Understanding Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha


This is an article and talk on Understanding Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha.

The following is an excerpt from The Truth of Happiness book. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book is here.

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. I include this only for clarity and context. I intend no disrespect for the later-developed teachings, or of any individual teacher.

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.” [1]

As concentration increases through shamatha-vipassana meditation 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.” [2]

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.”

Through understanding the environment in which the ego-personality is established and maintained, all views of self can be recognized. Through recognition and Right Intention all views of self can be abandoned. The Eightfold Path develops understanding and profound Right View. Right View is understanding the truth of stress and the impermanent environment in which the ego-self is established and maintained.

The ego-personality is associated with a physical form that is interpreted through consciousness. This combination of consciousness and form is known as Nama-Rupa. Nama-Rupa means  Name and Form. Name, or Nama, (conscious identity or identification as an ego-personality) is the mental or psychological factor of an ego-self and Rupa, form, is the physical factor. This mental/physical self is an aggregate of five impermanent phenomenal aspects that together comprise what is called a self. There is nothing permanent about any individual aspect of the five aggregates nor in the combination of all five.

These five factors of not-self, known as “The Five Clinging Aggregates” are:

1. Physical Form

2. Feelings

3. Perceptions

4. Mental Fabrications

5. Consciousness

The Five Clinging-Aggregates is explained in detail in week Eight. I am introducing this here to establish the context within a general explanation of anicca, anatta, and dukkha.

The Buddha’s teaching on what constitutes a self has taken on confusing and misleading esoteric, magical and mystical interpretations. Anatta means  “not-self” or “non-self” and refers to that which is to be abandoned through understanding and developing The Four Noble Truths. It would be (and is) confusing to attempt to describe a concept of self without the context of developing an understanding of The Four Noble Truths.

It is in the continual attempt to establish and maintain an ego-self within the environment of impermanence that perpetuates dukkha. Some “Buddhist” practices do just this by over-emphasis on conceptual notions of not-self, “nothingness” and “emptiness” and creating mystical connotations to non-self. One example of this is the notion of an inner or obscured Buddha-nature that spontaneously arises following sufficient effort. Another example is a “Buddha-Hood” that the ego-personality  should aspire to. Both of these confused doctrines assume an obscure but permanent and substantial “self” within what the Buddha taught was “Anatta.”

There is nothing that can be shown to have any permanence, including a “Buddha-nature” or “Buddha-hood,”residing within an impermanent ego-personality. There is no teaching of the Buddha’s that seeks to uncover a hidden Buddha-nature or latent Buddha-hood.

Still one more example is the notion of a PureLand Buddhist heaven that if the proper conditions are met by the ego-personality during physical life, a special type of Buddha called Amitabha-Buddha, lord of the PureLand, will welcome and provide an environment of  everlasting bliss to house the (impermanent) ego-personality.

These notions serve only to establish the ego-self in a conceptual realm that is also subject to further confusion and suffering.

The refined mindfulness developed through the Eightfold Path brings an understanding of all impermanent views and ideas rooted in ignorance. Awakening brings the end of deluded views.

In modern Buddhism misunderstanding the process for how all things in the phenomenal world are inter-connected has led to a subtle but distraction-causing over-emphasis on interconnectedness. Due to the nature of how an ego-self arises and perceives, all objects are inter-connected, but all objects are also impermanent and insubstantial. Creating a conceptual and false doctrine of interconnectedness, interdependence, or inter-being only fosters clinging and promotes additional confusion, delusion, and suffering.

The Buddha consistently avoided the myriad attempts at establishing anatta in endless conceptual realms as this would prove a distraction to his stated purpose. “Not-self” simply refers to an insubstantial and impermanent ego-personality that is mistaken as a substantial and permanent individual identity.

Rather than creating a distracting and misinformed doctrine of nothingness or emptiness, the Eightfold Path brings understanding of the process of giving birth to an impermanent ego-self rooted in ignorance and prone to endless confusion and suffering, and presents the clear and practical path of developing profound wisdom of the continuity of unconditioned mindful experience.

The suffering caused by ignorance should not be further ignored but it should be seen that creating specialness of impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas due to phenomenal inter-connection perpetuates distraction and stress. Ignoring Right View that would bring insight into ignorance is  delusion. Anatta, your ego-personality, insists on ignoring any teaching that would diminish its hold on delusion.

Any further establishment of anatta, the ego-self, in any realm to support any idea or ideal will only create further confusion and suffering as it encourages further craving and clinging. This includes the establishment of a “special” or “advanced” type of Buddhist Practice. The Buddha taught a common solution to the common human problem of Dukkha. He taught that Anatta, the ego-self, is maintained by craving and clinging. This includes self-referential views that cling” the self to forms, feelings, thoughts, and later-developed doctrines.

Through the development of all factors of The Eightfold Path, insight into impermanence, uncertainty and clinging arises. Understanding how ignorance contributes to the establishment and maintenance of a “self” develops the ability to abandon all views of self.

These are not abstract, mystical, magical, or esoteric ideas. Holding Right View and Right Intention brings virtuous thoughts, words, and deeds. Remaining mindful of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, insight into craving and clinging is developed. Developing Right Concentration by engaging in Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation will develop insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and your ego-self.

