Anicca and Anatta – Two Characteristics of the World

August 2, 2021

Anatta is a characteristic of this world and not about a “self.” While impermanence is a part of anicca nature, it does not describe the full meaning of anicca.

It is Time to Settle the Issue of Mistranslations of Anicca and Anatta

1. Incorrect translations of “anicca” as “impermanence” and “anatta” as “no-self” have been engraved in the minds of many people. This is a serious issue that needs to be discussed and settled.

  • We need to realize that mistranslations of anicca and anatta are two serious issues. It is not possible to understand the message of the Buddha with those incorrect translations. By the way, my analysis below CANNOT be categorized as just an “interpretation.” There could be several interpretations if the definition of a word is not clear. In this case, there is no room for ambiguity.
  • In addition, this clarification will help easily understand the meanings of several other key Pāli words as well. These include sakkāya diṭṭhi and “māna saṁyojana.” As we know, sakkāya diṭṭhi is a key saṁyojana that needs to be dispelled to attain the Sotapanna stage, while “māna saṁyojana” is removed at the Arahant stage.
Tilakkhana – Three Characteristic of the World

2. A “lakkhana” means an intrinsic “characteristic” or a “quality.” For example, the “Lakkhaṇa Sutta (DN 30)” describes the 31 unique qualities/characteristics of a Buddha.

  • Anicca, dukkha, and anatta are collectively called Tilakkhana or “three characteristics” of this world.
  • Sometimes “asubha” is shown to be another characteristic of the world, among a few more. In fact, I have not seen the word “Tilakkhana” specifically mentioned in the Tipiṭaka. Those who compiled commentaries may have introduced the term. The reason could be that anicca, dukkha, anatta are closely related to each other. Many suttas in the Tipiṭaka describe those relationships.
  • Therefore, it is logical to reserve the word Tilakkhana for anicca, dukkha, anatta. We will discuss the relationships among them in the next few posts.
What Does Anicca Apply to?

3. What entities have the anicca characteristic? The “Kālattayaanicca Sutta (SN 22.9)” says: “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, aniccaṁ atītānāgataṁ; ko pana vādo paccuppannassa.”

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, rupa of the past (atīta) are of anicca nature, rupa of the future (anāgata) are of anicca nature. Rupa that we experience at present (paccuppanna) are also of anicca nature.”
  • Then the statement is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa.

4. Those are profound statements. The translators at the Sutta Central site translate them without taking time to reflect on their meanings.

  • For example, if anicca really means impermanence, what is the need to specifically say, “rupa of the past are impermanent”?
  • That is like saying, “all those people who lived at the time of the Buddha are now dead.” That would be a trivial/foolish statement to make!
  • It is even worse to emphasize that any vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa that one experienced in the past were impermanent.” That would be a childish statement. All of them would have perished just after arising!
  • Rather, those statements express a profound idea:Any rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa of the past, future, or present are of ANICCA NATURE. I have discussed that in many posts, but we will discuss that in detail in upcoming posts.
Characteristic of Dukkha Applies to What?

5. The “Kālattayadukkha Sutta (SN 22.10)” says: “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, dukkhaṁ atītānāgataṁ; ko pana vādo paccuppannassa.”

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, rupa of the past are of dukkha nature, rupa of the future are of dukkha nature. Rupa that we experience at present are also of dukkha nature.”
  • Then the statement is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa.
  • Those statements express a profound idea:Any rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa of the past, future, or present are of DUKKHA NATURE
Characteristic of Anatta Applies to What?

6. The “Kālattayaanatta Sutta (SN 22.11)” says: “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā atītānāgataṁ; ko pana vādo paccuppannassa.”

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, rupa of the past are of anatta nature, rupa of the future are of anatta nature. Rupa that we experience at present are also of anatta nature.”
  • Then the statement is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa.
  • Those statements express a profound idea:Any rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa of the past, future, or present are of ANATTA NATURE
  • Therefore, the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta apply to the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.)
Many More References

7. For simplicity I picked the above three suttas. They are short suttas with direct verses.

Characteristics of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta Applies to the Five Aggregates!

8. We need to understand that when the Buddha refers to “rupa” (unless specifically mentioned, as in some cases) it refers to “rupakkhandha,” the aggregate. In the same way, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa refer, in many cases, to vedanākkhandha, saññākkandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha.

  • Altogether there are 11 types  of rupa included in rūpakkhandha. The Khandha sutta (SN 22.48) (among many other suttā) summarizes what is included in rūpakkhandha. “Yaṃ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ atītā­nāgata­pac­cup­pan­naṃ (atitaanāgatapaccuppanna) ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, ayaṃ vuccati rūpakkhandho.”
  • You may want to refresh your memory by reading the post, “Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha.”
  • A crude translation of the 11 types: past, future, current, internal, external, coarse, subtle, good, bad, far, and near.
  • However, all 11 types are included in the rupa of past, future, current. Therefore, what is meant by “rupa” in the above 3 suttas is really the “rūpakkhandha.” Rūpakkhandha are “mental impressions of physical rupa.” 
  • Then there are “physical rupa” made of suddhāṭṭhaka, like our physical bodies.
  • We need to be able to differentiate between a “rupa made of suddhāṭṭhaka” and “rūpakkhandha.”

9. In the same way, the above 3 suttas refer to vedanākkhandha, saññākkandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha. Thus all 3 suttas refer to the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha.

