Hell.
Tilakkhana – Three Characteristics of the World

3. The Buddha also emphasized the need to live a moral life. However, the Buddha pointed out a few critical points:
(i) Some suffering is associated with even the richest and healthiest people, even at the peak of their lives. Furthermore, the degrading of health and eventual death is inevitable for all.
(ii) It does not make sense to be “judged” based on the actions of one lifetime. If a newborn baby dies after a few days/months, how will that baby be judged to be reborn in Heaven or Hell?
(iii) Life continues after death; most future rebirths are associated with much more suffering. 

  • The Buddha summarized the nature of the world (both in this life and in the rebirth process) using just three words: anicca, dukkha, and anatta. However, one could write a book explaining each of those words.
  • Even though the combined name for them — Tilakkhana — does not appear in the Tipiṭaka, it is a concise way to represent the “three characteristics” since “ti” means “three” and “lakkhana” means “characteristics.”
  • Buddha’s characterization of the world (Tilakkhana) describes precisely the OPPOSITE of the commonly-accepted worldview that one can find happiness in this world. That is why the Buddha stated that his teachings were “previously unknown to the world.”
The Critical Importance of Tilakkhana

4. The critical importance of comprehending the world’s anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature is stated in several suttās. For example, “Sutavanta Sutta (SN 22.123)” states that a person seeking the Sotapanna stage of nibbāna must contemplate the Tilakkhana.

  • Then at markers 3.2 through 3.5, the sutta states that the higher stages of nibbāna are also reached via contemplating the Tilakkhana.
  • Note that the English translation in the above link incorrectly translates “anicca” as “impermanence” and “anatta” as “not-self.”
  • We must remember that understanding Tilakkhana is equivalent to understanding the Four Noble Truths or Paṭicca Samuppāda. Understanding one of them means one has understood the other two. For example, one cannot understand the Noble Truths without understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda or Tilakkhana. See “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”

5. The “Velāma Sutta (AN 9.20)” states, “yo ca accharāsaṅghātamattampi aniccasaññaṁ bhāveyya, idaṁ tato mahapphalataran” ti” OR “It would be very fruitful (mahapphala) to cultivate anicca saññāeven for as long as a finger-snap.” The sutta states that it would be more meritorious than offering a meal to the Buddha or a hundred pacceka Buddhas.

  • Of course, to cultivate the anicca saññā, one must first understand the concept of anicca. See “Anicca – True Meaning.”
  • Anicca nature” of the world basically means that it is unfruitful and even dangerous to be attached to worldly things; that understanding simultaneously leads to seeing all three characteristics and attaining the Sotapanna stage of nibbāna. That is the same as the removal of the wrong view of “sakkāya diṭṭhi.”
  • I plan to revise the old posts in this section on Tilakkhana to add more depth.
  • It is critical to realize that Tilakkhana cannot be stated with the three words impermanence, suffering, and ‘no-self.’ Even “dukkha” (dukha +khaya) does not merely mean “suffering” but also “that suffering can be stopped.” See “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”
Tilakkhana Cannot be Represented by “Impermanence, Suffering, and ‘No-Self'”

6. Anicca, dukkha, and anatta DO NOT have equivalent single words in any language and require lengthy explanations. Even in the Pāli Tipiṭaka, anicca, dukkha, and anatta are discussed and explained with over a hundred suttās. 

  • The Tipiṭaka Commentary Paṭisambhidāmagga points out (in theVipassanākathā” section) that the following words can be used to represent “anicca” nature: Palokatoti (subject to destruction), Calatoti (unsteady/shaky), Pabhaṅgutoti (breakable), Vipariṇāmadhammatoti (subject to unexpected change), Vibhavatoti (tendency to wear out), Saṅkhatatoti (prepared – by the mind), Maraṇadhammatoti (subject to inevitable death), Addhuvatoti (not permanent).
  • Let us look at the list of similar words for “anatta” in the above link: Paratoti (not belonging to oneself), Rittatoti (devoid of value/meaningless), Tucchatoti (to be looked down upon), Suññatoti (devoid of anything meaningful), Asārakatoti (devoid of anything useful.) The translation of “anatta” as “no-self” is also only close to Paratoti (not belonging to oneself) in the above list. 
  • Finally, “dukkha” has twenty-five (25) synonyms listed in the above link! Some of those are: Rogatoti (subject to sickness), Gaṇḍatoti (like an infested wound), Sallatoti (pierced by a sharp spear), Bhayatoti (subject to danger), and Asaraṇatoti (liable to be helpless.)
  • Different synonyms may apply under different conditions. The English words impermanence, suffering, and “no-self” convey only a small part of the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, and anatta.
  • Some of those synonyms are discussed in various suttās. For example, Paloka in “Palokadhamma Sutta (SN 33.84)“; Pabhaṅgutoti in “Pabhaṅgu Sutta (SN 22. 32)“; Vibhavatoti in “Udāna sutta (SN 22.55)“; Maraṇadhammatoti in “Abhaya sutta (AN 4.184).
How Did the Meanings Become Distorted?

