Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations

Revised October 25, 2016; April 11, 2017; September 13, 2017; November 25, 2017; January 26, 2018; May 25, 2019

No other factor has contributed to help keep Nibbåna hidden in the past many hundreds of years than the incorrect interpretations of anicca as just “impermanence” and anatta as “no-self”. If one can find even a single instance in the Pāli Tipitaka (not translations) that describe anicca and anatta that way, please let me know at [email protected]  Also, before quoting English translations of the Tipitaka, please read the post,Misintepretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars“. 

  • I consider this series of posts on “anicca, dukkha, anatta” to be the most important at the website. Reading the posts in the given order could be very beneficial.
  • It is said that a Buddha comes to this world to reveal three words and eight letters (in Pāli):  Attakkarā thīnapadā Sambuddhena pakāsithā,  na hī sīla vatan hotu uppajjati Tathāgatā“, which means, “a Buddha (Tathāgata) is born NOT just to show how to live a moral life, but to reveal 3 words with 8 letters to the world. 
  • These three words with eight letters are: anicca, dukkha, anatta. (when written in Sinhala/Pāli: අනිච්ච දුක්ඛ අනත්ත but with last two letters in each term in the “old script” combined to become one, so the number of letters become 8 instead of 11. I was able to find only අනත්‍ථ for අනත්ත, but you can see how 4 letters become 3 there).
  • That is how important these three words are. A Buddha comes to the world to reveal the true nature of the world. Any moral person instinctively knows (and most religions teach) how to live a moral life; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart“.
  • This is why these “three characteristics of this world” were clarified in the very first  suttas delivered by the Buddha; see, “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.

Anicca is pronounced “anichcha”, rhymes with “picture”:

Dukkha is pronounced similarly, duk+kha:

Anatta is pronounced “anaththa”:

See, “Pāli Glossary and Pronunciation” for more meanings of Pāli terms and sound files on pronunciations.

1. These are the three primary characteristics of “this world”. The Buddha stated that if one really comprehends the true nature of “this world”, as codified in these three words, then one would attain the Stream Entry (Sōtapanna) stage of Nibbåna; see, “Why is Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?”.

2. Therefore, a good understanding of the words anicca, dukkha, anatta is critical. If one sticks to incorrect interpretation of these three words, no matter how much effort one exerts, there is no possibility of attaining the Sōtapanna stage. These three words are commonly interpreted as impermanence, suffering, and “no-soul” or “no-self” even in most Thēravada English texts.

  • However, as we will see, the correct meanings are, respectively: there is nothing in this world that can be maintained to one’s satisfaction, (therefore) suffering arises, and (therefore) one is truly helpless in this world. Permanent happiness is reached via stopping the rebirth process.

3. The Pāli word for impermanence is NOT anicca, it is adduwan or aniyatam. For example, “Jeevitan aniyatam, maranan niyatam” means, “life is not permanent, death is”.

addhuvam jeevitam, dhuvaṃ maranam” means the same thing.

  • Therefore, the key mistake was in translating the original Pāli word anicca to Sanskrit as “anitya”, which does mean impermanence.
  • This term, “dhuva” comes in the Brahma­niman­tanika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 49), where the Baka Brahma says his existence is permanent; see #12 of
    Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means”.

4. Now let us see the damage done by translating the original Pāli word anatta to Sanskrit as “anātma”.

  • Just as these days, there were two opposing views on the idea of a “soul” in the time of the Buddha. One camp insisted that there is an unchanging “soul” (ātma) associated with a being. This camp thus corresponds to the major religions of the world today with the concept that when one dies one’s soul goes to heaven or hell.
  • The opposing camp argued that there is “no-soul” (anātma), and that when one dies, there is nothing that survives the death. This camp thus corresponds to the materialistic scientists today, who believe that our minds arise from matter and thus when we die, there is nothing that survives the death.
  • The Buddha said it was neither. There is NOTHING that is permanent associated with a living being: both the mind and the body are in constant flux (see the Section on “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma”), and thus there is no “soul” or an “unchanging self”. On the other hand, there is continuity at death based on cause-and-effect (paticca samuppāda; see, “Paticca samuppāda – Introduction“). Thus it is ALSO incorrect to say that there is “no-soul” and that death is the end of that living being. The new being is a continuation of the old being, just as an old man is a continuation of the process from the baby stage. There is change at every MOMENT, but it is based on cause-and-effect; the “new” is dependent on the “old”. Also see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
  • This is also why it is not correct to say that an Arahant will be annihilated at death (i.e., at Parinibbāna); see, “Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) – Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation but End of Suffering“.

