“Monks, whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All processes are inconstant (anicca).
Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All processes are stressful (dukkha).
Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All phenomena are not-self (anatta).”
– Dhamma-Niyama Sutta (AN 3.134) (Thanissaro, 1996)
Our thoughts, habits and actions tend to show some of our deepest beliefs. Among them is the view of the world as composed of various, independent entities, with our own self at the centre. Another one is the consideration of suffering as being simply one side of life, as preeminent and consideration-worthy as happiness. However, 2500 years ago, Lord Buddha questioned these widespread beliefs by presenting the three traits of all conditioned things, in the name of the trilakṣaṇa (Pāli: tilakkhaṇa), which can be translated as Three Characteristics, Three marks, Three signs or Three signatas. The present paper will present the conceptual particularities as well as the concrete, everyday-life applications of each of the trilakṣaṇa, namely anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non-self).
Sabbe Sankhara Anicca 1 (All conditioned things are impermanent)
The belief in permanence is a widespread illusion. The little girl wishing with obsession a Barbie doll for Christmas does not think one instant about the fact that her plastic-made new game will ultimately happen to disappear. A teenage love story starts with the hope of a never-ending passion rather than in the clear-sighted awareness that the characters of this passion, as well as the passion itself, will come to an end at some point. Facing this illusion, the reality of anicca (from the negative prefix a- and nicca, coming from the Vedic Sanskrit nitya, permanent) (Ñamanoli, 1981) is raw and does not count exceptions. On the eve of his death, which can be seen as the expression of his own non-impermanence, Lord Buddha stated the rule of transience with no ambiguity:
“Transient are formations all.
Their law it is to rise and fall.
Arisen – soon they disappear.
To make them cease is happiness.”
– Parinibbana Sutta (SN 6.15),
Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16) (Wijesekera, 1981)
Here the term formation refers to elements formatted, i.e. compounded by other elements. The Pāli term for ‘compounded things,’ is sankhāra (Sanskrit: samskāra) (Humphreys, 1975). As Professor Rhys Davids, founder of the Pāli Text Society, notes: “in every case, as soon as there is a beginning, there begins also at that moment to be an ending” (quoted by Wijesekera, 1981). It is precisely because sankhāra have a beginning, because they are the result of some cause, that is, because they are dependently arisen (paticca samuppanna), that they will inevitably cease to be, in the long run.
Even feelings and mental states are momentary. Memories start after an event, they grow in our mind, are recalled a few times, until their last occurrence happens. Ending is, in the same way, the destiny of each and every particular emotion.
Personal and global history reminds everyone of the universality of impermanence. Very few of us have the chance to know their grand-grand parents. If living, the grand parents are on the slope of death, and this is a secret for no one. A domestic dog surviving more than thirty years would be an exploit, considering that most of them do not go past twenty years. But anicca applies to every conditionned thing and not only to sentient beings. Lucky are those who can use the same computer for more than four or five years. If talking of organic things like food, the life expectancy is generally of a few days. To someone claiming that some things, such as paintings, sculptures or coins, are millenniums-old, we could reply that the extraordinary character of their presence today underlines the inescapable end of all the other elements of their time, not to mention that these artifacts will ultimately disappear too. Even feelings and mental states are momentary. Memories start after an event, they grow in our mind, are recalled a few times, until their last occurrence happens. Ending is, in the same way, the destiny of each and every particular emotion. Because of their inescapable end, conditioned things tend to lose their apparent impermanence in aid of the face of a flux of “ceaselessly changing processes” (Wijesekera, 1981). Illusory impermanent things are continuous becomings or bhava.
What can be done concerning anicca, impermanence? In his answer, Lord Buddha’s refers, one more time, to a process of liberation happening after an increased consciousness of our mental processes:
“This, indeed, monks, is the perfect way of utter peace into which the Tathāgata has won full Enlightenment, that is to say, the understanding, as they really are, of the six spheres of sense-contact, of their arising and passing away, their comfort and misery, and the way of escape from them free of grasping.”
– Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta (MN 140) (Wijesekera, 1981)
Hence, the illusion of permanence and the continuity of saṃsāra remain on our wrong perception of “the six spheres of sense-contact”, namely, the objects of sight, of smell, of hearing, of touch, of taste and of thought. By understanding fully that these sense-contacts involve the most important sankhāra (compounded things) and therefore, are not permanent objects, the path of liberation can be opened. Giving the right attention to impermanence is, as presented in the Paṭi Saṃbhidamagga, one of “the three alternative gateways to liberation (vimokkha-mukha)” (Ñamanoli, 1981).
Sabbe Sankhara Dukkha 2 (All conditioned things are subject of suffering)
The central Buddhist notion of Dukkha is generally translated as ‘suffering’ in Modern English. However, it is well known that no current English word covers the whole range of meaning of Dukkha (Humphreys, 1975; Wijesekera, 1981; Bullitt, 2005). Francis Story (1983) lists more than forty possible translations. John T. Bullitt (2005) gives an advice to someone thinking he found the best translation: “for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.” Dr. A. Wijesekera (1981) adds that the difficulty is increased by a multi-semantic use of the term dukkha in the Pāli canons.Lord Buddha emphasized the primordial character of the notion of dukkha by dedicating his very first teaching, addressed to the five ascetics in Bārānasi, to the causes of suffering and unsatisfactoriness.
“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”
– Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) (Thanissaro, 1993)
David J. Kalupahana (1994) discussed the “noble” label of this truth: “The conception of “nobility” involves a value judgment. Value is not decided in terms of higher or lower, as the term “noble” sometimes signifies; instead, it implies relevance or worth.” The notion of dukkha is not only a philosophical problem. Pragmatic is the attitude of Lord Buddha: by emphasizing dukkha, he intended to determine and decipher the core condition of sentient beings’ life. Dukkha, which constitutes the First Noble Truth is detailed as being of three kinds: “There are these three forms of dukkha, my friend: the dukkha of pain, the dukkha of change, the dukkha of fabrication. These are the three forms of dukkha” (Dukkha Sutta, SN 38.14) (Thanissaro, 1999). The three forms of dukkha are experienced in an everyday basis. The “dukkha of pain” (dukkha-dukkha) consists in unsatisfactoriness coming from pain itself: walking on a nail, having a fever, etc. The “dukkha of change” (viparinama-dukkha) can be felt, for instance, when someone learns that something that brought him pleasure will not happen anymore: viparinama-dukkha is the pain following the happening of something unexpected. The “dukkha of fabrication” (or dukkha of formation, sankhara-dukkha) resides in the reaction arising after the attachment to conditioned things: if someone overvalues the importance of an object, say, a watch, this will lead to pain since this watch, like every conditioned object, will ultimately disappear. In other words, sankhara-dukkha consists in the clinging to the five aggregates, detailed in the second of the Four Noble Truths.
Consciousness is a necessary element for every experience: it is consciousness that brings meaning to a relation between sense-organ and sense-object. Clinging to consciousness might cause dukkha as our consciousness starts, evolves constantly and eventually ends.
