Now Buddhism 101, day 1, teaches anicca, dukkha, anatta (impermanence, suffering and not self):
Anicca – things change, decay and die off and are separated from us and Cause us Suffering (Dukkha)
Whatever is impermanent, changes – so they are ephemeral – they can’t last because they eventually decay and die off.
Example of the ephemerality of a Rose
Imagine a rose – how beautiful it is – but its beauty can only last a few days – before it decays and dies off – and its beauty goes with it, becoming not so beautiful. If we attach to its beauty, when the rose dies, we will be upset. So don’t attach too much to unstable, uncertain, impermanent things that change – because they can set you up for heart ache – sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
Example of our bodies changing with health problems – causing us suffering
Our bodies – are healthy when we are young – but it too follows the laws of nature – it too will change and eventually will start getting problems with it as it gets old, it will succumb to more diseases and health problems until we die. Like a machine that gets old – it will require more repair and maintenance over the years until it stops working altogether – our bodies are like this.
Summary of Impermanence (Anicca) and how it leads to Suffering (Dukkha)
So whatever is impermanent (anicca) is subject to this unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) – and can lead to suffering – like when our body starts breaking down and we get more and more health problems – we suffer. This is the suffering of impermanence.
So the Buddhist teaching is not necessarily just accepting impermanence but more recognizing that we should stop expecting impermanent things (things which are inherently unstable and uncertain) to be able to permanently satisfy us and fulfill our wishes – stop looking for stability in things which are inherently unstable. So learning to let go and abandon our attachments to impermanent things.
As Ajahn Sumedho would say – if you like things that arise – go attach to things which arise to see where it takes you – it will take you to death. Because all that arises, ceases. All that is born will die.
How to tell whether something is your real Self (your True Self) or not (Anatta/Not-self) – Sovereignty – Power over its domain
And whatever is impermanent, and thus dukkha (has suffering embedded within it), is not worthy to be regarded as who we really are (anatta/not-self – not fit to be regarded as our “Self”). Why? Because if something really is who we really are – we’d be able to tell it “Do this, don’t do that” – and it will be so.
So using our bodies as an example – it fools us into thinking that our body is us – it fools us into thinking that my body is me – because if I want to extend my arm, I can extend my arm. If I want to look over there, I can look over there without needing to think. So we are fooled into thinking that we have sovereignty over our own body.
Suppose our body gets sick. Can we tell our body, “Don’t get sick, be healthy instead” – do you think our body will obey us? No. It will get sick anyway.
Further, can we tell our body, “Don’t get old, stay young forever”. No matter how we command our bodies to stay young, no matter how much exercise we get and how many antioxidants we take, although these things may slow it down, our body will still get old anyway – it won’t listen to us if we try to command it “Don’t get old”.
So, as we can see, sovereignty is the test of whether or not something is really our Self or not. And because we can’t tell our body to not get old, not get sick and not die – then this means that we do not possess true sovereign power over our body – which means that it is not really our Self – it is not who we really are. It’s just like a house that we live in and manifest through.
So once again, whatever is impermanent is subject to suffering and is not fit to be regarded as our Self. And with a Self, you can tell it, “May it be like this and not like that” and it will do so – a Self has full, complete, absolute sovereignty over itself.
- Whatever we don’t have innate, natural control over – is obviously not us and not a part of us (not-self/anatta).
- A Self has power over its own domain
- Whatever the Self doesn’t have natural control over must be alien/external to it – these external things to it are obviously not the Self (anatta). So as you can see, another name for things which are not-self is “external things”.
Anicca, dukkha, anatta – what we learn in Buddhism on day 1 to help us with vipassana reflections about the world. Yet these 3 characteristics only apply to compounded, conditioned phenomena.
What about what’s beyond anicca, dukkha, anatta?
Contemplate the world – have a look to see if anything does not disintegrate with time. Pretty much everything that we know disintegrates with time – and so follows nature’s ways of impermanence.
HOWEVER, empty space does not disintegrate with time, does it? Why? Because space is not composed up of constituent elements – and so can not decay and can not be destroyed. So space is used as an analogy for the asankhata – the uncompounded, unconditioned (as opposed to sankhata, which is compounded, conditioned). Space does not arise, does not change and can not be destroyed. That’s why reflecting upon space and help you understand what Nirvana is like – because Nirvana also does not arise, does not change and does not be destroyed. That’s why Nirvana is often called the unborn, unarisen and also called the Deathless realm (Amaravati).
The great Thai Forest Master, Ajahn Maha Boowa was able to see what was beyond anicca, dukkha, anatta through his own deep meditation:
- Because what is beyond the impermanent – is the eternal.
- What is beyond suffering is true happiness.
- What is beyond things that are not-self is the Self.
Ajahn Maha Boowa explains that it is the Citta – your True Mind, your True Self, that is beyond impermanence, beyond suffering and beyond things that are not-self. It is our Citta that is the essence of who we really are:
BEING INTRINSICALLY BRIGHT AND CLEAR, the citta is always ready to make contact with everything of every nature. Although all conditioned phenomena without exception are governed by the three universal laws of anicca, dukkha, and anattã, the citta’s true nature is not subject to these laws.
The citta is conditioned by anicca, dukkha, and anattã only because
things that are subject to these laws come spinning in to become
involved with the citta and so cause it to spin along with them.
However, though it spins in unison with conditioned phenomena, the
citta never disintegrates or falls apart. It spins following the
influence of those forces which have the power to make it spin, but
the true power of the citta’s own nature is that it knows and does not
This deathlessness is a quality that lies beyond disintegration. Being beyond disintegration, it also lies beyond the range of anicca,
dukkha, and anattã and the universal laws of nature. But we remain
unaware of this truth because the conventional realities that involve
themselves with the citta have completely surrounded it, making the
citta’s nature thoroughly conform to theirs.
Birth and death have always been conditions of the citta that is infected by kilesas (afflictions). But, since kilesas themselves are the cause of our ignorance, we are unaware of this truth. Birth and death are problems arising from the kilesas.
Our real problem, our one fundamental problem—which is also the
citta’s fundamental problem—is that we lack the power needed to be our own true self. Instead, we have always taken counterfeit things to be the essence of who we really are, so that the citta’s behavior is
never in harmony with its true nature. Rather, it expresses itself
through the kilesas’ cunning deceits, which cause it to feel anxious
and frightened of virtually everything.
Arahattamagga Arahattaphala, the Path to Arahantship http://www.forestdhamma.org/ebooks/english/pdf/Arahattamagga_-_Arahattaphala.pdf