Atma- analysis of Self


Hi Gabriel,

I wonder if you were to ask yourself how long might it take before eating nothing but ice-cream every day would become suffering? A massage that never ended? The Godfather on never ending replay?

How long do you think that the sensual gratification one receives from these worldly pleasures will last if one is given an unending supply of that pleasure? Somehow I suspect it would not take very long before the experience of eating ice cream, having massages and watching the Godfather II would become torture.

Thus the sensual gratification we seek from the indulgence of these activities is impermanent, it does not last, we can have more ice cream or more massage but there comes a point when it is no longer pleasurable and becomes unsatisfactory if not outright suffering.

Where is the sukha to be found in these worldly pleasures when endless experience of them becomes dukkha?

Furthermore, is not the desire for ice cream when there is none to be had also suffering? Is not the lack of a massage when desired also suffering? The pleasure we feel when we indulge in these pleasures is impermanent so it is inevitable that there must be a time when one is unable to satisfy the desire for these things, which must also cause dissatisfaction if not outright suffering.

So AFAIK there are two ways that the impermanence of these worldly pleasures cause suffering to those who desire them. Firstly, the intrinsic impermanence of the pleasure taken from gratifying the desire for pleasure and secondly from the inability to always satisfy the desire when desired. Thus, seeking happiness in that which is impermanent is suffering.



That’s a very good point. So the text should be “What is permanent is suffering”! I completely agree. Things are pleasant because they are impermanent.

Okay? But who pretended that my great food or my grandma is permanent? Do you really think it needed a Buddha to arise in the world to tell us that everyone dies? I assume the mortality rate in ancient India (and the lack of a fridge) made the impermanence of people & things pretty obvious.

My problem with the text is that is says “Whatever is impermanent is suffering”, as a definition. Not “some things”. So here is some impermanent=suffering stuff:

  • The Buddha: long gone, not here to be asked our questions = suffering
  • The sun = suffering
  • The chair I sit on = suffering
  • A snowflake in Sibiria = suffering
  • The dhamma: transmitted, altered, adjusted over the centuries = suffering
  • The pleasure I experience in meditation = suffering
  • The effort I put into improving my state of mind = suffering

That is beyond obvious but somehow readers don’t see that. The standard text as it is doesn’t make sense. In our minds we fill the gaps without noticing:

The text says that it’s the impermanence that makes things suffering. This is clearly wrong. The impermanence of my neighbor doesn’t bother me a bit, and in most cases of joy I want them to be impermanent. It’s not even attachment as such that makes it suffering, but the combination of 1.attachment 2.expectation for it/them to be a source of steady satisfaction and joy 3.the failing to deliver the expected.

When we start to see that many of the anatta-suttas are abbreviations, memory aids and practices rather than proclaiming a truth - that if we took the formula in its brevity it would be simply wrong - can we finally start the hunt for the suttas which give a sound psychological model for how anicca and dukkha are connected? (maybe these will help with the dukkha-anatta link as well…)


Isn’t there a two or three part formula designed to describe the particular manner in which how impermanent things are suffering?

I cannot remember exactly, but I think it went about by delineating happenings into two or three categories: separation from the loved and union with the hated.

In the ice-cream example, union with the hated would be excess of ice cream.

Separation from the loved would be the loss of the novelty of getting to taste ice cream as a “treat”.

Perhaps that is a silly ad hoc solution.


I am sure there is a sutta where the Buddha states that some teachings need further ‘drawing out’ or contemplation in order to understand them. I see the annica, dukkha anatta teaching as one of those teachings where the dots are not connected for you but with a bit of contemplation, particularly post meditation the underlying meaning can be seen and understood.

Where the text says ‘Whatever is impermanent is suffering’ it should prompt the reader to do a bit of a ‘what the?’ and then think more deeply on the subject, trying to tease out what has been meant by the teaching. Having said that though, these are Just my thoughts, views etc. I am not making any real claim as to their being the ultimate truth or anything, I am just as likely to be wrong as anyone else so caveat emptor etc.



