In the Buddha’s second discourse the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha teaches a reflection to his 5 companions not long after his enlightenment.
In Buddhism 101, this reflection is called anicca, dukkha, anatta. In other words:
– Anicca: What is impermanent (anicca) undergoes change.
– Dukkha: What undergoes change will decay and eventually dies – and when something dies, it is painful – so it gives rise to suffering (dukkha).
– Anatta: And what is impermanent, subject to change, decay and death is not fit to be regarded as Self – it is anatta (not-self).
So any phenomena that is transient is unstable, uncertain, unreliable is not worthy to be regarded as you, yours, your self. So all impermanent phenomena are not worthy to be regarded as who we really are – they are not our Real Self, they are not our True Self – they are just impermanent perceptions that we are aware of.
Notice that in this Sutta, the Buddha limits the reflection of the ti-lakkhana (the 3 characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta) to impermanent, transient phenomena. He does NOT indiscriminately apply this reflection to absolutely everything.
In Chapter 3 of the Buddha’s final teaching the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha clarifies this important distinction through his teaching of the 4 Inverted/Upside Down Views (sometimes also translated as the 4 Perversities).
What are the 4 Inverted Views?
To think that:
- Sukha is dukkha AND to think that what is dukkha is sukha, i.e., to mistake happiness for suffering AND to mistake suffering for happiness.
- Anicca is nicca AND to think that what is nicca is anicca, i.e., to mistake what is impermanent for what is permanent AND to mistake what is permanent for what is impermanent.
- Anatta is Atta AND to think that what is Atta is anatta, i.e., to mistake whatever lacks a self to have a self AND to mistake whatever is truly Self to be selfless.
- Impure is Pure AND to think that whatever is truly Pure to be impure.
See the reflections of anicca, dukkha and anatta was to help us let go of impermanent things that we are attached to – so that whenever they decay and die off on us and are separated from us, we don’t suffer as much. For example, if we love someone or something very much, there will come a day when it changes, decays and dies – we get separated from the transient thing that we loved and so, we suffer.
But the danger in learning this reflection only partially and then indiscriminately apply this tri-fold reflection to absolutely everything. And it is common to find this to be the case with many modern day Buddhists, who think that absolutely everything is impermanent, absolutely everything is suffering and absolutely everything has no self.
But if this were the case, then the Buddha wouldn’t have taught the following:
- If absolutely everything is impermanent, then the Buddha wouldn’t have said in the Shurangama Sutra to Ananda, to contemplate the material world to see what doesn’t undergo destruction – everything that is compounded in the material world undergoes destruction BUT he has never heard of empty space being destroyed. Why? Because empty space was never compounded to be created. Empty space never underwent creation, it has no birth, it has no beginning – and so it will never undergo destruction, death or an ending. So there are things that are not impermanent.
- If absolutely everything is suffering, unsatisfactory, dukkha – then firstly, there would be no possibility of escaping from suffering – as by definition, you’ve just declared that absolutely everything is suffering, so suffering by your assertion is absolute. BUT the Buddha did declare a complete end to suffering – Nirvana. Secondly, the Buddha would not have declared Nibbanam paramam sukkham – Nirvana is the utmost happiness, Nirvana the most ultimate bliss.
- If absolutely everything is has no self, then firstly the Buddha wouldn’t have limited the anatta reflection to only the impermanent phenomena of the 5 skandhas and the sensory realm of the 6 senses experienced through the body and its mental activity. Secondly, the Buddha wouldn’t have declared that the Buddha is the True Self in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
So in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha admonishes his monks to not be arrogant after learning the Buddhism 101 teaching of anicca, dukkha, anatta because they have not fully understood the context for which this tri-fold reflection should be applied – so they are like a drunk person who thinks the stars are spinning but they aren’t really spinning.
So here, on the verge of the Buddha’s physical passing, the monks happily say to the Buddha – yes, we are well trained in impermanence, suffering and not self, so don’t worry, we will be able to take care of ourselves:
The bhiksus thereupon said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, not only do we cultivate the idea of selflessness, but we also readily practice the others ideas such as the ideas of suffering and impermanence.
“World Honored One, it is just as someone whose drunken mind is dizzy and confused, seeing hills, rivers, cities, large palace halls, as well as the sun, moon, stars, and the North Star; all these turning and spinning about. World Honored One, suppose someone does not cultivate the ideas of suffering, impermanence, and selflessness. Such a person is not called noble (arya). Numerously will they go forth and wander the cycle of birth and death. World Honored One, it is because of these circumstances that we well cultivate thus these ideas.”
BUT, does the Buddha validate how they are using anicca, dukkha and anatta? No. In fact, he admonishes them for being like drunkards.
