BuddhaSasana Home Page English Section - Read with Unicode CN-Times



Note: Pali terms in this page are created with Unicode CN-Times font.




All the physical and mental components of the five aggregates are not self. That they are not self becomes evident through their characteristics. The Commentary describes these characteristics as follows: Not being amenable to one's will is a characteristic of nonself. In this Sutta this characteristic is expressed in the terms: "It is not possible to say of form, 'Let my body be thus.'" Further in this Sutta we find the expression, " ... it tends to afflict..." Affliction or oppression should thus be taken as another characteristic of not-self. There is a query in the Sutta, "Is it fitting to consider as a self that which is subject to change?" Thus, constant change and alteration is another characteristic of nonself. When these characteristics are observed as they occur, the knowledge develops that the corporeal and mental aggregates are not self but mere phenomena.

Such knowledge is called anattānupassanā ñāṇa, knowledge developed by contemplation on the characteristics of nonself.

The name Anattatakkhaṇa is given to this Sutta since it deals with the characteristics of non-self.


"The characteristics of impermanence and suffering are easy to understand, but the characteristic of nonself is hard to comprehend," states the Sammohavinodanī. According to that Commentary, such exclamations as "Oh, impermanent, transient," readily come to mind when a pot is accidentally dropped and broken. Again, when afflicted with boils or sores or pricked by thorns, we readily murmur, "Oh what pain, what suffering." In this way the characteristics of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness are clearly visible and easily understood. But just as an object lying in the dark is hard to explain to others, the characteristic of nonself is not easily understood.

The characteristics of impermanence and unsatisfac-toriness are well known both inside and outside the Buddhist teaching, but the characteristic of not-self is known only in the Buddhist Dispensation. Wise hermits outside of the Dispensation, such as Sarabaṅga, could teach only about the nature of impermanence and suffering; the doctrine of not-self was beyond them. If they could only teach this doctrine, their disciples would have attained the knowledge of the Path and Fruition, but since they could not teach it, attainment of Path and Fruition was impossible for them.

It is the unique quality or attribute of the Exalted Enlightened Ones to be able to teach and explain the doctrine of not-self. Teachers outside of the Dispensation are not up to the subtlety and profundity of this doctrine. The Commentary states that the doctrine of not-self is so deep that even the Enlightened Ones had to employ either the characteristics of impermanence or the characteristics of suffering, or both, to facilitate its teaching.

The Sub-Commentary further explains: "In the above statement of the Commentary, the anicca and dukkha known outside the Dispensation are mere conventional terms, they cannot be used as means for realizing not-self. Only the anicca and dukkha realized in the absolute sense can be used in explaining the doctrine of nonself." Making use of this Sub-Commentary comment, I have described conventional and real concepts of anicca and dukkha in my book on the Sīlavanta Sutta, reference to which may be made for further information.


In the Chachakka Sutta of the Uparipaṇṇāsa section of the Majjhima Nikāya we find not-self explained by means of anicca. According to this Sutta, the meditator should know the following six classes of six:

1. Six internal bases of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind

2. Six external bases of sight, sound, odor, taste, touch and mental impressions

3. Six kinds of consciousnesses: eye-, ear-, nose- tongue-, body- and mind-consciousness

4. Six kinds of phassa, sense contact, through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind

5. Six kinds of feeling through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind

6. Six kinds of desire -- hunger for sights, sounds, odors, tastes, touches and mental impressions

Here "should know" means, according to the Commentary, "should know by means of vipassanā contemplation, by means of knowledge of the Noble Path." Therefore, whenever anything is seen, it should be mindfully noted so that the eye and its object of sight, the eye consciousness, the contact and the feelings that arise on seeing are all made apparent. And if liking or craving for the object develop with seeing, that desire should also be noted as "liking, liking."

Likewise, while hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking, the six classes of six kinds of objects should be known. To the meditator who is aware of these, the knowledge is gained personally that eye, visible sight and eye consciousness arise and cease. The meditator realizes, "Previously, I thought that there is a permanent entity, an enduring self. Now I see by actual observation that there is only the natural phenomenon of incessant arising and vanishing." Perceiving no self, no living entity, the meditator may even wonder for whom he is engaged in meditation. Realization that there is no self is attained through fully understanding the nature of impermanence. In corroboration of this practical experience, the Blessed One continued in this Chachakka Sutta:

"The sensitive material quality of the eye, which serves as the base for eye consciousness, arises and vanishes on every occasion of seeing; it is not, therefore, permanent, not the enduring, everlasting entity, the self, it seems to be. If one says, ‘the eye is self,' it is just like saying one's self is arising and passing away, not stable. Therefore, it must be concluded that the unenduring material quality of the eye is not self."

