The Three Signata: Anicca, Dukkha, Anattaa
The concept of the three signata (tilakkha.na) forms the essential basis for understanding the Buddha’s scheme of emancipation (vimokkha). The three signata, the three universal properties of all existing things of the phenomenal world, are anicca (impermanence, transience or transitoriness), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, ill, suffering or painfulness), and anattaa (non-self, absence of a permanent ego, or insubstantiality). It is the contemplation of these three universal characteristics of all compounded things and processes (sa.nkhaara), or of all phenomena (dhamma), that leads to true insight (vipassanaa) and enlightenment (bodhi.taa.na). The realisation of these three fundamental truths can thus be regarded as the key to the highest spiritual perfection afforded by the Buddha Dhamma.
The first of the three signata, anicca (impermanence, transitoriness of all things in the universe), is a doctrine constantly and emphatically insisted upon in the Buddhist texts. According to the Buddha’s Teaching, the Buddha Dhamma, there is nothing divine or human, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, which is permanent or stable, unchanging or everlasting.
This Buddhist concept of the transitoriness of all things, the Buddhist law of impermanence, finds classic expression in the famous formula “sabbe sa.nkhaaraa aniccaa” occurring in the Cuulasaccaka Sutta (MN 35), and in the more popular statement “aniccaa vata sa.nkhaaraa.” Both these formulas amount to saying that all conditioned things or processes are transient or impermanent. This is not given as the result of metaphysical inquiry, or of any mystical intuition, but as a straightforward judgement to be arrived at by investigation and analysis. It is founded on unbiased thought and has a purely empirical basis. In the Mahaavagga of the A.nguttara Nikaaya (AN 7:62/IV 100ff.) the Master admonishes his disciples thus: “Impermanent, monks, are [all] sa.nkhaaras, unstable [not constant], monks, are [all] sa.nkhaaras, [hence] not a cause for comfort and satisfaction are [all] sa.nkhaaras, so much so that one must get tired of all these sa.nkhaaras, be disgusted with them, and be completely free of them.”
There is no doubt here as to what is meant by the term sa.nkhaara, for the Master himself continues by way of illustration:
There will come a time, monks, maybe hundreds of thousands of years hence, when no more rains will fall and consequently all plants and trees, all vegetation, will dry up and be destroyed with the scorching due to the appearance of a second sun; streams and rivulets will go dry; and with the appearance of a third sun, such large rivers as the Ganges and Yamunaa will dry up; similarly, the lakes and even the great ocean itself will dry up in course of time, and even such great mountains as Sineru, nay even this wide earth, will begin to smoke and be burnt up in a great and universal holocaust … Thus impermanent, monks, are all sa.nkhaaraa, unstable, and hardly a cause for comfort, so much so that one [contemplating their impermanent nature] must necessarily get tired of them.
It is easy to understand from this discourse in what an all-embracing sense the term sa.nkhaara is used: it includes all things, all phenomena that come into existence by natural development or evolution, being conditioned by prior causes and therefore containing within themselves the liability to come to an end, to be dissolved from the state in which they are found.
According to the Buddha, there is no “being,” but only a ceaseless “becoming” (bhava). Every thing is the product of antecedent causes, and, therefore, of dependent origination (pa.ticcasamuppanna). These causes themselves are not everlasting and static, but simply antecedent aspects of the same ceaseless becoming. Thus we may conceive everything as the result of a concatenation of dynamic processes (sa.nkhaara) and, therefore, everything created or formed is only created or formed through these processes and not by any agency outside its own nature. In Buddhism everything is regarded as compounded (sa.nkhata). Thus sa.nkhata in these contexts implies everything arisen or become (bhuuta), which depends on antecedent conditions (sahetu-sappaccaya). It is for this very reason (namely, that everything conceivable in this world has come to be or become depending on antecedent conditions or processes) that everything is to be regarded as liable to pass away. As it is declared in the Sa.myutta Nikaaya (SN < ?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />12:31/S II 49): “Whatever has become is of the nature of passing away (ya.m bhuuta.m ta.m nirodhadhamma.m).” This law, if one may call it so, holds in the case of the mightiest of gods, such as Mahaa-Brahmaa, as much as of the tiniest creature. In the 11th discourse of the Diigha Nikaaya it is regarded as ludicrous that even God or Brahma should imagine himself to be eternal. As Professor Rhys Davids remarked,
The state of an individual, of a thing or person, distinct from its surroundings, bounded off from them, is unstable, temporary, sure to pass away. It may last as, for instance, in the case of the gods for hundreds of thousands of years; or, as in the case of some insects, for some hours only; or as in the cause of some material things (as we should say some chemical compounds), for a few seconds only. But in every case as soon as there is a beginning, there begins also at that moment to be an ending.
