Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations

Revised October 25, 2016; April 11, 2017; September 13, 2017; November 25, 2017; January 26, 2018; May 25, 2019; August 6, 2019

Introduction

1. 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 just “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, “Misinterpretation 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.That 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. So far, I have not seen this verse in the Tipitaka; it is likely to have been in an early commentary.
  • 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 becomes eight instead of 11. I was able to find only අනත්‍ථ for අනත්ත, but you can see how four letters become three there).

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.

2. Asubha (“non-auspicious” or “unfruitful” nature) is another characteristic of nature. It appears together with anicca, dukkha, anatta in several suttas, for example, “Vipallāsa Sutta (AN 4.49)“.

  • Furthermore, the word, Tilakkhana, does not appear in the Tipitaka to my knowledge.
  • However, anicca, dukkha, anatta appear as a group in many suttas, as we discuss below. Thus it is justifiable to clump them together as Tilakkhana.
Why Are Tilakkhana so Important?

3. The Buddha clarified these “three characteristics of this world” in his very first sutta; see, “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.

  • These are the three primary characteristics of “this world.” 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 righteous life; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart.” 
  • The Buddha stated that if one 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?”.

4. 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. Even in most Thēravada English texts, these three words have incorrect translations as impermanence, suffering, and “no-soul” or “no-self.”

  • The correct meanings are: Nothing in this world can be maintained to one’s satisfaction. When one strives to achieve that, it leads to suffering. However, many people try to gain “happiness” by resorting to immoral deeds, and then end up in the apayas. That is how one becomes genuinely helpless.
  • Striving to achieve the impossible (i.e., seeking happiness in worldly things), only leads to suffering.

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

addhuvam jeevitam, dhuvaṃ maranam” means the same thing.

  • Therefore, the critical 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.”

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

  • At the time of the Buddha also, there were two opposing views on the idea of a “self.” 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 view is the materialistic view today that our minds arise from matter and thus there is nothing that survives death.
  • The Buddha said it was neither. There is no “self” permanently 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“). Therefore, it is ALSO incorrect to say that there is “no-soul” and that death is the end of that living being. The new living being is a continuation of the old living being, just as an older man is a continuation of the process from the baby stage. There is change at every MOMENT, based on cause-and-effect; the “new” is dependent on the “old.” Also see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
  • That is also why it is not correct to say that an Arahant is annihilated at death (i.e., at Parinibbāna). See, “Yamaka Sutta (SN 22.85) – Arahanthood Is Not Annihilation but End of Suffering“.
They Are Related to Each Other

7. 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, and one becomes helpless (anatta).”

8. 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 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 (Ajjhattanicca — Ajjhatta Anicca — Sutta) and for everything external that is sensed by the six sense faculties (Bāhiranicca — Bāhira Anicca– Sutta). Therefore, that verse 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 for any case.

9. Now the opposite of the above statement must be correct too (in mathematical logic, this is not correct generally, but in this particular case it can be shown to be right. 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 stop suffering? 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 a loved one, etc.

Thus we can see that anicca and anatta do not mean impermanence and “no-self.”

Everyone Knows Anything in This World is Impermanent

10. Permanence and impermanence are inseparable PROPERTIES of living beings, objects, and events. On the other hand, nicca/anicca are PERCEPTIONS IN ONE’S MIND about them.

    • 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 unable to prevent 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 that 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 those pictures, since he/she would like to see something terrible to happen to that celebrity.

11. Thus “impermanence” is inevitable; it is a property of anything in this world. But “anicca” is a perception in someone’s mind. 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 pain to only those who did not like them getting old. If they had any enemies, those 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 usually get. We don’t see changes in ourselves because the change is gradual.

12.  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 profound concept with several meanings, and they are all related. Here are three ways to look at it:

13. 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, which 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 value in the end. They all have transient existence: That is anatta nature.

Possible Historical Reasons for Mistranslations

14. We can see the origins of some of these incorrect translations by looking at how Buddha Dhamma was transmitted over time. For details, see, “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. The original teachings of the Buddha are still intact.

15. Then it was written down for the first time in 29 BCE in Sri Lanka with Sinhala script. Pāli is a phonetic language that does not have an alphabet.

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

16. 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, “Misinterpretation 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 different meaning of “no-self.” Similarly, they took “anicca” to mean the same as Sanskrit “anitya,” which does mean “impermanent.”

17. 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 the 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 throughout the whole world.
  • To correct this grave problem, we need to go back to the Tipitaka in Pāli and start the process there.
  • Pāli suttas should not be translated word-to-word; most of the suttas are condensed and written in style conducive for oral transmission; see, “Sutta – Introduction.”
  • Commentaries were written to explain critical concepts in the Tipitaka, 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.” However, Buddhaghosa did not change the meanings of the words anicca, dukkha, anatta. That is likely to have happened in 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.”

18. 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 1800s. 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 any changes in Sinhala script were taken into account.
Other Related Issues

19. I came across another problem in a recent online forum. People are debating on the meanings of words “anatta” (අනත්ත in Sinhala) and “anattha(අනත්ථ in Sinhala). They mean the same, but with more emphasis is added in the latter word.

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

20. Two more main misconceptions are prevalent today. They not only block the path to Nibbāna but are miccha 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 substantial evidence is presented against them, per the above posts and many others on 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.

21. Finally, it may not be possible to comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta straight away. One must first follow the mundane path to learn basic concepts like kamma and rebirth.

22. Anicca and anatta are complex Pāli words that cannot be translated into English directly. There is no English word that can convey the meaning of anicca (or anatta). The following subsections discuss those two complex Pāli words:

Anicca – True Meaning

Anattā – A Systematic Analysis

 

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