Likewise, similar conclusions may be drawn with respect to visible form, eye consciousness, eye contact, feelings resulting from eye contact, and liking and desiring for sights: they are not self. This is how the six phenomena which become prominent at the moment of seeing are to be regarded as not self. In a similar manner, the six kinds of phenomena which are apparent at the moments of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking may also be regarded as not-self.


Not-self is explained in terms of dukkha in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta itself. "Form tends to afflict because it is not self." That which is oppressing is fearful, a cause of suffering; and it is very plain that a fearful source of suffering cannot be one's self, one's inner entity.


To explain nonself in terms of both impermanence (anicca) and suffering (dukkha), the Blessed One said,

"The body is not permanent. What is not permanent is suffering. What is suffering is not self. What is not self should be regarded with proper wisdom according to reality thus: ‘This is not mine; this I am not; this is not my self'."

In short, form is subject to change and suffering and is therefore not self. It is not proper to regard as "mine" what is really not self; it is not proper to think vainly of oneself as "I am, I can ..."; it is not proper to regard it as "my self." In this manner should form be viewed and regarded in accordance with reality.

In a similar manner, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness are also shown to be not self by their characteristics of impermanence and suffering. We shall find in the latter portions of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, the nature of nonself being described in terms of both anicca and dukkha.

The concepts of anicca and dukkha are known and accepted widely, but the doctrine of nonself is hardly acceptable to those outside of the Buddha's dispensation. At the time of the Buddha, a certain wandering recluse by the name of Saccaka came to the Blessed One and disputed with him on this subject.


Saccaka was a teacher of the princes of Vesālī. He asked Assaji, the youngest of the Group of Five monks, "How does the Recluse Gotama teach his disciples? What are his chief instructions?" Assaji replied, "‘Form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness are impermanent, not self.' That is how the Master teaches us; these are his chief instructions."

Upon this, Saccaka, the wandering recluse said, "Friend, we hear an utterance which is evil, unpropitious. We have heard that Recluse Gotama has been teaching this doctrine of not-self, to hear which is evil, unpropitious for us. One of these days I may have an opportunity to meet with Recluse Gotama and rid him of this wicked, odious doctrine of his, the wrong view of nonself."

This is an example of how believers in self look down upon the doctrine of not-self. To hear the Blessed One's teaching of nonself is utterly baneful for them. The wandering recluse even talked about ridding the Blessed One of his "wrong view." Dogmatists are always of this frame of mind; they run down others, holding fast to their own views. Even those who are teaching in accordance with the Pāli Canons are disparaged. Such people who are reviling others are usually found to be deficient in their knowledge of the texts and to have little practical experience of meditation.

Saccaka had not yet made sufficient study of the Buddha's teaching and had no practical knowledge of the Dhamma. Yet he held a poor opinion of it and felt himself very much above it. Therefore, he attempted to go to the Blessed One and engage him in debate. He was sure he would come out the winner and he wanted people to witness his victory, so he went to the Licchavis of Vesālī and invited them to accompany him, making a vain boast that he would "whirl the Blessed One round in the matter of doctrines, just like a powerful man, catching hold of a kid by his fleece, would whirl it around and around."

When they reached the presence of the Blessed One, the wanderer asked permission from the Blessed One to pose his questions. He then asked, "Venerable Gotama, how are your disciples instructed? What are the main points in your instructions?" The Blessed One's reply was exactly the same as that given by the Venerable Assaji: "Form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness are impermanent, not self. In this way I instruct my disciples. These are the main points of my teaching."

The wanderer then began to give illustrations: "Venerable Gotama, the seed and the shoot have to rely on the earth, they depend on the earth for their growth into plants and trees; likewise, every action that is done with vigor and strength needs the earth for its support; in a similar manner, a person having material form as substantial self, attā, depends on it for both wholesome and unwholesome deeds. Likewise one depends on feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness as substantial self and depends on feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness for both wholesome and unwholesome deeds."

What this assertion means is that seeds and trees have to depend on the support of the earth for their growth; so also all kinds of activities require strength and vigor. Trees need the firm support of the earth; similarly, wholesome and unwholesome deeds are performed by individuals having form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness as self; it is dependent on these "selves" that deeds are carried out. Also, it is the self that reaps the fruits (good or bad) of these deeds. Were material form not self, where would be the support for the performance of wholesome and unwholesome deeds, and who would reap their fruits? It was beyond the intellectual scope of the disciples to solve this doctrinal matter of self likened to the earth. Only the Blessed One could handle the problem. So says the Commentary. Accordingly, the Blessed One, intending to tackle the problem personally, asked of the wanderer, "Saccaka, do you hold that material form is self, feeling is self, perception is self, volitional formations are self, consciousness is self?"

