by Sayagyi Thray Sithu U Ba Khin
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta — Impermanence, suffering and
Egolessness — are the three essential characteristics of things in the Teaching of the Buddha. If you know Anicca
correctly, you will know Dukkha as its corollary and Anatta as ultimate truth. It
takes time to understand the three together.
Impermanence (anicca) is, of course, the essential fact which must be
first experienced and understood by practice. Mere book-knowledge of the Buddha-Dhamma
will not be enough for the correct understanding of Anicca because the experiential
aspect will be missing. It is only through experiential understanding of the nature
of Anicca as an ever-changing process within you that you can understand Anicca
in the way the Buddha would like you to understand it. As in the days of the Buddha,
so too now, this understanding of Anicca can be developed by persons who have no
book-knowledge whatsoever of Buddhism.
To understand Impermanence (anicca) one must follow strictly and diligently
the Eightfold Noble Path, which is divided into the three groups of Sila, Samadhi
and Pañña — Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. Sila, or virtuous living, is he
basis for Samadhi, control of the mind leading to one-pointedness. It is only when
Samadhi is good that one can develop Pañña. Therefore, Sila and Samadhi are the
prerequisites for Pañña. By Pañña is meant the understanding of Anicca, Dukkha and
Anatta through the practice of Vipassana, i.e., insight meditation.
Whether a Buddha has arisen or not, the practice of Sila and Samadhi may be present
in the human world. They are, in fact, the common denominators of all religious
faiths. They are not, however, sufficient means for the goal of Buddhism — the complete
end of suffering. In his search for the end of suffering, Prince Siddhattha, the
future Buddha, found this out and worked his way through to find the path which
would lead to the end of suffering. After solid work for six years, he found the
way out, became completely enlightened, and then taught men and gods to follow
the Path which would lead them to the end of suffering.
In this connection we should understand that each action — whether by deed, word
or thought — leaves behind an active force called "Sankhara" (or "kamma" in popular
terminology), which goes to the credit or debit account of the individual, according
to whether the action is good or bad. There is, therefore, an accumulation of Sankhara
(or Kamma) with everyone, which functions as the supply-source of energy to sustain
life, which is inevitably followed by suffering and death. It is by the development
of the power inherent in the understanding of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, that one
is able to rid oneself of the Sankhara accumulated in ones own personal account.
This process begins with the correct understanding of Anicca, while further accumulations
of fresh actions and the reduction of the supply of energy to sustain life are taking
place simultaneously, from moment to moment and from day to day. It is, therefore,
a matter of a whole lifetime or more to get rid of all one's Sankhara. He who has
rid himself of all Sankhara comes to the end of suffering, for then no Sankhara
remains to give the necessary energy to sustain him in any form of life. On the
termination of their lives the perfected saints, i.e., the Buddhas and arahants,
pass into Parinibbana, reaching the end of suffering. For us today who take to Vipassana
Meditation, it would suffice if we can understand Anicca well enough to reach the
first stage of an Ariya (a Noble person), that is, a Sotapanna or stream-enterer,
who will not take more than Seven lives to come to the end of suffering.
The fact of Anicca, which opens the door to the understanding of Dukkha and Anatta
and eventually to the end of suffering, can be encountered in its full significance
only through the Teachings of a Buddha, for so long as that Teaching relating to
the Eightfold Noble Path and the Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya
dhamma) remains intact and available to the aspirant.
For progress in Vipassana Meditation, a student must keep knowing Anicca as continuously
as possible. The Buddha's advice to monks is that they should try to maintain the
awareness of Anicca, Dukkha or Anatta in all postures, whether sitting, standing,
walking or lying down. Continuous awareness of Anicca and so of Dukkha and Anatta,
is the secret of success. The last words of the Buddha just before He breathed His
last and passed away into Maha-parinibbana were: "Decay (or Anicca) is inherent
in all component things. Work out your own salvation with diligence." This is in
fact the essence of all His teachings during the forty-five years of His ministry.
If you will keep up the awareness of the Anicca that is inherent in all component
things, you are sure to reach the goal in the course of time.
As you develop in the understanding of Anicca, your insight into "What is true
of nature" will become greater and greater, so much so that eventually you will
have no doubt whatsoever of the three characteristics of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta.
It is then only that you will be in a position to go ahead for the goal in view.
Now that you know Anicca as the first essential factor, you would try to understand
what Anicca is with real clarity as extensively as possible so as not to get confused
in the course of practice or discussion.