What makes Lord Buddha’s teachings pragmatic ones is that he did not just enumerate the forms of dukkha. By scrupulously studying them through reflection of his own past (Kalupahana, 1994), he could understand the real causes of dukkha (dukkha-samudaya). Pain comes from identification, which can eventually lead to clinging to five types of objects, known as the five aggregates (Pañcūpādānakkhandhā). The first one is the aggregate of form (Rūpa-khandha). Clinging ourselves to the look of our body will irremediably bring pain since forms are conditioned things, i.e., they are not permanent. The second one is the aggregate of feelings (Vedanā-khandha). Clinging to an instant of happy feeling, like having a laugh with friends, will produce dukkha since no feeling is impermanent. The third one is the aggregate of perceptions (Sañña-khandha). Someone will feel dukkha if not able to recognize an object of perception, for instance, the taste of a tomato, i.e. if not able to turn an indefinite experience into a definite one. The fourth one is the aggregate of mental dispositions (Saṅkhāra-khandha). Because of mental formations of the past, we expect things from the future, i.e., we have desires. For instance, a central desire analyzed by Buddha is the sexual desire: we grow a strong volition to have sexual relations until this happens and, ultimately, dukkha follows, since the expectation overtakes the act in itself. Finally, from the four first aggregates, arises the fifth one, the aggregate of consciousness (Viññāṇa-khandha). Consciousness is a necessary element for every experience: it is consciousness that brings meaning to a relation between sense-organ and sense-object. Clinging to consciousness might cause dukkha as our consciousness starts, evolves constantly and eventually ends. The five aggregates (Pañcūpādānakkhandhā) constitute the Second Noble Truth.
While the Second Noble Truth presents different aspects of the phenomena of craving, the Third Noble Truth is a presentation of Buddha’s discovery: dukkha has a cessation (dukkha-nirodha). This cessation can happen only if is attacked the root of dukkha: craving. Such a venture leads to the ultimate state of freedom, called Nibbāna.
The last Noble Truth is known as the path leading to the cessation of suffering (yampicchaṁ na labhati). Liberation can only be attained through a simultaneous focus applied to eight factors, known as The Noble Eight-fold path (ariya-aṭṭha ṅgika-magga): the right understanding, the right resolve, the right thought, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, the right mindfulness and the right concentration 3 .
But why does the nature of conditioned things, i.e., their impermanence, leads to dukkha? Precisely because our lives are paved with desire. Taken by the flux of life, our desires are the ultimate, desperate attempts to control, to set something of permanent character in an overall ever-changing environment. Impermanence is not a comfortable aspect for the common man. But if the impermanence of material things and therefore the unsatisfactoriness coming from them tends to be realized, other levels of dukkha take more time to understand. Simply the fact of having any kind of plans for the future is a form of desire. Therefore, any human being will feel dukkha from this desire. “Giving attention to dukkha” is the second alternative gateways to liberation, as presented in the Paṭi Saṃbhidamagga (Ñamanoli, 1981).
Sabbe Dhamma Anatta 4 (All Dhamma are without self)
The illusion of substance, or self, follows logically from the first two characteristics of all conditioned things. Selflessness is a particular case of anicca, the principle of impermanence, applied to beings. In parallel, the belief of ego appears as an example of an object of clinging, causing dukkha. It is even perhaps the deepest, most unconsciously settled desire we have, as numerous events of everyday life rely on the hypothesis that we are beings constituted of a particular, separate self. Then, becoming free from this desire reveals as one of the hardest task of human life.
Anatta can be understood as ‘non-ego’, ‘egoless’, ‘substanceless’, ‘soulless’, ‘impersonal’ (Ñamanoli, 1984). By explaining that there is no essential substance, the Buddha holds what could be seen as “a polemic against substance, the permanent and the universal taken as real in the systems of the ātma-tradition” (Murti, 1983). With this word, T.R.V. Murti refers to the deep protester attitude of Early Buddhism towards the old Vedic tradition. Indeed, the Brahmanical religion held a strong belief in the reality of ātman, soul. For Buddha, the belief in an ego as an obvious revelation of our consciousness is another form or clinging, that is, attachmement to something irremediably transient, which will inevitably cause dukkha. An interesting fact must be noticed in the twentieth part of the Dhammapada, titled “the path” (maggavaggo). The formulation of the third and last lakṣaṇa does not follow exactly the previous two:
“Sabbe Sankhara Anicca
Sabbe Sankhara Dukkha
Sabbe Dhamma Anatta”
– Maggavagga (Dhp 277, 278, 279) (Buddharakkhita, 1985)
Why did Lord Buddha not use the term Sankhara to designate all the subjects of anatta, like he did for anicca and dukkha? Because Sankhara relates only to conditioned things while Dhamma refers to Sankhara, but also to the non-conditioned, Nirvāṇa. “There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma.” (Rahula, 1978). By using the word dhamma, Buddha focused on making the anatta notion not ambiguous: there is no substance at all, in the Five Aggregates (which constitute Sankhara) as well as nowhere else. Such a precision of term shows how Lord Buddha was concerned about the illusory nature of ātma. Proving it then appeared as a high stakes demonstration.