"Yes, Venerable Gotama, I hold that view and these people here also hold the same view." The Blessed One urged him, "Saccaka, leave aside other people's views; let us hear what you hold as your own."

It was Saccaka's intention to share the blame with the others present if his view of self happened to be blameworthy, but the Blessed One urged him to confine his reply to himself. He was thus forced to admit that he held that "material form is self, feeling is self, perception is self, volitional formations are self, consciousness is self."

Then the Blessed One asked him,

"Saccaka, rulers like King Pasenadi and King Ajātasattu hold sovereign powers in their own dominions; they execute those who should be executed, punish those who should be punished, and banish those who should be banished. They rule over their countries as they will; is this not a fact, Saccaka?"

"Sovereign kings indeed have such authority over their countries: even the Licchavis, elected by popular vote, hold such powers to execute, punish or banish in their own countries," replied Saccaka, going beyond the bounds of the question, not foreseeing the repercussions it would have on his beliefs.

Thereupon, the Blessed One said, "Saccaka, you said form is self, ‘my self': could you exercise control over that self, saying, ‘Let this self of mine be thus; let this self be not thus'?"

Now Saccaka found himself caught in a dilemma. The doctrine of self holds that one can exercise control as one wills. The sāmi attā clinging, which we have repeatedly mentioned, holds that self can be managed at will. At this juncture, Saccaka had admitted that sovereign kings had complete control over their kingdoms; it appeared that he would have to admit that the body, which he regarded as self, would be amenable to management. If he did that, there would come the further question whether he could exercise control over his body so as to keep it youthful like the bodies of the Licchavi princes. If he replied that it could not be managed, then that would amount to admitting that there could be no control over the body and therefore it could not be self. Finding himself in this dilemma, Saccaka kept silent and gave no answer.

The Blessed One repeated the question for the second time, but Saccaka remained silent. Before asking him for the third time, the Blessed One gave him this warning: "Aggivessana (Saccaka clan's name), you'd better answer my question. It is not the time to remain silent. When questioned by a Tathāgata for a third time, one has to come up with an answer or else one's head will be split into seven pieces."

At that time a celestial ogre, armed with a thunderbolt, was said to be hovering above Saccaka's head, poised to split it open. The ogre was visible only to the Blessed One and Saccaka, not to others. It is somewhat like the ghost manifestations of the present day, which are visible to some, invisible to others. Saccaka was terrified by the sight of the ogre; but when he saw the rest of the audience undisturbed in any way, he realized that the ogre was not visible to them. He could not, therefore, claim that he was forced to answer the way he did, being threatened by the ogre. He knew also that he had no other refuge but the Blessed One to whom, therefore, he submitted: "May it please the Blessed One to put the question; I am ready to answer."

Thereupon, the Blessed One asked; "Aggivessana, what do you think of this? You said material form is self; could you say of that self, ‘Let this body be thus, let this body be not thus,' as you wish?"

"No, Lord, there is no control over it," replied Saccaka, thereby contradicting himself. He had said that material form is self; if material form were self, it should be amenable to control. Now he was saying that there was no control over material form, thus, in effect, admitting that material form is not self.

When the Blessed One heard him contradicting himself, he cautioned Saccaka: "Aggivessana, take heed, be careful with what you say. What you said later is not in accord with what you have said earlier. What you have said earlier is not in accord with what you said later. Now, Aggivessana, what do you think? You said feeling is self; could you say of that self, ‘Let this feeling be thus, let this feeling be not thus' and obtain as you wish?"

"No, Lord, there is no control over it."

Similar questions were asked concerning perception, volitional formations and consciousness, prefaced by the same caution to take heed so as not to be contradicting himself. Saccaka provided similar answers, saying there was no control over each of them.

Then the Blessed One asked him whether material form is permanent or impermanent. He answered, "Impermanent, Sir." "What is not permanent, is that suffering or happiness?" "Suffering, Sir," answered Saccaka. "Then, what is impermanent, suffering and subject to change, is it proper to regard it as ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self'?" "No, Lord," he replied. The same questions were repeated with regard to feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness, and Saccaka gave similar replies.

