Anicca – The Incessant Distress (“Pīḷana”)

Revised July 14, 2018; June 15, 2019; re-written with the new title June 1, 2020; revised July 3, 2022

Key Verse in The Girimānanda Sutta

1. In the “Girimananda Sutta (AN 10.60)“, the Buddha stated key features of the anicca nature of “all saṅ­khā­ra”: “Katamā cānanda, sabba­saṅ­khā­resu anicchāsaññā? Idhānanda, bhikkhu sabba­saṅ­khā­resu aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati. Ayaṃ vuccatānanda, sabba­saṅ­khā­resu anicchāsaññā”.

Translated: “Ānanda, what is the anicca saññā associated with all ­saṅ­khā­ra? One is subjected to stress; one should be ashamed of engaging in such useless activity, and liking saṅ­khā­ra is like embracing urine and feces. That is the anicca saññā associated with all ­saṅ­khā­ra”.

  • We will briefly discuss the “aṭṭīyati” nature. “Atti” means “bones” (ඇට in Sinhala). A dog thinks that a bone is precious. It spends hours and hours chewing it and becomes tired in the end. Sometimes, the bone would scrape the gum, and the dog would taste its own blood, thinking it tasted the bone.
  • Of course, anicca nature at this deep level can be grasped only by those with higher magga phala.
  • We only get tired and stressed out (pīḷana) by generating all types of ­saṅ­khā­ra. However, we do not realize that while making that effort. That is why saṅ­khā­ra dukkha” remains hidden.
  • We engage in mano, vaci, and kāya ­saṅ­khā­ra; see “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”
The Mental Suffering (Pīḷana)

2. Most people think that the first Noble Truth on suffering (dukkha sacca) is the physical suffering itself, i.e., they associate it with dukhavedanā, which is part of the vedanā cetasika. However, the Buddha said, “This Dhamma is unlike anything the world has ever seen.” The real truth about suffering is the following. It is the suffering hidden in what everyone perceives to be happiness. That needs to be seen with the paññā (wisdom) cetasika.

  • Thus, “seeing dukkha sacca with wisdom” means “seeing the suffering hidden in sensory pleasures.”
  • It is difficult to understand the first Noble Truth about suffering for someone feeling too much suffering. When someone is hurting from an ailment or their mind is too weak in old age, it is impossible to contemplate the Buddha’s profound message, as we will see below.

3. Dukkha sacca (pronounced “sachcha”) is the Truth of Suffering; sacca is the truth.

That is the kind of meditation (contemplation) one needs to do initially, even before starting on the Ariya Anāpānasati bhāvanā. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding the real message of the Buddha first.

Incessant Distress/Depression (Pīḷana)

4. Even though we do not realize it, we are stressed out ALL THE TIME. Constant work is necessary to keep our physical body in good condition. Anyone who has had temporary relief from this constant distress (pīḷana) via a good meditation program (even the mundane “breath meditation”) knows this; it is called nirāmisa sukha. It is even more apparent if one can have a jhānic experience. Only when one gets into a jhānic state that one realizes that one has been under incessant stress all life.

  • We do not realize this because this is the “baseline” for existence (our “comfort zone”); this is what we have done over innumerable rebirths.
  • To get some relief from this constant distress, we strive to bring about periods of happiness. We keep thinking of ways to get a better house, car, or zillions of other “things” that are supposed to provide us joy. Thus, we ALWAYS stress to adjust this “baseline comfort zone.” We move to a bigger house, buy new furniture, work harder to get a better job, etc.
  • Furthermore, when we go below the current “comfort level,” we need to do work (kāya saṅkhāra) to remedy that. For example, when we get hungry, we may have to prepare a meal or walk/drive to a restaurant to get a snack.
  • Or, we may be sitting at home, satisfied after a meal, but then all of a sudden, we again go “below the comfort level” for no apparent reason; we just become “bored” sitting at home and think about going to a movie. So, we get in the car and drive to a movie theater.
  • I am sure you can think about zillion such things we do all day.
Dukkha Dukkha – Doubling the Suffering

5. We have to endure injuries and various sicknesses because of our physical bodies. That physical body had origins in the past kamma. Then, based on such physical ailments, we also suffer mentally.

  • Such “distresses” belong to one type of dukkha. That is dukkha dukkha.” Thus, on top of physical suffering, we double that suffering by such “mental suffering. That mental suffering is part of “samphassa-ja-vēdanā.” See “Vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways.”
  • In addition to direct ailments, other forms of suffering are associated with the physical body. We get hungry, thirsty, lonely, bored, etc. Thus, we need to attend to our physical bodies’ needs continually. It is like taking care of an invalid. These are all part of “dukkha dukkha.”
Saṅkhāra Dukkha

6. Our senses continually ask for enjoyment. We want to see beautiful things, hear pleasurable sounds, smell sweet fragrances, and taste sumptuous foods. The body wants luxurious touches, and the mind likes to think about pleasant thoughts.

