Buddhism - Anicca, Dukha and Anatta

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

bySusan Elbaum Jootla

Investigation of Dhamma for full liberation also must include, in addition to the Four Noble Truths, a study of the Three Universal Characteristics or Signata of existence, (ti-lakkhana): anicca — impermanence, dukkha — suffering, and anatta — essencelessness. Everything in the universe, mental or physical, inside or outside of us, real or imaginary, that comes into being due to causes and conditions, has these three traits as its nature. And since there is nothing that exists without depending on other things, there is absolutely nothing which we can determine to be permanent, full of happiness only, or having any real substance.

We must examine these three truths very carefully to know how thoroughly and totally they apply in all cases. Once there is this deep insight into the nature of reality, detachment and thereby liberation follow.The first of these to be investigated and in some ways the characteristic that underlies the other two is anicca — the utterly transitory, ephemeral, unstable nature off all mental and physical phenomena. On the level of the apparent truth, we know quite well that things change but we have to train ourselves to see how the process of change is going on continually at every instant in everything. How else could the gross conventional alterations like maturing and aging actually come about?

We have to carefully examine all the evidence we can find to comprehend the profundity of the anicca-nature of existence. There is nothing which we can think of that would be as we know it conventionally if things were permanently stable. Change is synonymous with life — our bodies could not exist, let alone function, if the elements of which they are made remained constant or unchanged for even a brief time. Our minds could neither feel nor think nor perceive nor be conscious, if the mind were unalterable in nature.

 Likewise in inanimate objects, change is essential although sometimes less apparent. We must thoroughly investigate this universal trait so that we can get beyond the limited scope of our usual perception which mistakenly takes apparent form for ultimate reality. Because of the incredible rapidity with which both mind and matter alter, we can only occasionally notice that a particular change has come about; we are never able to perceive the continual ongoing process of change which actually makes up existence.

Everything is just in a state of flux, always becoming something else, never really stopping to be something; all nama (mind) and all rupa (matter) are just a continual series of risings and vanishings following very rapidly one after the other. The ultimate reality of everything is just these vibrations.

The importance of really knowing anicca is described by the Buddha with the simile of a farmer plowing his field. "In the autumn season a plowman plowing with a great plowshare, cuts through the spreading roots as he plows, even so, brethren, the perceiving of impermanence, if practiced and enlarged, wears out all sensual lust, wears out all ignorance, wears out, tears out all conceit of 'I am'... Just as, brethren, in the autumn season (after the monsoon rains) when the sky is opened up and cleared of clouds, the sun, leaping forth up into the firmament, drives away all darkness from the heavens, and shines and burns and flashes forth; even so, brethren, the perceiving of impermanence, if practiced and enlarged, wears out all sensual lust, wears out all lust for the body, all desire for rebirth all ignorance, wears out, tears out all conceit of 'I am'" (K.S., III, p. 132-33).

The characteristic of dukkha has been dealt with on the grosser level as the First Noble Truth, in which the suffering of illness, age, of separation from the desired and association with the undesired, in our own minds and bodies and in the external world were considered. But there are many subtle ways in which we can see how life is — and must be — unsatisfying. It has been seen how life is inseparable from change, how without the perpetual process of development and disintegration there would and could be no existence at all. And yet there is the very profound contradiction between this anicca-nature of life and our constant desire and wish for stability, for security, for lasting happiness. If a situation is pleasant, we always hope that it will last and try our utmost to make it do so; but all experiences of life are doomed to pass away as everything on which they are based is completely impermanent, changing at every moment. So all our desires (and we are almost never without some form of tanha in our minds) are bound to be frustrated in the long run; we can never find the durable satisfaction we seek in this world of mind and matter. There is nothing in this universe of anicca that has even the potential capability of giving any real happiness because each and every thing is so completely unstable. We have to give careful attention to all the apparently pleasant and happy experiences that come in through the six sense doors (five physical ones and the mind as the sixth), to see whether they really can bring us satisfaction. The Buddha warns: "In him, brethren, who contemplates the enjoyment that there is in all that makes for grasping, (in all the sense pleasures) craving grows... Such is the uprising of this entire mass of ill." If we analyze how we ourselves develop strong tanha — and in inevitable consequence dukkha — when we think about and dwell on our pleasurable experiences, we can come to see how this fearful irony of pain caused by considering pleasure unwisely is all too true. With this understanding, then, we will instead contemplate dukkha in these same phenomena because, "In him, brethren, who contemplates the misery that there is in all that makes for grasping, craving ceases... Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill." (K.S., II, p. 59). As we are able to comprehend this dukkha-nature of everything more and more, naturally the mind will cease to long for that which it knows cannot bring happiness. And so the mind grows detached and moves toward liberation.