Then the Buddha questioned him further: "Aggivessana, what do you think of this? A certain person holds fast to these aggregates of suffering, clinging to them, attached to them, clasping them firmly, believing of them, ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self', is there a possibility of this person understanding suffering truly and well, and ending this suffering?"

This question is profound: would one who takes delight in the corporeal and mental aggregates which manifest at the six doors during sense contact, and thinks of them, "this I am, this is mine, this is my self," know that these corporeal and mental aggregates are suffering? Would it be possible for him to end suffering, to be rid of suffering? Saccaka provided the answers according to the questions asked: "Venerable Gotama, how could it be possible for him to know the truth of suffering or to end suffering? Impossible, Lord Gotama."

"In that case," the Blessed One asked, "are you not a person who holds fast to these aggregates of suffering, clinging to them, attached to them, clasping them firmly, a person who believes of them ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self'?" Saccaka replied, "Lord I am verily that person, Sir, how could I be otherwise?"

The wanderer Saccaka had thought very highly of his own belief in self. He was very vain and boastful about it, but when examined by the Blessed One he was forced to admit the error of his views. His belief in self, attavāda, was thoroughly annihilated. To give a final blow to his bloated ego, pride and vanity, the Blessed One gave this illustration:

"Aggivessana, suppose there is a man who goes into the forest wanting some heartwood. Seeing a plantain tree and expecting to find heartwood inside it, he fells the tree. Then he cuts off the top part of the tree and begins to peel off the outer skin. He finds in the plantain trunk not even any outer wood fibre, not to mention inner heartwood.

"Just so, when I examine your doctrine of self, I find it to be void of essential inner substance. Did you not make the boast amidst the crowd in the city of Vesālī: ‘There is no one who can withstand me in debate without trembling or sweating; I have not yet come across any recluse or Brahmin, nor anyone who has claimed to be an all-enlightened Arahat, who can withstand me without trembling or sweating. Even a lifeless wooden post, endowed with neither mind nor mental concomitants, when challenged by me in debate, would tremble and fall down, not to say a human being.' Did you not make such boasts, Aggivessana? As it happens, some of the sweat from your brow has soaked through your upper robe and is dropping onto the ground. As for me, I have no sweat on my body." So saying, the Blessed One exposed a portion of his body so as to let people see for themselves, and indeed there was no sweat on him.

The wanderer Saccaka, having nothing to say in reply, remained silent, embarrassed and crestfallen, with slumping shoulders and lowered head. Then one of his followers, a Licchavi prince by the name of Dummukha, rose and asked permission from the Blessed One to give an illustration. On being permitted by the Blessed One, Dummukha, the Licchavi Prince, said,

"Lord, there was a tank not far from the town, and there was a crab living in the tank. The young children came out from the town and, arriving at the tank, caught hold of the crab and placed it on land. The crab clumsily raised its claws and legs and waved them about. Every time the crab raised a claw or leg, the children would smash it off with sticks or broken pieces of pottery. With its limbs thus crushed, the crab could not make its way back to the tank.

In a similar manner, the Lord has destroyed all the thorns and spikes of Saccaka's wrong view, his pastures of wrong views, and the movements of his wrong views. There are now no more grounds for Saccaka to approach the Lord in debate."

While Dummukha the Licchavi prince was addressing the Blessed One, other Licchavi princes were anxiously awaiting their turn to denounce Saccaka with more illustrative stories. Seeing a situation developing in which the Licchavi princes would be one by one heaping disgrace on him, Saccaka decided to stop Dummukha from making further remarks: "Hold on Dummukha, we are having a discussion with the Venerable Gotama, not with you." Then he addressed the Blessed One, "Venerable Gotama, let it be, what I have said and what others have said. I wish to bring them to a close. There has been such random talk."

Then he asked the Blessed One how one had to go about practicing in the Buddha's Dispensation to reach the stage where skeptical doubts are overcome and courage of conviction attained. The Blessed One taught him that one has to undertake meditation practice until one attains the stage when one can see, with insight and knowledge of the Path, that the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness, which are liable to be misconceived as "mine," "I," "my self," are in reality "not mine," "not I," "not my self."

Saccaka wanted to know also how to practice to become an Arahat. The Buddha told him that, after realization that the physical and mental aggregates are "not mine," "not I," "not my self" one has to continue practicing until one is free of clinging and attachments.

What comes out of this debate between Saccaka and the Blessed One is that there is a type of wrong belief which holds that all the five aggregates are self and that those who cling to self always think disparagingly of those who believe in the doctrine of not-self. There is another type of wrong belief which holds only one of the aggregates to be self. This is evident from the self clinging of Sāti described in Chapter IV and also from vedaka attā clinging and kāraka attā clinging.


