August 20, 2017; revised June 8, 2020
Different Meanings of Anicca
1. Anicca (pronounced “anichcha”) is a profound concept that has several meanings (impermanence is only a small part of it). We discussed one interpretation as “it is not possible to maintain anything in this world to one’s satisfaction”; see, “Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like.”
- Another interpretation is the following. Whatever that seems to provide lasting happiness arises and destroyed. Anything is subjected to unpredictable changes (viparināma) while it lasts. See, “Anicca – Repeated Arising/Destruction.”
- Here we discuss another: There is nothing in this world that is valuable and can provide lasting happiness. Not only that, but more craving can only lead to more suffering!
We Like to Get Hold of Things That We Like (Crave)
2. The desire (iccā or icchā; pronounced “ichchā”) for any object depends on the value that one places for that object. If one realizes that the object does not have any significant value, then one would not have any desire for that object.
- One has iccā for a given object which one perceives it to be of “nicca” (pronounced “nichcha”) nature, i.e., that one thinks has value and can provide happiness.
- If one realizes that a given object does not have a real value, one loses craving for that. The anicca nature means NOTHING in this world has real value. Of course, full comprehension comes only at the Arahant stage. The starting point is to see that immoral actions MUST BE avoided regarding even “seemingly high-value things.”
The Perception of “Value” Depends on One’s Level of Understanding
3. Suppose you give the following choices for a five-year-old. A giant chocolate bar or the title to a brand new house (written to his/her name so that the child will be the owner of the house).
- What will the child choose? Of course, the child will want chocolate, and he/she will have no idea how a piece of paper can be more valuable than tasty chocolate! Thus the child has the perception of nicca for the chocolate, i.e., that it can bring happiness whereas the happiness from the house is hard to be grasped by the child.
- However, when that same child grows up and becomes an adult, he/she will choose the title to the house without hesitation. By that time, he/she would have realized that a house is much more valuable than a bar of chocolate. The adult will recognize the “anicca nature” of the chocolate: it can only bring happiness only for a few minutes!
- Did anyone have to explicitly tell that adult that the title to the house is much more worth than chocolate? No. One would realize that when one learns more about the world.
- Just the same way, when one learns Dhamma, one will AUTOMATICALLY realize that nothing in this world has real value. But that realization comes gradually.
The Tendency to Do Immoral Deeds Based on Cravings
4. All immoral deeds (dasa akusala) are done because of the “value” that one places on worldly things. A child may hit another over that chocolate. An adult may be willing to lie, steal, or even kill to get possession of a house.
- When that adult grasps the critical message of the Buddha, he/she will realize the “anicca nature” of the house too. That even craving for a house is not worth compared to the “cooling down” one can gain by getting rid of the cravings associated with the house. Of course, one does not need to get rid of the house.
- He/she would realize that collecting “valuables” like houses, cars, etc. or making a lot of money (much more than one needs) can bring only suffering at the end (and lose precious time one could have spent on learning Dhamma and making progress towards Nibbāna).
Adverse Consequences of Cravings
5. Craving for sense objects can have adverse consequences in a wide range. At a lower level, just enjoying sense pleasures without harming others will make one bound to the kāma lōka (via “pati icca sama uppada” or “what one likes is what one gets”); see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha” + “Sama+uppāda.”
- However, if one does immoral deeds (dasa akusala) to get such “valuables,” then one will be subjected to dukkha dukkha (direct suffering) in the apāyā in future lives; see, “Introduction -2 – The Three Characteristics of Nature“. That is the worst kind of future suffering, and one would not be able to comprehend that if one does not believe in rebirth or that kammā vipāka, i.e., if one has micchā diṭṭhi.
- Once one gets rid of micchā diṭṭhi, it will be easier to see one aspect of the anicca nature. That is “aniccaṃ khayaṭṭhena,” which means “anicca nature leads to one to the downside,” i.e., to do immoral acts and to end up experiencing unimaginable suffering (dukkha dukkha) in the apāyā.
- Thus anicca nature not only means that one cannot maintain things to one’s satisfaction in the long run but ALSO, it can lead to much suffering in the future.
The Understanding Leads to the Sotapanna Stage
6. One can get to the Sōtapanna stage by comprehending the above harsh consequences of anicca nature.
- Buddha also said, “dukkhaṃ bhayaṭṭhena” or “one should be fearful of the dukkha nature” when describing the characteristic of dukkha. At the Sōtapanna stage, one can see that not comprehending the anicca nature can lead to suffering in the apāyā. But he/she may still not realize that much suffering (even though less than in the apāyā) can also arise due to just being attached to sense pleasures, i.e., kāma rāga.
- The full impact of “dukkhaṃ bhayaṭṭhena” is realized only at the Anāgami stage (having seen a glimpse of it at the Sakadāgāmi stage). That is when one realizes the dukkha associated with just the craving for sensual pleasures.
- Craving for sense-pleasures lead to saṅkhāra dukkha and viparināma dukkha, as explained in detail in the post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?“.
7. At the Sōtapanna stage, one comprehends the “anicca nature” at a preliminary level and grasps the dukkha dukkha. Even though one can see the truth of the other two types of dukkha (saṅkhāra dukkha and viparināma dukkha), one does not “truly grasp their effects.” Those two aspects of dukkha are present in the higher realms of kāma lōka (human and deva realms).
