Why are Tilakkhana not Included in 37 Factors of Enlightenment?

April 1, 2016; revised June 30, 2021

1. one may ask, “If anicca, dukkha, anatta are so important, why are they not included in the 37 Factors of Enlightenment?”. After all, one attains Nibbāna via cultivating the 37 Factors of Enlightenment (also called 37 Bōdhipākkhiya Dhamma, or the Dhamma concepts that takes one to Bōdhi or “bhava” + “uddha,” i.e., to Nibbāna; “pākkhiya” means “on the side of”).

  • The key to the answer is that there are two 37 Factors of Enlightenment, one is mundane (lokiya), and one is transcendental (lokuttara). We have previously discussed that there are two eightfold paths as well: one mundane and one transcendental; see, “Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty).”
  • The mundane versions are followed by those who do not comprehend the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta). Thus Tilakkhana are preconditions (prerequisites) to be able to follow the Noble Path. 

2. This is related to the fact that the 37 Factors of Enlightenment were there when Prince Siddhartha was born. The existence of the mundane version of the 37 Factors of Enlightenment or eightfold paths is possible only if there has been a previous Buddha in the same mahā kappa, where a maha kappa is the time span of an “Earth system” or, more precisely, a solar system with an Earth-like planet supporting human life (an eon).

  • All Buddhas discover the Tilakkhana, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, etc., by their own efforts. But since these Dhamma concepts encompass Nature’s laws, all Buddhas keep re-discovering the same Dhamma.
  • However, like anything else in this world, a “Buddha Sāsana ” or the “original Dhamma preached by a Buddha” lasts only for a certain time. For Buddha Gotama, his Sāsana is supposed to last only 5000 years (when the human lifespan is about 100 years), and we are halfway through.
  • There have been four Buddhas on this Earth (which formed about 4.6 billion years ago), and Buddha Gotama was the fourth. The three Buddhas preceding him were: Kakusandha, Konagama, and Kassapa; one more Buddha, Buddha Maitreya, is supposed to appear long after the Gotama Buddha Sāsana disappears.

3. It is said that a Buddha comes to this world to reveal three words and eight letters (in Pāli):  Attakkarā theenapadā Sambuddhena pakāsithā,  na hi sila vatan hotu uppajjanti Tathāgatā, “which means, “a Buddha (Tathagata) is born NOT just to show how to live a moral life, but to reveal three words to the world. “

  • These three words are anicca, dukkha, anatta.

4. When a given Buddha Sāsana fades away, it does not disappear abruptly. What happens is that the true meanings gradually get lost, and are replaced by easier to grasp, mundane meanings; the first to lose the true meanings are anicca, dukkha, anatta. Without them, all other concepts remain there with mundane meanings.

  • When the Kassapa Buddha Sāsana faded away, most of the concepts survived only with mundane meanings, and that is why most terms like kamma and even Satta Bojjhaṅga survived up to the time of Prince Siddhartha’s birth.
  • In fact, even during a given Buddha Sāsana, the true meanings of Tilakkhana get lost for periods of time but are revived by Jati Sotāpannas (when one attains the Sotāpanna stage, it is not lost in future lives; so, if one is reborn human, they will be a Jati Sotāpanna). Thus during a given Buddha Sāsana, such as Jati Sotāpannas, keep bringing back the true Dhamma until the end of that Buddha Sāsana.
  • After that, no more Jati Sotāpannas are born, and true Dhamma disappears from this world (or, more correctly, from this Earth). Again, the mundane versions may survive for a long time.
  • Then the world has to await the appearance of a new Buddha to reveal the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta. But a mahā kappa with five Buddhas (like ours) is a rare event, and it is called Maha Badda Kalpa.
  • More common is to have no Buddhas or just a single Buddha in a given mahā kappa. For example, there were 30 mahā kappā before this mahā kappa where there was not even a single Buddha present.

5. This is why the Buddha emphasized that there is a very brief window of time to attain Nibbāna (at least to attain the Sotāpanna stage).

  • The time span of each Buddha Sāsana is different because the average lifetime of humans keeps changing. Gotama Buddha Sāsana is supposed to be 5000 years long, with the average lifetime of a human being about 100 years. During the Buddha Sāsana of Buddha  Kassapa, the human lifespan was about 20 000 years. Thus, we can guess that Sāsana lasted about 20,000 x 50 = about a million years.
  • Therefore, even though there will be one more Buddha appearing in this mahā kappa, the total time one could be potentially exposed to Buddha Dhamma would be only a few million years.
  • Our Earth (i.e., the Solar system) may last a few more billion years, so we can say that the lifetime of this mahā kappa is roughly 8-10 billion years or 8000 to 10,000 million years. Only a few million years, at most, is the “short window” that is available to work towards Nibbāna.
  • Of course, one needs to be fortunate enough to be born human on this Earth during the Maitreya Buddha Sāsana to get the next opportunity to work towards Nibbāna. This is an improbable event for any given person.
  • Also see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.” Even when one is born human, most mahā kappā (eons) will have no Buddhas present to teach the way to Nibbāna.