There has appeared in modern times still another type of self belief. As described in books on Indian Philosophy, this new type of self clinging has no reference to the five aggregates, it postulates a self existing apart from them. This must be rejected as just an opinion, for in the absence of the five aggregates there can be no self. Consider for a moment: if self has no form, it cannot be experienced in any form or substance. If mental properties still exist, there can be self clinging to them similar to the attachment of the common worldling (puthujjana--unenlightened being) to the formless realm. But without mental properties, then there is nothing to be attached to as one's self. If there is no feeling, there can be no clinging to feelings, pleasant or unpleasant. In the absence of perception, no attachment can arise to recognition or memory. Having no consciousness, nothing can be known; and since there are no volitional formations such as intention, that self cannot do anything. Therefore such a self could exist only in name; it would be of no practical use and could not even be described. Thus, although they assert that their self is apart from the five aggregates, it is obvious that their self clinging is on one, many or all of the five aggregates. It is an impossibility to have any clinging as self apart from or outside of the five aggregates.

Thus, in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, we find the words, "form is not self; feeling is not self; perception is not self; volitional formations are not self; consciousness is not self," thus removing and refuting all types of clinging to a self, either apart from the five aggregates, or within one, two, three, four or all five kinds of aggregates.

If material form is clung to as self, then the remaining four aggregates form part of that self, are its attribute and support, and are also clung to. If one of the other aggregates, such as feeling, is clung to as self, then the remaining four are also clung to as part of that self, as its attribute and its support. All these types of self clinging are refuted by the statement "material form is not self."

The Blessed One had now explained fully about notself, but in order to explain it further in terms of the characteristics of impermanence and suffering, he continued:

Taṁ kiṁ maññatha bhikkhave rūpaṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vāti. Aniccaṁ Bhante. Yampanāniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vā taṁ sukhaṁ vāti. Dukkhaṁ Bhante. Yampanāniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vipariṇāma dhammaṁ kallaṁ nu taṁ samanupassituṁ etaṁ mama eso hamasmi eso me attāti. No h'etaṁ Bhante.

"Monks, what do you think? Is material form permanent or impermanent?"

"Not permanent, Lord."

The Blessed One asked them whether material form is permanent or not. The Group of Five replied, "Not permanent," an answer which may have been given from knowledge gained by ordinary hearsay, but the Blessed One wanted an answer based on their own knowledge, and the Group of Five monks, having all become Stream Enterers, had seen the truth. Their answers were thus based on their own knowledge, in accordance with the wishes of the Blessed One.

Meditators at this centre can also answer from their own knowledge. When the meditator takes note of the action of rising, he perceives the phenomena of extension, pressure and motion in the abdomen quite vividly. The phenomena of extension, pressure and motion are the manifestations of the vāyo element. They were nonexistent before; they become manifest just as the abdomen begins to rise. This is then the arising of the phenomenon, its becoming. The beginning of the phenomenon is the rising of the abdomen, which comes under observation and is duly noted. When the rising comes to an end, there are no more extension, pressure and motion in the abdomen. They are said to terminate, disappear, cease, pass away. Thus while the rising of the abdomen is being noted, the meditator also perceives the rising to pass away, to disappear. This dissolution following on the heel of arising and becoming is the sure characteristic of impermanence. Realizing this characteristic of impermanence in the course of noting the rising and falling of the abdomen is true insight into the nature of impermanence, aniccā-nupassanā ñāṇa. The knowledge of impermanence accruing from noting the beginning and end of each arising constitutes sammasana ñāṇa, the first step in the series of ten ñāṇas developed through Vipassanā meditation. Sammasana ñāṇa sees through only the beginning and end of corporeal and mental phenomena; the fine details of what happens in between are not yet perceived. It is just the knowledge of impermanence which accrues from perceiving the becoming and dissolution of the continuing processes as they happen.

When noting the rising of the abdomen, the beginning of the rise is perceived as well as its end. To know the beginning of the rise is to know the becoming; to know the end of the rise is to know its dissolution. Seeing the becoming and the dissolution of each arising, there can be no misconception of it as permanent.

When noting the falling of the abdomen, the contracting motion of the abdomen is distinctly seen. This is the vāyo element in motion. In seeing the beginning of the falling motion of the stomach and its end, the vāyo element is being seen. The falling material form was not in existence at the time of extension; it is only when the rising motion comes to an end that the falling material form comes into being. Then finally the falling material form vanishes, so it is also impermanent.


