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Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha The Three Marks Of Existence
The Following is an excerpt from The Truth Of Happiness book. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and ten-week course is here.
Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha
Impermanence, The Not-Self Characteristic, and Stress
In order to develop understanding of dukkha, understanding the impermanent environment of all human experience, and the “self” experiencing dukkha within this environment, will also be developed. In essence, each of these three discrete characteristics includes the other two characteristics.
This week’s study of Impermanence, Not-Self, and Stress, and next week’s study of Dependent Origination and The Five Clinging-Aggregates will develop understanding of these teachings within the proper context, and with heightened concentration and refined mindfulness.
I will first describe anicca, anatta, and dukkha separately and then describe the ongoing interplay of these three “Marks of Existence.” The first two characteristics, anicca and anatta, are animate while dukkha is inanimate as a description of the result of the first two. It will be seen, though, that dukkha has an animating characteristic due to the reaction to stress within the conditioned mind of anatta.
During this week’s study, and next week’s too, I will place some emphasis on the contradictions between the Buddha’s direct teachings and modern Buddhist doctrine. I include this only for clarity and context. I intend no disrespect for the later-developed teachings, or of any individual teacher.
The Impermanence Characteristic
“Be mindful of impermanence to end conceit. When impermanence is understood it is also understood that none of this is self. Understanding not-self uproots conceit, uproots I-making. When fully established release is complete.” (Anguttara Nikaya 9.1)
Impermanence is an essential concept of the Dhamma. Impermanence describes the environment in which unhappiness and stress arises and is maintained. All things in the phenomenal world are impermanent and all events are uncertain as to occurrence, effect and duration. Even your view of yourself changes from moment to moment.
Understanding that all things are impermanent, including self-referential thoughts, is the key to understanding how your thinking has created the condition of stress.
Some physical objects, such as a mountain, or planet, or the universe, maintain a physical form for a longer period of time than a butterfly, an apple, a thought, or a human body. All will decay, change form, and fade from existence.
Another way of describing the impermanence of all phenomenal things is that uncertainty is characteristic of all phenomenal things. We can never know what the next moment will bring. Ignorance of uncertainty develops additional clinging and additional stress. Wisdom is knowing, understanding, and accepting impermanence and uncertainty. Wisdom brings a mind of calm and spacious equanimity.
The importance of understanding impermanence cannot be overstated. It was impermanence that the Buddha spoke of in his last teaching: “Impermanent are all conditioned things. Decay is relentless. Work diligently for your own understanding.” (Digha Nikaya 16)
The Buddha understood the impermanence of all things in the phenomenal world but did not over-emphasize phenomenal impermanence or creating anything special regarding the general impermanence of the world. He placed emphasis on understanding the impermanence of what is commonly viewed as a self and the self’s relationship with the impermanence of the phenomenal world.
“Friends, form (physical objects and the physical body) is like foam. Seeing clearly, form is empty and without substance. Whether past, present or future, internal, external, subtle or obvious, seeing form as it is, like foam on the water, brings wisdom to the well-instructed. Clearly seeing they become disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications and disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted one grows dispassionate. With dispassion comes release (from craving and clinging.)
Form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications, and consciousness are the five factors of the Five Clinging-Aggregates that is explained in context of Dependent Origination in week eight. It is mentioned here to also develop the understanding of the relationship between “not-self,” impermanence, and stress.
“Friends, when a learned follower has heard the truth and understands the truth they will no longer cling to form, or to feeling, or to perceptions, or to fabrications, or to the flow of thoughts. They will see clearly ‘this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself.’ They are fully released.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.95)
The strong self-referential view of self as a substantial and sustainable physical entity animated by a likewise self-referential consciousness is initially difficult to understand abandon. By developing concentration and refined mindfulness through the Eightfold Path this ongoing process can be clearly observed and abandoned.
As all things are impermanent and without any sustainable substance, like foam on the water, it is foolish to cling to anything, including form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications, or any thought.
The Not-Self Characteristic
Anatta is the word the Buddha used to describe what is commonly referred to as “self.” The Buddha describes the mental-physical ego-self as “anatta” to show the impermanent, ever-changing, insubstantiality of the conditioned ego-personality. What is thought of as self, as me or mine, is a deluded view rooted in ignorance (of the Four Noble Truths.)
Anatta, the not-self characteristic, is unique to the teachings of the Buddha, and perhaps the most difficult to observe and understand. The more conditioned thinking is established, the more difficult it will be to grasp this third observable truth.