6. Going back to our main discussion, when Buddha Kakusandha appeared first in this world (i.e., on this Earth), there was no previous Buddha on this Earth. Therefore, concepts like the eightfold path, Satta Bojjhaṅga, 37 Factors of Enlightenment (or terms like kamma and rebirth) were not there even by name.

  • It is clear why those concepts were there before Buddha Gotama (i.e., when Prince Siddhartha was born). After Buddha Kassapa’s Sāsana faded away, mundane interpretations of key concepts were passed down through generations (initially through vedic traditions, which then transitioned to the Hindu religion; of course, most concepts survived only by the name). 
  • Therefore, not only concepts like kamma, rebirth, the five (and eight) precepts were there when Prince Siddhartha was born, but also Satta Bojjhaṅga and ways to attain jhānā. Of course, those meanings were mundane, and the jhānā were anariya jhānā. Without Tilakkhana, it is not possible to attain Ariya jhānā.

7. The difference that the Buddha Gotama made was to bring back the true Dhamma based on the true nature of this world, i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta. But even during a given Buddha Sāsana, the true Dhamma starts to fade away from time to time (people tend to embrace the easy and mundane version) and needs to be revived by a jāti Sotāpanna.

  • And that is what is happening even at present. The true Dhamma of Buddha Gotama had again started to fade away, and a jāti Sotāpanna in Sri Lanka is bringing back the correct or lokuttara version now. Within the past 2500 years, it happened at least once before, and we will discuss that when the time is appropriate.

8. The difference between the two versions of the 37 Factors of Enlightenment or the eightfold paths is that the Noble versions are based on Tilakkhana: anicca, dukkha, anatta. Their true meaning is that it is fruitless, tiring, and often dangerous to keep struggling to attain happiness in this world; that is the real meaning of dukha or suffering. And Dukkha Sacca (First Noble Truth) is that this dukha (suffering) can be overcome; see the second part of the following post: “Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings.”

  • The mundane versions can be grasped by a normal human who is unaware of the true Tilakkhana or the true nature of this world. The transcendental or lokuttara versions can be comprehended only with an understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • Without an understanding of the anicca nature, we perceive that sense pleasures are good and are worth striving for. But when one starts comprehending the anicca nature, one realizes that suffering is actually rooted in sense pleasures; see, “Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana – Introduction.”

9. But the Tilakkhana (starting with anicca nature) are hard to comprehend. It helps to understand and follow the mundane versions of Dhamma concepts first; see “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and the post “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?” referred to in that chart.

  • Not everyone can grasp the deeper meanings of the anicca, dukkha, anatta right way. It takes a significant effort. After all, a Sotāpanna is better off than an Emperor or a King (see, “Why a Sotāpanna is Better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“). One should not think it can be done easily (even though it may be easier for those who happen to have cultivated the Path in recent previous births).

10. To summarize, the critical difference between the two types of 37 Factors of Enlightenment is the following:

  • The mundane (lokiya) 37 Factors of Enlightenment are cultivated to live a “moral life.”
  • The transcendental (lokuttara) 37 Factors of Enlightenment can be cultivated only after realizing that this world of 31 realms has nothing but suffering to offer in the long run.
  • The 37 factors are the same in both versions, but each term has a deeper meaning in the lokuttara version since it has Nibbāna as the goal.
  • As one starts to grasp the meanings of Tilakkhana, one will automatically transition over to the lokuttara version. There is no need to worry about which version one is cultivating. The difference is not in terms but in grasping the anicca (and thus dukkha and anatta).
  • Furthermore, it is not necessary to cultivate (or even to memorize) all 37 factors. When one cultivates even one factor, all 37 grow together; but it is good to know the factors and how they work together. The 37 factors are listed in “37 Factors of Enlightenment“.

11. There are many things to contemplate in the above material to continue this discussion on the 37 factors in a follow-up post. Some of the ideas discussed above may seem surprising (but also illuminating to those who may have wondered how terms like kamma and Satta Bojjhaṅga were in usage before Buddha Gotama). They will turn out to be supported by future evidence and also by the inter-consistency that I always try to emphasize.

  • Even though we may not have all the evidence of historical facts (they keep emerging slowly), there is no need to wait for fool-proof archaeological evidence.
  • One can analyze and examine the “bigger picture” of the Buddha, the soundness of Abhidhamma, and the solid inter-consistency of Buddha Dhamma to realize that the above explanation must be correct. Of course, we will discuss much more detail in future posts.
  • In many areas, I have published only a small fraction of material due to time limitations. I will not publish anything that I have doubts about. It is immensely satisfying to figure out a “missing piece” and be able to “see the bigger picture” with more clarity. It is also amazing how deep, consistent, and wonderful Buddha Dhamma is.
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