  • Now, we know that the five aggregates of rūpakkhandha, vedanākkhandha, saññākkandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha include (mental impressions of ) EVERYTHING in this world for a given person. It includes all past, present, and future experiences in this world!
  • That means those 3 characteristics apply to everything in this world!
  • That is why they are called “3 characteristics of nature.”
  • It is necessary to understand these critical concepts. It is not possible to understand the true message of the Buddha without understanding these fundamental and critical concepts.
  • As you can see, these are not “interpretations.” The suttas specifically say that rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa of the past, present, and future ALL have the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta!

10. Another short sutta, “Ānanda Sutta (SN 22.21)” states: “Rūpaṁ kho, ānanda, aniccaṁ saṅkhataṁ paṭiccasamuppannaṁ khayadhammaṁ vayadhammaṁ virāgadhammaṁ nirodhadhammaṁ. Tassa nirodho ‘nirodho’ti vuccati.”

Translated: “Ānanda, rupa are of anicca nature, originated with saṅkhāra (saṅkhataṁ) via Paṭicca Samuppāda (paṭiccasamuppannaṁ), leading to the decay of moral qualities (khayadhammaṁ) and thus to one’s future suffering (vayadhammaṁ.) But that can be overcome by losing attachment for them ( virāgadhammaṁ.)Thus, they can be stopped from arising (nirodhadhammaṁ), leading to their cessation. (that is Nibbāna!)

  • Then the statement is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāṇa.
  • This sutta also refers to the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha or the “whole world.”
  • As you can see, this sutta — with those succinct verses — packs even deeper concepts.
  • Simply put, the sutta says that we prepare our own future births via our own saṅkhāra generated via avijjā. But we can stop that process by cultivating paññā (i.e., comprehending the Four Noble Truths, Tilakkhana, and Paṭicca Samuppāda)! 
  • This is what we will be discussing in this series of posts. We have recently discussed the essential concepts in Paṭicca Samuppāda. You may want to review that section, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Essential Concepts” and “Paṭicca Samuppāda in Plain English.”
  • Another brief point needs to be made so that some of you can make the connections and understand the above fourth sutta.
Connection to Pañcupādānakkhandhā

11. We crave not only rupa that we see at this moment (that is the meaning of paccuppanna rupa.) Even a rupa that we saw a minute ago has gone to the past (atita rupa.) Furthermore, we wish for a certain rupa in the future (anāgata rupa.) We may form attachments to all three types!

  • Therefore even though rupakkhandha is infinite, we attach only to a small part of it, and that is rūpupādānakkhandha.
  • Rupakkhandha is infinite because it includes all rupa that we have seen in our past lives. In contrast, we mostly crave rupa that we have seen in this life! Thus, rūpupādānakkhandha (or rūpa upādāna kkhandha) is a tiny part of rupakkhandha. See, “Rūpakkhandha and Rūpa Upādānakkhandha.”
  • Thus, even though all rupa are of anicca nature, we only need to overcome our attachment to those we crave!
  • That is why the Buddha said, “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­han­dhā dukkhā.”
Carrying the “Burden” or “Pañcupādānakkhandha”

12. Therefore, even though all of pañcak­han­dhā has the characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta, we get into trouble only if we get attached to parts of it.

  • The next sutta,Bhāra Sutta (SN 22.22)” specifically says that pañcupādānakkhandha is a “load” or “burden” carried by each person. One can put down that “load” by losing attachment (taṇhā/upādāna) for worldly things.
  • The sutta ends with the following verses:
    Bhārā have pañcakkhandhā, bhārahāro ca puggalo; Bhārādānaṁ dukhaṁ loke, bhāranikkhepanaṁ sukhaṁ.
    Nikkhipitvā garuṁ bhāraṁ, aññaṁ bhāraṁ anādiya;
    Samūlaṁ taṇhamabbuyha, nicchāto parinibbuto”ti.
  • That ties up what we have discussed so far in this series about Nibbāna being the only nicca (niccha) state. Translation of those verses:
    “The five aggregates are truly burdens; burden-carrier is the person. Taking up the burden is suffering in the world; laying the burden down is happiness.
    Having laid the heavy burden down, without taking up another burden, having rooted out taṇhā with its roots, one is free from suffering, and reaches the niccha state (Nibbāna.).”
  • As we discussed before, “nicca/niccha” is the opposite of “anicca.”
No Excuse Anymore to Translate Anicca/Anatta as Impermanence/”No-Self”

13. If you read the English translations at Sutta Central you can see how badly they have translated all of the above suttas. However, if you re-read them with the correct meanings, those suttas WILL make sense.

  • It is no wonder why many people have not made ANY significant progress over many years by reading those incorrect translations. In discussion forums, people keep posting those incorrect translations and point out certain inconsistencies among deeper suttas. Of course, there WILL BE inconsistencies IF keywords are translated incorrectly!
  • The fourth sutta (Ānanda Sutta (SN 22.21)) has deeper meanings and requires more discussion, even though I am sure some of you can grasp those meanings.
  • However, ANYONE should be able to see that anicca and anatta DO NOT mean impermanence and “no-self.”
  • If there are still people who cannot comprehend at least that, it is doubtful that they will be able to understand future posts.
  • In future posts, I will expand this analysis. Hopefully, this will settle the issue of mistranslations of the key Pāli words starting with anicca and anatta.
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