I had someone ask me this afternoon:

If Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent, then how can it make absolute assertions such as there are 5 aggregates or there are 4 noble truths?

Since I am very new to all of this I had to honestly answer, "I don't know". I would appreciate any insights on this question.

  • 2
    Do you understand the difference between calling a dog a dog and saying that it is ever-living? Aug 26, 2018 at 2:55

5 Answers 5


You friend has indulged into what is called the logical fallacy of false equivalence.

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent which means that there is no static nature to the things or static nature of the basic elements that everything is made up of.

So it means that the 5 aggregates are in a state of constant flux it's changing every moment, and not that it is ceasing to exist.


Buddhism can make an assertion that there are 5 aggregates because the assertion is 'about' the 5 aggregates. Furthermore, it can tell that there are four noble truths because 'four noble truths is the nature of the process, not the process itself'.

It's something like saying, 'if uncertainity principle is right we should be uncretain about the uncertainty principle'. It is a logically fallacious statement.

So, you should have replied to your friend saying,

If the second law of thermodynamics is true, how would you like your Beer?

A story you might like;

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other,

The flag is moving.” The other replied, “The wind is moving.

The Zen master overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; the mind is moving.”

From there comes KungFu Panda he says, "most probably, it's your mouth that is moving."

Also, a story for any such further conversation you might have, from a discourse on Dhammapada the way of the Buddha.

There were two temples in Japan, both enemies to each other, as temples have always been down the ages. The priests were so antagonistic that they had stopped even looking at each other. If they came across each other on the road, they would not look at each other. If they came across each other on the road they stopped talking; for centuries those two temples and their priests had not talked.

But both the priests had two small boys - to serve them, just for running errands. Both the priests were afraid that boys, after all, will be boys, and they might start becoming friends to each other.

The one priest said to his boy, "Remember, the other temple is our enemy. Never talk to the boy of the other temple! They are dangerous people - avoid them as one avoids a disease, as one avoids the plague. Avoid them!" The boy was always interested, because he used to get tired of listening to great sermons - he could not understand them.

Strange scriptures were read, he could not understand the language. Great, ultimate problems were discussed. There was nobody to play with, nobody even to talk with.

And when he was told, "Don't talk to the boy of the other temple," great temptation arose in him. That's how temptation arises.

That day he could not avoid talking to the other boy. When he saw him on the road he asked him, "Where are you going?"

The other boy was a little philosophical; listening to great philosophy he had become philosophical. He said, "Going? There is nobody who comes and goes! It is happening - wherever the wind takes me...." He had heard the master say many times that that's how a buddha lives, like a dead leaf: wherever the wind takes it, it goes. So the boy said, "I am not! There is no doer. So how can I go? What nonsense are you talking? I am a dead leaf. Wherever the wind takes me...."

The other boy was struck dumb. He could not even answer. He could not find anything to say. He was really embarrassed, ashamed, and felt also, "My master was right not to talk with these people - these are dangerous people! What kind of talk is this? I had asked a simple question: 'Where are you going?' In fact I already knew where he was going, because we were both going to purchase vegetables in the market. A simple answer would have done."

He went back, told his master, "I am sorry, excuse me. You HAD prohibited me, I didn't listen to you. In fact, because of your prohibition I was tempted. This is the first time I have talked to those dangerous people. I just asked a simple question. 'Where are you going?' and he started saying strange things: 'There is no going, no coming. Who comes? Who goes? I am utter emptiness,' he was saying, 'just a dead leaf in the wind.

And wherever the wind takes me....'" The master said, "I told you before! Now, tomorrow stand in the same place and when he comes ask him again, 'Where are you going?' And when he says these things, you simply say, 'That's true. Yes, you are a dead leaf, so am I. But when the wind is not blowing, where are you going? Then where can you go?' Just say that, and that will embarrass him - and he has to be embarrassed, he has to be defeated. We have been constantly quarreling, and those people have not been able to defeat us in any debate.

So tomorrow it has to be done!"

Early the boy got up, prepared his answer, repeated it many times before he went. Then he stood in the place where the boy used to cross the road, repeated again and again, prepared himself, and then he saw the boy coming. He said, "Okay, now!"

The boy came. He asked, "Where are you going?" And he was hoping that now the opportunity would come....

But the boy said, "Wherever the legs will take me...." No mention of wind! No talk of nothingness! No question of the nondoer! Now what to do? His whole ready-made answer looked absurd. Now to talk about the wind would be irrelevant.

Again crestfallen, now REALLY ashamed that he was simply stupid: "And this boy certainly knows some strange things - now he says, 'Wherever the legs take me....'" He went back to the master. The master said, "I have told you NOT to talk with those people - they are dangerous! This is our centuries-long experience. But now something has to be done. So tomorrow you ask again, 'Where are you going?' and when he says, 'Wherever my legs take me,' tell him, 'If you had no legs, then...?' He has to be silenced one way or other!"

So the next day he asked again, "Where are you going?" and waited.

And the boy said, "I am going to the market to fetch vegetables."

Live Unpredictable, Live Prepared.

