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While on the surface of it, the Buddhist doctrine of change and impermanence may seem pessimistic, appreciating that everything will change liberates us towards true freedom, peace and happiness.

Impermanence, or anicca in Pali, refers to the transient nature of all things. Everything in this world moves through the rites of birth, maturity and destruction, leaving no trace. Annica, together with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) are the Three Characteristics of Existence according to the Buddha. Annica is key, as impermanence leads to suffering (dukkha) and annica also explains why there is non-self (anatta).

Suffering (dukkha) arises because, in a state of self-deception, people crave immortality through belief in a soul. There is nothing that endures about sentient beings, both people and animals and no life thereafter.

The Buddha taught that human beings are composed of five aggregates (pañca khandha), which are empty and without self. By meditating on non-self (anatta), we can dissolve the barrier between self and other and appreciate that all beings in the universe are the same. Seeing that all other human beings exist in us and we exist in all other human beings, we are liberated from the cycle of birth and death, no longer held back by fear and self-deception.

Appreciating annica is part of existence, we are liberated from being a slave of emotions, sensations and experiences, knowing that joy and sorrow must change. We are neither living in a fool’s paradise, nor frightened by imaginary fears and sins.

Suffering for permanence
Oftentimes, we equate permanence with happiness. We mourn the loss of beauty as age fades youthful radiance. We mourn the loss of innocence as children grow up into judgmental or jaded adults. Most especially, we mourn the loss of life when our loved ones die.

The Buddha said that it is our self-deception that makes it appear that we are caught up in this world. Suffering (dukkha), the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, has a deeper meaning which includes imperfection and insubstantiality. Our expectation that things should be perfect, unchanging and enduring provokes sadness when they are not.

The world is made up of the four elements – earth, air, water and fire – in countless combinations constantly in flux. Nothing can exist independently and nothing is permanent.

Awareness of suffering leads to liberation
Since all things are impermanent, when we identify with the world, we also suffer from their eventual emptiness. Once we become aware of how suffering works, we begin to practice the way of the realisation. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths – awareness of dukkha reduces our dukkha.

By meditating on dukkha, we uncover its cause, directly confront it, and eliminate it by relinquishing our attachments to the five skandhas, or aggregates which together make up the human condition.

Impermanence and non-self
The five skandas that make up the human and worldly conditions are: matter, feeling, perception, thoughts and consciousness. By examining the five skandhas, we experience the selfless nature of our bodies as they journey through life, from birth to death and emptiness beyond.

“When we no longer are separate from the universe, a completely harmonious existence with the universe is created,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Two Treasures: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening and True Happiness. “We see all other human beings exist in us and we exist in all other human beings. We see that the past and the future are contained in the present moment, and we can penetrate and be completely liberated from the cycle of birth and death.”

By Brook McCarthy, Yoga Reach.

Article Written: July 2011