The ethical significance of this law of impermanence is well brought out in the Mahaa-Sudassana Suttanta (DN 17). There the Buddha tells Aananda, his favourite disciple, about the glories of the famous king of the past, Mahaa Sudassana; about his cities, treasures, palaces, elephants, horses, carriages, women, and so on, in the possession of which he led a wonderful life; about his great regal achievements; and finally his death; only to draw the moral conclusion: “Behold, Aananda, how all these things [sa.nkhaara] are now dead and gone, have passed and vanished away. Thus, impermanent, Aananda, are the sa.nkhaaras; thus untrustworthy, Aananda, are the sa.nkhaaras. And this, Aananda, is enough to be weary of, to be disgusted with and be completely free of such sa.nkhaaras.”
When the Buddha characterized all compounded things and conditioned processes as impermanent and unstable, it must be understood that, before all else, stood out that particular heap of processes (sa.nkhaarapu.tja) that is called man; for at bottom it was with man chiefly that Buddha had to do, in so far as it was to man primarily that he showed the way to emancipation. Thus the chief problem was to find out the real nature of man, and it is precisely in this great discovery that the uniqueness of the Dhamma is visible. The Buddha’s conclusion regarding man’s nature is in perfect agreement with his general concept of impermanence: Man himself is a compound of several factors and his supposedly persistent personality is in truth nothing more than a collection of ceaselessly changing processes; in fact, a continuous becoming or bhava. The Buddha analysed man into five aggregates: ruupa, vedanaa, sa.t.taa, sa.nkhaara, and vi.t.taa.na , that is to say, material form, sensations, perceptions, dynamic processes and consciousness. In discourse after discourse, the Master has emphatically asserted that each of these aggregates is impermanent and unstable. In the famous discourse of the Diigha Nikaaya (DN 22/D II 301) entitled “The Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness” (Mahaa Satipa.t.thaana Sutta) the Master teaches the disciple to view all these categories as being of the nature of arising (samudayadhamma) and of passing away (vayadhamma): “Such is material form, such is its genesis, such its passing away; and so on with the other three groups: perceptions, dynamic processes and consciousness.” In fact, the highest consummation of spiritual life is said to result from the true perception of the evanescent nature of the six spheres of sense contact. The 102nd discourse of the Majjhima Nikaaya ends with the words: “This, indeed, monks, is the perfect way of utter peace into which the Tathaagata 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” (M II 237). It is these six spheres of sense-contact that cause the continuity of sa.msaara, in other words, bhava or becoming, and thus they are to be understood as involving the most important sa.nkhaaras. Hence the oft repeated stanza in the Pali Canon: “All compounded things indeed are subject to arising and passing away; what is born comes to an end; blessed is the end of becoming; it is peace.”
The fact of impermanence as the leading characteristic of all compounded things and processes of the phenomenal world has been dealt with above. The next, according to the concept of the three signata (tilakkha.na), is the fact of dukkha which signifies the universal characteristic of all sa.msaaric existence, viz. its general unsatisfactoriness. It must be admitted that this Pali word “dukkha” is one of the most difficult terms to translate. Writers in English very often use as its equivalent the English word “sorrow” or “ill” and some even translate it as “pain,” “suffering” and so on. But none of these English words covers the same ground as the Pali dukkha, they are too specialized, too limited and usually too strong. The difficulty is increased by the fact that the Pali word itself is used in the Canon in several senses.
There is what one may call the general philosophical sense, then a narrower psychological sense, and a still narrower physical sense. It is as indicating the general philosophical sense of dukkha that the word un-satisfactoriness has been selected. This is perhaps the best English term, at least in this particular context of the “three signata.”
