The logical implications of anicca



Yes, it’s pretty vague. Often seems to read rather like the English word “things” (another vague word whose scope depends a lot on context, e.g. “tidy up your things” has a rather different meaning to “all things are impermanent” :slight_smile: ).

I guess it must be some broadening of scope. Something like: “all conditioned things are impermanent and unsatisfactory” being followed by “all things are anatta”. I suppose it is well-established already elsewhere that conditioned things, e.g. the khandas, are anatta. I guess the point is that anatta’s scope is broader than conditioned things. I suppose one can lump some kinds of universal invariances (dhamma principles, four noble truths etc.) in there. It’s not absolutely certain that nibbana has to be in there (given dhamma is such a vague term). Universal overself ideas have argued anatta is restricted to the khandas. But seems more plausible to me that nibbana is included here as a dhamma. Being designated a dhamma is so vague as to IMO imply very little about nibbana anyway (for those who might worry about that).

Logically, if nibbana is included under the dhamma category here, then all I think that this necessarily implies about nibbana is that it is not anicca and not dukkha and not conditioned (since it then needs a separate category). Surely, not controversial. However, not anicca and not dukkha are not necessarily the same as nibbana actually being ontologically nicca and sukha. Of course, it doesn’t rule those out either.


Nibbana could not be considered nicca. There is nothing to be nicca, where nibbāna is simile with extinguishment of fire. What exactly is left there to be nicca?
Nibbāna is not a state or a place.

Relatively nibbana can be considered sukha as explained in AN 9.34.
But it is beyond vedanā, where it doesn’t have the feel of happiness (sukha).

It is difficult to take nibbana as anatta dhamma as well.
It is more likely neither-self-nor-non-self.


The absence of defilements. They’ve been zapped and they’re not coming back.


Yes, I think nicca would apply to the permanent cessation of the taints associated with Nibbana.


When I look at asankhata, it means liberation/nibbana in SN 43.1-12.
AN 3.47 is a bit mysterious in that it suggests that there are more than just one element that is asankhata (similarly in AN 2.86, MN 115 & DN 34 are vague too).

Puzzling are AN 4.34 & AN 5.32, not emphasizing that nibbana is asankhata. Together with MN 44 they clarify that the magga is a sankhata dhamma.

So why then do we need in the formula dhamma to be anatta. I at least can’t find what we miss if we declare “sabbe sankhata anatta”. Can you maybe say again why that would be insufficient?


From the Wikipedia article on Nirvikalpa samadhi

The “undiscriminate cognition” knows first the unreality of all objects, then realizes that without them also the knowledge itself falls to the ground, and finally directly intuits the supreme reality

And a passage from Sn12. 70 which reads very similiarly

First, Susīma, comes knowledge of the stability of the Dhamma, afterwards knowledge of Nibbāna.”

The first passage seems to indicate that directly intuiting the supreme reality would be the end of that path.
Whilst the the second passage, which I assume describes the attainment of stream entry, would on the contrary be just the beginning of the Buddhist path.

My take on it is, that the sotapanna intuits the existence of Nibbana as a dhamma but doesn’t have experiential understanding of its anatta Nature.


I take asankhata to mean not subject to conditions, ie “unconditioned”, or independent of changing conditions. I think in Theravada this refers exclusively to Nibbana, while some other Buddhist schools allow for several unconditioned dhammas, including space.

An interesting point of controversy here about whether space is unconditioned:


Obviously I wasn’t actually asserting the above (just that the “sabbe sankhara” statements didn’t necessary imply the above). Often, in the suttas, it is easier to figure out what something is not rather than what it is.

That sounds like reasoning from the MN72 sutta with Vacchagotta. IMO there are probably limits to how literally one should take the flame simile.

Sure, there are direct parallels. The flame process is extinguished. The psychophysical process called an arahant is extinguished (the fuel is used up). However, the Buddha uses the flame simile to give an example of inapplicable statements.

“Suppose that fire burning in front of you was extinguished. Would you know: ‘This fire in front of me is extinguished’?”

“Yes, I would, Master Gotama.”

“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you: ‘This fire in front of you that is extinguished: in what direction did it go—east, south, west, or north?’ How would you answer?”

“It doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. The fire depended on grass and logs as fuel. When that runs out, and no more fuel is added, the fire is reckoned to have become extinguished due to lack of fuel.”

That seems fair enough. Asking where the flame is when it’s gone is not applicable. However, if one was to say the flame no longer exists, then that sounds like a very reasonably applicable statement to me (and the sutta doesn’t say it is inapplicable to the flame).

However, earlier in the sutta the Buddha says he doesn’t hold views like an arahant exists after death, does not exist after death, both exists after death and does not exist after death and vice versa (other suttas rule out these also as inapplicable). Seems a lot less straightforward than for a flame in terms of applicability.

And then the Buddha says:

“In the same way, Vaccha, any form by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future. A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom, like the ocean. ‘They’re reborn’, ‘they’re not reborn’, ‘they’re both reborn and not reborn’, ‘they’re neither reborn nor not reborn’—none of these apply.

Seems not something one could really say about the simple extinguished flame in the flame simile. So, generally, I’m not sure we can treat this simile totally literally.