The real meaning of Anicca is that Impermanence or Decay is the inherent nature
of everything that exists in the Universe — whether animate or inanimate. The Buddha
taught His disciples that everything that exists at the material level is composed
of "Kalapas." Kalapas are material units very much smaller than atoms, which die
out immediately after they come into being. Each kalapa is a mass formed of the
eight basic constituents of matter, the solid, liquid, calorific and oscillatory,
together with color, smell, taste, and nutriment. The first four are called primary
qualities, and are predominant in a kalapa. The other four are subsidiaries, dependent
upon and springing from the former. A kalapa is the minutest particle in the physical
plane — still beyond the range of science today. It is only when the eight basic
material constituents unite together that the kalapa is formed. In other words,
the momentary collocation of these eight basic elements of behavior makes a man
just for that moment, which in Buddhism is known as a kalapa. The life-span of a
kalapa is termed a moment, and a trillion such moments are said to elapse during
the wink of a man's eye. These kalapas are all in a state of perpetual change or
flux. To a developed student in Vipassana Meditation they can be felt as a stream
The human body is not, as it may appear, a solid stable entity, but a continuum
of matter (rupa) co-existing with mentality (nama). To know that our
very body is tiny kalapas all in a state of change is to know the true nature of
change or decay. This change or decay (anicca) occasioned by the continual
breakdown and replacement of kalapas, all in a state of combustion, must necessarily
be identified as Dukkha, the truth of suffering. It is only when you experience
impermanence (anicca) as suffering (dukkha) that you come to the realization
of the truth of suffering, the first of the Four Noble Truths basic to the doctrine
of the Buddha. Why? Because when you realize the subtle nature of Dukkha from which
you cannot escape for a moment, you become truly afraid of, disgusted with, and
disinclined towards your very existence as mentality-materiality (namarupa),
and look for a way of escape to a state beyond Dukkha, and so to Nibbana, the end
of suffering. What that end of suffering is like, you will be able to taste, even
as a human being, when you reach the level of sotapanna, a stream-enterer, and develop
well enough by practice to attain to the unconditioned state of Nibbana, the Peace
within. But even in terms of everyday, ordinary life, no sooner than you are able
to keep up the awareness of Anicca in practice will you know for yourself that a
change is taking place in you for the better, both physically and mentally.
Before entering upon the practice of Vipassana Meditation, that is, after Samadhi
has been developed to a proper level, a student should acquaint himself with the
theoretical knowledge of material and mental properties, i.e., of Rupa and Nama.
For in Vipassana Meditation one contemplates not only the changing nature of matter,
but also the changing nature of mentality, of the thought-elements of attention
directed towards the process of change going on within matter. At times the attention
will be focused on the impermanence of the material side of existence, i.e., upon
Anicca in regard to Rupa, and at other times on the impermanence of the thought-elements
or mental side, i.e., upon Anicca in regard to Nama. When one is contemplating the
impermanence of matter, one realizes also that the thought-elements simultaneous
with that awareness are also in a state of transition or change. In this case one
will be knowing Anicca in regard to both Rupa and Nama together.
All I have said so far relates to the understanding of Anicca through bodily
feelings of the process of change of Rupa or matter, and also of thought-elements
depending upon such changing processes. You should know that Anicca can also be
understood through other types of feeling as well. Anicca can be contemplated through
(i) by contact of visible form with the sense organ of the eye;
(ii) by contact of sound with the sense organ of the ear;
(iii) by contact of smell with the sense organ of the nose;
(iv) by contact of taste with the sense organ of the tongue;
(v) by contact of touch with the sense organ of the body;
(vi) and by contact of mental objects with the sense organ of the mind.
Once can thus develop the understanding of Anicca through any of six sense organs.
In practice, however, we have found that of all the types of feeling, the feeling
by contact of touch with the component parts of the body in a process of change
covers the widest area for introspective meditation. Not only that, the feelings
by contact of touch (by way of friction, radiation and vibration of the kalapas
within) with the component parts of the body is more evident than other types of
feeling and therefore a beginner in Vipassana Meditation can come to the understanding
of Anicca more easily through bodily feelings of the change of Rupa or matter. This
is the main reason why we have chosen bodily feeling as a medium for quick understanding
of Anicca. It is open to anyone to try other means, but my suggestion is that one
should be well-established in the understanding of Anicca through bodily feeling
before any attempt is made through other types of feeling.
There are ten levels of knowledge in Vipassana, namely:
(i) Sammasana: theoretical appreciation of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta by close
observation and analysis.
(ii) Udayabbaya: knowledge of the arising and dissolution of Rupa and Nama by
(iii) Bhanga: knowledge of the rapidly changing nature of Rupa and Nama as a
swift current or stream of energy; in particular, clear awareness of the phase of
(iv) Bhaya: knowledge that this very existence is dreadful.
(v) Adinava: knowledge that this very existence is full of evils.
(vi) Nibbida: knowledge that this very existence is disgusting.
(vii) Muncitukamyata: knowledge of the urgent need and wish to escape from this
(viii) Patisankha: knowledge that the stage is now set to get detached from all
conditioned phenomena (sankhara) and to break away from egocentricity.
(x) Anuloma: knowledge that would accelerate the attempt to reach the goal.
These are the levels of attainment which one goes through during the course of
Vipassana Meditation; in the case of those who reach the goal in a short time they
can be known only in retrospect. Along with one's progress in understanding Anicca,
one may reach these levels of attainment, subject, however, to adjustments or help
at certain levels by a competent teacher. One should avoid looking forward to such
attainments in anticipation, as this will distract from the continuity of awareness
of Anicca, which alone can and will give the desired reward.
Let me now deal with Vipassana Meditation from the point of view of a householder
in everyday life and explain the benefit one can derive from it — here and now —
in this very lifetime.
