Canonical and Paracanonical Evidence that Anicca means Impermanence

During my engagement with some (keci) Buddhists who maintain that the Pāḷi word aniccaṃ means “not accordign to wish” and that it actually stands for “anicchaṃ,” I have been, to my mind, fairly open-minded in pursuing the possibility that their stance might be correct. During my conversations with them and, more importantly, my own research of the canonical and paracanonical literature (just a few samples of it), I came, however, to the conclusion that there is, basically, no way that aniccaṃ means “not according to wish.” Here are some of my findings that I wanted to share here for easy access and reference.

1. Impermanence of the Great Ocean

hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo, yaṃ mahāsamudde aṅgulipabbatemanamattampi udakaṃ na hoti. tassā hi nāma, āvuso, bāhirāya āpodhātuyā tāva mahallikāya aniccatā paññāyissati, khayadhammatā paññāyissati, vayadhammatā paññāyissati, vipariṇāmadhammatā paññāyissati. kiṃ panimassa mattaṭṭhakassa kāyassa taṇhupādinnassa ‘ahanti vā mamanti vā asmīti’ vā?

There comes a time when the waters in the great ocean are not enough to wet even the joint of a finger. When even this external water element, great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance, and change, what of this body, which is clung to by craving and lasts but a while? There can be no considering that as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ (MN 28).

Key Words Applied to the Ocean and Water Element :

  • aniccatā = state of impermanence.
  • khayadhammatā = state of being subject to destruction.
  • vayadhammatā = state of being subject to disappearance.
  • vipariṇāmadhammatā = state of being subject to change.
  • mattaṭṭhaka = lasting but a while (or “short moment”).

2. Synonyms for Aniccatā = The State of Impermanence

More synonyms can be gathered from the Abhidhammapiṭaka. I found another passage in it that explains aniccatā (the state of impermanence) in this way:

katamaṃ taṃ rūpaṃ rūpassa aniccatā? yo rūpassa khayo vayo bhedo paribhedo aniccatā antaradhānaṃ — idaṃ taṃ rūpaṃ rūpassa aniccatā.

What is that state of impermanence of that materiality? That which is the destruction, disappearance, breaking up, breaking apart, state of impermanence, vanishing of materiality; this is the state of impermanence of that materiality (Dhammasaṅgaṇī).

Key Words Applied for Aniccatā

  • khayo = destruction.
  • vayo = disappearance.
  • bhedo = breaking up.
  • paribhedo = breaking apart.
  • antaradhānaṃ = vanishing.

3. Perception of Impermanence

kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, aniccasaññā kathaṃ bahulīkatā sabbaṃ kāmarāgaṃ pariyādiyati . pe . sabbaṃ asmimānaṃ samūhanati? ‘iti rūpaṃ, iti rūpassa samudayo, iti rūpassa atthaṅgamo; iti vedanā. iti saññā. iti saṅkhārā. iti viññāṇaṃ, iti viññāṇassa samudayo, iti viññāṇassa atthaṅgamo’ti — evaṃ bhāvitā kho, bhikkhave, aniccasaññā evaṃ bahulīkatā sabbaṃ kāmarāgaṃ pariyādiyati, sabbaṃ rūparāgaṃ pariyādiyati, sabbaṃ bhavarāgaṃ pariyādiyati, sabbaṃ avijjaṃ pariyādiyati, sabbaṃ asmimānaṃ samūhanatī”ti. dasamaṃ.

And how, bhikkhus, is the perception of impermanence developed and cultivated so that it eliminates all sensual lust, eliminates all lust for existence, eliminates all ignorance, and uproots all conceit ‘I am’? ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its passing away; such is feeling … such is perception … such are volitional formations … such is consciousness, such its origin, such its passing away’: that is how the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated so that it eliminates all sensual lust, eliminates all lust for existence, eliminates all ignorance, and uproots all conceit ‘I am’ (SN 22.102).

Key Words Applied :

  • samudayo = origin.
  • atthaṅgamo = passing away.

Analysis of the Words Samudayo and Atthaṅgamo

There are several context that demonstrate that atthaṅgamo means “passing away.” Here’s one from the Majjhimanikāya, where both words are linked to udayo (rising) and vayo (disappearance), which becomes udayabbayo:

pañca kho ime, ānanda, upādānakkhandhā yattha bhikkhunā udayabbayānupassinā vihātabbaṃ — ‘iti rūpaṃ iti rūpassa samudayo iti rūpassa atthaṅgamo, iti vedanā… iti saññā… iti saṅkhārā… iti viññāṇaṃ iti viññāṇassa samudayo iti viññāṇassa atthaṅgamo’’ti. tassa imesu pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu udayabbayānupassino viharato yo pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu asmimāno so pahīyati.