Well, I suppose the the arahant (or flame in the simile) is not nicca but Nibbana and the arahant are not quite the same thing.

Don’t actually disagree with this when taking other suttas into account. Sure, vedana isn’t in Nibbana so that would seem reasonable.

You wouldn’t consider Nibbana a dhamma? Just curious.
Or you wouldn’t consider Nibbana to be anatta? Or do you think anatta would be an inapplicable label?

That does sound rather like the statement that an arahant both exists and does not exist after death, which was one of four combinations ruled as inapplicable to Nibbana.


Some of your suttas are referring to the path. Saying that the raft or the stream is conditioned seems no great problem to me. But what about the final “destination” (the ocean all the streams flow into or the “Far Shore”)? Having “dhamma” instead of “sankhara” adds little I guess, except perhaps that it might imply that Nibbana is also anatta. Why else would it be there?

Or maybe it’s just emphasizing that there really is no atta anywhere? That there isn’t some loophole (unconditioned stuff where atta might be hiding).

As to there being other unconditioned phenomenon, who knows? I guess something like the basic framework/machinery that underlies physical reality might come close to qualifying. However, the Buddha never says the universe is eternal, just without discoverable beginning. So I guess that might not quite make the mark either! :slight_smile:

Perhaps all possible universes with all possible physical laws do exist out there somewhere (there are cosmologists that have speculated along these lines) . Maybe there are static unchanging perhaps rather uninteresting universes that have always been and always will be exactly the same.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” and all that! Though I’m sure that all falls under the Buddhist useless speculation category! :slight_smile:


To take nicca from the ontological pedestal:
AN 4.39-40 (similarly in DN 5) “I praise that kind of non-violent sacrifice; for example, a regular gift (niccadāna) as an ongoing family sacrifice.”

SN 16.3 "Mendicants, you should approach families like the moon: withdrawn in body and mind, always the newcomer (niccanavaka), and never impudent.

DN 32: “There the trees are ever in fruit (niccaphalā)”

SN 2.17: “This mind is always (nicca) anxious”

SN 3.13: “I’ll set up a regular (nicca) daily allowance of a hundred dollars for you.”

etc. etc.

I would say before applying nicca to a permanent cessation or anything similarly philosophical or soteriological let’s first find examples that allow such an application of the term. It has a very mundane every-day meaning: regular, continuous, always.


I somehow get back to the same conclusion: we lack context, the concepts are not neatly differentiated, and to try to bring order into them ourselves - beyond the applications of the terms in the suttas - brings us into the trouble of speculation and/or abhidhammic tendencies.

I can imagine for example that space and the mahabhutani are asankhata as well, but it’s not really spelled out in the suttas. And above I already quoted suttas that say that all dhamma are dukkha - who then tells us which ‘dhamma’ occurrences include nibbana and which don’t?

Statistically, I rather make the mistake of not including nibbana as a dhamma than to consider each time ‘dhamma’ occurs if it might include nibbana.


Exactly, inapplicablity is the problem.
You cannot consider nibbana nicca or anatta just because of the inapplicablity.


Space is there only when mahābūta rūpas are there. It is understood relatively. This might be the reasoning to above statement.

Pali version: Pubbe kho, susima, dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇaṃ, pacchā nibbāne ñāṇan”ti.

This knowledge is not something about stability of dhamma. Read the definition of dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇa in
Ñāṇakathā, Paṭisambhidāmagga.
dhammaṭṭhitiñāṇa is also called vipassanāñāṇa.


I think this kind of logic is difficult to justify from the suttas - or do you have a quote?

AN 3.75 is interesting. Here it says: “There might be alteration in the four great elements” - not the ‘earthness’ disappears itself, just composite objects with a solid character change.

There is a clear indication at least that Ajita Kesakambali viewed the mahabhuta + space as asankhata (SN 24.5, MN 76, DN 2):

“This person [ purisa ] consists of the four great elements [ cātumahābhūta ]. When one dies, earth returns to and merges with the earth-body [ pathavī-kāya ]; water returns to and merges with the water-body; fire returns to and merges with the fire-body; air returns to and merges with the airbody; the faculties [ indriyāni ] are transferred to space [ ākāsa ].”

Also Ajita in SN 24.8:

“There are these seven substances that are not made, not derived, not created, without a creator, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar […]: earth, water, fire, air; sukha, dukkha, and jiva”

I don’t see that the Buddha directly refutes that. I think his refutation argues with anicca in general but doesn’t seem to tackle these directly.


Nothing certain, but this:

This person has six elements.
That’s what I said, but why did I say it?
There are these six elements:
the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness (pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu, ākāsadhātu, viññāṇadhātu).
MN 140

When the form is created, space between the form is conditioned (sankhata).
Outer space, akāsa kasina, etc are paññātti (concept/ idea). Non of those are asankata.


It’s certainly easier to rule something out than to rule something in! It’s indeed probably the safer course to not join the dots where doing that may not necessarily be merited. However, AN 4.34 and AN 5.32 do use the term dhamma to refer to both conditioned and unconditioned things:

Fading away is said to be the best of all things whether conditioned or unconditioned.

