Idappaccayata, anicca and anatta

Do anicca and anatta “result” from this/that conditionality (idappaccayata)? In other words, are phenomena impermanent and not-self because they arise and cease in dependence upon specific conditions?

And if this is not the case, what is the relationship between these three?


You may find some useful links throughout this discussion :slight_smile:



Thanks. That’s an interesting discussion, but doesn’t cover this question.

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It’s an interesting question. What would you accept as an answer - suttas etc., or our own reflections?

In my own speculations, I’d say that the appearance and disappearance of phenomena need to follow some ‘ground rules’, even if they’re only statistical.


As far as I know this question isn’t addressed in the EBT, but it’s a possible relationship I’ve wondered about for some time. I’ve also wondered about the relationship between anicca and anatta - is one of these characteristics more fundamental than the other?

Could you have anicca without idappaccayata? And vice-versa?

And is lack of self a consequence of conditionality?


“What do you think, monks — Is form constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.” –-SN 22.59

That is why in the Satipatthana sutta, each of the four foundations of mindfulness is followed by a refrain which directs attention away from the specific characteristics, for example the parts of the body, to the contemplation of the general characteristic of impermanence:
“Or, he abides contemplating the nature of arising with regard to the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of passing away with regard to the body, or he abides contemplating the nature of both arising and passing away with regard to the body.”—MN 10, DN 22


I don’t think SN 22.59 describes anicca as the cause of anatta.
It’s saying that the khandhas, being anicca and dukkha, aren’t fit to be regarded as atta (since atta is said to be eternal and blissful).
This sutta doesn’t actually deny the existence of atta, you have to look elsewhere for that.

As for practices in the EBT, there looks to be more on anicca than anatta - perhaps because anicca is easy to observe, compared with anatta?
Actually I don’t think you can observe anatta directly, you have to look for symptoms, eg lack of control.


Anicca is the cause and anatta is an effect. The reason anicca is frequently mentioned is both because it is foundational, and because being physical it is much more easily observed:

“Bhikkhus, form is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. —SN 22.15 SC


I agree that anicca looks foundational, but I’m still not seeing a causal link between annica and anatta. Anatta almost looks like an afterthought in these suttas, something added to the anicca-dukkha relationship.

Do you see a causal link between anicca and idappaccayata? We can say that all conditions are transient, but does conditionality itself imply transience? Or is it more accurate to say that impermanence allows conditionality to function?

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The simplest way to understand is that the self is subject to long term change. Also there is this explanation in Vism:
“6. Herein, the five aggregates are impermanent. Why? Because they rise and
fall and change, or because of their non-existence after having been. Rise and
fall and change are the characteristic of impermanence; or mode alteration, in
other words, non-existence after having been [is the characteristic of
7. Those same five aggregates are painful because of the words, “What is
impermanent is painful” (S III 22). Why? Because of continuous oppression.
The mode of being continuously oppressed is the characteristic of pain.
8. Those same five aggregates are not-self because of the words, “What is painful
is not-self” (S III 22). Why? Because there is no exercising of power over them.
The mode of insusceptibility to the exercise of power is the characteristic of notself.
9. The meditator observes all this in its true nature with the knowledge of the
contemplation of rise and fall” —Vism XXI

I advise practitioners not to study DO, it is not necessary . It is simply a description of the problem, whereas the NEP offers the way out of the problem. Basically the fetters must be severed and energy should be directed to that full time job.

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I have noticed that. It’s easy to see why anicca might imply dukkha. However, the leap from dukkha to anatta just does not seem anywhere near as obvious to me.

I think the best answer I’ve encountered to this issue has been in writings by Y. Karunadasa. I think he implies we might need to think a bit more carefully about what anatta originally meant. He argues that “absence of full control” is probably a far more central aspect of the concept of anatta in early Buddhism, something that was somewhat lost later. There’s a copy of a journal article by him online here, the first half of which goes into this issue a lot. There’s a lot about this too in his book Early Buddhist Teachings. To give a longish quote from that:

We find the same idea expressed in a number of other discourses in a slightly different form: “If, for instance, the physical body could be considered as self, then this physical body would not be subject to affliction; one should be able to say [with practical results]: ‘Let my physical body be like this; let not my physical body be like that.’ Because the physical body is nonself, therefore it is subject to affliction.”