Satta only exists conventionally- or in a sense that the world ‘exists’ (see Kaccayanagotta sutta, SN12.15), which is fine for day to day use- this isn’t at the level of aggregates. When seen through EBT based vipassana, there are only aggregates (clingable) one giving rise to the next, in a causal chain. This is the middle path of describing reality, as in the above sutta. So we must understand each text contextually.

You might consider that only one kind (or two- including clingable) exist. Mythical aggregates somewhere externally… not really Buddha’s teachings, (though external Rupa might be the only ‘external’ aggregate). We are now actually discussing the difference between conventional and ultimate reality, which was called as such to clarify this kind of discussion!

Vitakkavicara are vaci-sankhara - they are fabricated and are sankhara. They have to be included in the sankhara aggregate as very commonly people think (verbally) and think therefore ‘I am’. This must be clearly seen through as false. Sometimes in meditation thoughts arise spontaneously and are seen to drift by- no one is doing the thinking. The thinking happens by itself, according to causality.

Rupa+sense base, gives rise to consciousness, which in turn give rise to contact, which in turn gives rise to feelings, identification (sanna) and fabrication (Sankhara- intentions, thoughts, contemplation etc).

This is how perception works at each sense based, and is the subject of inquiry in vipassana.

This process of impermanent experiences ‘create’ our world (reality).

First Right view is important- bearing in mind that the Buddha said there isn’t a self, its best not to place ‘myself’ in any particular place. Before beginning vipassana it should be apparent where one is.

Depending on which stimuli arise and one’s reaction to it, it can be determined in which ‘world’ the EBT based vipassana is being done, kama loka, rupa jhana or arupa jhana through memory, though latter would be very hard.

Say if a person was watching a train and it leaves the station, it is possible to see the emptiness left behind. In the same way it is possible to see the emptiness of the back of an aggregate after it is passed away, and there is no re-arising. This is Non-arising or nirodha aka Nibbana- the flame going out. The intensionally generated consciousness (aka mindfulness, in vipassana) will also cease when the intention to maintain mindfulness also cease. After this there is unconsciousness- but not with a falling to the ground negative kind of way. The person in meditation only knows when they come out of this and they see that time has elapsed. Otherwise there would be no conscious experience for them to know. Waking up feels very blissful and rested/relaxed. Not an unpleasant feeling that someone would have if they fainted, etc. During this period with no experiencing there’s obviously no arising and passing away and nothing fabricated appears in the mind, at all. There’s nothing coming from that nothiness, nothing to project on to it. All discursive thoughts come to an end. There are no concepts arising. Its then clear that this is the ending of all phenomena/experiences and the end of all suffering: the path to this has been practiced- the Noble Eightfold Path. Then a little bit harder as avijja (ignorance) and vijja (insight) is hard to perceive- this happens when avijja is suppressed and vijja generated through vipassana is predominant and reaches a climax. This is also the ceasing order of the DO, when causes and effects all cease to arise.

With metta


I think you are very generous towards the suttas :slight_smile: The Buddha is supposed to have been the best teacher in the spiritual history of the world. A teaching of “Impermanence! No Self! Figure out the rest alone!!” is something I could pull off myself, no need for a Buddha for that.

I’m very confident that he had a lot more to say about that and we have a multiply challenged transmission line to deal with.

I think it’s worth to get from the texts as much as we can though because frankly most of us are not once-returners and for me a (more or less) authentic word of the Buddha is like a diamond in the dirt (the latter is my mind). But for that I want to be rigorous with the texts…


Yeah well, Theravada abhidhammic or commentaires’ “out of nowhere” kind of concepts, such as “conventional and ultimate reality” are not really my cup of tea. It has the same effect on me, than “the Bible is the word of God himself”. Hum !