7. Today, anicca, dukkha, and anatta are commonly translated into English with just three words: impermanence, suffering, and “no-self.” How did that happen?

  • As discussed in the post “Counterfeit Buddhism – Current Mainstream Buddhism,” Buddha’s teachings started “going underground” with the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism just 500 years after the Buddha, as he had predicted.
  • That was when Mahāyānists substituted the Pāli words anicca, dukkha, and anatta with the Sanskrit words anitya, duḥkha, and anātma.
Gradual Transformation of Buddhism

8. The emergence of Mahāyāna and the simultaneous submergence of the true teachings happened gradually over a few hundred years; also see “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze.”

  • The transformation started with the direct translation of Pāli suttās to Sanskrit. Only a few of them have survived; see “Sanskrit Canonical Discourses.” Those “Sanskritized Pāli suttās” were found outside India since any trace of Buddhism (even Mahāyāna) disappeared in India well before the Europeans conquered India. One of those is “The Questions of Nālaka.” I have linked to the verse (@SC 17) with “anityaṁ duḥkham anātmeti sarvakleśapradāraṇīṁ.” The Sanskrit translation of anicca, dukkha, and anatta as anitya duḥkha anātma is also in the Wikipedia article “Three marks of existence.” 
  • (Note: After getting started with translating Pāli suttās to Sanskrit, philosophers like Nagarjuna started writing brand new Sanskrit sutrās; they were not translations of Pāli suttās but were their own writings. That happened later, close to the peak of Mahāyāna. See “Counterfeit Buddhism – Current Mainstream Buddhism,”)
  • The issue is that the Sanskrit words anitya, duḥkha, and anātma do mean impermanence, suffering, and “no-self.” Thus, the complex Pāli words anicca, dukkha, and anatta were first got substituted by the simple Sanskrit words anitya, duḥkha, and anātma. Then the meanings of those Sanskrit words were incorporated into Theravāda during the peak period of Mahāyāna. That was hailed as a “much-needed revision and simplification of Buddhism” by Mahāyānists.
  • For example, even though the Pāli Tipiṭaka still has the Pāli words anicca and anatta, the 2005 Sinhala translation uses Sinhala words අනිත්‍ය and අනාත්ම which correspond to the meanings of the Sanskrit words anitya and anātma. In the same way, now those words are directly translated to English as impermanence and ‘no-self,’ which correspond to the Sanskrit anitya and anātma and not Pāli anicca and anatta(the apparent closeness of these words is misleading; they have very different meanings.)

9. Thus the practice of translating key Pāli words (such as anicca, dukkha, and anatta) started with Sanskrit during the heyday of Mahāyāna many centuries ago. The problem is that the Sanskrit words anitya and anātma SPECIFICALLY mean impermanence and ‘no-self,’ whereas the Pāli words anicca and anatta have a variety of possible meanings, as pointed out in #6 above. 

  • By the way, the Buddha did not prohibit explaining his teachings in any language. It is just that DIRECT TRANSLATION of some keywords is not possible and can lead to critical errors. That was most likely to happen with Sanskrit since both Pāli and Sanskrit may have had the same roots. The Sinhala language (before “Sanskritization”) used the exact Pāli words, anicca and anatta (අනිච්ච, අනත්ත), but in 2005 Sinhala translation of the Tipiṭaka used the Sanskrit words anitya, anātma (අනිත්‍ය, අනාත්ම.)
  • It is worth pointing out that the words anitya and anātma do not appear at all in the Pāli Tipiṭaka. They are exclusively Sanskrit words. 
  • The Buddha knew that any connection with Sanskrit would lead to the distortion of his teachings. 
The Buddha Prohibited Translation of Tipiṭaka into Sanskrit

10. During the time of the Buddha, there were two Brahmins by the names of Yameḷa and Kekuṭa who were experts on the Vedic Texts in Sanskrit; they became bhikkhus and asked the Buddha whether they should translate the Pāli suttās to Sanskrit. I briefly referred to it in #12 of “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars,” but it is good to explain as it appears in the “Vinaya Piṭaka” of the Tipiṭaka.