5. In the Samyutta Nikāya (Anicca Vagga), many suttas including Ajjhattanicca Sutta (SN 35.1), Bahiranicca Sutta (SN 35.4), and Yadanicca sutta (SN 22.15), the Buddha stated that the three characteristics of “this world” are RELATED to each other:

“yadaniccam tam dukkham, yam dukkham tadanattā(“yad aniccam tam dukkham, yam dukkham tad anattā)i.e.,

“if something is anicca, dukkha arises, therefore anatta”.

6. Now let us see what happens if we take anicca to be impermanent and anatta to be “no-soul”. Then the above verse reads,“if something is not permanent, suffering arises, and because of that one becomes “no-self””.

  • Many people just take a human body as “it”, and say that since the body is impermanent, suffering arises. But the suttas mentioned above describe this for all six  internal senses (in the Ajjhattanicca — Ajjhatta Anicca — Sutta) and for everything external that are sensed by the six senses (in the Bāhiranicca — Bāhira Anicca– Sutta), i.e., that phrase holds for anything and everything “in this world”.
  • Thus if a headache does not become permanent, it is meaningless to say it has no self.
  • But there are many things in the world, if become permanent, would lead to happiness: health, wealth, association with someone liked,  moving away from someone disliked, etc.
  • As we will show in the next post (“Anicca – True Meaning“), the correct translation holds true for any case.

7. Now the opposite of the above statement must be true too (in mathematical logic, this is not correct generally, but in this particular case it can be shown to be correct. Basically, it is due to the assumption that “dukkha” depends only on “nicca” or “anicca” and no other factor; see, “Logical Proof that Impermanence is Incorrect Translation of Anicca“.

If we take the incorrect interpretations, that says:

“if something is permanent, suffering does not arise, and because of that it implies a  “self”.

  • If one has a permanent headache or a sickness, how can that prevent suffering from not arising? And in what sense a “self” arise?
  • There are many things in this world, if become permanent, would lead to suffering: a disease, poverty, association with someone disliked, moving away from someone liked, etc.

Thus we can clearly see that anicca and anatta cannot be translated as impermanence and “no-self”.

8. Permanence/Impermanence are PROPERTIES of “things” (living beings and physical things) or “events”. On the other hand, nicca/anicca are PERCEPTIONS IN ONE’S MIND about those “things” and “events” in this world of 31 realms.

  • We cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction (including “our” own body) in the long run and that is anicca. And because of that we become distraught and that is dukkha. And since we are truly helpless in preventing this sequence of events, we are truly helpless in the long run, and nothing is with any real substance in the end; that is anatta.
    • Here is a video that illustrates the concept of anicca clearly:

  • We need to realize that we all will go through this inevitable change as we get old; no matter how hard we try, it is not possible to maintain ANYTHING to our satisfaction. It is the nature of “this world”: anicca.
  • Now, of course any of these celebrities (or their fans) will be saddened to see the comparison; they have not been able to maintain their bodies to their satisfaction. However, a person who is in bad terms with any of these celebrities could be happy to see the picture, because that person’s wish is to see something bad to happen to the celebrity (in this case to lose their “looks”).
  • Thus “impermanence” is something that is inevitable; it is a property of anything in this world. But “anicca” is a perception in someone’s mind; and that perception CAN be changed; that is how one gets rid of suffering.
  • In the above case, celebrities bodies ARE impermanent; but that did not necessarily cause suffering to ALL. It caused suffering to only those who did not like them getting old; if they had any enemies, they would be happy to see them losing their “good looks”.
  • Impermanence is a fact; see, “Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“. But impermanence is NOT the MEANING of anicca.
  • These pictures provide the visual impact that we do not normally get. We don’t see changes in ourselves because the change is gradual.

9.  A Buddha is not needed to show that impermanence is an inherent characteristic of our universe. Scientists are well aware of that, but they have not attained Nibbāna.  Anicca is a deep concept that can be described in many different ways, and they are all related. Here are three ways to look at it:

10. Finally, the Buddha has said,”Sabbe Dhamma anatta“. So, what does “all dhamma are “no-self”” mean (if anatta meant “no-self”)? Dhamma includes everything, that means inert things too. Does it make sense to say, “a tree has “no-self”” or “a mountain has “no-self””?? On the other hand, nothing in this world is of any real substance in the end; they all come into being and are destroyed in the end: and that is anatta.

Possible Historical Reasons for Mistranslations

1. By looking at how Buddha Dhamma was transmitted from the time of the Buddha, it is possible to see the origins of some of these incorrect translations. Details of historical events are discussed in the section “Historical Background“.

  • For about 500 years after the Parinibbåna of the Buddha, the Pāli Tipitaka was transmitted orally, from generation to generation of bhikkhus, who faithfully passed down the Pāli Canon. Of course it had been DESIGNED for easy oral transmission.
  • See, “Preservation of the Dhamma” for a discussion on this aspect, and why we can be assured that the original teachings of the Buddha are still intact.

2. Then it was written down for the first time in 29 BCE in Sri Lanka with Sinhala script. Pāli is a phonetic language which does not have its own alphabet.