The third universal characteristic, anatta — essencelessness, soullessness, egolessness — is the teaching unique to the Buddhas; it does not appear in any other religious or philosophical tradition. A complete understanding of anatta for and in oneself must be developed before liberation is possible. The Buddha explained this doctrine, so alien to our conventional way of thinking, in many discourses beginning with the second discourse after his Enlightenment.

"Body... feeling... perception, the activities and consciousness (the five aggregates that make up everything there is in a 'being') are not self. If consciousness etc., brethren, were self the consciousness would not be involved in sickness and one could say of consciousness, etc.: 'thus let my consciousness be, thus let my consciousness not be'; but inasmuch as consciousness is not the self, that is why consciousness is involved in sickness. That is why one cannot (so) say of consciousness.

"Now what think ye brethren. Is body permanent or impermanent?"

"Impermanent, Lord."

"And what is impermanent, is that weal or woe?"

"Woe, Lord."

"Then what is impermanent, woeful, unstable by nature, is it fitting to regard it thus: 'This is mine; I am this; this is the self of me'?"

"Surely not, Lord."

"... Therefore, brethren,... every consciousness, etc., what-ever it be, past, future or present, be it inward or outward, gross or subtle, low or high, far or near, — every consciousness, I say, must be regarded as it really is by right insight: 'this is not mine; this I am not; this is not the self of me.'

"So seeing, brethren, the well-taught Ariyan disciple feels disgust for body, etc. So feeling disgust he is repelled, being repelled he is freed... so that he knows 'destroyed is rebirth... done is my task.'"

— K.S., III, p. 56-60

To develop insight in order to fully comprehend the implications of anatta takes a great deal of careful, systematic thought in combination with direct meditative experience. We must try and see that this thing we have habitually for an immeasurably long time called "I" actually has no real existence. This word can only be accurately used as a term of reference for the Five Aggregates — each of which is constantly changing — that go to make up this so-called "being." Only by investigating all the Five Khandhas in depth and finding them to be void of any essence or substance at all which might correctly be called one's "self" can we come to fully understand anatta.

There are two main ways to come to grips with this doctrine: via anicca and via dukkha. These two signata are to some extent manifest as apparent truths as well as being ultimate realities, while anatta is the complete opposite of the apparent truth. When we think of ourselves and use "I" or "me" or "man" etc., there is the inherent implication that these words refer to some constant, ongoing being. But we have previously seen that if we carefully investigate — intellectually and by direct observation in vipassana meditation — all the Five Groups that comprise what we customarily consider "I" and all the physical and mental sense organs that are taken as "mine," that there is no trace of anything even slightly durable in any of them. Ledi Sayadaw explains the relationship between anicca and anatta by showing how people with untrained minds assume that there is some on-going core or stable essence somewhere in the Five Khandhas (and take this substance to be their atta, their self or soul. "Those beings who are not able to discern the momentary arisings and dissolutions of the physical and mental phenomena of the five constituent groups of existence and thus are not able to realize the characteristic of anicca maintain: 'the corporeality-group (or sensation, perception, activities or consciousness-group) is the essence and therefore the atta of beings.'"5 If we wish to take any of these groups as our substance, then we must admit that "I" "decay, die and am reborn every moment"; but such an ephemeral "I" is very far from our usual conception of ourselves. If we have carefully considered anicca as it exists in everything internal that could be considered "I," then we must come to the conclusion that this "I" is nothing but a mistaken idea that has grown from inaccurate perception which has been habitually reinforced for a long, long time. As the truth of anatta becomes clearer, we gradually let go of this "I" and so are closer and closer to Enlightenment, where not the slightest shadow of a trace of this misconception can remain.

