17 October 2014

Anicca, Dukkha, Anattā

This essay discusses the Aniccavaggo (the Section on Impermanence) in Saṃyutta 35 (Saḷāyatanā the six sense bases) in the fourth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN iv.1ff). The key words nibbindati, virajjati and vimuccati mark these passages as relating to the third stage of the Spiral Path, the stage of paññā (Skt prajñā) which I will translate here as "understanding". These texts lay out, in a very accessible way, some important ideas with regard to what Buddhists are seeking to understand. At least for the early Buddhists, understanding has a specific domain and content. 

I'll present my translation the first text of the section (with notes on the 2nd and third which differ only by substituting dukkha and anattan for anicca) and then discuss the texts afterwards. There are 12 texts in this section, but we can easily summarise them because there is considerable repetition with minor variation. Each text is presented with more or less identical wording focussing first on impermanence (anicca), then on disappointment (dukkha), and finally on insubstantiality (anattan); and each of these is repeated from the "subjective" (ajjhatta) and "objective" (bāhira) points of view; and finally with respect to the past, present and future giving twelve variations on the basic text. Only the first text in the section has a tradition nidāna or framing narrative.

1. Ajjhattāniccasuttaṃ ~ 2. Ajjhattadukkhasuttaṃ ~ 3. Ajjhattānattasuttaṃ
The Suttas on Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification. (SN 35: 1-3)
1. Evaṃ me sutaṃ. Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. Tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi – ‘‘bhikkhavo’’ti. ‘‘Bhadante’’ti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṃ. Bhagavā etadavoca –
Thus I heard. One time the Bhagavan was staying in Sāvatthī in the Jeta Grove or Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Right there the Bhagavan addressed the bhikkhus: "bhikkhus!"
"Sir?", the bhikkhus replied.
This is what the Bhagavan said:
‘‘Cakkhuṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Sotaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… ghānaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… jivhā aniccā. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Kāyo anicco. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… mano anicco. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. 
The eye is impermanent [2. disappointing; 3. Insubstantial]. What is impermanent is disappointing. What is disappointing cannot be identified with a Self. Of that which cannot be identified with [we say] "It is not mine; I am not this; this is not my Self." Just this is to be seen as it is, with perfect understanding (samma-paññā). The ear is impermanent, etc The nose, etc, The tongue, etc. The body, etc
Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako cakkhusmimpi nibbindati, sotasmimpi nibbindati, ghānasmimpi nibbindati, jivhāyapi nibbindati, kāyasmimpi nibbindati, manasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati; vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti. 
Seeing this way, bhikkhus, the educated insightful disciple, is disenchanted with the eye; disenchanted with the ear, disenchanted with the nose, disenchanted with the tongue, disenchanted with the mind. Being disenchanted they can disentangle themselves. Having disentangled themselves, they are freed. Being free there is the knowledge "I am free". They know: "birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn."

The other texts in the section are:

4. Bāhirāniccasuttaṃ ~ 5. Bāhiradukkhasutta ~ 6. Bāhirānattasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

7. Ajjhattāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 8. Ajjhattadukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 9. Ajjhattānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Past and Future Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

10. Bāhirāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 11. Bāhiradukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 12. Bāhirānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ.

The Suttas on Past and Future Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.


I've made the point about the domain of application for paṭiccasamuppāda many times, but not for a while. So to reiterate, these texts confirm the summary found in the Sabba Sutta. The domain of application of paṭiccasamuppāda is the sensory world; that is to say the domain of experience.

Here we focus on the two aspects of sense experience: the "subjective" (internal = ajjhatta) aspect in terms of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; and the "objective" (external = bāhira) in the sense of forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile sensations and mental-activity. This is a relatively unsophisticated view of sensory perception in which the eye does the action of seeing as well as all the processing that we now associate with the brain. The eye passes on the seen to the manas which carries out the other functions, such as naming (saññā) and attraction/repulsion (saṅkhārā), etc. Both subjective and objective aspects of experience are treated identically.

I'm usually wary of the terms subjective and objective for reasons I've spelled out in previous essays (See esp. Subjective & Objective). The term here is purely epistemological. The experience of seeing a form has two aspects: the seen and the seeing. No ontological conclusions can be drawn from this. From the mere experience of seeing a form we cannot know the nature of the form nor of the eye. Where form is defined, it is defined in experiential terms: colour, resistance, shape, texture. In the Buddhist description of experience both form and eye—i.e. both sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) —are necessary for the arising of sense cognition (viññāna) and the three together give rise to a sensory experience (vedanā "a known", "a datum"). There are no pure forms or ideas as in Plato's account of phenomena and noumena. Indeed noumena are implicitly denied here and elsewhere. 

