Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like

Re-written May 26, 2019; revised June 13, 2020

This post originally had the title, “Anicca – Inability to Maintain Anything”. I have re-written with a new title to emphasize the meaning in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11); for more details: “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta“.

Anicca in the First Noble Truth

1. The First Noble Truth clearly states that anicca nature is the root cause of suffering. Let us look at how the Buddha summarized the First Noble Truth about suffering in that very first sutta he delivered.

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkham ariya saccam:

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

Translated: Bhikkhus, What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

Birth is suffering, getting old is suffering, getting sick is suffering, dying is suffering. Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering and having to separate from those things one likes is suffering. If one does not get what one likes, that is suffering – in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna(pancupādānakkhandha). Pancupādānakkhandha (upādāna or the “tendency to keep close” of pancakkhandha) includes all that we crave for in this world.

  • Note that “yampicchaṃ” is “yam pi icchaṃ” or “what one likes.”
Analysis of the First Noble Truth

2. The first part in bold indicates what we consider to be forms of suffering: Birth, getting old, getting sick, and dying.

  • We may not remember, but birth is a traumatic event, just like the dying moment. Coming out of the birth canal is a traumatic event for both the mother and the baby. More importantly, all births LEAD to suffering, because getting old, getting sick, and eventual death is built-in with ANY birth. Each and every birth ends up in death. That is another, inevitable suffering associated with birth.
  • We also DO NOT LIKE to get old, to get sick, and we definitely do not like to die. If we have to experience any of them, that is suffering.
  • What we WOULD LIKE is to stay young, not get old, not get sick, and not to die ever. If we can have those conditions fulfilled we will be forever happy.
  • Therefore, the suffering that the Buddha taught in his first discourse was associated with the rebirth process.

3. That is what the second part of the verse in #1 (not in bold) says: Having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering and having to separate from those things one likes is suffering. 

  • We all have experienced sorrow when separating from those who we like. We also feel distressed when we have to associate with those who we do not like.
  • If we can be born instantaneously at a young age (say, 15 to 25 years), and stay at that age without getting old or sick and never die, that is what we WOULD LIKE. But no matter how much we would like to associate with such a life, we will NEVER get it.
  • Instead, we have to suffer through each life. Each birth ends up in death. Furthermore, we suffer when getting old, when getting sick/injured, and finally when dying. There is no way to dissociate from those four things that we do not like.
  • But that is not the end of it. We keep doing this over and over in the rebirth cycle. Furthermore, things can get much worse in the lowest four realms, including the animal realm.
We Suffer When We Do Not Get What We Desire

4. Both those parts are combined into one succinct statement in the third part of the verse in #1 (in bold): “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham“.

Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham” is actually a shortened version of the verse (that rhymes).
The full sentence is “Yam pi iccam na labhati tam pi dukkham“.

  • Yam pi iccam” means “whatever is liked or craved for”. “Na labhati” means “not getting”. “tam pi dukkham” means “that leads to suffering”.
  • Therefore, that verse simply says: “If one does not get what one craves or likes, that leads to suffering”.
  • This is a more general statement and applies in any situation.  We can see that in our daily lives. We like to hang out with people we like and it is a stress to be with people that we do not like.
  • Furthermore, the more one craves something, the more suffering one will endure at the end. But this requires a lot of discussions.
Anicca – The Inability to Fulfill Our Desires

5. The negation of the word “nicca” is “anicca” (“na” + “icca“), just like the word Anāgāmi comes from “na” + “āgāmi“. Therefore, even though we would like the Nature to be “nicca“, in reality, it is “anicca“, i.e., it is not possible, in the long run, to have, to be with, what we like, and that is the root cause of suffering. One may live most of one’s life happily, but one would have to leave all that behind when one dies.

  • A deeper point is that we all like to born in good realms, but most future births will NOT be to our liking, but are based on “Paṭicca Samuppāda“.
  • By the way, Pāli words “icca” and “anicca” are pronounced “ichcha” and “anichcha”.
  • Not getting what one desires or craves is the opposite of “icca” or “na icca” or “anicca“. This is the same way that “na ā­gami” becomes “Anā­gā­mi” (“na ā­gami” means “not coming back”; but in the context of Anā­gā­mi, it means “not coming back to kā­ma lōka or the lowest 11 realms. Both these are examples of Pāli sandhi rules (connecting two words together).

