June 2, 2020; revised June 3, 2020; August 25, 2022
Icca, Nicca, Anicca
1. We will discuss the critical relationships among icca, nicca, and anicca. That will help us understand the true meaning of anicca.
- The pronunciations of those in that order:
- It is important to note that the Pāli words in the Tipiṭaka are NOT written how they are pronounced. See “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1″ and “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”
- Very briefly, the meanings are as follows. Icca means desire. If we believe that it is possible to fulfill that desire and be happy, that is the perception of nicca. The opposite of nicca is anicca.
- Buddha taught us that our world is of anicca nature. That means we will never be content with “any existence in this world.” We may be able to fulfill some expectations in this life, but all that will have to be given up at death. Then we start all over in new birth.
- We note that the word “icca” plays a key role in Paṭicca Samuppāda. The word “Paṭicca” comes from “paṭi” + “icca.” Future existences in the rebirth process have origins in “attaching to worldly pleasures with desire (icca).” See, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – ‘paṭi+ichcha’ + ‘Sama+uppāda’.”
Icca and Anicca Sometimes Written as Iccha and Aniccha
2. The word “iccha” with the emphasis on the last syllable indicates “strong icca” or “strong desire.” In the same way, “aniccha” with the emphasis on the last syllable, emphasizes the “anicca nature.”
- In the Sinhala language, the words icca, anicca, and iccha, aniccha are written as ඉච්ච, අනිච්ච, and ඉච්ඡ, අනිච්ඡ.
- In the Tipiṭaka, mostly iccha, nicca, and anicca appear. Note that iccha is normally used in Pāli as “icchā.” Thus, the “strong version” is used only with iccha. But there are a few exceptions. We saw one such exception in “icca” in #1; another for “aniccha” in #14 below.
- The five words icca, anicca, iccha, icchā, and aniccha are pronounced:
Icchā and Taṇhā Closely Related
3. The “Kalahavivādasuttaniddesa“ of the mahāniddesa of the Tipiṭaka states, “Icchā vuccati taṇhā” (see section SC88) or “Icchā means taṇhā.” That is because icchā leads to taṇhā.
- When we attach (taṇhā) to something due to our liking for it (icchā), we tend to keep it close in our minds (upādāna.) Paṭicca Samuppāda describes how that leads to future suffering. See “Icchā (Cravings) Lead to Upādāna and to Eventual Suffering.”
- The use of many Pāli terms could be confusing to some. It may be helpful to print the relevant posts mentioned and refer to them as needed.
What Do We Desire (Icchā)?
4. Our desires belong to two categories. First, we want a healthy and robust body (stay young forever!.) We would also like anything we own or related to us to be similarly long-lasting and not subject to unexpected calamities.
- We have that perception that such desires (icchā) for “stability of long-lasting happiness” can be achieved. That perception is nicca.
- With that perception of a “nicca nature,” we work hard to acquire “things” that we perceive to provide sensory pleasures.
- While doing our best to achieve such pleasures, knowingly or unknowingly, we engage in activities that lead to future births filled with suffering.
Icchā – A Root Cause of Suffering
5. The Buddha’s described the Noble Truth on Suffering in his first discourse, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11).”
- The complete verse in that sutta is as follows. “Idaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariya saccaṃ—jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.”
- I have discussed the description in plain bold in the post, “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”
- We discussed the verse “Saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā” in recent posts in “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).” As explained there, the Buddha succinctly attributed future suffering to “upādāna” for the five aggregates (pañcakkhandhā.) We learned that “upādāna” means “keeping close in one’s mind.”
- Here, we will discuss how that “upādāna” relates to “icchā,” simply translated as “desire.” Then we will discuss the connection to anicca, which is often INCORRECTLY translated as “impermanence.” That connection is in, “appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho,yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ.”
- Let us discuss that verse in two steps.
Appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho
6. That means: “having to associate with things that one does not like is suffering, and having to separate from those one likes is suffering.”
- One WOULD LIKE to keep a young person’s body (say, 15 to 25 years of age), without getting old or sick, and never die. But we will NEVER get it.
- Even with human birth, we have to suffer when we get old, when getting sick, and finally when dying. There is no way to dissociate from those things that we do not like.
- We have no choice but to associate with those three things we do not like highlighted above.
- Worst of all, we will have rebirths in realms we do not like. That will happen until we comprehend anicca nature.
Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ – Most Important Verse
7. “Yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkhaṃ” captures the essence of anicca nature and how it leads to suffering. It provides the key to understanding the Buddha’s message and led to the attaining of the Sōtapanna stage by the five ascetics.