- One truly starts comprehending saṅkhāra dukkha and viparināma dukkha at the Sakadāgāmi stage, and it will be completed only at the Anāgami stage. That leads to further strengthening of “dukkhaṃ bhayaṭṭhena.” One can see the danger in the types of dukkha arising from attachment to sense pleasures (even without engaging in immoral acts).
- Comprehending the bad consequences of sensual pleasures is much harder than seeing the dangers associated with immoral deeds. That is why a Sōtapanna is still “not free” from rebirths in kāma lōka.
Cravings for Sense Desires Lost Only at the Anāgami Stage
8. By the time one gets to Anāgami stage, one would have removed the lower five types of bonds (ōrambhagiya samyōjana) that bind one to the realms in the kāma lōka; see, “Dasa Samyōjana – Bonds in Rebirth Process.”
- There are five higher samyōjana associated with higher rupa and arupa realms. First one removes rupa rāga (attachment to rupa jhāna) and then arupa rāga (attachment to arupa jhāna).
- The rupa and arupa realms (highest 20 realms) mostly have rupa and arupa jhānic pleasures. In those realms, dukkha dukkha and saṅkhāra dukkha are mostly absent, and only the viparināma dukkha (death at the end) is present. One lives with jhānic pleasure until the end when one becomes helpless and could end up even in the apāyā.
9. In comprehending the Three Characteristics of nature, the critical step is in realizing that collecting “valuables” (houses, money, etc.) as an adult is as foolish as collecting candy wrappers as a child.
- To make that step of “higher wisdom” per Buddha Dhamma, one needs first to understand the “world view of the Buddha,” that the world is of anicca nature, i.e., CRAVING for those “valuables” only lead to suffering in the long run. “Long-run” involves not only this life but future lives.
- That is why belief in rebirth is an important requirement to even start on the mundane Path.
The World is of Anicca Nature, Not Nicca Nature
10. It is an illusion to believe that ANY object in this world will have the “nicca” nature. That there are things in this world that have real, lasting value. The reality is the opposite expressed by the word “anicca.” One meaning of “anicca” is that there is nothing in this world of value that can bring lasting happiness.
- However, it is challenging for one to comprehend this “anicca nature” unless one believes in the laws of kammā. That one’s actions will have consequences. A natural extension of the laws of kammā is the validity of the rebirth process.
- Many actions committed in this life do not bring their results in this life. But they will appear in future lives. Therefore, the laws of kammā necessarily REQUIRE the rebirth process.
- One has more “iccā” (or more attachment) for an object that one perceives to be of high value. Then one would have the perception of “nicca” nature for that object. He/she thinks that it can provide happiness.
- But the reality is that either that object loses its value OR one dies, making any perceived value zero at the end. One of those two outcomes is inevitable.
It is Impossible to Comprehend Anicca Nature Without Belief in Rebirth Process
11. If one does not believe in the rebirth process, then one could be compelled to do immoral deeds to get possession of valuable objects. That is a hidden defilement (anusaya) that may not manifest unless the temptation is high.
- For example, one may not steal anything for a lifetime but could be tempted to take a bribe of a million dollars.
- Or, a drug addict could say, “I am just going to enjoy inhaling drugs until I die from it,” thinking that there will not be any consequences after the physical body dies.
- However, one’s outlook on such things will dramatically change if one can see the reality of the rebirth process. Most people just believe what “science says” and do not even bother to look at the ever-increasing evidence for the rebirth process. See “Evidence for Rebirth.”
- Science agrees that causes lead to corresponding effects. Any action has a reaction. However, since science does not know much about how the mind works, it is unable to provide answers to issues that involve the mind. Kammā and kamma vipāka are causes and corresponding effects.
Greed Comes from the Perception of Nicca Nature
12. Lōbha (abhijjhā) is the greed generated in a mind that puts a “very high value” for an object. One is willing to do immoral acts to get possession.
- One with just kāma rāga (desire for sensual pleasures) has the desire to enjoy sensual objects but would not hurt others to get them. Most “moral people” belong to this category UNLESS the temptation becomes high. A Sōtapanna has kāma rāga but will not succumb to ANY temptation to do apāyagāmi deeds.
- A Sakadāgāmi has lost the desire to “own” such sensual objects but still likes to enjoy them.
- Any desire for sensual pleasures goes away at the Anāgami stage.
13. In other words, one starts losing the value that one places for “mind-pleasing” objects as one progresses to higher stages of Nibbāna.
- But the critical point to understand is that one LOSES such desires AUTOMATICALLY. One does not need to, and one CANNOT, lose such desires by sheer will power. One needs to “see” the dangers of such cravings by developing the “dhamma eye,” or paññā (wisdom) by learning and contemplating on the Tilakkhana.
- Even if one forcefully keeps such desires SUPPRESSED, such desires will just stay dormant (remain as anusaya.) Those anusaya WILL resurface later in this life or future lives. They can only be removed by comprehending Tilakkhana. See, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).”
- With gradual cleansing of the mind, one will start seeing the worthlessness of worldly things.
Also, see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – According to Some Key Suttā.”