Whatever some writers of Buddhism may have said, the recognition of the fact of dukkha stands out as the most essential concept of Buddhism. In the very first discourse after attaining Enlightenment the Master formulated this concept in the following terms:
This, indeed, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha, namely the fact that birth itself is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha; to be joined with what is unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from what is pleasant is dukkha, failure in getting what one wants is dukkha, in short the five groups of physical and mental qualities making up the individual due to grasping are themselves dukkha. (Vin I 10; cp. S V 421)
This observation of the universal fact of unsatisfactoriness is, as any unbiased student of Buddhism will soon realize, the central pivot of the whole system of spiritual and moral progress discovered and proclaimed by the Buddha.
According to the Buddha, the beginning, continuity and ending of all experience (i.e. the whole world [loka]) for a sentient being, are centred in its own individuality (naama-ruupa), that is to say, the five groups of grasping that constitute the individual (the pa.tcupadaanakkhandhaa viz. material form, sensations and feelings, perceptions [physical and mental], dynamic processes, and consciousness [ruupa, vedanaa sa.t.taa, sa.nkhaara and vi.t.taa.na]). Now, the physical form or the body of the individual is the visible basis of this individuality, and this body, as every one knows, is a product of material components derived from the four great elements, viz. the watery, the fiery, the airy and the earthy (aapo tejo, vayo, pa.thavii ). It is said to be built up of these four chief elements (caatummahaabhuutika) and therefore, it is conditioned by these. As was explained in the previous article, the universal characteristic of the four great elements is their impermanence (anicca), and not much science is needed to understand this fact which is self-evident to the thoughtful person. The Buddha says:
“A time will come when the watery element will rise in fury, and when that happens, the earthy element will disappear, unmistakably revealing itself as transient and subject to ruin, destruction and vicissitude… There may also come a time when the watery element will dry up and no more water is left in the great ocean than will cover one joint of a finger. On that day this great watery element will unmistakably reveal itself as transient and subject to ruin, destruction and vicissitude. A time will come when the fiery element will rage furiously and devour the whole surface of the earth, ceasing only when there is nothing more to devour. On that day this great fiery element will unmistakably reveal itself as transient and subject to destruction. A time will come when the airy element will rage in fury and carry away village and town and everything upon the earth … till it exhausts itself completely. On that day this great airy element will unmistakably reveal itself as transient and itself subject to ruin, destruction and all vicissitude.” (MN 28/M I 187)
Thus everything that is comprised within the four great elements shows itself subject to the universal law of transitoriness, and it is not a difficult inference to conclude that this fathom-long body which is a derivative of these four elements will itself go the way of its elemental source.
Now the Buddha goes on to show the impermanence or transitoriness of the remaining components of our individuality which are based upon the body and its organs:
The corporeal form, monks, is transient, and what underlies the arising of corporeal form, that too is transient. As it is arisen from what is transient, how could corporeal form be permanent? Sensations and feelings are transient; what underlies the arising of these [viz. the sense organs, depending on the body] is also transient. Arisen from what is transient, how could sensations and feelings be permanent? Similarly, perceptions, dynamic processes of the mind, and consciousness: all these, arising from the transient, cannot but be transient. (SN 22:15/S III 23)
In all these are observed arising, vicissitude and passing away. This real, impermanent nature of everything constituting the individual can only lead to one conclusion: that as they are transitory and by nature unabiding, they cannot be the basis for a satisfactory experience dependent on them. In short, whatever is transient, is (by that very fact) unsatisfactory (yad-anicca.m ta.m dukkha.m, SN 22:15). Hence is established the great Truth of Buddhism that the whole personality or individuality (wherever that may take shape, whether in this world or in another, as is possible in sa.msaara) and therefore the whole world of experience which simply depends on this individuality, all this is unsatisfactory or dukkha.
What do you think, monks; is the body permanent or is it transient?
It is transient, Sir.
Now, that which is transient: is it satisfactory or unsatisfactory?
It is unsatisfactory, Sir.
What do you think, monks, sensation, perception, mental processes and consciousness: are all these permanent or transient?
They are transient, Sir.
Now, what is transient: is it satisfactory or unsatisfactory?