If we discern all the mental and physical dukkha we have to undergo in life, we learn about anatta from a different angle. This nama-rupa phenomenon is constantly subject to this pain and that anguish, and yet we foolishly insist on calling the body and mind "mine" and assuming that they belong to "me." But the very idea of possession means that the owner has control of the property; so "I" should be able to keep my body and mind as I want them to be, naturally healthy and happy. As the Buddha stated in the quotation at the start of this section, "Let my body be thus; let it not be thus." But obviously and undeniably, suffering is felt and cannot be prevented by mere exertion of will or wishing. So, in reality, we have to come to the conclusion that there is no "I" who controls this nama-rupa; mind and body are in no way fit to be called "mine." "The arising of the five constituent groups do not yield to the wishes of anyone." (SDD, p. 93). Phenomena which are dependent upon specific causes which operate strictly according to their nature from moment to moment cannot be subject to control by any "being" and as we explore it thoroughly, we come to understand how this Five Aggregate phenomenon which we wrongly tend to consider "I" is just such a conditioned and dependent process. And suffering (or pleasure, for that matter) likewise comes about because of certain conditions, chief amongst them being tanha. There is no "being" who controls what ultimately happens to these five aggregates.

Being caught in personality belief, (sakkaya ditthi) — the inability to comprehend anatta — causes tremendous dukkha to creatures on all the planes of existence from the lowest hell to the highest brahma worlds. This great source of suffering must be carefully examined and its workings understood if we are to escape from its powerful, deep-rooted grasp. "Ego-delusion is the foremost of the unwholesome Kamma of old and accompanies beings incessantly. As long as personality belief exists these old unwholesome actions are fiery and full of strength... those beings who harbor within themselves this personality-belief are continually under pressure to descend or directly fall towards the worlds of woe."6 (A of A, p. 50). By thoroughly rooting out, seeing through and letting go of this mistaken conception that there is a real substantial "I," "all wrong views, evil mental factors and evil Kammas which would lead... to the Lower Worlds will disappear." (SDD, p. 87). Thus if we can really know our anatta-nature totally, there is no longer any possibility of the extreme dukkha of rebirth in the lower realms of existence and the life continuum will "always remain within the fold of the Buddha's Dispensation wherever... reborn." (A of A, p. 52). But if one does not understand the impersonal nature of this five aggregate phenomenon, he will "undoubtedly have to preserve his soul (or self) by entertaining evil thoughts and evil actions as the occasion arises." (SDD, p. 50) We can see that if we act on the assumption that there is an "I" we are always in the position of attempting to protect and preserve this 'self' and thus very much prone to commit unwholesome thoughts, words and deeds in relation to other "beings." "People are generally concerned with what they consider to be themselves or their own... and their bodily, verbal and mental acts are based on and are conditioned by that concern. So the root of all vice for the foolish concern is 'self' and one's 'own.'" Ledi Sayadaw explains how the belief that there is an "I" causes this continual rebirth with a strong downward tendency with the analogy of a string of beads:

In a string of beads where a great number of beads are strung together by a strong silk thread, if one bead is pulled all the others will follow the one that is pulled. But if the silk thread is cut or removed, pulling one of the beads will not disturb the other beads because there is no longer any attachment between them.

Similarly, a being that possesses personality-belief harbors a strong attachment to the series of Aggregates arisen during past existences... and transforms them into an ego... It is thus that the innumerable unwholesome karmic actions of the past existences which have not yet produced resultants, will accompany that being wherever he may be reborn. These unwholesome actions of the past resemble beads that are strung and bound together by a strong thread.

Beings, however, who clearly perceive the characteristic of Not-self and have rid themselves of personality-belief, will perceive that the bodily and mental Aggregates that arise and disappear even within the short period of one sitting, do so as separate phenomena and not as a closely interlinked continuum. The concept of 'my self' which is like the thread, is no longer present. Those bodily and mental processes appear to them like the beads from which the thread has been removed."

