Impermanence, a quotation; and the difference between Theravada, Mahayana, and the EBT

From The Four Noble Truths by Geshe Tsering: "If we examine impermanence merely on a gross level—the way we age, the way our possessions fall apart—then it certainly seems that all impermanent things are suffering. However, when we understand the more subtle levels of impermanence, we will see that this is not actually so. The classic example used in debate in the Tibetan system is the enlightened mind. The enlightened mind is a kind of mind, and hence impermanent. If we say that a person, through practice, becomes an enlightened being, then using that argument we must say that that mind, which is enlightened, would have to be dukkha, because it is impermanent.

This is obviously illogical.

This point illustrates one of the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana.

According to the Theravada tradition, when an individual practitioner manages to overcome all suffering and achieves full liberation or nirvana, that person ceases; he or she literally becomes completely nonexistent.

The Mahayana tradition does not accept this. Instead, it asserts that it is the defilements within the mind that cease rather than the mind itself. Remember the example in the previous chapter of the cup that is empty of tea, which exemplifies the cessation of suffering as a state of existence. That state of cessation is permanent. The mind that is free of suffering, however, does not ceases to exist."

I am curious what is thought about the quoted passage above here on D&D. Especially about the stated difference between the Theravada and the Mahayana understanding of annica, and how EBT may also be be distinct in its interpretation of this.


“the merging of techniques grounded in incompatible conceptual frameworks is fraught with risk.”
—“Dhamma and Non-duality,” Bikkhu Bodhi:

Anicca is the hallmark of insight, so early training (EBT) avoids it in preference for jhana.

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I don’t think you are interpreting it correctly. Theraveda is first true teaching of buddha, it points directly towards liberation.

This individual being ‘non-existent’ after attaining nirvana is actually wrong interpretation. Yes from our point of view it is non-existent, but for the one who has attained nibbana, there is actually no point of view of any kind, it is completely different than what we can think in terms of concepts such as ‘I’, ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘existence’, ‘non-existence’, ‘nothingness’.
It’s like if someone asked what is ultimate truth and someone else answered him that, ‘there is no ultimate truth’ is the ultimate truth.
In simple words, ultimate truth is that ‘there is no ultimate truth’. And If we want to understand it with our concept-craving mind, then we should try to understand it with only in terms of what is not the ultimate truth, as what is ultimate truth can be understood only after experiencing it.

I think this distinction can be there, but its upto individual and his/her aspirations. I want to tell you what I think.
See the truth is that you or me or 99% of humanity is suffering and is not free from suffering. The reason for its suffering is this problematic individuality of every suffering person or to be precise, the ‘self’ of each and every person who is subject to suffering. So tell me to someone who is suffering from many many ills, can you talk about ideal qualities? No! Moreover there is not even need for that. Lord buddha never said to become like him to every person he met or taught. He pointed to liberation only. And this liberation is attained only when, you discard this problematic individual ‘self’ which is the cause of all kinds of sufferings.

So teaching of anatta or non-self is necessary for liberation, because noone can attain nibbana while being with themselves, or with their ‘individuality’.
Teaching of anatta, is truth. See if one goes through path of Bodhisattva, we don’t know where it will land him/her in future. Also there is no assurance that one will continue with same faith in buddha dhamma sangha for all the upcoming incalculable lifetimes. There is no guarantee that one’s faith towards lord buddha and his teachings will remain the same, no guarantee that we can remember every teaching as well. So best way is to liberate oneself by following the lord’s teachings.

Lord Buddha taught this theraveda first of all, Mahayana teachings he may have imparted but not with the same intention as theraveda teachings.

There is simile that lord buddha said(I am not sure if I am right here ok) that he is pointing to the moon(symbolising nirvana/liberation), but many cling to the finger or to lord buddha as well, well they are not wrong in that case, as these people who cling to finger which is pointing towards moon are Bodhisattvas who also want to point to the moon in a same way as tathagata is pointing to the moon(liberation).

I want to quote something I have read somewhere, I don’t know where but it might help you…I also think it is not appropriate to quote something like that here in EBT where purpose is to study early buddhist teachings (theraveda/teachings of elders only)…but here it is…

About meaning of nirvana …Vàna, meaning “dense forests,” + nir, meaning “to get rid of” = “to be permanently rid of the dense forest of the five aggregates (panca skandha),” or the “three roots of greed, hate, and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha)” or the “three characteristics of existence” (impermanence, anitya; unsatisfactoriness, dukkha; soullessness, anàtma).