If anything could be called my own self, then I should have full control over it, so that it behaves in the way I want it to behave. If something is really my own, I should be able to exercise full mastery, full sovereignty over it. Otherwise, how can I call it my own? This is how Buddhism understands the idea of ownership or possession. Since we do not have full control over our possessions, when something adverse happens to them, it is we who come to grief. So it is our possessions that really possess us.

In a commentarial gloss, “absence of control” is defined as “absence of own sway” or “absence of own power” (a-vasavattitā). In the case of phenomena that depend on impermanent conditions, none among them can exercise their own sway, their own power.
In fact, it is this meaning of nonself as absence of full control that is most important from the point of view of realizing nibbāna, the final emancipation according to Buddhism. However, this meaning of nonself does not appear to have got due attention in the later schools of Buddhist thought or in modern writings on Buddhism. Perhaps this may indicate a shift of emphasis from Buddhism as a practicing religion to Buddhism as an academic philosophy.


I can see how the lack of control/ownership argument applies, but it seems more related to impermanence and conditionality than not-self.
It would make sense to say that the aggregates are impermanent and conditional, therefore beyond our control, and therefore unsatisfactory.
But in the EBT formula anatta appears after dukkha, which doesn’t seem to make sense.

The other difficulty I see is that saying the aggregates aren’t in our control implies the existence of a controller, which again doesn’t really make sense. Unless the point is that there isn’t actually a controller?

In any case, anatta in the EBT doesn’t seem much to do with negating Vedic ideas of atta (Atman).
It seems more about challenging assumptions around conventional self, or ego, the sense of “me” - one of which is the assumption of being in control.


In that paper, Karunadasa does delve into the meaning of atta and anatta. He gives four senses in which anatta could be understood. The first sense relies on conditionality/DO and so “has no independent existence and hence that which has no substantial nature of its own”. The second sense relates to impermanence of the self. The third sense relates to a negation of the understanding of atta “in the sense of an agent, an actor distinct from action”.

I think it is Kuldasa’s fourth sense that is most relevant here. Basically, if a self had full control, then it could order its constituent aggregates to do whatever it wanted and just banish dukkha. A self that cannot do that is not exactly really all that much of a self. I suppose the closest we get to a self in Buddhism is the DO chain running between lives. I don’t think the suttas are denying the existence of such a karmic chain, per se. Evidently, it just doesn’t meet the bar to deserve to be labelled an atta (seemingly this “full control” was an important property of what an atta should be in early Buddhism). I’ll just give a long quote from that article (apologies for the length :slight_smile: ):

A fourth sense in which the term anatta is used could be detected from the Culasaccaka Sutta of the Majjhimanikaya, which records the well-known debate between the Buddha and Saccaka. The theme, of the debate was the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Saccaka’s argument is based on the premise that just as any kind of seed or vegetable grows and comes to maturity depending on the earth, even so whatever act a person commits, whether it is meritorious or demeritorious, depends entirely on the five aggregates (khandhas). Hence he concludes that the five aggregates constitute an individual’s atta or self. In order to prepare the background for counterargument, the Buddha asks Saccaka whether the King of Kosala or Magadha has power or sovereignty over his subjects so that he could put to death one deserving to be put to death or to banish one deserving to be banished. When Saccaka admits that this is so, the Buddha puts this question to him: “When you assert that the five khandhas are yourself, have you power over them, have you control over them, so that you can say: ‘Let my five khandhas be thus, let my five khandhas be not thus’?” Saccaka fails to give a satisfactory answer and admits that he was sadly mistaken in this matter.

What is most significant for our purpose here is the way the Buddha sought to refute Saccaka. It is based on the observation that if anything could be called atta or one’s own self, one should have full control over it. The same idea is expressed in a number of other suttas in a slightly different form. We give below one relevant quotation:

“If, for instance, the physical body could be considered as the self, then this physical body would not be subject to affliction; one should be able to say (with practical results): ‘Let my physical body be like this; let not my physical body be like that.’ Because the physical body is not self, therefore it is subject to affliction.”

This quotation also clearly shows that Buddhism understands atta as something over which one should have full control, so that it behaves in the way one wants it to behave. If something can be called my own, I should be able to exercise full sovereignty over it. This is the Buddhist definition of possession. What is hinted at is the idea that, since we do not have full control over our possessions, we are being possessed by our own possessions.