Later Buddhism insists that the subject/object distinction is just something we impose on experience, an argument which is itself based on deep meditative experience. But even when the distinction is acknowledged, as it is here, there is no difference in treatment, no suggestion of ontological speculation or position taking. Even in form etc., there is nothing in experience to identify with. 

The object of knowing and seeing (ñānadassana), then, is the process of sensory perception. It is not "reality". When we say that we see "things" as they really are (yathābhūta), we do not mean "things" in the the general sense of "everything" (reality) but specifically we mean the things experience. We may choose to generalise this into a Theory of Everything, but this generalisation creates many philosophical problems of the kind that Buddhist philosophers are still arguing about. As a theory of why experience is disappointing the traditional account is still quite workable and based on sound foundations that will make it relevant for the foreseeable future. The rest, the arguments about the nature of reality and all that (all ontological arguments), are already anachronistic and irrelevant. 

It is evametaṃ 'just this' relation to sense experience that is to be seen with perfect understanding (samma-paññā; Skt. samyak-prajñā). In Buddhist jargon, right-view consists in correctly seeing experience as it is. To take this statement in context, we know that a similar analysis is carried out with regard to the khandhas (the factors of experience). So neither the factors of experience, nor the content of experience, nor any aspect of experience, is permanent. And what is impermanent is disappointing; and what is disappointing cannot be our Self. This logic is almost certainly drawn from the Brahmanical sphere. It represents a direct contradiction of the Vedantic ideal of saccidānanda. These are the three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa) of brahman/ātman: being (sat < √as), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). But we know that the early Buddhists denied that experience has being. In fact neither existence (astitā < √as) nor non-existence (na-astitā) apply to the domain of experience. And because experience is anicca it is dukkha rather than sukkha; sukkha being a synonym for ānanda. Nothing that is dukkha can possibly ātman or brahman. This parallel between Buddhist and Vedantic thought was established by K R Norman (1981). 

The Buddhist analysis blocks identification with any aspect of experience as our essence, self, soul or any enduring entity - which is why I'm suggesting "non-identification" as a translation of anattan (Skt. anātman). If ātman means 'myself' (reflexive pronoun) then an-ātman can be seen as a bahuvrīhi compound: "without a myself", "non-self-referential". Since absolutely every experience is impermanent, disappointing and non-self-referential even if we did have a soul, we'd never have access to knowledge of it, since knowledge is mental and thus an aspect of the experiential domain. If we can know something permanent, then if we do not presently know it, we'll never know it; or if we presently know it, we've always known it and always will. Ignorance of a soul is either impossible or absolute, precisely because the soul is defined as permanent. Thus if we don't know now, we never will. This is the essence of the argument that Nāgārjuna went on to make about dharmas having svabhāva (See Emptiness for Beginners). 

Note also that, though many Buddhists claim that bodhi has no intellectual content, this text and countless others like it, ascribe a very specific content to the experience of vimutti. Firstly one knows that having become disenchanted with the sensory world and losing interest in the froth of the play of thoughts and emotions one has disentangled oneself from it all. We cease to suspend our disbelief in the play of senses and see sense experience as it is (yathābhūta). There is nothing here about seeing reality. And being free from entanglement, free from the automatic moving towards attractive sensations and automatic moving away from repulsive sensations, we know that we are free. Interestingly this is expressed in the first person: vimuttami (i.e. vimuttaṃ asmi) 'I am freed'. But then there are a series of realisations related to the ending of rebirth. Being free from automatic responses one cannot carry out the kind of actions that contribute to rebirth. One is free in the precise sense of being free from rebirth

Those who do not believe in rebirth have yet to propose an alternative understanding of this process of disenchantment and what it signifies. This maybe because so few of the proponents of a no-rebirth (apunabhava) Buddhism have experienced liberation for themselves. We won't have a truly modern Buddhism until we have a number of credible first-hand accounts of liberation in rationalist terms. As far as I know most people who have insight still resort to traditional narratives to describe their experience. This may be because the traditionalists are more motivated to practice with sufficient intensity. 


Norman, K. R.  (1981) 'A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy LD Series, 84 – 1981
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