Ānanda, there are these five aggregates affected by clinging, in regard to which a bhikkhu should abide contemplating rise and fall thus: ‘Such is material form, such its arising, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its arising, such its disappearance; such is perception, such its arising, such its disappearance; such are formations, such their arising, such their disappearance; such is consciousness, such its arising, such its disappearance’ (MN 122).

Another context in the Saṃyuttanikāya shows again that samudayo and atthaṅgamo refer to “origin” and “passing away” respectively:

“dukkhassa, bhikkhave, samudayañca atthaṅgamañca desessāmi. […] “katamo ca, bhikkhave, dukkhassa samudayo? cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. ayaṃ kho, bhikkhave, dukkhassa samudayo. […] katamo ca, bhikkhave, dukkhassa atthaṅgamo? cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodhā upādānanirodho; upādānanirodhā bhavanirodho; bhavanirodhā jātinirodho; jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti. ayaṃ kho, bhikkhave, dukkhassa atthaṅgamo.

Bhikkhus, I will teach you the origin and the passing away of suffering. […] And what, bhikkhus, is the origin of suffering? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving. This is the origin of suffering. […] And what, bhikkhus, is the passing away of suffering? In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling [comes to be]; with feeling as condition, craving. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering. This is the passing away of suffering (SN 12.43).

For samudayo of dukkhaṃ, it says uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, which means “eye-consciousness arises.” Regarding atthaṅgamo, the words nirodho (cessation) and nirujjhanti (cease) are used. Obviously, how the text understands atthaṅgamo is in the sense of “passing away.”

Another two discourses in the Saṃyuttanikāya follow suit in this understanding, speaking about the elements and the body. The words that are used to describe atthaṅgamo are nirodho (cessation) and vūpasamo (subsiding). When taking up the body (see No. 2 below), it says that āhāro (nutriment) is the cause for the samudayo (origin) of the body, a clear indicator based upon context.

  1. yo ca kho, bhikkhave, pathavīdhātuyā nirodho vūpasamo atthaṅgamo, dukkhasseso nirodho rogānaṃ vūpasamo jarāmaraṇassa atthaṅgamo – "The cessation, subsiding, and passing away of the earth element … the air element is the cessation of suffering, the subsiding of disease, the passing away of aging-and-death” (SN 14.36).

  2. ko ca, bhikkhave, kāyassa samudayo? āhārasamudayā kāyassa samudayo; āhāranirodhā kāyassa atthaṅgamo. – “And what, bhikkhus, is the origination of the body? With the origination of nutriment there is the origination of the body. With the cessation of nutriment there is the passing away of the body” (SN 47.42).

Further above, we already learned that aniccatā (the state of imper-manence) has been described by means of vipariṇāmadhammatā (state of being subject to change). This trend is also followed for atthaṅgamo. Here’s a passage from the Paṭisambhidāmagga:

vipariṇāmalakkhaṇaṃ passatopi saññāya atthaṅgamo vidito hoti – “But for one who sees the characteristic of change, the passing away of perception is evident.”

It also says the following in the context of the causes for the disappearance of samādhi (concentration):

avikkhepatthāya āvajjanāya atthaṅgamo samādhindriyassa atthaṅgamo hoti – “The passing away of the adverting [mind] for the sake of non-distraction is the passing away of the concentration faculty.”

In the light of the totality of the Tipiṭaka passages from above, one can safely include that atthaṅgamo means “passing away,” having been explained in a variety of context and with a multitude of synonyms, but there is more to demonstrate that aniccaṃ has been used by Lord Buddha in the sense of “impermanence.”

4. The Ten Perceptions

To show that aniccaṃ doesn’t mean “not according to wish,” we can turn our attention to a list of ten perceptions. In it, both words aniccaṃ (impermanence) and aniccha (not according to wish) are used. They are not the same, otherwise they wouldn’t be separate items in a list of altogether ten members:

katamā dasa? aniccasaññā, anattasaññā, asubhasaññā, ādīnavasaññā, pahānasaññā, virāgasaññā, nirodhasaññā, sabbaloke anabhiratasaññā, sabbasaṅkhāresu anicchāsaññā, ānāpānassati.