It is unsatisfactory, Sir. (SN 22:57).
Thus this general unsatisfactoriness is to be regarded as the universal characteristic of all sa.msaaric experience, and this fact constitutes the Noble Truth of dukkha. To the intelligent person all this must sound axiomatic. But, then, why are the large majority of people unconvinced of, or unconcerned with, this great Truth which forms the bed-rock of the Buddha Dhamma? To answer this we have to probe into the working of man’s own mind which alone can realize this conception of the universality of dukkha.
The Master has said that the sentient being is psychologically so constituted that he seeks what is pleasurable and shuns what is non-pleasurable (sukhakaamo dukkhapa.tikkuula); to use the above employed terminology, he hankers after what is satisfactory for himself and recoils from what is unsatisfactory. Critics of Buddhism may wonder whether it is justifiable to regard the whole psychology of the sentient being as being so strongly ruled by this principle of hankering for the pleasurable and shunning what is unpleasant. That a similar conclusion was arrived at by Freud, the founder of the modem school of psychoanalysis, should cause such critics or sceptics to pause and reflect upon the scientific validity of such an observation. Freud begins his famous dissertation on “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” with the following significant words: “In the theory of psychoanalysis we have no hesitation in assuming that the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle. We believe, that is to say, that the course of those events is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and that it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension, that is, with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure.” Freud thus introduces what he calls an “economic” principle into his study of mental processes, and is it not a noteworthy fact in the history of human ideas that the Buddha had nearly twenty five centuries earlier formulated the same principle in practically the same terms? Now, if man by nature is driven by his own unconscious processes to seek for the pleasant and avoid what is unpleasant, it stands to reason that he would be unwilling to accept a philosophy whose basic idea is the characterization of all his experiences as impermanent and therefore liable to bring unhappiness or dukkha. That is why the Buddha soon after his Enlightenment considered that only a very few in the world had their vision sufficiently clear to grasp this great Truth of the universality of dukkha.
Before concluding this brief exposition of dukkha a doubt should be cleared which is often seen to cloud this conception and erroneously leads certain people to conclude that if the fact of dukkha is such a universal characteristic of experience, Buddhism must be regarded as a profession of pessimism. That such a view is totally wrong is seen clearly from certain passages of the Canon itself. According to Buddhism there is a point of view from which experiences, that is to say, sensations and feelings (vedanaa) can be considered to be threefold: they can be pleasant or happy (sukha), or they can be unpleasant or unhappy (dukkha), or they can be neutral, i.e. neither pleasant nor unpleasant (adukkhamasukha). From this lower or relative point of view which holds good for all individual experience, there is what may be called happiness in the world just as much as unhappiness, the degree of predominance of the one over the other varying according to personal and environmental conditions prevailing at a given moment. But further contemplation of such happiness and unhappiness and neutral feelings shows unmistakably that there is a common denominator between all these three types of experiences, namely, the fact that all three are subject to the universal property of impermanence or transience. Thus the Venerable Saariputta assures the Master that if questioned on the real nature of sensations and feelings, he would reply: “Threefold, indeed, friend, are those feelings and sensations: pleasant, unpleasant and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant; but, friend, [all] these three [experiences] are transient, and when one realizes that whatever is transient [and fleeting] must give rise to dukkha [in other words, is unsatisfactory], no hankering after them arises.”
It can easily be seen that in the last sentence, dukkha is used in the wider philosophical sense, as referred to at the beginning of this article. Hence is the Master’s joyful approval of Saariputta’s words: “Well said, well said, Saariputta, this exactly is the manner in which one should summarily dispose of such a question: Whatever experience there is, such [being transitory] must fall within the category of dukkha” (ya.m ki.tci vedayita.m tam dukkhasmi.m ; SN 12:32/S II 53). All sa.msaaric experience is in this sense vedayita and thus arises the incontrovertible proposition that all becoming in sa.msaara (bhava) is dukkha or unsatisfactory from the highest point of view (paramattha). Herein is also based that absolutely certain optimism of Buddhism, viz. that there is a way out of this sa.msaaric dukkha, a haven of utter peace and tranquillity, which is the absolute happiness of Nibbaana. Nibbaana.m parama.m sukha.m.