Anicca khayaṭṭhena: a condition is impermanent because of its nature of coming to an end. In accordance with this definition, the falling of the abdomen, manifested by the contracting motion, comes to an end, it ceases. Hence it is impermanent.

Another Commentary definition is hutvā abhāvato anicca: previously nonexistent, it comes into being and then dissolves, thus it is impermanent.

While noting, "falling, falling" the beginning and end of the falling is perceived, and the meditator realizes its impermanent nature. This is true understanding of the nature of impermanence (aniccānupassanā ñāṇa) on the level of sammasana ñāṇa, seeing the becoming and dissolution of the continuous processes as they occur. At the level of udayabbaya ñāṇa, three, four, or five distinct moments of beginning and ending of the phenomenon can be discerned during the interval of one cycle of rising and falling of the abdomen. When the meditator progresses to the bhaṅga stage, numerous moments of dissolution will be seen to flit by during the interval of one cycle of rising and falling. The material body of rising and falling, being subjected to incessant dissolution, is indeed impermanent.

When the motions of bending or stretching the limbs are heedfully noted, as "bending, bending," or "stretching, stretching," the beginning and end of each bending or stretching is distinctly seen. It is seen thus because the respective motions are being carefully noted. One who doesn't note may not be aware of the bending or stretching of his limbs. Even if he is aware of these motions, he will not perceive the beginning of the motions separately from their ends. He will be under the impression that the hand which was there before bending or stretching still remains there after the motion. When bending or stretching, it will be seen that there is a slow motion of the limbs gradually passing from one moment to another. In every instance of bending or stretching, the beginning of the extending and moving is the coming into being (becoming) of the vāyo element; the end of the extending and moving is the dissolution of the vāyo element. When noting bending, to know the beginning and ending of each act of bending is to know the arising and dissolution of vāyo element. Similarly, when noting stretching, to know the beginning and end of each act of stretching is to know the arising and dissolution of vāyo element. During the time taken by one single act of bending and stretching, knowing the separate slow motions of the limbs gradually passing from one moment to another is also knowing the arising and dissolution of the vāyo element, whose characteristics are extension and movement. The gradual slow motion of the limbs clearly brings out the nature of impermanence. This cannot, however, be realized without heedful noting of each action.

While walking, the meditator who is taking note as "right step, left step," knows the beginning and end of each step. This is knowing the arising and dissolution of the vāyo element, which is responsible for extension and movement of the legs. Similarly, the meditator who takes note of the movements of the legs in raising, stepping out, and dropping down knows separately the beginning and end of those movements. This is also knowing the arising and dissolution of the vāyo element. Knowing the separate slow motions of the legs involved in each act of moving is also knowing the coming into being and dissolution of the vāyo element. Thus the vāyo element, responsible for the movement of each step, is arising and passing away with each step and is, therefore, impermanent.

When noting the feeling of touch anywhere on the body, knowing the arising of the sensation of touch and its disappearance is knowing the arising and dissolution of the material quality involved in touch sensation. The meditator knows the arising and passing of both the sensitive material quality of his own body and the tactile body it touches. He realizes that freshly arising material bodies are not stable, but impermanent, because he has seen their incessant arising and passing away by actual noting.

When noting hearing as "hearing, hearing," the meditator notices the sound freshly arising and disappearing. This is knowing the arising and dissolution of sound. Thus any sound which arises is impermanent. Along with this material quality of the sound, the material quality of the ear on which sound makes its impression also arises afresh and disappears with the sound. So it may be said that once the arising and dissolution of sound is perceived, the arising and dissolution of the material quality of ear is also known. Thus the meditator knows the impermanent nature of the material quality of the ear as well. The whistle from the rice mill or the howling of dogs are generally regarded to be heard at one continuous stretch, but to the meditator whose vipassanā insight has grown strong, those sounds appear in minute portions, section by section, one after another. The meditator, therefore, realizes that the material quality of sound is also arising and perishing at a very fast pace.

Likewise the meditator who is noting "seeing" knows, when his vipassanā ñāṇa gets highly developed, that eye consciousness and seeing are quickly appearing and disappearing. The visible forms, also, which arise and perish are not permanent. The material quality of eye which arises and perishes simultaneously with the visible form is also impermanent.

While eating, the meditator notes the taste and knows when the taste disappears. The taste which appears afresh and disappears is, therefore, impermanent. The impermanent nature of taste is very plain. However pleasant the taste is, it remains on the tongue only for a short while before it disappears. As with the taste, the material quality of the tongue on which the taste manifests disappears simultaneously. Thus when the taste is seen to be impermanent, the material quality of the tongue is seen also to be impermanent.