  • The Tipitaka was never translated to any other language until the Europeans discovered “Buddhsim” in the late 1600’s; see, “Background on the Current Revival of Buddha Dhamma“.
  • Tipitaka was not translated to even Sinhala language until 2005.

3. When Rhys Davis and others started doing those English translations, they were heavily influenced by Sanskrit Mahayana sutras, as well by Vedic literature. Think about it: when the Europeans first started discovering all these different Pāli and Sanskrit documents, they must have been overwhelmed by the complexities.

  • It took them some time to separate Buddhism from Hinduism, and in the process some concepts got mixed up; see, “Misintepretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars“.
  • For example, They ASSUMED that “anatta” was the same as “anātma” which is a Sanskrit word, with a totally different meaning of “no-self”. Similarly, they took “anicca” to mean the same as Sanskrit “anitya“, which  does mean “impermanent”.

4. The worst was that even contemporary Sinhala scholars like Malasekara (who was a doctoral student of Rhys Davis), “learned” Buddhism from the Europeans, and thus started using wrong interpretations. Other Sinhala scholars like Kalupahana and Jayathilake also learned “Buddhism” at universities in United Kingdom.

  • Following the original translations by Rhys Davis, Eugene Burnouf, Olcott, and others, those Sinhala scholars also write books in both English and Sinhala. Of course, scholars in other Buddhist countries did the same in their languages and the incorrect interpretations spread through the whole world.
  • In order to correct this grave problem, we need to go back to the Tipitaka in Pāli and start the process there.
  • Pāli suttas are not meant to be translated word-to-word; most of the suttas are condensed and written in style conducive for easy oral transmission; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • In order to explain key concepts in the Tipitaka, commentaries were written in Sinhala, and only three of those original commentaries have survived. We need to rely heavily on those three: PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana.
  • Instead most people rely on incorrect commentaries written in more recent years, especially Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. For details, see, “Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background“. It must be noted that Buddhaghosa did not change the meanings of the words anicca, dukkha, anatta (that is likely to have happened in even more recent times as I explained above). But he incorporated many other Hindu concepts like breath meditation and kasina meditation; see, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.

5. It is also important to note that mass printing was not available until recent years, and became common only in the 1800’s; see, “Printing press“.

  • Thus mass production of books became possible only with the new printing presses that came out in the 1800’s. By that time, key concepts had been mistranslated.
  • In the early days, Tipitaka was written on specially prepared leaves, and needed to be re-written by hand every 100-200 years before they degraded. So, we must be grateful to the bhikkhus in Sri Lanka who did this dutifully over almost 2000 years.
  • Sinhala language (both spoken and written) changed over the past 2000 years. The need to re-write it every 100 or so years made sure that the changes in Sinhala script was taken into account.

6. I came across another problem in a recent online forum. People are debating on the meanings of words “anatta” and “anattha” (which could also be written as “anaththa“). the key is to pronounce as given in the sound file at the beginning of this post; in that sense, it really should be written as “anaththa“, but that takes a lot of letters.

  • So, most people write it as “anatta“. It does not really matter how one writes it, as long as one understands the meaning as “with no refuge” or “without essence”, and NOT “no-self”.

7. The key to resolve this non-issue is to understand how these words originated. As we discussed above, the Tipitaka was written down in Pāli, but with Sinhala script. The above word “anatta” was written as අනත්ත. Sometimes it is also written as අනත්ථ to emphasize the අනත්ත nature, but both mean the same.

  • Similarly, when the Pāli word written in Sinhala as අනත්ත is written with the English alphabet, it can written as anatta, anattha, or anaththa. All three mean the same thing, just as අනත්ත or අනත්ථ mean the same.
  • This is an important point to think about. Today, many people get stuck with this non-issue.

8. There are two more main misconceptions are prevalent today. They not only block the path to Nibbāna, but are micca ditthi that could be responsible for rebirth in the apāyas. I am not trying to scare anyone, but “making adhamma to be dhamma is a serious offense”.

  • Misinterpretation of breath meditation as Anapanasati: “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?“.
  • Insisting that the gandhabba (manomaya kaya) is a Mahayana concept: “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipitaka“.
  • All these misconceptions are not the fault of current Theravadins; they have been handed down for many hundreds of years as explained in the “Historical Background“. However, it makes no sense to adhere to them when solid evidence is presented, per above posts and many others at this website.
  • Of course, no one should be able to insist, “this is the only truth, and nothing else is the truth”, but the truth can be verified to one’s satisfaction by critically examining the evidence. I am open to discuss any valid contrary evidence. We need to sort out the truth for the benefit of all.

9. Finally, it is not recommended that one takes on comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta straight away. One must first follow the mundane path before comprehending those Three Characteristics of nature and embarking on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Next, “Anicca – True Meaning“, ………..

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