At that time, the Buddha addressed the bhiksus, saying, “Listen closely, listen closely! You have turned to introducing the metaphor of a drunken person, but you know only the words and have yet to penetrate into its meaning. And what is its meaning? It is like that drunken person who looks up at the sun and moon and, while really they are not turning and spinning, there arises the mental perception  of them turning and spinning. Sentient beings are also so.
Being subject to the veils of afflictions (klesas) and ignorance (avidya), there arises in them the deluded mind:
1. The self, they reckon, is selfless.
2. The eternal, they reckon, is impermanent.
3. The pure, they reckon, is impure.
4. Happiness, they reckon, is suffering.
Because they are subject to this veil of afflictions, while they may give rise to these ideas, they do not penetrate their meaning, just as that drunken person who in a place that is not spinning gives rise to the perception of it being spun.
So the Buddha rectifies their drunken understanding by uprighting their upside-down views by revealing:
The self, then, is the Buddha in meaning.
The eternal is the essential body (dharmakaya) in meaning.
Happiness is Nirvana in meaning.
The pure is the Dharma in meaning.
“You, bhiksus! How, then, can it be said that having the idea of a self leads to pride and haughtiness, flowing through the round birth and death? If all of you speak of the self and also practice the ideas of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness, then these three cultivations have no real meaning. I will now explain the overcoming of these three cultivated Dharmas:
- Suffering is reckoned to be pleasant and happiness is reckoned to be unpleasent. This is an inverted Dharma.
- The impermanent is reckoned to be eternal and the eternal is reckoned to be impermanent. This is an inverted Dharma.
- The selfless is reckoned to be the self and the self is reckoned to be selfless. This is an inverted Dharma.
- The impure is reckoned to be pure and the pure is reckoned [617b] to be impure. This is an inverted Dharma.
The person who thus possesses these four inverted Dharmas does NOT perceive the right cultivation of the Dharma.
Above quotes from Charles Patton translation of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter 3 fodian.net/world/0375_03.html
These days, you will find Buddhists who try to explain that “The True Self is really no self”, i.e., these Buddhist will be saying that to understand the True Self is really to understand the reality that there is no self. But right here, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha that this view is incorrect – it is an upside down view and is NOT the right way of understanding and cultivating the Buddha’s Dharma. So be very careful when you read such statements because such statements do not conform with the recorded words of the Buddha in the Sutras.
Let’s look at another translation of the same passage of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and as we shall see, this translation of the Tibetan version of this Sutra has the same meaning:
“Herein, ‘Self’ signifies the Buddha;
‘Eternal’ signifies the Dharma-kaya [Body of Truth; quintessential being];
‘Happiness’ signifies Nirvana, and
‘Pure’ is a synonym for the Dharma.
Monks, you should not pride yourselves, arrogantly and haughtily saying, ‘We have cultivated the idea of suffering, impermanence, and non-Self’. When you engage thus in those three kinds of meditative cultivation, then for you to have cultivated that threefold meditative cultivation in the context of my Dharma is a worthless cultivation. These three types of meditative cultivation of suffering and so forth are contingent, most contingent [visista].
- “To think of suffering as happiness is perverse, to think of happiness as suffering is perverse;
- To think of the impermanent as eternal [nitya] is perverse, to think of the eternal as impermanent is perverse;
- To think of the non-Self as the Self is perverse, to think of the Self as non-Self is perverse;
- To think of the impure as pure is perverse, to think of the pure as impure is perverse.
“You repeatedly cultivate these objects of cultivation without properly knowing these four perversities. You engage in meditative cultivation [treating]:
- The eternal as though it were impermanent,
- That which has Self as though it lacked Self, and
- The pure as though it were impure. [Pronouncements regarding] happiness,
The Self, eternity, and purity are found both amongst mundane people and amongst supramundane people, but these are each different. The letters [ = words] are mundane designations, while the meaning is supramundane Knowing [lokottara-jnana].”
This last sentence means that the Self known by the Buddha is not the same as the eternal Self that other religions teach about. The True Self that the Buddha teaches has very specific qualities.
Also, the eternal that the Buddha talks about is different to the eternal that other religions teach. Usually, when people talk about eternal, they talk about something being born and then trying to be eternal and immortal. But the Buddha spoke out against this type of eternalism – because his observation is that all that is born will eventually die – so this type of eternalism is not ultimate. The type of eternal that the Buddha actually encouraged was to seek that which is not born, not created, has no beginning – because that which is not born will never die – it is deathless. If something was never born, then how can it die? It can’t. Therefore, it is deathless – the Amaravati – the Deathless Realm. It is also Akaliko – timeless – it is beyond the realm of time – therefore impermanence – old age, sickness, decay and death – can not touch it. And if something is beyond time, then naturally, it is eternal. It is this type of eternal that the Buddha actively sought!