I am so glad that I never read a single line of abhidhamma or commentairies, when I know now, through AN 8.51 and its parallels, that Buddha said that his Teaching would be corrupted five hundred years after his death.
I am so glad also, that I am not reading, or referring anymore to suttas without parallels.
And I am also very glad that I came from a purely Vedic background, which has driven me into a more accurate lexicographic endeavour, as far as the meaning of words are concerned, in the litterature around the time of the Buddha.

It really helps not to interpret the Teaching as my wishful thinking.

Sanna as “identification” ?!?

I’m off.


I do agree.
The only thing that imports, is to understand and experience how paticcasamuppada is full of dukkha, and get out of it.
In other words to get progressively out of the kama, then rupa, then arupa lokas, through the practice.

Might there be an Ajo, a “Nada”, or whatever behind that, is of no interest; and an insane endeavour.


Good point, it’s the attachment that leads to suffering, the sense of a personal loss.


That’s funny lol I am pretty sure that he did teach more than that. After all there are 82000 suttas which are attributed to be the direct words of the Buddha and the teaching on impermanence is but one among many.

I agree. Although for me, the translations are good enough to get the general gist, enough to begin and further develop the practice at least. Understanding comes from doing that, as ones practice improves and of course full understanding can really only come with awakening. As the Buddha often warns, it is through practice that one is liberated. He doesn’t say you are liberated by reading texts or by thinking about it or by having an intellectual understanding, those things help of course but ultimately it is practice that matters. It would be nice to have a teacher and have it all neatly laid out and explained but unfortunately I am in the position of having to figure it out for myself and muddle my way through as best I can.

I trust people like Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhante Sujato and Thanissaro Bhikkhu to have given sufficiently accurate translations for me to gain a sufficient understanding of what it is I am supposed to be doing. Most of their translations are similar enough that I find that comparing the differing choice of english words used in varying instances to be quite illuminating.

English, like Pali can use more than one term to describe something and looking at the way the various translations differ can offer insights into the underlying meaning. Pali is a dead language replete with archaic aphorisms, similes and cultural concepts not familiar to people like myself living a modern 21st C lifestyle so comparing the different words that individual translators choose can be quite beneficial to ones understanding.

Getting too attached to any individual word chosen in any given passage or the work of any individual translator and seeing this one as correct and this other choice as wrong, like I used to do, gets in the way of developing your own understanding. Language can be subtle. A word chosen to be used in a translation may be appropriate in one instance and not appropriate in another even though the Pali word is the same in both instances. The translator has to make a judgement call at some point as to which word or phrase is most appropriate in each instance, so it’s not as easy as just getting the ‘authentic’ words of the Buddha.

I used to be very attached to that idea, but have come to realise that it’s the underlying meaning that is important to me, not so much the literal translation, although I understand that from someone like Bhante Sujato’s point of view the exact wording is very important in each individual instance.

This has been a great conversation that has helped me to clarify my own understanding, so thank you.

Hi Charlie, I wish I had gone down that road earlier, although by roundabout means I have gotten there in the end. It’s a lot less frustrating leaving the question open and stopping trying to figure it out. As far as I can see it’s never directly stated either way in the EBT’s so therefore it’s either something you come to know directly yourself at the appropriate point or it’s just not important to the practice. Or both.



As a minor point, maybe of interest, Gethin has counted the suttas (not a simple task) and rather comes to about 10.000 than the legandary 84.000 (article here). And they are of course very repetitive, also regarding anatta.

They have done great work. Was that somehow in question in this thread? Much more than words themselves their use is important to me. One hammer is good for nails, another made of plastic for playing. That’s why the contexts are so important in the suttas.

Just to give an example of how misleading language can be though. In English we say ‘myself’ which suggest a ‘self’ in there. In Hebrew for example we say ‘be-atzmi’ which literally means ‘In my bone’ - so it doesn’t carry the metaphysical notion that English has. As I often pointed out, we don’t know yet what contexts ‘atman’ was used in ancient India and jump into metaphysical conclusions because of our language.

