The logical implications of anicca


I guess for me the first interpretation seems more likely since I’m having trouble understanding the second interpretation (which is not your fault).

So, what does it actually mean for X to be included in dhamma or not?

Does it mean that X is a meaning that dhamma can take in any given sentence?

What does it mean that the scope is being widened? Does it mean the list of possible meanings for dhamma is growing longer?


Well, it could just follow similar logic to the following statements:

All swans are white. All birds have feathers.
Switzerland is a direct democracy. However, all European countries are democratic.
Citizens over 18 can vote. All citizens are protected by the constitution.

These are a more specific sentence following by a sentence with wider scope, which still applies to the first part. Obviously, the likely implication in the above statements is that not all birds necessarily have white feathers or not all European countries necessarily have a direct form of democracy or not all citizens may be able to vote (otherwise why make the distinction). Or:

All conditioned things are impermanent.
All conditioned things are suffering.
All (conditioned and unconditioned) things are not self.

IMO that’s a viable but not inevitable interpretation.


I think I understand where you’re coming from, and for me at least it’s a valuable direction. For Wittgenstein for example ‘natural language’ with its ambiguities and context-specifity was complex but rather wholesome for the mind. It was ‘philosophical language’ that represents a disease.

Looking at the historical layers within the suttas I would argue there is a level of ‘natural language’ which is close to normal language (e.g. with metaphors and suggestive language), and there is a level which is dry, abstract, and absolutist - a philosophical layer which insists on absolute truth and therefore (supposedly) doesn’t need a context. And these are the kind of messages which cause some head-ache (not to everyone of course): “Everything is…”

So it’s possible to read anicca/dukkha/anatta as: “Whatever is put together will fall apart. If you attach to what is put together you will ultimately be disappointed. But don’t take these teachings (dhamma) to be ultimate truths as well”.

Absolutist sentences without a ‘natural’ context trigger a projection.


Agreed, and I regret implying that my own interpretation is better, that’s just a bit of bias/hubris on my part.

I guess my objection to this interpretation is that I don’t find very interesting/inspiring. To me, the point of a sentence like “All conditioned things are impermanent.” is to invite and provoke the listener to investigate the meaning of it as it applies to one’s own experience.

“Citizens over 18 can vote” as a mere fact is just, who cares? However, it can also be understood as a call to action, to take part in one’s society, making up one’s mind about fundamental beliefs about politics etc.

But of course, if you read the suttas as presenting a philosophical deductive framework, rather than a (edited) transcript of a conversation, then it does make sense. It’s not my preferred reading, though it would be rather unreasonable to demand that anyone follow my personal preference over their own.


I find both possibilities quite dry to be honest! I suppose what’s “natural” can vary between people. Dhamma as “conditioned and unconditioned” was the “obvious” natural language interpretation to me initially. Later the second one did cross my mind as a possibility.

I personally find the interpretation of dhamma here as “the conditioned plus properties/principles of the conditioned” to be as convoluted, if not more so, as dhamma as “the conditioned plus the unconditioned”.

Generally, I don’t treat it as a “philosophical deductive framework”; it’s primarily not that, but it’s not “either-or” (XOR) :slight_smile: (logic is useful :wink: ). Anyway, I don’t think “the conditioned and the principles/properties of the conditioned” is any more “natural language” than “the conditioned and the unconditioned”.


As I understand it, when you get to the abhidhamma you get to a project that is philosophical, where the goal is as much philosophical consistency as anything else (though I haven’t actually read the abhidhamma, so take this with a grain of salt).

To me, the point of anicca/dukkha/anatta is to see something you haven’t seen before, to connect the dots in a way you weren’t previous able to.

In a sense, it is theory. To give an example from biology; there are so many phenomena we cannot make sense of without the evolution by natural selection. There are patterns we can’t detect without the ‘conceptual software’ of natural selection being there to guide our perception. There are questions we cannot pose unless we have the necessary theory in our noggins first.