Strikingly, the Buddha of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra gives the following definition of the attributes of nirvana, which includes the ultimate reality of the Self (not to be confused with the “worldly ego” of the five skandhas):

The attributes of Nirvana are eightfold. What are these eight? Cessation [nirodha], loveliness/ wholesomeness [subha], Truth [satya], Reality [tattva], eternity [nitya], bliss [sukha], the Self [atman], and complete purity [parisuddhi]: that is Nirvana.

He further states: “Non-Self is Samsara [the cycle of rebirth]; the Self (atman) is Great Nirvana.”

Here the Buddha of the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra insists on its eternal nature and affirms its identity with the enduring, blissful Self, saying:

It is not the case that the inherent nature of Nirvāna did not primordially exist but now exists. If the inherent nature of Nirvāna did not primordially exist but does now exist, then it would not be free from taints (āsravas) nor would it be eternally (nitya) present in nature. Regardless of whether there are Buddhas or not, its intrinsic nature and attributes are eternally present… Because of the obscuring darkness of the mental afflictions (kleśas), beings do not see it. The Tathāgata, endowed with omniscient awareness (sarvajñā-jñāna), lights the lamp of insight with his skill-in-means (upāya-kauśalya) and causes Bodhisattvas to perceive the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure of Nirvāna.

According to these Mahāyāna teachings, any being who has reached nirvana is not blotted out or extinguished: There is the extinction of the impermanent and suffering-prone “worldly self” or ego (comprised of the five changeful skandhas), but not of the immortal “supramundane” Self of the indwelling Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhatu). Spiritual death for such a being becomes an utter impossibility. The Buddha states in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sutra (Tibetan version): “Nirvāna is deathless… Those who have passed into Nirvāna are deathless. I say that anybody who is endowed with careful assiduity is not compounded and, even though they involve themselves in compounded things, they do not age, they do not die, they do not perish.”

I think, this path of Bodhisattva is available to any person on the path till he becomes non-returner(anagami) the third stage of awakening, but when that person becomes arhat, there is no necessity to do anything further. It is said that everything is accomplished for arhats, holy life is lived, what has to be done is done completely, burden has been relieved!
My understanding is that, these Mahayana sutras and all if we read it will just create confusion and studying then is same as inquiring what happens to buddha after death, which is not conducive to happiness. It’s not necessary to even know about Mahayana or those teachings , if we want to liberate ourselves from this suffering, and attain the deathless state of ultimate happiness!

It is said in sutras somewhere that “Nibbanam paramam hitam”… meaning nibbana is the ultimate and highest well-being for everyone. Because even though after treading path of Bodhisattva for incalculable of aeons, in the end lord buddha entered nirvana, just as all the past Buddha’s, and their disciples. So we can conclude that for person like lord buddha, who has experienced every happiness of samsara, nibbana is more important than every other thing such as Mahayana or anything else! Knowing that buddha is someone with greatest compassion, he found a way that directly leads to ultimate happiness, the way that is possible for every sentient being!


Hi Michael. To me, in the Pali suttas, the enlightened mind, internally, sounds permanent, rather than impermanent, as follows:

Even if you have to carry me around on a stretcher, there will never be any deterioration in the Realized One’s lucidity of wisdom.

Mañcakena cepi maṁ, sāriputta, pariharissatha, nevatthi tathāgatassa paññāveyyattiyassa aññathattaṁ.

MN 12

Their freedom, being founded on truth, is unshakable.

Tassa sā vimutti sacce ṭhitā akuppā hoti

MN 140

Therefore, internally, for the Arahant, it seems logical this permanent enlightened mind can bring no dukkha.

But, externally, it seems the enlightened mind can bring suffering due to its impermanence, as follows:

When the Buddha became fully extinguished, some of the mendicants there, with arms raised, falling down like their feet were chopped off, rolling back and forth, lamented: “Too soon the Blessed One has become fully extinguished! Too soon the Holy One has become fully extinguished! Too soon the seer has vanished from the world!”

Parinibbute bhagavati ye te tattha bhikkhū avītarāgā appekacce bāhā paggayha kandanti, chinnapātaṁ papatanti, āvaṭṭanti vivaṭṭanti, “atikhippaṁ bhagavā parinibbuto, atikhippaṁ sugato parinibbuto, atikhippaṁ cakkhuṁ loke antarahito”ti.

DN 16

Therefore, at least based on the quotes above, it is not illogical to say the impermanent enlightened mind is dukkha. Anything impermanent is dukkha (per SN 22.15).

It is difficult for me to discern the context of the above statement. Is the Geshe above making a case for the continuing reincarnation of an Enlightened Mahayana Bodhisattva?

