Does Impermanence Lead to Suffering?

 The following statements are in frequent use in most books in both Mahayana and Theravada:

  1. “We suffer because our bodies is impermanent; they are subject to decay and death”
  2. “We suffer because those things we get attached to are impermanent”
  3. “If something is impermanent, that leads to suffering”
  4. “Since everything in this world is impermanent, everything is suffering”, etc.

So, is there a direct correlation between impermanence and suffering? Let us examine those statements.

1. “We suffer because our bodies is impermanent; they are subject to decay and death”

  • It is true that WE suffer because OUR bodies are impermanent and are subject to decay and death. But if it is an enemy, do we suffer when that enemy gets sick or die? We suffer if someone we LIKE gets sick or die, but it is cause for celebration for most people when someone they dislike gets sick or dies.
  • Actually the suffering/happiness is directly proportional to the attachment/dislike we have for that person. Suffering due to a loss of one’s child is more compared to the loss of a distant relative. Happiness due to Bin Laden’s death was higher compared to the death of an unknown terrorist. (For a follower of Bin Laden, his death would have led to suffering).

Suffering arises only when things do not proceed as we like. It is the human nature to want the loved ones to be unharmed, and the enemies to come to harm. When either does not happen, that leads to suffering. That is what anicca means: the inability to maintain things to our liking.

2. “We suffer because those things we get attached to are impermanent”

  • There are many things in this world that cause us suffering because they will not stay in the same condition or are destroyed; that is true. BUT there are many other “permanent” things in this world (at least relative to our lifetime of 100 years), AND if they cause us suffering that is NOT because they decay or are destroyed; rather it is because we cannot maintain them to our satisfaction.
  • If a woman has a gold necklace it is not impermanent, i.e, it will last for thousands of years. But the woman could become distressed if the necklace is lost or if she has to sell it to raise money for food or some such necessity.

If ANYTHING causes US suffering, that is because we cannot maintain it to OUR satisfaction, OUR liking.

3. “If something is impermanent, that leads to suffering”

This is the direct (incorrect) translation of Buddha’s words: “yadaniccam tan dukkham“,  i.e., “if something is not permanent, that leads to suffering”. But the correct translation is, “if something cannot be maintained to our liking, that leads to suffering”. Let us consider some examples:

  • If we have a headache, and if it is not permanent (i.e, it goes away), does that cause suffering? No. However, if the headache becomes permanent, that will cause a lot of suffering.
  • If we get cancer, wouldn’t it cause happiness if it becomes impermanent?, i.e., if it goes away?
  • If a relative that we do not like come to stay with us, would it lead to happiness if the stay becomes permanent or impermanent? Of course it will cause us happiness if the stay is not permanent and the person leaves.

4. “Since everything in this world is impermanent, everything is suffering”

The Buddha never said everything in this world leads to suffering. If everything is suffering then everyone will be looking to attain Nibbana as soon as possible. The reality is that there are sense pleasures to be had in this world. Most people do not understand why one should go to all this trouble to “give up all these sense pleasures and seek Nibbana“.

  • Taking the “big picture”, out of the 31 realms in this world, there are actually many realms where suffering is much less than even the human realm; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.
  • But there is unimaginable suffering in the lowest four realms, AND that is what we need to avoid. Even though there are 31 realms, MOST LIVING BEINGS (99.99%+) are trapped in the lowest four realms.
  • Thus what is true is that this sansaric journey is filled with UNIMAGINABLE suffering. However, one cannot see that unless one learns true Dhamma.
  • Even in this life there is much suffering, especially as one gets old, and the suffering is highest close to death if the death is due to an ailment. If one enjoys sex, that ability to enjoy sex will fade away as one gets old; it does not matter how much money one has. Even our taste buds will not give us the same enjoyment from foods as we get old. All our sense faculties will start performing less and less as we get old. This is anicca; we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction in the long run.
  • Even if we are born in a higher realm where there is much happiness, that also cannot be maintained. One day, that life will be over and one WILL end up in a lower realm at some point, and then it will be very hard to get out of there. That is anicca.
  • Furthermore, if the cause of suffering is impermanence, then it cannot be eliminated, see, “Would Nibbana be Possible if Impermanence is the Cause of Suffering?“.

In Pali (or in Sinhala), the word “icca” (pronounced “ichchä”) means liking. Thus anicca (pronounced “anichchä”) means not to liking. 

Therefore, the correct translation of “yadaniccam tan dukkham” is “if something cannot be maintained to our satisfaction, that leads to suffering”. You can take any example you like and verify for yourself that it is a universal principle, an unchanging characteristic of this world, as the Buddha stated.

Without understanding the three characteristics of “this world”, it is not possible to grasp the message of the Buddha. Those three characteristics are: anicca, dukkha, anatta. These are the words in the Tipitaka, that was written down more than 2000 years ago, in 29 BCE.

  • The problem started when these words were translated to Sanskrit as anitya, dukha, anatma; this started probably as far back as in the first or second century CE.
  • Then those Sanskrit words were translated to English as impermanence, suffering, and “no-self”. The two worst translations are impermanence and “no-self”.
  • Those two Sanskrit words, anitya and anatma, are being used by many in Sri Lanka today as Sinhala words representing the translations of the “Pali words”, anicca and anatta.
  • However, anicca and anatta are “old Sinhala” words (i.e., not in use today, but when explained one can see the meaning) with completely different meanings than anitya and anatma.

The Buddha stated that those three characteristics, anicca, dukkha, and anatta are related:

yadaniccam tan dukkham, tan dukkham tadanatta”, or,

“if something is not nicca, dukha arises, and because of that one becomes helpless, i.e., anatta”.

As mentioned above, as one gets old or gets disabled, these three characteristics will be easier to see for oneself; but then it would be too late, because the mind gets weaker as we get old One needs to learn Dhamma BEFORE the mind (and the body) become weak. Here is a set of pictures that show this clearly :

Also, see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“, and “Why is Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?” for more details.

Next, “What is Mind – How do we Experience the Outside World?“, ……….

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