The meditator who keeps note of smell knows that a smell keeps on appearing and disappearing, all the time renewing itself. Smell, which comes into being and dissolves instantly, is therefore impermanent, as is the material quality of the nose which arises and vanishes with it. When thinking occurs while noting the rise and fall of the abdomen, it has to be carefully noted. It will be observed that the thinking disappears even while it is being noted. Every time thinking disappears, the material quality on which it is based disappears also. This material base which arises and vanishes with every act of thinking is non-enduring, impermanent. The above concerns material qualities which the meditator realizes personally as impermanent by constantly noting the phenomena of the aggregates. These material qualities relate to the whole of the body; they arise and dissolve, renewing themselves at every moment of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. Like the material qualities inside one's own body, the material qualities from the bodies of other people are also simultaneously arising and vanishing. For instance, noting sound as "hearing, hearing," the material quality of sound is perishing, as are other material qualities in one's body, as are those in the outside world.

Thus the Blessed One asked, "Is material form permanent or impermanent?" The Group of Five, who had personal knowledge of their impermanent nature, replied, "Impermanent, Lord."

These are questions concerning the characteristics of impermanence. When one knows the characteristics of impermanence thoroughly, it is easy to understand the characteristics of suffering and not-self. The characteristic of impermanence is that it does not endure. The Commentary defines it as hutvā abhāvato anicca: not being in existence, it comes into being and then ceases. These are the characteristics of impermanence. Every-one has seen lightning. At first it does not exist, then it comes into being in a flash. It does not last long, it disappears instantly. The phenomenon of lightning provides all the characteristics of impermanence. Whatever arises afresh to soon disappear is said to have the characteristic of impermanence.

The meditator who continues to observe the process of sense awareness sees things arising and ceasing. Only when he has acquired this personal knowledge of the characteristic of impermanence is the true knowledge of aniccānupassanā ñāṇa (insight into impermanence) develop-ed. Seeing dissolution, the meditator knows that it is impermanent. This knowledge is aniccānupassanā ñāṇa. In order to help develop this ñāṇa, the Blessed One asked, "Is material form permanent or impermanent?"

I have fully dealt with the question of imperma-nence, now I shall go on with the characteristics of suffering.

"That which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?" asked the Blessed One. The five monks answered, "Unsatisfactory, Lord."


There are two kinds of dukkha. The first is unbearable pain or suffering, the kind that is dukkha because it is oppressive or repulsive. The impermanence of incessant arising and vanishing is not the painful kind of suffering, it belongs to the second kind, in accordance with the Commentary definition: "It is suffering because it is fearsome." The phenomenon of incessant arising and ceasing is terrible, fearsome, or to use the Burmese words, "not good." The question, "That which is impermanent, is it suffering or happiness, dukkha or sukha ?" is the same as "Is it bad or good?" The Group of Five answered, "It is dukkha," or in Burmese idiom, "It is not good."

The reason it is dukkha, not good, is that it is ever arising and perishing, and so it is fearsome. People imagine things to be sukha, good, because they appear to be enduring and stable. When they realize that things do not endure even for a second and are constantly dissolving, they can no longer see any sukha or goodness in them.

We depend for our existence on the aggregates which are in dissolution all the time. If at any moment the aggregates are not renewed, we die, which is a terrible thing to know. It is just like living in an old, dilapidated building, liable to collapse at any time. In the case of the building, there is the possibility that it may last for days, months, or even years before coming down, whereas the mental and physical aggregates inside the body cannot endure even for a second. They are undergoing dissolution all the time and are thus more terrible. Hence it is said to be suffering, dukkha.

What are the characteristics of dukkha?

According to the Commentary, abhiṇha sampaṭipīḷanakara dukkha lakkhaṇaṁ : Incessant, unceasing oppression is the sign of dukkha. Here, unceasing oppression refers to the incessant arising and passing away of mental and physical aggregates. Thus all mental and physical aggregates are regarded as dukkha, things which are "not good." Seeing the sign of dukkha by personal experience and realizing things to be fearsome, suffering, "not good," not dependable, is true dukkhānupassanā ñāṇa (insight into suffering).


While the meditator is noting the phenomena of mental and physical properties, he sees the incessant origination and dissolution taking place in the rising and falling of the abdomen, in bending, stretching, lifting, stepping, and dropping. He sees also the origination and dissolution taking place in noting every instance of touching, hearing, seeing, and tasting. He begins to see the corporeal and mental aggregates oppressed by processes of origination and dissolution. There is the possibility of death at any moment, hence the oppression is seen as fearsome. This is true dukkhānupassanā ñāṇa.