- “Yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ” is a shortened version of the verse “Yam pi icchāṃ na labhati tam pi dukkhaṃ.”
- “Yam pi icchāṃ” means “whatever is liked or craved for.” “Na labhati” means “not getting.” “tam pi dukkhaṃ” means “that leads to suffering.”
- Therefore, that verse simply says: “If one does not get what one craves or likes, that leads to suffering.“
8. That is a more general statement and applies in any situation. What we discussed in #6 above is summarized in the short verse, “yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ.”
- We can see that in our daily lives. We like to hang out with people we love, and it is stressful to be with people we do not like.
- The more one craves something, the more suffering one will endure in the end. We tend to do immoral deeds to “get what we crave.” But kammic energies we generate in such wicked deeds lead to rebirths that we do not like.
- Thus, we end up with two types of suffering. Our expectations are not fulfilled (whatever happiness gained is temporary.) Furthermore, we end up getting unfortunate rebirths.
Icchā Keeps One Bound to “This World”
9. There are many suttā in the Tipiṭaka that discuss icchā. The “Icchā Sutta (SN 1.69)” summarizes the importance of icchā. One time, a deva came to the Buddha and asked:
“Kenassu bajjhatī loko, “By what is the world bound?
kissa vinayāya muccati; By the removal of what one is freed?
Kissassu vippahānena, What is it that one must abandon
sabbaṃ chindati bandhanan” ti. To cut off all bondage?”
The Buddha replied:
“Icchāya bajjhatī loko, “By cravings, one is bound to the world;
icchāvinayāya muccati; By the removal of desire, one is freed
Icchāya vippahānena, Craving is what one must give up
sabbaṃ chindati bandhanan” ti. To cut off all bondage.”
Our Actions Based on Iccha (Taṇhā) Lead to Suffering
10. Paṭicca Samuppāda process describes how our actions based on icchā (taṇhā) lead to future births and suffering. We have discussed that in detail in two main sections. See, “Paṭicca Samuppāda” and “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Not ‘Self’ or ‘No-Self’“
- In brief, the Buddha pointed out that our perception of a “nicca nature” where we can fulfill our desires is an illusion.
- No matter how much we strive, attaining long-lasting happiness in the rebirth process is impossible. If one believes that there is no rebirth process, one may not worry about such suffering beyond the present life.
- That is why one first needs to get rid of the ten types of wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi) before trying to comprehend that our perception of nicca nature is incorrect.
- Thus, the reality of this world is not “nicca” but the opposite. that is anicca.
Inability to Fulfill Iccā/Icchā Means Anicca/Aniccha Nature
11. The inability to get what one desires is the opposite of “icca” or “na icca” or “anicca.” That is the same way that “na āgāmi” becomes “Anāgāmi” (“na āgāmi” 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).
- In some suttā, like the “Girimānanda Sutta (AN 10.60),” we see the word aniccha, as we will discuss below. As mentioned above, icchā is a strong version of icca, and the words niccha and aniccha are the corresponding strong versions” of nicca and anicca.
- Other than in such specific cases, we will stick to the words nicca and anicca.
- The intrinsic nature of this world is “anicca,“ i.e., we will never get what we crave for, and thus, in the end (at least at death), we will leave all this behind and suffer, that is dukkha.
Impermanence Is a Significant Part of Anicca
12. Anicca does NOT mean just “impermanence” is clear in the definition of anicca in many suttā. For example, the “Anicca Sutta (SN 22.12)” states: “rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ, vedanā aniccā, saññā aniccā, saṅkhārā aniccā, viññāṇaṃ aniccaṃ.”
- The English translation at Sutta Central, “12. Impermanence” is: “form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness are impermanent.”
- Is it not evident that especially the mental qualities (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) are impermanent? They change even moment-to-moment. That is a BAD translation. Of course, the other translation at Sutta Central and in many other texts is the same.
- The correct translation is that all five entities are of anicca nature, i.e., they cannot be maintained to one’s expectations.
- No single word in English can express the meaning of anicca. Impermanence is just one aspect of anicca nature.
- The Pāli words for permanence and impermanence are dhuva and addhuva. For example, the “Vepullapabbata Sutta (SN 15.20)” says, “Evaṃ aniccā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā; evaṃ addhuvā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā; evaṃ anassāsikā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā” meaning, “saṅkhārā are anicca and impermanent, they should not be taken in (“na“+ “assāsikā.”) By the way, this also shows that “assāsa” does NOT mean “breathing in.” For details, see “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?“
Girimānanda Sutta – Anicca Nature of Saṅkhāra
13. In the “Girimānanda Sutta (AN 10.60)” the Buddha described the perception of anicca nature to Ven. Ānanada as follows. ” Katamā ca Ānanda, anicca saññā? Idha Ānanda, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā iti paṭisañcikkhati: ‘rūpaṃ aniccaṃ, vedanā aniccā, saññā aniccā, saṅkhārā aniccā, viññāṇaṃ aniccan’ti. Iti imesu pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu aniccānupassī viharati. Ayaṃ vuccatānanda, aniccasaññā.