If you look closely at what you normally view as “self” you will see that there is nothing permanent that you can perceive through your five physical senses and interpretive consciousness, or the six-sense base. (The six-sense base is your five physical senses interpreted and moderated by your thoughts.)
This is a kind of feedback loop, or discursive thinking: From wrong view (or ignorant view, lacking wisdom) you perceive yourself through contact with your senses as the “perceiver” and all perceived phenomenon as outside of yourself, therefore you must in fact have a permanent and separate existence from other observed phenomena that appear “outside” of you the “perceiver.”
This wrong view can only perpetuate wrong view. Ignorance can never lead to wisdom, only wisdom ends ignorance. Though firmly entrenched in the human psyche the belief in an ego-self as a permanent and sustainable individual entity is a wrong view and leads to endless confusion and suffering.
What is perceived as a self is an ego-personality that has arisen from certain conditions known as the “12 Links of Dependent Origination.” The ego-personality is the mental-physical form arisen from wrong view and maintained by clinging to wrong views.
Dependent Origination is explained in detail in week eight. I will also refer to not-self (non-self) as ego-self or ego-personality. Anatta is first presented here in context of Anicca and Dukkha and is explained in week eight in the context of Dependent Origination.
Any further establishment of self-identity in any form or in any realm, physical or non-physical, will only lead to more confusion and suffering. This includes modern Buddhist doctrines of an inherent Buddha-nature or the self achieving Buddhahood. These notions are merely creating another conceptual (imaginary) framework to house the ego-personality and are contrary to the Buddha’s Dhamma.
Not-Self has also been misinterpreted and misapplied in some modern Buddhist schools to mean that the self is nothing, or a void, and has led some schools to create a doctrine of “nothingness” or “emptiness.” Not-Self simply means that what is commonly viewed as “self” is impermanent and insubstantial and requires a continual process of “I-making,” or conceit to continue. This is a wrong view arising from ignorance. What is commonly viewed as a self is Anatta, Not-a-Self.
The Buddha did not teach that there is no self, only that the self fabricated through an observable process is not worth defending or continually re-establishing. Anatta, not-self, refers, to your ego-personality. It is your ego-personality that is prone to endless confusion and suffering. Though insubstantial and ever-changing, your ego-self’s sole purpose is to continue to establish its “self” in every object, event, view, or idea. Anatta has created endless views of itself that are all subject to impermanence and suffering. It is in this underlying impermanence that the pervasive unsatisfactory experience of dukkha arises and is maintained.
Insight into this one thing, that all views arising from an ego-self cause stress and unhappiness, brings understanding and lasting peace and happiness. Within the framework of The Eightfold Path all views of self are recognized. As new views arise they are quickly abandoned. It is not-self, your ego-personality, that is subject to stress. It is only this impermanent and insubstantial ego-personality that is to be abandoned. This is why all views of self are to be recognized and abandoned. This is the purpose of insight: to clearly recognize impermanence and all wrong views of self.
The simplest way to describe the Buddha’s teaching on Not-self is this: anything that the ego-self clings to, whether objects, people, events, views, or ideas, or craving through the pursuit of happiness through acquisition of objects, people, events, views, or ideas, will create confusion, disenchantment and lasting unhappiness – let all craving and clinging views go.
Still another way to see this is by definition and association. The self is defined by attachments. Association is another word for attachments. Who you associate with and what you associate with defines the self you will experience. This does not mean that you should have no associations. It does mean you should be mindful of all associations and to not try to make what is impermanent permanent. As clinging to an ego-personality ceases, self-identification through associations also ceases.
Do your associations support developing understanding within the framework of The Eightfold Path? Do your associations increase your own and other’s confusion and suffering through validation of yours and other’s unskillful actions? The Eightfold Path provides a highly effective framework for guiding associations and focus for practice.
Once clinging is recognized and abandoned, you will no longer cling to others. This brings the ability to be mindfully present in the world and with others with no expectations or insistence that your life, or the people in your life, including yourself, be any different than what is occurring.
All aspects of self are impermanent and any conditioned thought or thought construct that attempts to distract from this truth is also clinging, specifically clinging to views and ideas. Clinging to views and ideas maintains the distraction of stress and generates karma.
Kamma and rebirth are explained in week nine.
Anatta, not-self, continually seeks to establish itself in impermanent objects, views, and ideas. This is the purpose of the phenomenal world and why the ego-self is so enamored with the world. As long as anatta continues this quest, confusion and suffering will prevail. As long as anatta continues this quest, kamma will continue.