Again a topic that deserves more elaboration. After all the 8fold path starts with Right View. And what is Right View other than the Buddha’s liberating exact teaching?

If I may point out, we now have around three generations of serious Buddhist meditators in the West, maybe seven generations in Thailand and Myanmar. Many of them above average in intelligence and education. And still we don’t really see a mass production of arahants, quite the contrary. Sure, people benefit from meditation, but so do they from praying, sports and bird-watching (how often have we heard sentences like “running is my meditation”?)

Chances are high that in 20 years we will be as (mildly) frustrated and neurotic but non-enlightened as people today who have meditated for twenty years. All of these people have mainly relied on themselves and their interpretation of the teachings or are lobbying for some teacher.

Personally I am therefore very glad to see a generation of scholars who contextualize and analyze the texts in a revealing way. Buddhist erudition has relied for too long on a traditional misleading reading. We can repeat the khandhas and the 4 Noble Truths in our sleep and yet it means nothing.

Thus closely working with the texts is for me a way to improve my practice that does not rely on my very limited capabilities to ‘figure things out by myself’


It depends on how do we understand the statement "“Whatever is impermanent is suffering”.

Suffering is a mental state, and it is from the experiencer(subject) not the object. Therefore, we cannot say the chair is the suffering.

When you identify yourself with the object, you become the experiencer.

The chair you sit on is not “the suffering”, but if it breaks and hurts you while you are sitting on it then you will experience suffering.

A snowflake in Sibiria is not “the suffering”, but if you want it to be so forever then you will experience disappointment.

The pleasure you experience in meditation is not the suffering, but if you want that pleasure to be permanent then you will experience disappointment.

Because of impermanence nature of all conditional phenomena, pleasant experience will also eventually become unpleasant when proper conditions come. If we grasp on pleasant experiences, we will experience unpleasant experiences when proper conditions come. If we grasp on unpleasant experiences then we already experienced suffering.

Of course, you do not suffer because of a rock on the moon if you have nothing to do with it.


There is actually a formal definition of what suffering implies here. I’ve been trying to look it up for a while, but my command of navigating the Pāli Canon is not what it should be.

I alluded to it here:

This “union with the hated and separation from the beloved” (paraphrase) IMO has a great deal of potential to clarify ambiguity, if only I could find what I am talking about. I swear I am not making it up.


SN 56.11


A bit closer to ‘the beloved’ and in context with anatta is maybe SN 12.66 with piyarūpa which is used more for people than objects.


I think in the suttas the focus is on experience itself, so it’s probably more accurate to say that our experience is unsatisfactory, because it is transient. There are various models of experience in the suttas, eg the five aggregates, or the six sense bases.


Yes, the meaning of language is always dependent upon context, and single word translations for key terms are often unsatisfactory.


When we said “our experience is unsatisfactory”, it implies a subject/owner in the word “our”. When I said “my car”, it implies a specific car that belongs to me, not a general car or someone else’s car.

There is a present of “I - the subject” with the car in “my car”. That “I” is the so-called “self” if we could agree.

We are suffering because of that “I, my, our”. If we removed that “I, my, our” from the experience then we have nothing to do with the experience. It is what it is!

The experience can be good or bad because of impermanence, but since we detached from it, it has no effect to us. However, if we identify with the experience, we will (eventually) experience suffering because of the impermanence nature of the experience. Moreover, even if we insist that experience is “my, our”, it does not follow our wish but simply going by its own rule. Therefore, it actually does not belong to us no matter how strong we insist that.


Sure. “Experience is unsatisfactory because it is transient” expresses it better. You could say there is only seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, touching, thinking, these are all conditional and transient.


I am curious , in reality if you happen to be an arahant now , what would be your phrase ?
I am going to check on my car battery ?
Can you please update my savings passbook ?

P/s :
Do you still identify the car is my car ?
The mentality that think money in the bank will still be my money ?