Anatta as substitute for

anicca + conditional arising.



The Buddha’s liberating1 insight was:


1.   ‘All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.’ To this insight he added a second, namely:

2.   ‘Whatever arises is caused, that is to say, results from conditions.’ To which he added an affect, namely:

3.   ‘Dukkha’, meaning distress, sorrow, suffering and so on.


In other words, all arisen things happen as impermanent effects, hence, since they can’t be (permanently) owned, result in distress.


So initially the Buddha story2 was that all arisen things showed three characteristics, namely impermanence (Pali: annicca), conditionality (Pali: paṭiccasamuppāda) and distress (Pali: dukkha).              See:       The 3 characteristics sutta


It was later on when the followers of the Buddha were challenged by the far more popular3 view of their competitors, the Brahmins, and who claimed4 that all things were created by the permanent and uncaused Atman5 included within themselves,6 thus owned,7 that they had to respond and adapt their belief system.


To ward off the challenge and reassert themselves the Buddhists simply substituted conditionality (+ impermanence) by denying the existence of the Atman.8


So the Buddhist slogan-cum-mantra changed from ‘anicca- paṭiccasamuppāda9-dukkha’ to ‘anicca-anatta-dukkha’10,11.




End of story!















©  2018 by Victor Langheld




















1.     In other words, liberation from the drag or weight of ignorance (Sanskrit: avidyya) and believed by a very naïve Buddha (and the Upanishads) to have been the 1st cause, hence enlighten’ment.

2.     Buddhism, just like Vedanta, Christianity, Islam and several hundred other religious and philosophical, social and economic belief systems functions as healing story, i.e. hence as placebo) whose job it is top restore an individual to wholeness, meaning to maximum survival capacity.

3.     Because offering an exit to Samsara and entry to eternal salvation.

4.     On the basis of Upanishad speculation. The notion of the Atman as unconditioned, permanent (hence real/true = Sanskrit sat) world creator had first appeared out of the blue in the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad together with the other world creator, the Brahman, and a revamp of the ancient world creator Prajapati. It appears that the three different versions of world creator were invented in different locations and then brought together into the compilation of the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad. Later Parjapati was dropped and Atman and Brahman became interchangeable, later still equalised (by Shankara) as in Atman equals Brahman.

5.     Pali: atta. The translation of atta (or atman) as self (understood as oneself or essence of oneself … more ..) is a serious error, but one that made the Buddhist story acceptable to Western Christian readers.                                    

6.     i.e. as eternal substance or intrinsic nature.

7.     Each living thing as it were owned (and could not disown) a piece of the Atman. The translation of the word Atman as Self (with a capital S) is meaningless since the term ‘self’ (i.e. as self-referential pronoun) is nowhere defined.   more ..

8.     At least within the arisen thing.

9.     Translate (Pali) paṭiccasamuppāda as: causal arising, dependent origination, dependent arising, interdependent co-arising, conditioned arising or conditioned genesis.

10.Whereby anicca is actually redundant. All the Buddhists needed do was declare an’atta-dukkha since an’atta (or an’atman), meaning ‘not-atman’, includes the notion of impermanence. Since according to the Buddha all arisen things were impermanent they could not therefore be or have part of the atta (i.e. of the Atman). A number of suttas appear to suggest that the Buddha believed in the un’caused and permanent, though he avoided been drawn into any discussion on the topic.

11.   The mantra anicca-anatta-dukkha, intoned continuously during a Vipassana course, trips easily across the tongue. Sri Goenka, the Hindu cloth salesman from Burma who popularised Vipassana in the West, made a big deal of the mantra though he never quite understood (or needed to understand) it. Not that it mattered since no one else understood it either.