The initial object of Vipassana Meditation is to activate the experience of Anicca
in oneself and to eventually reach a state of inner and outer calmness and balance.
This is achieved when one becomes engrossed in the feeling of Anicca within. The
world is now facing serious problems which threaten all mankind. It is just the
right time for everyone to take to Vipassana Meditation and learn how to find a
deep pool of quiet in the midst of all that is happening today. Anicca is inside
of everybody. It is within reach of everybody. Just a look into oneself and there
it is — Anicca to be experienced. When one can feel Anicca, when one can experience
Anicca, and when one can become engrossed in Anicca, one can at will cut oneself
off from the world of ideation outside. Anicca is, for the householder, the gem
of life which he will treasure to create a reservoir of calm and balanced energy
for his own well-being and for the welfare of the society.
The experience of Anicca, when properly developed, strikes at the root of ones
physical and mental ills and removes gradually whatever is bad in him, i.e., the
causes of such physical and mental ills. This experience is not reserved for men
who have renounced the world for the homeless life. It is for the householder as
well. In spite of drawbacks which make a householder restless in these days, a competent
teacher or guide can help a student to get the experience of Anicca activated in
a comparatively short time. Once he has got it activated, all that is necessary
is for him to try and preserve it; but he must make it a point, as soon as time
or opportunity presents itself for further progress, to work for the stage of Bhangañana
— the third level of knowledge in Vipassana. If he reaches this level, there will
be little or no problem because he should then be able to experience Anicca without
much ado and almost automatically. In this case Anicca will become his base, to
which all his physical and mental activities return as soon as the domestic needs
of daily life for such activities are over. However, there is likely to be some
difficulty for one who has not reached the stage of Bhanga. It will be just like
a tug-of-war for him between Anicca within, and physical and mental activities outside.
So it would be wise for him to follow the motto of work while you work, play while
you play. There is no need for him to be activating the experience of Anicca all
the time. It should suffice if this could be confined to a regular period, or periods,
set apart in the day or night for the purpose. During this time, at least, an attempt
must be made to keep the attention focused inside the body, with awareness devoted
exclusively to Anicca; that is to say, his awareness of Anicca should go on from
moment to moment so continuously as not to allow for the interpolation of any discursive
or distracting thoughts which are definitely detrimental to progress. In case this
is not possible, he will have to go back to respiration-mindfulness, because Samadhi
is the key to the contemplation of Anicca. To get good Samadhi, Sila (morality)
has to be perfect, since Samadhi is build upon Sila. For a good experience of Anicca,
Samadhi must be good. If Samadhi is excellent awareness of Anicca will also become
excellent. There is no special technique for activating the experience of Anicca
other than the use of the mind, adjusted to a perfect state of balance, and attention
projected upon the object of meditation. In Vipassana the object of meditation is
Anicca, and therefore in the case of those used to focusing their attention on bodily
feelings, they can feel Anicca directly. In experiencing Anicca in relation to the
body, it should first be in the area where one can easily get his attention engrossed,
changing the area of attention from place to place, from head to feet and from feet
to head, at times probing into the interior. At this stage, it must clearly be understood
that no attention is to be paid to the anatomy of the body, but to the formations
of matter — the kalapas — and the nature of their constant change.
If these instructions are observed, there will surely be progress, but the progress
depends also on Parami (i.e., on one's dispositions for certain spiritual (qualities)
and the devotion of the individual to the work of meditation. If he attains high
levels of knowledge, his power to understand the three characteristics of Anicca,
Dukkha and Anatta will increase and he will accordingly come nearer and nearer to
the goal of the Ariya or noble saint, which every householder should keep in view.
This is the age of science. Man of today has no Utopia. He will not accept anything
unless the results are good, concrete, vivid, personal, and here-and-now. When the
Buddha was alive, He said to the Kalamas:
Now look, you Kalamas. Be not misled by report or tradition or hearsay. Be not
misled by proficiency in the scriptural collections, or by reasoning or logic or
reflection on and approval of some theory, or because some view conforms with one's
inclinations, or out of respect for prestige of a teacher. But when you know for
yourselves: these things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy, these things
are censured by the wise; these things when practiced and observed, conduce to loss
and sorrow — then you reject them. But if at any time you know for yourselves: these
things are wholesome, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the
intelligent; these things, when practiced and observed, conduce to welfare and happiness,
then, Kalamas, do ye, having practiced them, abide.
The time-clock of Vipassana has now struck — that is for the revival of Buddha-Dhamma
Vipassana in practice. We have no doubt whatsoever that definite results would accrue
to those who would with an open mind sincerely undergo a course of training under
a competent teacher — I mean results which will be accepted as good, concrete, vivid,
personal, here-and-now, results which will keep them in good stead and in a state
of well-being and happiness for the rest of their lives.
May all beings be happy and may Peace prevail in the world.
Suggested Further Reading
Copyright © 1981 Buddhist Publication Society - Source: The Wheel Publication No. 231 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1981). Transcribed from the print edition in 1995 by Tom Fitton under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.
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