Does Impermanence Lead to Suffering?

Revised April 26, 2020; June 7, 2020; August 23, 2022

The following INCORRECT statements are in frequent use in most books in both Mahāyāna and current texts on Theravada:

  1. “We suffer because our bodies are 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.

Is there a direct correlation between impermanence and suffering? Let us examine those statements.

1. “We suffer because our bodies are impermanent; they are subject to decay and death.”
  • WE indeed 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 ill or dies, but it is cause for celebration for most people when someone they dislike gets ill or dies.
  • The suffering/happiness is directly proportional to the attachment/dislike we have for that person. Suffering due to the 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 when things do not proceed as we like. It is human nature to want loved ones to be unharmed and 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.”
  • Many things in this world cause us suffering because they will not stay in the same condition or are destroyed. That is true.
  • But many other “permanent” things in this world (at least relative to our lifetime of 100 years) are associated with suffering. If one has an illness that becomes “permanent,” would that not lead to more suffering?
  • A gold necklace is not impermanent, i.e., it will last for thousands of years. But the woman who owns one may be robbed of it, and in the process, could get hurt too. She could not “maintain that necklace as she desired.”

If ANYTHING causes us suffering, that is only because we cannot maintain it to our satisfaction, our liking.

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

The following is the conventional (incorrect) translation of Buddha’s words: “yad aniccam taṃ dukkhaṃ”,  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 lead to suffering.
  • If we come down with cancer, wouldn’t it cause happiness if it becomes impermanent? i.e., if it goes away?
  • If a relative (we do not like) comes 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 it is obvious that everything is suffering, then everyone will be looking to attain Nibbāna as soon as possible. The reality is that there are sensory pleasures in this world. Most people do not understand why one should go to all this trouble to “give up all these pleasures and seek Nibbāna.”

  • Looking at the “big picture” of the 31 realms in this world, there are many realms where suffering is much less. See “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.”
  • But there is unimaginable suffering in the lowest four realms, and we need to avoid that. Even though there are 31 realms, MOST LIVING BEINGS (99.99%+) are in the lowest four realms.
  • Thus what is true is that this saṃsāric 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 age. 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. That is anicca. We cannot maintain things to our satisfaction in the long run.
  • Even if we are born in a higher realm with much happiness, that existence 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 Nibbāna be Possible if Impermanence is the Cause of Suffering?“.

In Pāli (or in Sinhala), the word “icca” (pronounced “ichcha”) means liking. Thus anicca (pronounced “anichcha”) means not to like. 

Correct Interpretations

5. Therefore, the correct translation of “yad aniccam taṃ dukkhaṃ is “if something cannot be maintained to our satisfaction, that leads to suffering.” As the Buddha stated, you can take any example you like and verify that it is a universal principle, an unchanging characteristic of this world.

6. Without understanding the three characteristics of “this world,” it is impossible to grasp the Buddha’s message. Those three characteristics are anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Here, anatta is pronounced, “anaththa.” These are the words in the Tipiṭaka written more than 2000 years ago, in 29 BCE.

  • The problem started when these words were translated to Sanskrit as anitya, dukha, and anātma; this started probably as far back as 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.” See “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
  • Those two Sanskrit words, anitya and anātma, are being used by many in Sri Lanka today as Sinhala words representing the translations of the “Pāli words,” anicca and anatta. Furthermore, the Pāli word nicca (pronounced “nichcha”) was translated to Sanskrit as “nitya” (pronounced “nithya”), which means “permanent.” The Pāli word nicca means “something can be maintained to one’s satisfaction and, thus, is fruitful.”
  • However, nicca, anicca, and anatta are “old Sinhala” words with entirely different meanings than nitya, anitya, and anātma. Those words are not commonly used today, but when explained, a Sinhala-speaking person can understand the real meaning. Indeed old ladies in villages in Sri Lanka still say “ane aniccan” (අනේ අනිච්චං) to express the futility of something.

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

yad aniccam taṃ dukkham, taṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā”, or,

if something is not nicca, dukha arises, and because of that, one becomes helpless

  • In the long-term, not realizing the anicca nature leads to rebirths in the four lower realms (apāyā.)

8. As mentioned above, as one gets old or gets disabled, these three characteristics will be easier to see. 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 video that shows this clearly (of course, we all will go through such changes as we grow old):

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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