Yāvatā, bhikkhave, dhammā saṅkhatā vā asaṅkhatā vā, virāgo tesaṃ aggamakkhāyati

I think the use of dhamma implies a broader context, that there are things that may be still anatta that do not rely on the usual described causal sequence for conditioned things: anicca :arrow_right: dukkha :arrow_right: anatta. I think AN 4.34 and AN 5.32 imply that the unconditioned could be put under the umbrella of dhamma here. The most likely scenario, I think, is that dhamma here is being used in the sense of AN 4.34 and AN 5.32 (including both the conditioned and unconditioned). I’ll concede, though, that that’s not certain and that’s reading a lot into just two related suttas.


I’m curious about this idea of “what is included in dhamma”.

This looks to me like almost a set theoretic approach to language; i.e. that a word is a placeholder for a set, and that to understand what a word means, we should determine all the objects that fall within that set.

I don’t think natural language works that way. dhamma can mean many different things, and therefore what is meant by dhamma depends on the context, i.e. the sentence or paragraph, it is found.

The English word ‘thought’ is an example:

  • I had a thought
  • I have some thoughts about this
  • I thought something would happen

Here, the sentences that use the word thought, can mean thought as a mental object, to have an opinion about something, or to expect an outcome.

It’s not that ‘thought’ is an inconsistent term. It’s rather a word that depends on its context for its meaning (but more precisely the unit of meaning is actually the sentence which thought is a part of).

IMO, if you ask the question “what is included in the word thought?” that implies a certain way of thinking about language.

Respectfully, I think someone with a more developed theory of natural language would ask “what is meaning of this sentence containing the word thought, given the context?”.

And I think the same applies for dhamma. The question is really ‘what is the Buddha trying to say with this sentence?’ and not ‘what is the precise meaning of the word dhamma’ (because it doesn’t really have a precise meaning outside the context of the sentence and paragraphs it appears in).

Does this make sense? I’m really not trying to be disparaging here, hope it’s not coming off that way.

Edit: and I’m not an expert myself of course.


In fairness, you were the one invoking a set paradox along the lines of:

The barber shaves only those who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?

in the OP :slight_smile: and the Sujato words you quoted were exactly concerned with the question of what is included under dhamma. Sure, we are probably pushing natural language words beyond what was intended in a logical direction (am not sure we can do much else). IMO there just really isn’t enough context to figure what was meant by dhamma here. I think it’s clear that a broader scope was intended (or why use dhamma at all and not continue to refer to sankhara and conditioned things). Bhante Sujato’s view is fully logically consistent with the passage. However, there are examples where the unconditioned has been described as dhamma too. So that can’t be ruled out either.

Without knowing what dhamma means, we don’t really precisely know what the sentence means.

Some people probably don’t want to put nibbana under dhamma because that might give the impression of nibbana as actually being in some way an existent thing or a state (seemingly both existence and non-existence do not apply to it anyway). Some of my argument earlier was just that dhamma is a bit too vague a term to imply that.

I’m not sure it matters very much if nibbana does go under the dhamma category here. If it does, then nibbana must be anatta. If it does not, then seemingly anatta must be a term inapplicable to nibbana (the third possibility that nibbana is actually atta is surely ruled out).


I think you interpret it as a question of what is included under dhamma because you have a certain theory of language. I think I interpret stuff in line with my own certain right-or-wrong theories also of course.

[ I could be totally wrong here. I have no way of knowing what your theory of language is, so please forgive my presumptuousness in this]

IMO, if you read Ven. Sujato’s post you will see that he doesn’t frame it in the way of which words include what, but frames his answer in the way of ‘what dhamma means in this context’.

My own assumption is that the Buddha is using natural language to make a point, i.e. the meaning comes from the sentence and context much more than any single word, and therefore we need to read the text in that way. Therefore, my interpretation is that the Buddha is saying basically “everything is impermanent, except the selfless principle of impermanence”.

So I guess my question is, what is are your assumptions? Where do you think the meaning of language comes from? Do you think the EBTs are a collection of natural language discourses given by a man to one or more listeners, or a collection of philosophical works preoccupied with precise definitions of terms? What’s your theory of translation/language? :slight_smile:

For example, when you say:

However, there are examples where the unconditioned has been described as dhamma too. So that can’t be ruled out either.

That makes me think you are not considering the role of context determining what words mean. E.g. just because dhamma has meaning A in context X, it does not follow that meaning A is equally plausible (that it can’t be ruled out) in context Y.

But I can’t prove this, it’s really just an appeal to “I don’t think language works that way”, i.e. a different theory of language.


I’m not really sure what theories of language have got to do with this. I don’t have any particular natural language theories regarding the suttas. I’m mostly just trying to think logically here (“logical implications of anicca” is the thread title after all :slight_smile: ).

You believe you are arguing from context, which is an approach that makes perfect sense. But what natural language context is there that makes “everything is impermanent, except the selfless principle of impermanence” interpretation any more likely than the interpretation that “the unconditioned is included under dhamma here” interpretation? All that is obvious is that the scope is being widened (there’s pretty much no indication at all about why or how).