by the Vipassana Research Institute


Change is inherent in all phenomenal existence. There is nothing animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic that we can label as permanent, since even as we affixed that label on something it would undergo metamorphosis. Realizing this central fact of life by direct experience within himself, the Buddha declared, "Whether a fully Enlightened One has arisen in the world or not, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact and fixed law that all formations are impermanent, subject to suffering, and devoid of substance." Anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta(insubstantiality) are the three characteristics common to all sentient existence.

Of these, the most important in the practice of Vipassana is anicca. As meditators, we come face to face with the impermanence of ourselves. This enables us to realize that we have no control over this phenomenon, and that any attempt to manipulate it creates suffering. We thus learn to develop detachment, an acceptance of anicca, an openness to change, enabling us to live happily amid all the vicissitudes of life. Hence the Buddha said that:

To one who perceives the impermanence, O meditators, the perception of insubstantiality manifests itself. And in one who perceives insubstantiality, egotism is destroyed. And (as a result) even in this present life one attains liberation. The comprehending of anicca leads automatically to a grasp of anatta and dukkha, and whosoever realizes these facts naturally turns to the path that leads out of suffering.

Given the crucial importance of anicca, it is not surprising the Buddha repeatedly stressed its significance for the seekers of liberation. In the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Suttanta, the principal text in which he explained the technique of Vipassana, he described the stages in the practice, which must in every case lead to the following experience:

(The meditator) abides observing the phenomenon of arising . . . abides observing the phenomenon of passing away . . . abides observing the phenomenon of arising and passing away.

We must recognize the fact of impermanence not merely in its readily apparent aspect around and within us. Beyond that, we must learn to see the subtle reality that every moment we ourselves are changing, that the "I" with which we are infatuated is a phenomenon in constant flux. With this experience we can easily emerge from egotism and so from suffering.

Elsewhere the Buddha said:
The eye, O meditators, is impermanent. What is impermanent is unsatisfactory. What is unsatisfactory is substanceless. What is substanceless is not mine, is not I, is not my self. This is how to regard eye with wisdom as it really is.
The same formula is for the ear, nose, tongue, body and mind—for all the bases of sensory experience, every aspect of a human being. Then the Buddha continued:

Seeing this, O meditators, the well-instructed noble disciple becomes satiated with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind (i.e., with sensory existence altogether). Being satiated he does not have the passion for them. Being passionless he is set free. In this freedom arises the realization that he is freed.

In this passage the Buddha makes a sharp distinction between knowing by hearsay and by personal insight. One may be a sutavā, that is, someone who has heard about the Dhamma and accepts it on faith or perhaps intellectually. That acceptance, however, is insufficient to liberate anyone from the cycle of suffering. To attain liberation one must see truth for oneself, must experience it directly within oneself. That is what Vipassana meditation enables us to do.

If we are to understand the unique contribution of the Buddha, we must keep this distinction firmly in mind. The truth of which he spoke was not unknown before him and was current in India in his time. He did not invent the concepts of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality. His uniqueness lies in having found a way to advance from hearing truth to experiencing it.

One text that shows this special emphasis of the teaching of the Buddha is the Bāhiya Sutta, found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In it is recorded an encounter of the Buddha with Bāhiya, a wanderer in search of a spiritual path. Although not a disciple of the Buddha, Bāhiya asked him for guidance in his search. The Buddha responded by questioning him as follows:

What do you think, Bāhiya: is the eye permanent or impermanent?
Impermanent, sir.

That which is impermanent, is it a cause of suffering or happiness?
Of suffering, sir.

Now, is it fitting to regard what is impermanent, a cause of suffering, and by nature changeable, as being "mine," being "I," being one's "self?"

Surely not, sir.

The Buddha further questioned Bāhiya about visual objects, eye consciousness and eye contact. In every case, this man agreed that these were impermanent, unsatisfactory, not-self. He did not claim to be a follower of the teaching of the Buddha, and yet he accepted the facts of anicca, dukkha and anatta. The sutta thus documents that, among at least some of the contemporaries of the Buddha, ideas were current that we might now regard as having being unknown outside his teaching. The explanation, of course, is that for Bāhiya and others like him the concepts of impermanence, suffering and egolessness were simply opinions that they held—in Pāli, mañña. To such people the Buddha showed a way to go beyond beliefs or philosophies, and to experience directly their own nature as impermanent, suffering, insubstantial.

What, then, is the way he showed? In the Brahmajāla Suttanta the Buddha provides an answer. There he lists all the beliefs, opinions and views of his time, and then states that he knows something far beyond all views:

For having experienced as they really are the arising of sensations and their passing away, the relishing of them, the danger in them, and the release in them, the Enlightened One, O monks, has become detached and liberated.

Here the Buddha states quite simply that he became enlightened by observing sensations as the manifestation of impermanence. It behoves anyone who aspires to follow the teachings of the Buddha to do likewise.

Impermanence is the central fact that we must realize in order to emerge from our suffering, and the most immediate way to experience impermanence is by observing our sensations. Again the Buddha said:

There are three types of sensations, O meditators (all being) impermanent, compounded, arising owing to a cause, perishable, by nature passing away, fading and ceasing.

The sensations within ourselves are the most palpable expressions of the characteristic of anicca. By observing them we become able to accept the reality, not merely out of faith or intellectual conviction, but out of our direct experience. In this way we advance from merely hearing about the truth to seeing it within ourselves.

When we thus encounter truth face to face, it is bound to transform us radically. As the Buddha said:

When a meditator thus abides mindful with proper understanding, diligent, ardent and self-controlled, then if pleasant bodily sensations in him arise he understands, "This pleasant bodily sensation has arisen in me, but it is dependent, it is not independent. Dependent on what? On this body. But this body is impermanent, compounded, arising from conditions. Now how could pleasant bodily sensations be permanent that arise dependent on an impermanent, compounded body, itself arising owing to conditions?"

He abides experiencing the impermanence of sensations in the body, their arising, falling and cessation, and the relinquishing of them. As he does so, his underlying conditioning of craving is abandoned. Similarly, when he experiences unpleasant sensations in the body, his underlying conditioning of aversion is abandoned; and when he experiences neutral sensations in the body, his underlying conditioning of ignorance is abandoned.

In this way, by observing the impermanence of bodily sensations, a meditator approaches ever closer to the goal of the unconditioned, nibbāna.

Upon reaching that goal, Kondañña, the first person to become liberated through the Buddha's teaching, declared, yaṃ kiñci samudayadhāmmaṃ sabbaṃ te nirodha-dhammaṃ—"Everything that has the nature of arising also has the nature of ceasing." It is only by experiencing fully the reality of anicca that he was eventually able to experience a reality that does not arise or pass away. His declaration is a signpost to later travellers on the path, indicating the way they must follow to reach the goal themselves.

At the end of his life the Buddha declared, vaya-dhammā saṅkhārā—"All created things are impermanent." With his last breaths he reiterated the great theme of which he had spoken so often during his years of teaching. He then added, appamādena sampādetha—"Strive diligently." To what purpose, we must ask, are we to strive? Surely these words, the last spoken by the Buddha, can only refer to the preceding sentence. The priceless legacy of the Buddha to the world is the understanding of anicca as a means to liberation. We must strive to realize impermanence within ourselves, and by doing so we fulfil his last exhortation to us, we become the true heirs of the Buddha.