What ten? (1) The perception of impermanence, (2) the perception of non-self, (3) the perception of unattractiveness, (4) the perception of danger, (5) the perception of abandoning, (6) the perception of dispassion, (7) the perception of cessation, (8) the perception of non-delight in the entire world, (9) the perception of non-wish regarding all conditioned phenomena, and (10) mindfulness of breathing (AN 10.60).

In fact, “not attaining according to one’s wish” is part of the description of dukkhaṃ (suffering): yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ – “That which is not getting what one wants is suffering” (DN 22). This Pāḷi sentence is an equational one; that is, it equates the non-attainment of what one wants with suffering itself. In this light, also this famous discourse from the Majjhimanikāya has to be interpreted:

taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, vedanā … pe … saññā… saṅkhārā… viññāṇaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā”ti? “aniccaṃ, bhante”. “yaṃ panāniccaṃ, dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā”ti? “dukkhaṃ, bhante” (MN 22).

“Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is feeling … Is perception … Are formations … Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” —“Impermanent, venerable sir.”—“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”—“Suffering, venerable sir” (MN 22).

The discourse doesn’t necessarily speak, in this context, about causation. It can, rather, also be seen as an equational sentence. The entirety of that which is aniccaṃ (impermanent) is also dukkhaṃ (suffering).

5. The Word Nicca (Permanent)

This passage is spoken by Brahma that shows that the Pāḷi word niccaṃ means “permanent” or something to that effect:

idañhi, mārisa, niccaṃ, idaṃ dhuvaṃ, idaṃ sassataṃ, idaṃ kevalaṃ, idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ . – “This is permanent, this is everlasting, this is eternal, this is total, this is not subject to pass away.”

You can see the synonyms for niccaṃ (permanent) are all about time, except one (kevalaṃ = total). So, “impermanent” for aniccaṃ makes more sense given the above explanation.

From Ven. Sāriputta’s Niddesa, this is a list of synonyms (all relating to time) in which niccaṃ (permanent) occurs, showing that it itself relates to time as well: sadā sabbadā sabbakālaṃ niccakālaṃ dhuvakālaṃ – “always, every time, at all times, constantly (niccakālaṃ), permanently.”

In the Vinayapiṭaka, we also find an instance of Mahānāma inviting the Saṅgha for medicines for life (saṅghaṃ yāvajīvaṃbhesajjena pavāretuṃ). This is followed by a refusal of scrupulous monks, which led the Buddha to formally allow the acceptance of permanent invitations (niccapavāraṇā). The context clearly shows that the matter is about time and that niccaṃ must be understood in the sense of “permanent”. Hence, we get “impermanence” for aniccaṃ.

6. The Commentarial Tradition

The commentarial tradition is specific in its explanation of aniccaṃ:

aniccatoti hutvā abhāvato udayabbayavantato tāvakālikato niccapaṭipakkhato – “[Sees] as impermanent [means]: as non-existence after having been, as possessing arising and passing away, as temporary, as opposed to permanence.”


This is pretty definitive, thank you.

1 Like

A nice collection. But I’m sure the Waharaka loons will have some way of explaining it all away. For example:

Possible Waharaka translation:

“There comes a time when the waters in the great ocean are not enough to wet even the joint of a finger. When even this external water element, great as it is, is seen to be incapable of fulfilling one’s wish [to wet one’s finger]…”



I found it really hard to establish common ground with them. You refer to a discourse that is unambiguous in describing anicca, but they object to not just the meaning of that word itself but the words used otherwise to describe it, such as atthaṅgamo (that’s why the digression above) and others (e.g. khaya, vaya). It’s an intricate web that was spun …


Sorry, for the uninitiated, may I ask why this odd reinterpretation of anicca is important to them? The canonical definition of anatta is “One cannot say, ‘may it be like this, may it not be like that.’” right? So, “not obeying your wishes” is already part of the three characteristics, no? Why insist on putting it into the first of the three? Do they believe that some saṅkhāra is permanent or something (thus the need to redefine anicca?)

The Waharaka folk propound a revisionist construal of anattā too. They hold that it’s actually anattha and thus cognate with Skt anartha, rather than anātman. They then translate it as “unbeneficial” or “fruitless” and thereby avoid making their revisionist construal of anicca redundant.

As far as I understand, it’s more about revealing a true/hidden meaning (that they are the only ones to be able to reveal) than any actual logic or reasoning. Since Buddhists of Sri Lanka with even the most limited familiarity with the Dhamma will know of the three characteristics, it’s an easy thing to target.