It is possible to understand and abandon the process of the establishment of “not-self.” Releasing the clinging necessary to maintain the deluded views of self is awakening. The Buddha describes awakening simply and directly, without any ambiguity, esoterica, or magical thinking:

“Awakening is understanding stress, abandoning the cause of stress (craving and clinging), experiencing the cessation of stress, and developing the path leading to the cessation of stress.” [2]

As has been seen, the ego-self is also included as dukkha. Developing profound understanding of what appears as a “self,” and ending craving and clinging, is awakening.

Understanding impermanence brings an end to all clinging views. Impermanence is the pervasive, over-arching experience of all life in the phenomenal world. By clinging to the form of an ego-self, stress is experienced within the environment of impermanence  through perception and feeling, and reactive and distracted thinking. The ego-personality establishes and maintains itself by clinging to impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas. It is your ego-personality that is subject to unhappiness and stress.

As the way of understanding the environment of impermanence and clinging the Buddha taught Four Noble Truths.  The development and understanding of The Four Noble Truths occurs within the environment of impermanence.  The significance of this is that the Eightfold  Path is not a way to manage or avoid stress and confusion but to develop profound understanding of the process that develops confusion and stress so that confusion and stress can be abandoned.

Having arisen within impermanence, the ego-self has the characteristics of impermanence. Not-Self is what is subject to the distraction of dukkha, perpetuating delusion. It is the establishment and maintenance of the ego-self that continues stress. It is within the environment of impermanence that stress arises and all wrong views of self are established and maintained. It is also within the environment of impermanence that awakening occurs.

Impermanence also allows for the ego-self to be extinguished and the distraction of stress brought to an end. Views of self leading to suffering are formed due to a lack of understanding, due to ignorance. Developing understanding, developing wisdom, ends unhappiness and stress.

It is clinging that perpetuates the ego-self.  It is the ego-personality’s preoccupation with stress that perpetuates clinging and continues disenchantment and unhappiness. This is self-perpetuating discursive thinking that conditioned mind continues through reaction and distraction.

Not-self refers to the impermanence and insubstantiality of the ego-personality. The insubstantiality of the ego-self is obscured by the preoccupation of maintaining anatta within the impermanent environment of stress. The stress and unsatisfactory nature of the ego-self is an underlying characteristic of the experience of life in the phenomenal world. In short anatta rooted in ignorance and impermanence is dukkha.

Shedding the ego-personality by ceasing clinging to impermanent objects and ignorant views brings lasting peace and happiness.

Understanding impermanence, stress and your ego-self is fundamental to understanding the Dhamma and developing The Noble Eightfold Path. Awakening is understanding the nature of experience in the phenomenal world and developing a profound understanding of The Four Noble Truths. The phenomenal world is all that is perceived through contact with the five physical senses and discriminating consciousness.

Worldly phenomena require certain conditions as pre-requisite for existence. When these conditions are no longer in effect, the manifestation of the conditions cease. As will be seen in the next chapter, the pre-requisite for anatta, for your ego-personality, is ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.

  As wisdom of impermanence arises the conditions for the establishment of anatta are mindfully abandoned. Grasping and attachment ceases. Your ego-self, once dependent on ignorance giving rise to craving and clinging, no longer has the conditions present that are necessary for continuance. Confusion and suffering ends.

Look closely at anything with a form, and you will find that it is also formless, without any permanent characteristics. What has a form will also be formless. Out of formlessness, form appears.  (This teaches impermanence, not emptiness.)

Initially it is desire for existence that conditioned mind arises. Continued grasping after contentment and pleasure, and maintaining aversion to what is uncomfortable or unpleasant reinforces conditioned mind. The Eightfold Path interrupts the self-perpetuating nature of conditioned mind.

If it were not for the truth of impermanence you could not liberate yourself from  stress. You would be bound endlessly to disappointment, stress, dissatisfaction and suffering caused by your initial craving and clinging to phenomenon.

It is an obvious fact that all things are impermanent but the ego-personality continues to hold on to that which brings safety, pleasure and fulfillment, and develops aversion (clinging to avoidance) towards people and events it wishes to avoid.

It is this constant preoccupation with craving and clinging that maintains a self subject to suffering.

By using shamatha-vipassana meditation within the framework of The Eightfold Path insight is gained to the impermanent nature of thoughts and of all phenomena.  Wisdom arises and all delusional thoughts are observed directly. The nature of impermanence, stress and the ego-self is understood with true and refined mindfulness.

Through the heightened wisdom gained from a Dhamma practice of heightened virtue and heightened concentration, the impermanence of all things is realized. Once impermanence is completely understood, the ego-self falls away as insubstantial and unsustainable. As the ego-self is abandoned through wisdom, craving and clinging ceases and stress and unhappiness comes to an end.

With no impermanent ego-self clinging to objects, views, and ideas, lasting peace and happiness arises within your once confused conditioned mind.

“The perceiving of impermanence, bikkhus, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

“Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, my dear friends, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”  The Buddha  [3]

[1]  Samyutta Nikaya 38.14

[2]  Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

[3]  Samyutta Nikaya 22.102

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