Impermanence and non-self

Anitya means “impermanent” (Nitya is “permanent”, “eternal”, and a- is the negative prefix, Anitya is therefore “impermanent”, “not eternal”). This characteristic will not occupy us as long as the duhkha , for it is easier to understand by comparison, at least intellectually. It affirms that all conditioned things, all things composed, are constantly changing (things conditioned, by their very definition in Sanskrit and Pali, are composed, that is, made of parts). What is composed can also be de-composed: the parts can be separated. This too, of course, happens all the time. It may be easier to understand this truth nowadays than it used to be. Science teaches us that there is no such thing as solid and hard matter, sprinkled in pieces all over space. We know that what we consider matter is actually only energy, in various forms.

The same truth of impermanence applies to the mind. In the mental life there is nothing that does not change; there is no permanent and immortal and unchanging soul: there is only a constant succession of mental states. The mind changes even faster than the physical body. Usually, we can not see the body change, but if we are a little observant we can see our own mind change. That is why the Buddha said that it is more reprehensible to identify with the mind than with the body: to think that “I am the spirit” is more reprehensible than to think that “I am the body Because the body has at least a certain degree of stability, whereas the mind has absolutely no stability.

From a broader point of view, the characteristic of anitya shows us that the whole universe, from the largest to the smallest, in all its immensity, in all its greatness, is only a vast meeting of different kinds, taking place at different levels, and all connected to each other; nothing remains motionless, not even for a moment. It’s easy to forget. We think that the sky and the mountains are still there (the “eternal hills”); we think our body is relatively permanent. It is only when infinitesimal changes add up to form a great change, or perhaps a catastrophe, or when something breaks or stops, or when we die, that we realize the truth of impermanence .

The no-self

The third and final lakshana is the anatman (in Pali: anatta , literally, the “no-self”). This teaches us that all things conditioned are deprived of self permanent and unchanging. I remember that my own master, the Indian Buddhist monk Jagdish Kashyap, said that it is not possible to understand what the Buddha meant by the anatman without first understanding the contemporary conception of atman , that is to say what Hinduism meant by atman of the Buddha’s time. Many conceptions of atman are mentioned in the Upanishads. Some Upanishads say that the atman is the physical body, others say that the atman is not bigger than an inch, is material, and lives in the heart. There are many different views, but the most common time of the Buddha, the one to which he seems to have been most interested, was that the atman , the self, is immaterial, conscious, unchanging, individual (as I follow me and you are you), sovereign (in the sense of exercising complete control of one’s destiny), and happy.

The Buddha maintained that such an entity did not exist. He appealed to experience. If we look within ourselves, if we look at our own mental life, we see that there are only the five aggregates (form, sensations, perceptions, volitions and acts of consciousness), all of which are constantly changing: There is nothing permanent. We see that the five aggregates all appear dependent on conditions: there is nothing sovereign. We see that one way or another they are all full of suffering: there is nothing “ultimately” happy. So there is no self, the atman . The five aggregates are anatman ; the five aggregates in no way constitute a self such as that which the Hindus of the time of the Buddha had in mind; the atman exists neither in the five aggregates, nor outside them, nor associated with them in any other way.

All conditioned things, without exception, are suffering (duhkha), impermanent (anitya) and selfless (anatman). These are the three characteristics of conditioned existence. They are of central importance, not only in Buddhist philosophy, but in Buddhist spiritual life. According to the Buddha, we do not really see conditioned existence until we have learned to see it in these terms. If we see anything else, it’s just an illusion, a projection. Once we have started to see the conditioning in these terms, then, little by little, we have a glimpse of the unconditioned, and this overview guides us on our way.