Like, would you look at your own experience and go “hey, maybe this is just a process of selfless phenomena without any stable core?” without having heard the Buddha’s teaching first? IMO this line of reasoning would just not appear to the mind without getting this piece of anatta theory from the Buddha first.

So I think when the Buddha says ‘all sankharas are dukkha’, the point is to use it to see if this is true in your own experience.

So if the Buddha says:

Whatever is put together will fall apart. If you attach to what is put together you will ultimately be disappointed. But don’t take these teachings (dhamma) to be ultimate truths as well”

Is the Buddha presenting a brute fact about existence that you now must relate to, and work out the consequences of? Or is he giving a proposition that should be experientially verified?


I think it’s difficult to dispute that. On the other hand in suttas where Buddha asks and a bhikkhu replies ADA (anicca/dukkha/anatta) is presented as pretty self-evident (which I don’t buy).

We are left with speculations, and they are not very fruitful, but ok… If we look at the life goals of early Vedic culture they were basically: cattle and sons. Is that something worth pointing to, saying: “These goals you are attached to, aren’t they after all impermanent? Once you have cattle and sons - what do you do? You have to maintain them, care for them, worry about them - this is suffering”…

But again, I try to find a context for something that doesn’t have a context.
Can you imagine that ADA was meant as a kind of koan?


I’ve assumed that dhamma = all phenomena = conditioned + unconditioned.
But then why should unconditioned = anatta, given that anatta is a defining feature of conditioned phenomena?


I suppose anatta is more an absence of something (the atta) rather than a positive property as such. In the early Buddhist view, the five aggregates, including mind and consciousness, (or the six sense bases as in “the all” in SN35.23) seem to be the only place where the atta could be hiding out. If it’s not there, then the reasoning seems to be that it’s hardly in the unconditioned either. The acronym ADA (anicca/dukkha/anatta) from above captures the given reasons for why it’s not in the conditioned. That seems to be the tricky half of the equation. It looks like the unconditioned being anatta then is just assumed as a given (no aggregates or sense bases there so where could an atta possibly be).


I was thinking more about what “unconditioned” means. It implies independence (not subject to conditions) and therefore unchanging (ie nicca).
Which sounds rather atta-ish to me.
I’m not suggesting that Nibbana = atman (that would be heresy!), I’m really trying to understand what Nibbana being anatta actually means.


Nibbana cannot be taken as an anattadhamma but unconditioned. Anatta or atta are not applicable to Nibbana.


Yes, that could well be the case. Nibbana as beyond the duality of anatta/atta.
In which case, I assume you wouldn’t include Nibbana in the dhamma of “sabbe dhamma anatta”? And if so, what significance do you attach to the shift from sankhara to dhamma?


This seems to be an appropriate answer, by bhante Sujato…


@suaimhneas @Martin @Erik_ODonnell, for your consideration…

I argued before that anicca-dhamma-anatta has no real context and is therefore not really understandable. I revisited all suttas which say that all dhammas are anatta and have to revise my position partially.

There are precisely two specific teaching contexts in which “all dhammas are anatta” appears: with the khandas and with the salayatanas - apart from that we just have the brief dogmatic statement without context

‘all dhammas are anatta’ related to khandhas: SN 22.90, SN 23.18, MN 35.

‘all dhammas are anatta’ related to salayatanas: SN 35.6, SN 35.12, SN 35.78, SN 35.145, SN 35.149, SN 35.164, SN 35.183-185, SN 35.201-203, SN 35.221, SN 35.227, AN 10.60.

The only exception is MN 148 where additionally to the salayatanas also vedana and tanha are called anatta.

So in context anatta-dhamma is actually not all-encompassing and doesn’t include nibbana, or even a wider range of teachings (for example the bojjhangas or jhanas or satipatthanas are never found in connection with ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’, neither the nidanas)


Thanks! That trawl through the suttas for “dhammas are anatta” occurrences is really interesting. Yes, that does seem to usefully flesh out the possible context. Looks like we may have been overthinking things a bit! :slight_smile: Those examples do seem to indicate a limited enough possible meaning for dhamma here.