In fact, it is this same idea of atta that comes into focus in the logical sequence or interconnection between the three signs of existence (tilakkhana), namely impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and anatta. How the first two characteristics lead to the idea of anatta is shown as follows:

"Whatever is impermanent is suffering (yad aniccam tam dukkham); whatever is suffering is anatta (yam dukkham tad anatta)"

The question that arises here is why the idea of anatta is said to follow as a corollary from the fact of dukkha or suffering. This should become clear if we examine the three signs of existence in their reverse order. When examined in this context, the following facts become clear: I cannot consider anything as my own or as belonging to me (=atta), because whatever I consider so, is a source of suffering (dukkha). Why is it so? Because what I mistakenly consider as my own does not behave in the way I want it to behave. Why is it so? Because whatever I mistakenly consider to be my own is subject to constant change (anicca).

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Maybe another way to look at it is by asking - what is a self? what does a self do? This can be unravelled, then it becomes obvious that all the assumptions one made about a self (eg self-determination) are false, due to things like conditionality and impermanence. IMO Not Self is a logical inference based on penetrating ones assumptions about reality. Nothing causes ‘not self’, Self isn’t a thing - it’s Nama, ultimately ‘self’ is just a belief/concept.

There is no driver in the bus :slight_smile:
(from Ajahn Brahm similie)

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But buses do have drivers. :yum:

But seriously, we do have some control, just not as much as we would like.

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Hmm, for me it makes sense that impermanence implies anatta, but I have a harder time going from anicca to dukkha (happiness doesn’t last, but neither does pain?).

About the relationship between anatta and causality, consider a cause X and effect Y. When X is present, Y is present, and you can’t do anything about it. When X is absent, Y is absent and you can’t do anything about it.

The only power we have to bring about Y is if we have managed to learn how to bring about X. We can pretendt ‘we did it’, but we were forced to play causality’s game all along. In all aspects of life, we’re only permitted what causality allows us to have.

Especially when you consider that even our wanting to bring about Y was an effect of some cause, and when that cause disappears, so will our wanting for Y. (try wanting something you don’t want if you don’t believe me :slight_smile: )

We might say ‘I no longer want to bring about Y’, but the fact is that when the cause for our desire vanished, we had no choice. There’s no one inside that decided that made the cause for the desire go away, we just take credit for it after the fact.

Like, take some event Z outside your control that would lead you to make decision W. If Z did not happen, you would not decide W. Where’s the ‘you’ in this?

Edit: Sorry if this is very confusing, I’m trying to argue that not-self is a logical consequence of causality. I think Sam Harris makes basically the same argument.

You might also like this sutta:

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Maybe a roadmap would be to start with anicca, because this seems to be a kickstarter that the audience can agree on. Even anicca is not completely self-evident, but let’s say for the moment that experiences of any kind are very fragile and fall apart relatively quickly, just to be replaced by new or similar ones.

For anicca --> dukkha I would forget what dukkha should mean and see what the suttas must mean so that it becomes an invariably true logical proposition. In order for impermanence to be a problem it is necessary to have a need for permanence for some reason. Normal people don’t have a need for permanence as a priority. Sure, some permanence or security is nice, but it would be an immense exaggeration to state that for a normal person a life without absolute permanence would be problematic - it just ain’t. But it would make sense for example for a spiritual seeker who is desperate to find ultimate peace, an ultimate solution. For such a person, the fact that wherever I look, I only find impermanence, would be a real issue.

Going on to dukkha --> anatta, again I suggest to forget that ‘atta’ supposedly means ‘self’, whatever the heck that is supposed to mean, and see what it must mean in order for this proposition to be logically true. I suggest that again a very special context is meant, not of normal daily life, but related to the search of the spiritual seeker. If every experience I have is problematic because it doesn’t deliver the ultimate solution I am looking for, then all these unsatisfactory experiences cannot…

Here I feel we have to fill the blanks ourselves. To me right now it’s something like ‘then all these unsatisfactory experiences cannot be part of a creation I can use in order to derive the satisfaction of ultimate salvation from’ - or in short, a ‘salvation-avatar’.


This is where the separation between conventional and ultimate reality emerges. There is a provisional self which is the central hub of CR. But as the practice develops, this progressively becomes less of a focus and is starved as a source of motivation. The main problem practitioners face is accepting the simultaneous existence of two realities (SN 1.25). This must be resolved as it is the entrance to insight.

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.’”—SN 5.10

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I can see that the choices we make are largely determined by our conditioning. And yet we choose to practice (or not) in order to change those conditions.

For me ultimate truth is something to be discovered, not something to be told.