- The parts highlighted in bold say that all five entities “rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa are all aniccā“ and that “one lives contemplating the anicca nature of the ‘five clinging-aggregates (pañca upādānakkhandha.)”
- The first part is the same as that we discussed above. The second part is even more clear. As we know, pañca upādānakkhandha is all mental. See, “Pañca Upādānakkhandhā – Introduction.”
- There is nothing “permanent” there anyway. The Buddha meant to contemplate the “fruitlessness of clinging to one’s memories or to future expectations.”
14. In a subsequent verse in the sutta, the Buddha clarifies that “unfruitfulness” in vivid detail: “Katamā ca Ānanda, sabbasaṅkhāresu anicchā saññā? Idhānanda, bhikkhu sabba saṅkhāresu aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati. Ayaṃ vuccati ca Ānanda, sabba saṅkhāresu anicchā saññā.
- The first highlighted part in bold says, “all saṅkhāra make one tired at the end, just like a dog does not get any nutrition by chewing on a bone but only gets tired (aṭṭīyati.) One should be ashamed (harāyati) of engaging in such fruitless endeavors. One should reject them like feces and urine (jigucchati.) Note that the word “iccha” is in “jigucchati” which comes from “ji” +”gu” + “iccha” or “liking urine and feces.”
- I have discussed that verse in detail in “Anicca – The Incessant Distress (“Pīḷana”).” Other meanings of anicca are discussed in “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”
- Therefore, the word anicca has a much deeper and more expansive meaning than just “impermanence.” The cause of anicca is related to impermanence, but anicca means a perception that needs to be cultivated. The above verse provides further aspects associated with the key idea of the “inability to maintain anything to one’s satisfaction.”
- Impermanence is not directly connected to any of the three meanings of anicca in that verse.
- At the end of the verse, we see the word anicchā used to emphasize anicca nature.
Grasping of Anicca Removes Micchā Diṭṭhi
15. Grasping anicca characteristic of nature requires getting rid of ALL of one’s wrong views.
That is clearly stated in the “Micchaditthipahana Sutta (SN 35.165)“: “Cakkhuṃ kho, bhikkhu, aniccato jānato passato micchā diṭṭhi pahīyati. Rūpe aniccato jānato passato micchā diṭṭhi pahīyati. Cakkhuviññāṇaṃ aniccato jānato passato micchā diṭṭhi pahīyati. Cakkhusamphassaṃ aniccato jānato passato micchā diṭṭhi pahīyati … pe … yampidaṃ manosamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi aniccato jānato passato micchādiṭṭhi pahīyati. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhu, jānato evaṃ passato micchā diṭṭhi pahīyatī”ti.
We can make two critical deductions from this verse.
- First, whereas only five entities are listed in # 12, this verse enumerates many more related entities, and they all have the anicca nature. Anything and everything in this world have an anicca nature.
16. Then, the second part of the verse says the following. If one comprehends the anicca nature of all those entities, one has removed micchā diṭṭhi. The first level of micchā diṭṭhi to be removed is the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi.
- Ten types of micchā diṭṭhi include not believing in the rebirth process. See, “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.” Therefore, IF anicca means impermanence, THEN one would have removed all wrong views IF one has understood that everything in this world is impermanent.
- As discussed in the previous post, any scientist knows that nothing in this world is permanent. See “Five Aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa – Introduction.”
- By that definition of anicca, those scientists SHOULD NOT have any of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi. That is a contradiction since most scientists do not believe in rebirth.
17. Future suffering cannot be stopped until one’s cravings for worldly things (icchā, taṇhā, upādāna) are lost.
- Those cravings cannot be removed from one’s mind until one realizes the futility and danger (future suffering) associated with such cravings.
- Those cravings may be TEMPORARILY suppressed by engaging in the mundane “breath meditation.”
- However, by understanding the true anicca nature, one can realize the futility and danger (future suffering) associated with such cravings. A deeper analysis of, “Icchā (Cravings) Lead to Upādāna and to Eventual Suffering.”
- That is why comprehending the anicca nature is a REQUIREMENT for attaining Nibbāna. Furthermore, anicca is closely related to dukkha and anatta, as we will see in future posts.
- As always, anyone is welcome to correct me (with evidence from the Tipiṭaka.)