— A of A, pp. 53-54

Thus the dispelling of personality belief removes all the mental factors which might cause one to behave in such a way that would lead to rebirth in the realms of woe as well as cutting off the link of attachment to an "ego" that has kept us connected to all our evil deeds of the past. Even in this present life it is clear if we think about it that Sakkaya Ditthi (personality-belief) causes us great suffering and its elimination would be of great benefit. For example, "When external or internal dangers are encountered or disease and ailments occur, beings attach themselves to them through such thoughts as, 'I feel pain, I feel hurt,' thus taking a possessive attitude towards them. This becomes an act of bondage that later may obstruct beings from ridding themselves of those diseases... though they are so greatly oppressive" (A of A, p. 56).

However, understanding that it is this erroneous personality-belief that keeps us thinking that there is some ongoing essence or substance in this five aggregate phenomena that can rightly be called "I" will not immediately or automatically prevent the thought of "I" from coming up in the mind as it is a very deeply rooted Sankhara that has been built up over a long period of time. Whenever a thought related to "I" does appear, we must mindfully apply the wisdom of anatta we have already gained and realize that "I" is nothing but an idea originating form an incorrect perception of reality. Whenever we notice ourselves thinking of an "I" as one of the aggregates or as related to one of them, we have to consider carefully the thought and reinforce our understanding that "Whatsoever material object... whatsoever feeling, whatsoever perception, whatsoever activities, whatsoever consciousness... (must be rightly regarded as) 'This is not mine, this I am not; this is not the self of me.'" This process of seeing the ignorance arise and repeatedly applying the Right View to it, gradually wears away even the thoughts of "I," "myself" and "mine." This total elimination of "I"-consciousness which is nothing but a subtle form of conceit, and of this concept of "mine" which is subtle form of tanha, does not happen until Arhantship is reached. But our task is to deepen the comprehension and investigation of anatta to greater and greater depths of insight by means of Vipassana meditation.

A group of monks once questioned the Venerable Khemaka about anatta and inquired whether he had attained Arhantship. He replied that he was not yet fully liberated because he still had subtle remnants of "I am" in his mind. He said to them:

I see that in these five grasping groups I have got the idea of "I am" yet I do not think that I am this "I am." Though (one is a nonreturner)... yet there remains in him a subtle remnant of the I-conceit, of the I am-desire, of the lurking tendency to think "I am" still not removed from him. Later on he lives contemplating the rise and fall of the five grasping groups seeing thus: "Such is the body, such is the arising of body, such is the ceasing of it. Such is feeling... perception... the activities... consciousness."

In this way... the subtle remnant of the I am-conceit, of the I am-desire, that lurking tendency to think "I am" which was still not removed from him — that is now removed.

— K.S., III, p. 110

This explanation of Khemaka's was so clear and profound that as a direct result of his discourse, all the monks who listened to it and Khemaka himself as well, were fully liberated — with no remnants of "I am" remaining. So we would do well to carefully study what this wise monk said about the development of anatta so that we can come to understand how by means of this process of carefully observing, clearly experiencing, and thoroughly investigating the rise and fall of the five khandhas we gradually eliminate the gross layers of Sakkaya Ditthi and by the same means, more and more refined, ultimately root out even the latent, subconscious tendency to think "I am."

Investigation into the Three Universal Characteristics — anicca, dukkha, and anatta — is a fundamental requirement for the growth of liberating insight. Once we have thoroughly analyzed our own nama-rupa and also the phenomena of the external world, and completely understood how everything we can conceive of — real or imaginary, mental or physical, internal or external — is totally unstable, incapable of bringing real durable happiness and without any actual substance, detachment must follow and with it freedom from the dukkha of existence. The process of gradually overcoming ignorance with wisdom comes through the direct bodily experience of the unsatisfactoriness and essencelessness of this nama-rupa in vipassana meditation, combined with careful thought, so that these "experiences" have their full impact on the mind. Once again, it is by investigation in meditation that detachment from the "all" is won — and so too the ultimate peace free from all desire.

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Source: From Investigation for Insight by Susan Elbaum Jootla (Copyright © 1983 Buddhist Publication Society) For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.