Each of these elements is relative, interconnected and interdependent: there is no space for a first cause and even less for an absolute or independent notion such as ego.
Rahula (1978) presents two methods to prove the principle of anatta: the analytical method, through the Five Aggregates (Pañcūpādānakkhandhā), and the synthetical method, through the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Paṭicca-samuppāda). The first method is an analysis since reality of egolessness can be found by examining all the elements constituting this hypothetical ego. The particular form of an ego, called sometimes “personality”, rely on the Five Aggregates. Following the principle of anicca, none of the Five Aggregates is permanent; therefore the base is absent to receive an ego. The second method is synthetical because it is the process of Paṭicca-samuppāda that leads up to the proof of anatta. The circle of Paṭicca-samuppāda is as follow: ignorance conditions volitional actions, which condition consciousness, which conditions mental and physical phenomena, which condition the six faculties, which condition contact, which conditions sensation, which conditions desire, which conditions clinging, which conditions the process of becoming, which conditions birth, which conditions decay, death, lamentation, pain, etc. (Rahula, 1978). Each of these elements is relative, interconnected and interdependent: there is no space for a first cause and even less for an absolute or independent notion such as ego.
Lastly, the refutation of ātma by Lord Buddha could be contested on the basis of his silent response to Vacchagotta Parivrājaka. This story is told in the Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10). Vacchagotta comes visit Lord Buddha and asks his first question: “is there a self?” Buddha remains silent. Vacchagotta asks his second question: “then is there no self?” A second time, Buddha remains silent (Thanissaro, 2004). This double silence should not be interpreted as a non-affirmation of anatta by Lord Buddha himself. After Vacchagotta left, the Lord explained his attitude to Ananda: he did not confirm any of the two positions, which could have led Vacchagotta to the side of the “eternalist theory (sassata-vāda)” or to the side of the “annihilationist theory (uccheda-vāda)” (Rahula, 1978). The Middle Path was, one more time, the attitude of Buddha to solve this situation.
The story of Vacchagotta also shows the extent of the flexibility of Lord Buddha as a teacher. Walpola Rahula (1978) gives a complementary interpretation of Buddha’s silence, to the question of Vacchagotta as well as in general to the other twelve ones of the Avyakata-samyutta. Buddha, as a practical teacher, did not present answers to show his intelligence and knowledge, but to help other beings to attain realization. He talked with the knowledge of Indriyaparopariyattañāṇa (Rahula, 1978): he was aware of the particular situation of each and everyone, their tendencies, their capacity to understand such or such question. Buddha and Vacchagotta already met, and the Lord knew that Vacchagotta was worried about all these questions. Answering “yes” to the second question would have caused more confusion to Vacchagotta who was probably not ready to understand the idea of anatta. But he could not answer “yes” to Vacchagotta’s first question neither, since it would have contradicted the anatta principle. Buddha, the awakened one: a pragmatic teacher, able to adapt his precepts to each interlocutor and each situation, but always respecting the three characteristics of every conditioned being: anicca, dukkha and anatta.
Image courtesy: Alan Peto
- Maggavagga (Dhp 277).
- Maggavagga (Dhp 278).
- Details on the Third and Fourth Noble Truths are not presented here, as the conceptual notions presented in these two last Noble Truths give information on the cessation of this dukkha but not exactly on dukkha as one of the Trilaksana. However, information pertaining to the two first Noble Truths tally with our topic.
- Maggavagga (Dhp 279).