  • "Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent which means that there is no static nature to the things or basic elements that everything is made up of". Thank you, this exactly what I was looking for.
    – Stanley
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:12
  • @Stanley i do not understand ur comment...are u asking more info on it or u mean that is wrong?
    – user13135
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:16
  • @Stanley I made a small edit, I think that line was confusing... I meant that both things and the elements they are made of are not static.
    – user13135
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:22
  • sorry for the confusion. I meant that I found the comment useful and it made sense to me. Thank you for the edit as well.
    – Stanley
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:24

It's not exactly that "all things are impermanent", it's that "all compound things are impermanent" -- "compound" meaning "put together". Another way of saying it is that "every thing that's caused or created will cease, everything that's compounded will come apart or unbind".

Whereas I think that the assertions which you mentioned are not called "compound things" -- instead they're called dhamma (meaning something like "law", "natural law", and/or "doctrine").

It's not true to say that all dhammas are impermanent -- only all sankharas (compound things).

Also I suspect that "there are 5 aggregates" or "there are 4 noble truths" are a doctrine of the Buddha, who formulated them as a skilful (e.g. understandable, memorable) way of teaching the Buddhist Dhamma.

Another doctrine is that "there are 12 nidanas" -- but in some suttas there are fewer than 12.

There are many more listed here: Dhamma Lists

It's a bit like saying, "How many parts are there to an elephant?" You might say e.g., "There are four parts, i.e. body, head, legs, and tail" but that division (or "analysis") is a bit artificial -- and maybe (unlike the Buddha's Dhamma) not a useful description or analysis.

Is there a teaching or a quote that you can think of that specifically differentiates between "things" and "compound things"?

The easy quote to remember is the description of the three characteristics, the "three marks of existence":

The three marks are:

  1. sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā — "all saṅkhāras (conditioned things) are impermanent"
  2. sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā — "all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory"
  3. sabbe dhammā anattā — "all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are not self"

I think those are most memorably in the Dhammapada, verses 277 though 279:

  • Here is the Pali

    Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā [...]
    Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā [...]
    Sabbe dhammā anattā [...]

  • Here an English translation

    All conditioned things are impermanent [...]
    All conditioned things are unsatisfactory [...]
    All things are not-self [...]

Bizarrely, see also here -- is there a misprint in the Pali? But the English translation there still distinguishes between "conditioned phenomena" versus phenomena in general.

"Conditioned things" are held to be anatta too -- I think it says (more generally) that all dhamma are anatta, rather than only all sankharas, in order to include nibbana in the statement -- nibanna is a dhamma (it's not a compound thing), and is not impermanent nor dukkha, but it is anatta.

The quote appears in some suttas too, e.g. Channasutta (SN 22.90):

All conditions are impermanent
Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā

All things are not-self
sabbe dhammā anattā”ti

  • Thank you @ChrisW. Is there a teaching or a quote that you can think of that specifically differentiates between "things" and "compound things"? I would like to bookmark that.
    – Stanley
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:18
  • @Stanley I added a quote to the answer above.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2018 at 14:42
  • Another quote: "Anicca Vata Sankhara"
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2018 at 16:24
  • Another quote -- the last words of the Buddha -- "Conditions fall apart. Persist with diligence." -- vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2018 at 19:47

Those are not absolute assertions. They are made conditionally on the existence of Mind and mental phenomenon (Mental phenomenon like memory). If you don't have memory then will you be able to make any assertions ? No. Memories are lost. Memories are anatta. Therefore all the assertions made by mind are anatta i.e lack any absolute existence.


“If Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent, then how can it make absolute assertions such as there are 5 aggregates or there are 4 noble truths?“

Buddhism can’t make absolute assertions that are inherently true, because nothing exists inherently. The 4NT are conventional truths that are merely labeled. They do not exist inherently because nothing exists inherently. Inherent existence is an impossible mode of existence.

Now, when I say the above inevitably someone will interpret it to mean that the 4NT don’t exist or that they have no meaning. But this is not true. The problem with sentient beings is we always jump from two extremes: eternalism or annihilationism. However, neither of these is how things actually exist. This is our ignorance and it is extremely hard and subtle to realize how things actually exist.

BTW, not all things are impermanent and Buddhism does not teach otherwise. Uncompounded space is an example of a permanent thing. Still, uncompounded space does not exist inherently. Nothing exists inherently. Permanence is not the definition of inherent existence.


Simply reply to that friend of yours with a similar question: if all things are impermanent, then how can you know for sure if s/he has 5 physical sense organs and 4 limbs?

  • 1
    I guess your point is that the question is ridiculous?
    – user13579
    Aug 26, 2018 at 12:44
  • No, it's not meant to ridicule, just to point out the illogical
    – santa100
    Aug 26, 2018 at 16:15
  • It's usually inappropriate (on this site at least) to answer a question with just another question. Maybe you could connect the dots as well, perhaps explain how your question and the OP's question are analogous.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2018 at 16:45
  • Why would it be inappropriate? It's one of the 4 ways of answering a question as taught by the Buddha in accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.042.than.html
    – santa100
    Aug 26, 2018 at 17:16
  • Yes, I specified that it's usually inappropriate on this site -- not generally/always inappropriate. -- perhaps because this site is for question-and-answer, not question-and-counter-question. For example "Why are you asking?" isn't a satisfying answer. And this answer (of yours) was unclear to people -- could be clarified maybe. See also this topic on Meta (about the Panna sutta) -- Are the kinds of question, and what kinds of answers are good, considered on Buddhism.SE?
    – ChrisW
    Aug 26, 2018 at 19:14

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