Due to unquenched desire for existence, the ego-personality creates karma. Karma unfolds moment-by-moment as the distraction of stress and unhappiness. Though physical form will change due to impermanence, Karma continues the experience of stress and unhappiness.
This is an important example of impermanence as impermanence relates to anatta. Continuity is not permanence. Continuity is recurrence due to repeatedly recreating the conditions leading to an experience, in this case continued re-establishment of an ego-self subject to confusion and suffering.
Recurring life situations and intellectual or emotional reactions are simply an impermanent, but repetitive, and discursive, product of discriminating consciousness, or conditioned mind. Conditioned thinking and conditioned mind is formed due to ignorance of impermanence, maintained by the distraction of stress, and given validity by an ego-personality.
Continuity caused by clinging conditioned mind is ongoing Dukkha.
The Unsatisfactory Characteristic
Dukkha is a Pali word that means unsatisfactory, uncertain, disappointing, stress, confusion, and all manner of mental and physical suffering rooted in self-referential views. I will use these words interchangeably to signify dukkha.
“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the un-beloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the Five Clinging-Aggregates are dukkha.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11)
The common human problem is the underlying general unsatisfactory nature of human life. This is Dukkha. Included in Dukkha is all manner of unsatisfactoriness, from mild disappointment to the most extreme physical and emotional distress. While extreme experiences of dukkha are somewhat individual, dukkha is a common human experience that no one can avoid.
All human beings are subject to sickness, aging and death, Along the way all are subject to unsatisfactory, disappointing and unpleasant experiences. Even pleasant experiences have an underlying unsatisfactory aspect due to impermanence and uncertainty. The ego-personality develops clinging to pleasure-giving experiences, creating stress. A form of clinging is aversion to unpleasant experiences, also contributing stress.
Dukkha is both an experience of interaction with the impermanent environment that the self is a part of, and the self. This is an important point to be developed. Once the understanding that it is the (wrong) view of self that is the cause of confusion, stress and ongoing delusion, these views can now be mindfully abandoned.
“There are these three forms of stress, my friend: the stress of pain, the stress of fabrication, the stress of change. These are the three forms of stress.” (Samyutta Nikaya 38.14)
It is the ego-personality, what is shown to be anatta, not-a-self, that experiences the three forms of stress. To re-state the Four Noble Truths in this context, there is an underlying and pervasive unsatisfactoriness to life that the ego-self experiences. As the experiencer (you) is also linked to the experience and the environment that the experience arises, the self is impermanent and the wrong view of self is also dukkha.
It is due to the effects of stress that make understanding stress paramount in the Buddha’s teaching. It is preoccupation with stress that prevents awakening. It is the preoccupation with the need to continually establish and defend your impermanent, ever-changing, ego-personality that continues confusion and stress.
Jambukhadika the wanderer asks the Buddha: “What is the path, what is the practice for the full comprehension of these forms of stressfulness?”
“Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path, my friend — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation. This is the path, this is the practice for the full comprehension of these forms of stressfulness.” (Samyutta Nikaya 38.14)
In describing the refined mindfulness of an awakened mind the Buddha stated “Dukkha is understood.”  Understanding dukkha and how impermanence and your ego-personality become intertwined in proliferating dukkha is developed through the Eightfold Path.
Understanding The Interdependence Of Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha
Interdependence, inter-connectedness, and inter-being are words commonly used in modern Buddhism. Using these words to create a doctrine of universal sameness or the inter-connectedness of all phenomenon, including creating a doctrine of the interconnectedness, or inter-being, of impermanent and insubstantial ego-personality’s, is contrary to the Buddha’s teaching and develops additional clinging. These modern Buddhist doctrines arise from a misunderstanding and misapplication of Dependent Origination. These doctrines seek to establish Anatta, Not-A-Self, in a manner that only creates additional confusion and suffering.
It is deluded thinking to create a cosmic doctrine of interdependence, inter-connectedness, or inter-being.
Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha are the three linked characteristics of human life. In this context they are inter-connected and interdependent. This is only to state the truth of life in the phenomenal world so that understanding of Dukkha and the effects of craving and clinging can be developed. Once this understanding is developed, the confusion and stress inherent in these three linked characteristics can be mindfully ended.
Interdependence in the context of The Four Noble Truths applies only to the relationship of these three “Marks of Existence.”