The following quote extracted from: Vinaya texts : Davids, T. W. Rhys (Thomas William Rhys), 1843-1922, tr : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.  (Relevant section starts at the bottom of p. 149)

I. Now at that time there were two brothers, Bhikkhus, by name Yameḷa and Tekuṭa, Brahmans by birth, excelling in speech, excelling in pronunciation. These went up to the place where the Blessed One was, and when they had come there, they saluted the Blessed One, and took their seats on one side. And so sitting those Bhikkhus spake to the Blessed One thus :

“At the present time, Lord, Bhikkhus, differing in name, differing in lineage, differing in birth, differing in family, have gone forth (from the world). These corrupt the word of the Buddhas by (repeating it in) their own dialect. Let us, Lord, put the word of the Buddhas into (Sanskrit) verse.”

“How can you, O foolish ones, speak thus, saying, ‘Let us. Lord, put the word of the Buddhas into verse’? This will not conduce, O foolish ones, either to the conversion of the unconverted, or to the increase of the converted; but rather to those who have not been converted being not converted, and to the turning back of those who have been converted.”

And when the Blessed One had rebuked those Bhikkhus, and had delivered a religious discourse, he addressed the Bhikkhus, and said:

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to put the word of the Buddha (buddhavacanaṁ) into (Sanskrit) verse. Whosoever does so shall be guilty of a dukkaa. I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddha each in his own dialect (sakāya niruttiyā)’

  • A version of the above translation also appears in “Chulavagga 5.33.”

11. The ruling at the end of the above quote is the translation of: na, bhikkhave, buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropetabbaṁ. Yo āropeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassa. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ pariyāpuṇitun”ti.

  • Thus, it is pretty clear that the Buddha made it an offense to express Buddha Dhamma in Sanskrit. He also clearly allowed the teaching of Buddha Dhamma to people “in their own dialect” (sakāya niruttiyā). Here “sakāya niruttiyā” means “explaining the meanings in their dialect.”
  • However, as we saw above, some started translating Pāli suttās into Sanskrit only about 500 years after the Buddha. The replacement of the Pāli words anicca and anatta with the Sanskrit words anitya and anātma was probably the catalyst for the “simplification efforts” by Nagarjuna and others later. This is a prime example of the dangers of word-by-word translations of the Tipiṭaka.
Sanskrit – Musical Overtones

12. Here is the link to the Pāli and English translation of the same description in the Vinaya Piṭaka at Sutta Central (though a few verses are missing): “Khuddakavatthukkhandhaka.” In the Sutta Central English translation, the Pāli word for Sanskrit (chandasa) is translated as “metrical.”

  • The word “metrical” there comes from “Metre (music).” There is a reason to call Sanskrit a language with “musical overtones.” Pāli and Sanskrit had roots in the Māgadhi language the Buddha believed to have spoken. For example, dhamma and kamma changed (or “Sankritized”) to dharma and karma, and Paṭicca Samuppāda to “Pratītyasamutpāda.” Vedic Brahmins ignored the “phonetics” (sounds indicating meanings) and made-up “sophisticated sounding” words with “musical overtones.” In the old days, the use of Sanskrit was forbidden to “people of lower caste.”
  • By the way, Tipiṭaka was also “Sankritized” as Tripiṭaka. Most Sinhalese, even today, use the word Tripiṭaka instead of Tipiṭaka; that itself shows the influence of Mahāyāna in Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
  • One can easily see the musical overtones in the “Sankritized” words.
Most Theravāda Bhikkhus are Ignorant of the Above Facts

13. Most Theravāda bhikkhus are unaware of what I explained above. They adhere to the disastrous practice of word-by-word translations of the Tipiṭaka into English, a common practice at the Sutta Central website. Of course, many other bhikkhus engage in that practice, including those who translated the Tipiṭaka into the Sinhala language in 2005 (this was a less severe problem because many Pāli keywords have identical words in the Sinhala language.) 

  • To make matters much worse, they use the translation of anitya and anātma (as impermanence and ‘no-self.’) They are breaking a Vinaya rule that prohibited the use of Sanskrit in any manner.
  • Of course, there are other “mistranslations,” such as translating  Ānāpānasati as “breath meditation.” See “Elephants in the Room.”
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