  • Then we have to do things (via kāya saṅkhāra) to satisfy these “urges.” That is saṅkhāra dukkha mentioned in #1 above.
  • In addition to doing work, going to a restaurant, traveling to a cinema, etc., we also need to do a job to make money for all those activities. Constant work (saṅkhārā) is required to keep us afloat.
  • Most times, we get one urge on top of another: we may want to eat and drink, we may want to watch a movie, but we also may want company (gather friends).
  • We do not realize this suffering because our minds are focused on THE RESULT, the pleasure we MIGHT have after doing all that work. That “made-up mental pleasure” is another part of “samphassa-ja-vēdanā” mentioned above.
  • You may be thinking, “What is he talking about? Isn’t this what life is supposed to be?”. Exactly! We do not realize this because this is our “baseline” of existence. We have done this over and overextending to beginning-less time, and we PERCEIVE this to be “normal.”
Dukkha Dukkha and Saṅkhāra Dukkha Go Together

7. What we perceive as happiness comes from the relief we get when the distress level decreases due to our efforts. We suppress “imbalances” or “take actions to bring it to balance.” We get relief from that. But the same imbalance keeps returning, and we will have to go over the same “balancing act” again! Let us consider an example.

  • We naturally get hungry and thirsty, two main “pīlana” that we cannot avoid as long as we have this physical body.
  • However, when we eat and drink, that leads to a sense of happiness. But we never think this “happiness” arose due to inevitable distress.
  • If we cannot find water when we get thirsty, that will lead to real suffering. At that point, a glass of water will taste heavenly. However, after drinking a glass or two, we will not be able to enjoy drinking more water.
  • That “happiness” actually arose when getting rid of the pīḷana due to thirst.
  • The problem is that hunger/thirst keeps coming back!

8. The reality is that no matter what we do to please the senses, those delightful moments are limited. They do not arise without “pīḷana” or inherent distress associated with the body. Even if we can maintain that sensory fulfillment for a long time, we become tired after a while. Then the mind asks for a different kind of experience. Let us look at some examples.

  • We are thrilled to be in an air-conditioned room in a warm climate. But we would not like to be in an air-conditioned room in the middle of winter in Alaska, where we would like the place to be warmed up. “Happiness” is not associated with cold or hot air. We will feel happy when we remove “pīḷana” or the discomfort/distress for the body by cooling or warming the environment.
  • We can be lying in the most comfortable bed, but sooner or later, we start shifting and rolling, trying to find a better posture, and eventually cannot stay in bed anymore.
  • The most beautiful scenery can be watched only for so long and would get boring.  The joy of sex is gone once satisfied, and that urge will not arise until at a later time again.
Viparināma Dukkha

9. Then there is a third type of suffering called “viparināma dukkha.” That is also associated with the body due to “unexpected changes” and eventual death. That is called “viparināma” dukkha.

  • For example, an accident can cause injury. We may come down with a major illness like cancer anytime.
  • Death cannot be avoided in ANY realm and is “built-in” suffering. That WILL NOT be stopped until Parinibbāna.
  • All three types of suffering are associated with anicca nature. Because of the anicca nature, dukkha arises inevitably. That is why we are helpless (anatta) in the rebirth process! 
  • Thus, anicca, dukkha, and anatta are interrelated. See, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”
The Three Types of Suffering

10. In summary, out of the three types of suffering, we notice (and worry about) only the viparināma dukkha.

  • One may not even notice the other two types of suffering (dukkha dukkha and saṅkhāra dukkha). They are masked by our perceived “happiness.” Especially those of us who are born with a reasonable level of wealth can overcome both easily.
  • If we don’t get enough to eat before starving, it becomes “suffering.” Furthermore, we don’t need to go hunting and kill an animal to eat; we can go to a restaurant and have a nice meal.
  • Therefore, those two types of suffering are hidden from us. But we know that many people feel such suffering.

11. The worse part is that in the lowest four realms, beings become truly helpless (anatta.) There is little one can do (saṅkhāra) to make amends for the incessant dukkha dukkha in those realms.

  • For example, a wild animal has few choices when hungry. It may go hungry for days with much suffering.
  • In the wild, you do not see any old, sick animals. When they become weak, they are eaten by bigger, stronger animals. That is the true meaning of anatta. There is absolute helplessness, especially in those lower realms.
Suffering Is Present in All Realms

12. There is nowhere in the 31 realms where dukkha is absent. The three types of dukkha are present in the 31 realms in varying degrees:

  • In the lowest realm, the niraya, dukkha dukkha is predominant; there is only suffering and no way to get relief by doing saṅkhāra. Even in the animal realm, there is relatively little saṅkhāra dukkha; mainly, physical suffering manifests there, as pointed out above.
  • In the higher realms (above the human realm), there is very little dukkha dukkha because those are “good births” that originated due to meritorious kamma. In these higher realms, the viparināma dukkha ends their life there. Also, any Brahma has not overcome suffering in the lowest four realms in the future unless they have attained magga phala.
  • It is in the human realm that all three types of dukkha are present at significant levels. The saṅkhāra dukkha is highest in the human realm compared to all the realms.

13. What we discussed is the First Noble Truth, Dukkha Sacca. There is hidden dukkha, even in bouts of apparent happiness. There is no place within the 31 realms where dukkha can be overcome. See “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”

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