In Theravada, the impression is there are two types of Nibbana (Iti 44), namely: (i) Nibbana here-&-now, where all self-conceit or self-identity is extinguished permanently in the living Arahant; and (ii) Nibbana without remainder, where all consciousness & aggregates of the Arahant ends.

In Theravada, when the first type of Nibbana occurs, it seems it is the defilements within the mind that cease rather than the mind itself. Refer to the end of MN 43.

In conclusion, the impression is the Geshe believes the mind (citta) is the same thing as a person (puggala). If so, this seems contrary to Theravada.



This is the often misunderstood difference between two traditions. I will describe my understanding.

Nirvana can’t be defined in both “exist” And “not exist”. But still, for the sake of communication, description in language is needed.

The Theravada tradition describe nirvana in negatives. The approach is from the side of " Not exist". Therefore, the enlightened being is “somewhat not exist”.

The Mahayana approach it from opposite direction. Because they reasoned: " If Nirvana is non existence, then that just means annihilation. Buddha didn’t teach annihilationism."
Therefore, the enlightened being is "somewhat exist, but not in the way we understand’

The Mahayana elaborate it more by saying that, samsaric beings has defilement and defiled skandhas.
If defilement is eliminated, the skandhas will transform into pure skandhas. Enlightened beings has pure skandhas and will continue to exist, but outside of samsara.

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According to Choong Mun-keat in his books, The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (pp. 28-9), and The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism (pp. 52-3), there are in early Buddhist texts, mainly SA and SN, two formulations of the anicca characteristic to be observed in phenomena (such as the five aggregates, six sense-spheres):

  1. anicca, dukkha, anatta
  2. anicca, dukkha, su~n~na, anatta

That is, the five aggregates or six sense-spheres should be seen as either the above-mentioned 1 or 2 formulation.

But SN emphasises only “anicca, dukkha, and anatta”, whereas SA prefers the second formulation with the four terms.

Also, the notion of su~n~na “empty” is connected with the notion of “middle way”. See pp. 32 ff. and 60 ff. in the above-mentioned two books respectively.

Don’t the EBT say that Nibanna is the cessation of craving, aversion and delusion, rather than cessation of the mind? I don’t recognise the distinction this author is making, or the reference to the Arahant ceasing to exist.


“If you say that, ‘When the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, something else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘nothing else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘both something else and nothing else exist’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘neither something else nor nothing else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. The scope of proliferation extends as far as the scope of the six fields of contact. The scope of the six fields of contact extends as far as the scope of proliferation. When the six fields of contact fade away and cease with nothing left over, proliferation stops and is stilled.”


yes, this cessation of proliferation refers directly to the unborn nibbana

“When the six fields of contact fade away and cease…”
What does this mean, practically speaking? It sounds like the end of all experience?

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Most certainly should mean parinibbana, but could also be used for cessation of perception and feeling.


So it doesn’t apply to the Arahant?
It seems to be saying that proliferation is inevitable while the six sense fields are active, or while contact continues?

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Buddha and arahants clearly can still see, hear, think etc.


Yes, I assume the six sense fields would still be active for the Arahant, so I’m wondering what point that sutta is really making. Proliferation is inevitable?

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Each of the sense-spheres, being not real, arises; having arisen it ceases completely. It is a result of previous action, but there is no doer (anatta, due to anicca, dukkha).

See SA 335 (cf. pp. 95-6 in Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, Choong Mun-keat).

If a sense-sphere ceases completely, doesn’t that mean there is no sense experience, and no sense-objects?
For example, if there is no visual field, then presumably there is no seeing, and no sights.

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Each of the sense-spheres and its corresponding objects, sense-experience, being not real, arises by conditions (anicca). Having arisen it ceases completely by conditions (anatta). It is a result of previous action (karma-vipaaka), but there is no doer (anatta, due to anicca, dukkha).

Sorry, but this is too cryptic for me.

  1. Why do you say sense experience is “not real”?
  2. Why do you associate arising by conditions with anicca?
  3. Why do you associate ceasing by conditions with anatta?
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Why it is “not real”?
This is because each of sense experience is “not mine, I am not this, this is not my self”.

Why anicca is anatta?
See pp. 55-60, in Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-keat, regarding:
(1) the reason why “impermanence is suffering”
(2) the various terms for the notion of “not-self”
according to SA and SN suttas.

Sorry but I’m still not following.

Why does something being not me and mine make it “unreal”? Unreal in what sense?

And why did you associate arising with anicca, and ceasing with anatta?
What’s the basis for this distinction?

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