In order to help develop this ñāṇa, the Blessed One asked,"That which is impermanent, is it dukkha or sukha ?" In the paragraph stating, "Body is not self" it is clearly stated, "Since body is not self, it tends to affliction." Therefore it is very plain that the body is suffering, and the five monks answered accordingly, "Dukkha, Lord."

Having shown in this way that form is impermanent and suffering, the Blessed One went on to urge the monks not to regard the body as "mine", "me", "my self ". "That which is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, is it fitting or proper to regard it as ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self'?" The five monks answered,"Not proper, Lord."


Of the three forms of grasping, "this is mine" is clinging with craving, "this I am" is clinging with conceit, and "this is my self' is clinging with wrong view. When one has taken delight in an object with craving, even if the object does not belong to one, it is grasped as if it does. Thus, seeing delightful objects in the market, we take delight in them as if we already owned them. We take a fancy to jackets and skirts, we put them on in our imagination; shoes too, we wear in our imagination, as if they were already our own. We grasp everything, if we fancy it, animate or inanimate, as if it was our own. Therefore, the Blessed One asked whether it was wise to grasp things that are impermanent, suffering and subject to change and delight in them as "mine"; in other words, whether it is proper to delight in suffering.

The physical properties in one's person are constantly originating and dissolving; if one sees this as it really is, it is frightening, just like having to live in a dilapidated building. One may feel quite well for the present, but a change for the worse may take place at any time, depending on conditions and circumstances. Once it is realized that the body does not endure even for a moment, that it is always changing, and therefore a source of suffering, how could one take delight in it? Would anyone willingly choose as one's life partner someone who is going to become an invalid within hours or days, or who is about to die? No one who really knew what was about to happen would take delight in such a course of action.

Similarly, the meditator who sees the unceasing process of origination and dissolution of the aggregates finds only terrible suffering in them. Finding them as such, he has no desire to grasp the body as his own. The Group of Five monks, therefore, answered that it is not proper to regard the body with the thought "this is mine."


To consider material form as "this I am" is to cling to it with conceit. When one has good eyes and ears and can see and hear well one begins to take pride in them: "I have good eyes, good ears, I look beautiful, I have a pleasant voice, I am well, I am strong." Is it proper to cling to the body in this manner?

Conceit is developed when there is the misconception that one's possessions are enduring and permanent. When the material qualities of eyes, ears, and visible forms are wrongly held to be permanent, vanity is built round them. It is like a man who has a cache of gold and silver hidden in a certain place: he may be full of pride over his wealth, but if he finds out that his cache has been robbed and he no longer owns any riches, the bubble of his conceit gets burst.

Likewise, when there is clinging to the material qualities which become manifest at the moment of seeing and hearing, and they are thought to be still in existence, conceit is developed over them. The ardent meditator knows that they all arise only to vanish and finds no reason for proud thoughts such as "I have good eyes, I am beautiful." Thus, when the monks were asked, "Is it proper to regard the body as ‘This I am'?" their reply was, "Not proper, Lord." The Blessed One let it be known by means of this question and answer that there is conceit when things are conceived as permanent and there is no conceit when they are known to be impermanent.


Holding on to the belief "This is my self" is clinging with wrong view. This wrong view is conceived when there is belief that the physical properties in one's person are everlasting and amenable to one's control. When knowledge arises that they are unstable, constantly arising and vanishing, and suffering because they are unenduring and subject to change, there are no more grounds for clinging to the body as "self," as a living entity. When the meditator knows that the body cannot be controlled -- "Let everything be pleasant, good; let nothing unpleasant or bad happen; let all good physical properties remain permanent" -- there is nothing for him to cling to as self. Thus to the question, "Is it fitting to regard the body as self?" the five monks replied, "No, Lord." With this question, the Blessed One made it clear that when it is not known that material properties are changing every instant, they are clung to as self. When their impermanence is known, there is no more clinging. According to this, "changeableness at every instant," should also be taken as a characteristic of nonself.

We have dealt with the characteristics of impermanence in the first part of today's lecture; in the latter portion of the discourse, we have gone over all the three characteristics mentioned in the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta in the form of questions and answers. The exposition on the aggregate of form is fairly complete.


Top | Contents | 01 | 02 | 03 | 04 | 05 | 06 | 07 | 08 | 09

See also: Vietnamese Translation

Source: Sakyamuni Meditation Center, California, U.S.A.

[Back to English Index]
updated: 01-06-2002