6. Therefore, “yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham” is the most important verse in the first sutta delivered by the Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It provides the key to understanding the Buddha’s message and led to the attaining the Sōtapanna stage by the five ascetics.

  • Note that icca and iccha (ඉච්ච and ඉච්ඡ in Sinhala) appear in the Tipiṭaka under different suttā. The word “iccha” with the emphasis on the last syllable is used to indicate “strong icca” or “strong attachment”.
  • The word “icca” (liking) is closely related to “taṇhā” (getting attached). Tanhā happens automatically because of icca.
  • The intrinsic nature of this world is “anicca“, i.e., we will never get what we crave for, and thus at the end (at least at death) we will leave all this behind and suffer, that is dukkha.
Nicca – The Wrong Perception We Have

7. It is important to realize that nicca 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, in the end, one can find permanent happiness, and one is in control of one’s own destiny.
  • Humans normally have that nicca saññā and work hard to gain material things. But at death, one has to leave behind all those possessions, and thus one’s life ALWAYS ends in despair and suffering (in addition to suffering due to old age).
  • Until one realizes the true “anicca nature”, one will be trapped in the rebirth process, and will be subjected to much suffering because of that inherent “anicca nature”. The Buddha advised cultivating the anicca saññā.
  • More information on anicca as the opposite of “nicca“: “Three Marks of Existence – English Discourses“.
Root Cause of Suffering Is Anicca Nature

8. Thus the root cause of suffering is NOT impermanence, even though it does play a role.

  • The world is inherently impermanent (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“).  However, 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 Nibbāna).
  • It is the wrong PERCEPTION (saññā) of nicca that leads to suffering. We struggle to find lasting happiness in a world that intrinsically has anicca nature.
  • That wrong perception CAN BE changed by learning and contemplating on Dhamma, i.e., by cultivating the anicca saññā.
  • The CORRECT PERCEPTION of anicca (once accepted by the mind), will lead to cessation of suffering (via the four stages of Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant).

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

Things We Like Cannot Be Kept That Way for Too Long

9. The above point can be illustrated with the following video:

  • We need to realize that we all will go through such 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) would 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 the perception of “anicca” is in someone’s mind. In the above case, bodies of celebrities ARE impermanent; but that did not necessarily cause suffering to ALL. Even those celebrities, If they realize that anicca nature cannot be avoided, would not undergo additional suffering by subjecting themselves to plastic surgeries, botox treatments, etc. Most of all, depression can be avoided.
  • Anicca nature leads to suffering for ALL. But many go through added suffering by trying to “overcome it.” More importantly, one can stop future suffering by comprehending the anicca nature.
Root Cause of Depression

10. When one realizes that one cannot maintain something that desired after a long struggle, one becomes distraught, depressed, unsatisfied (“yam pi iccam na labati tam pi dukkham”, where “na labati” means “not get”). Thus the wrong perception of nicca (or a sense of fulfillment 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 feel a sense of fulfillment one desires. It is not the impermanence that gives a 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 beginning-less time.
  • And of course, we make it worse by doing immoral things “trying to maintain things to our satisfaction” and thus generating bad kamma vipāka, leading to immense suffering in the four lowest realms (apāyā).
Anicca Nature Leads to Suffering and Helplessness

11. In the Samyutta Nikāya (Anicca Vagga), many suttā including Ajjhattanicca Sutta (SN 35.1), Bahiranicca Sutta (SN 35.4), and Yadanicca sutta (SN 22.15), the Buddha stated that the three characteristics of “this world” (anicca, dukkha, anatta) are RELATED to each other:

yadaniccam tam dukkham, tam dukkham tadanatta” (expanded to “yad aniccam tam dukkham, tam dukkham tad anatta), 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”.

Impermanence Does Not Always Lead to Suffering

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

  • If we take a “headache” as the “something”, the statement now reads as follows.  “if a headache cannot be managed 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.
  • On the other hand, if anicca means “impermanence”, the statement reads:  “if a headache is impermanent, suffering arises, therefore one is helpless”. That is obviously not correct. Suffering would arise only if the headache becomes permanent!
Anicca Nature Is There in All the Realms of This World

13. No existence in “this world” is exempt from these three characteristics. It applies to all 31 realms. 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, ….

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

15. The Tipiṭaka describes the concept of anicca in many different ways. Two more are discussed in, “Anicca – Repeated Arising/Destruction” and “Anicca – Worthlessness of Worldly Things“.

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