1 Like

There’s an enormous thread on dhammawheel that includes quite a few posts purporting to justify the various reinterpretations, as well as some posts rebutting the ideas:

1 Like

I see. So in the end it’s just a typical conspiracy theory-style game that bored men play to amuse themselves and feel special. :yawning_face: How pedestrian…

Thanks for the replies :pray::smiling_face:

1 Like

It seems to use the penchant of some Sri Lankan Pali people of inserting aspirated consonants into words that don’t have them in order to create new meanings and ‘revelations’ about Dhamma to win converts.

Yeah, that’s the funny part: is the meaning really new? That is to say: after applying all their transformations, it seems doctrinally quite close to ordinary Buddhism, no? So… what’s the point? What appeal does it have for those converts?

My guess is that Sri Lanka has had so much upheaval (economic hardship, civil war…) that people are primed to believe that the True Dhamma :tm: has been all scrambled up. When the “unscrambled” “Pure Dhamma” is revealed to be (effectively) Orthodox Theravāda after all, I imagine that must feel quite comforting to someone who was raised Buddhist but who went through scrambling, confusing times…

The search for the purest dhamma is something we see here daily- which Nikaya is the oldest, what constitutes an Early Buddhist Text, what Pali really is, etc etc etc.

1 Like

Regarding conspiracy theories one can use them, to paraphrase Hadot, as “spiritual exercise”, which helps and developes ability to think agaist oneself. So they can in fact be useful in examining our fundamental assumptions.

Let’s take for example moon landing. No such event was ever part of our direct experience, we have seen some videos… But what we know, about coming back from cosmos, there are considerable difficulties in landing, even now, and yet in 60 last century they were able to land on unknow ground just like common man is parking his car … Little bit strange, what do think?

Also as a matter of fact doctrine of anatta can be seen rather as conspiracy theory, than as mainstream knowledge, after all it contradicts the basic fundamental assumption that “I am”.

So seeing in this light Waharaka folk are rather mainstream style-game, they know that they exist and they simply refuse to be fooled by the wrong interpretation’s of Lord Buddha words.

It must be wrong, since it contradicts what we know for certain: namely that we exist, as persons in space and time :wink: After all what could be more certain?:wink:

1 Like

Ah! So the fundamental doctrine they’re looking to circumvent is not-self?

It is hard to say why someone is holding this or that views, in obvious contradiction with Dhamma, like for example that you should endure the state of greed, hate and delusion, nevertheless it isn’t very rare phenomenon.

Odd how people interested in religion spend so much time trying to convert the obvious meaning of their texts that are their authority.

Nanamoli Thera

So whether we face such mysterious phenomenon with irony, sarcasm or just indifferently depends on many factors, anyway you can classify my post as belonging to the same category as that made by Venerable Dhammanando:

Indeed one can easily grasp such view incorrectly and then it makes no sense. Thou, the suttas state that seeing the five aggregates: rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana as "I am, mine, I am this, … " leads to identity view, while not seeing the aggregates as “I am, mine, I am this, …” leads to giving up identity view. Then there are also other mentions of conceit mentioned in the suttas such as: “I am better then you”, “I am worse then you”, …

Or in short one can be certain that one is, but its not clear what one is.

There are two levels of ignorance

  1. On reflexive level, where views are formulated;
  2. On pre-reflexive level - conceit I am, which remains even after the abandoning of the wrong view, and from which only arahat is free.

So indeed, while certainty that “I am” isn’t at all really certain; it cannot be undermined directly, unlike certainty of being this or that.

And this is precisely what Lord Buddha is doing by the doctrine of anatta, sakkayadithi embodiment view can be seen as self-image, where not only I am, but also have more or less precise idea about what I am.

Additionally, I’ve never seen unaspirated consonants evolve to aspirated, or the other way around, it seems well preserved to a weirdly perfect consistency.

Has it ever happened in these branches of languages? (I see it happened mostly only in Armenian and Turkic languages, it’s very rare)

Aniccha is already a word, too. If it’s a mismemory, it would have had to make it past the checks of many memorizers, and for a very important term. And DN1 is probably not about theories of wishes.

This is quite an interesting find! However, you state that they are not the same, however why then translators translate them as same: AN10.60 , is it an error in translation or translators think that they are same?

What ten? The perceptions of impermanence (aniccasaññā), not-self, ugliness, drawbacks, giving up, fading away, cessation, dissatisfaction with the whole world, impermanence of all conditions (sabbasaṅkhāresu anicchāsaññā), and mindfulness of breathing.

1 Like

Interesting question, since later in the sutta we have:

Idhānanda, bhikkhu sabbasaṅkhāresu aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati.

Ayaṁ vuccatānanda, sabbasaṅkhāresu anicchāsaññā.