Anicca, impermanence; Anatta, not-self; and Dukkha, stress, unsatisfactoriness; are the three linked characteristics of life in the phenomenal world. Impermanence, not-self, and stress are also known as “The Three Marks of Existence.” All of life is impermanent and impersonal, lacking a definable self. It is through the establishment of an impermanent ego-self within an impermanent environment that initiates the underlying and pervasive unsatisfactory experience of human life.
Understanding these three characteristics, and their interdependence, is developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path directly develops the understanding of “I-making” within an impermanent environment, and the subsequent unsatisfactory experience of the ego-self.
The sole purpose of the Dhamma is to recognize and abandon craving and all clinging views of an ego-self. Craving and clinging causes the confusion and distraction of Dukkha. Abandoning craving and clinging brings an end to Dukkha.
“Free of craving and clinging one is not agitated. Un-agitated this one is totally unbound and free of Dukkha, an Arahant.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11)
As concentration increases through Shamatha-Vipassana meditatio,n the process of establishing and maintaining an ego-self is able to be mindfully observed. Once this process is recognized, with Right Intention, and the other mutually-supportive factors of the Eightfold Path, the continual establishment and defense of your ego-self is finally abandoned.
Impermanence, stress, and the ego-self are all observable facts of human existence. What the Buddha discovered upon his awakening, with a quiet and well-concentrated mind, is that all things are conditioned particles of energy that have coalesced into the appearance of form. Out of the formless state we now have form. The seemingly separate forms that we perceive are impermanent and absent of any self-inherent nature, including the form we perceive as “I.”
It requires continued, ever-vigilant directed thought to maintain the ego-self in an impermanent environment. Another way of saying this is clinging to form. This is stress. This is dukkha.
This confused and conditioned thinking can be refined and purified and bring relief from craving and clinging.
Prior to his awakening, the future Buddha wandered northern India with five colleagues, all seeking understanding. Kondanna was one of the Buddha’s five colleagues. A few weeks after his awakening the Buddha presented The Four Noble Truths to Kondanna and the other four seekers. Upon hearing this first discourse of the Buddha, Kondanna declared “All conditioned things (including self) that arise are subject to cessation.” The Buddha recognized Kondanna’s accomplishment saying: “So you really know, Kondanna, you really know. You are now Anna-Kondanna, Kondanna who knows.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11)
The cause of the unsatisfactory nature of life is rooted in the deluded belief in a fixed and permanent mental-physical self, the self-referential ego-self. Craving for the establishment of a self and clinging to the perception of an established self initiates the unsatisfactory nature of life.
What has arisen within an impermanent environment cannot be seen to have any permanent or substantial characteristic. The discrete components that join, or cling together, to have the appearance of permanent individuality is like an illusion. It is only in the clinging-together of discrete components, or aggregates, that a self seems to be established. None of the aggregates are permanent or substantial and there is no permanence or substantiality achieved in the coming-together of the components.
Much like a chair deconstructed to its component parts would no longer have characteristics of a chair, a human form deconstructed to its component parts could no longer be identified as a individual “self.” The chairs identity is linked to all of its component parts coming together in a certain form.
A pile of a chair’s components could not be called a chair. It is only in the impermanent coming-together that the discrete components are identified as a chair.
When a chair is de-constructed, whether intentionally or with the progression of time, it no longer has the characteristics of a chair. In other words, the characterization of the present state of the chair as a chair can only truthfully refer to what is being observed through a current view is a chair. Nothing can be seen in the form of a chair that provides the chair with any lasting validity except for the common agreement of its use.
Identification as a self is dependent on this phenomenon as well. The human body holding a “consciousness” that is perceived to be a “self” is just as “empty” of a permanent identify as its deconstructed components. Since none of the individual components can be said to have a “self,” it is only in the clinging together of the discrete components, or individual aggregates, that we say that the body houses a separate and unique self.
The human form is a discrete component of the physical universe that has arisen to interact with the physical world and is dependent on the same causes and conditions of all phenomena for its existence. This mental-physical ego-self, subject to the same truth as all physical phenomena, arises from the formless, becomes form, and will again enter the formless state.
The wisdom of the Dhamma shows the foolishness to cling an identity to a form that is impermanent and insubstantial, and prone to confusion and stress.
This mental-physical form, rooted in ignorance, acquires the characteristics that craving directs it towards through seeking sensory satisfaction. Clinging establishes and maintains this form by holding on to sensory fulfillment.
This course and the Buddha’s dhamma brings insight into this process. Complete development of the Eightfold Path brings release from the process of continual “I-making.”
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.