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Someone said that Anicca/Anatta/Dukkha are not Dhamma, it is a pannati or concept.

To clear my doubt I ask : Is Anicca/Anatta/Dukkha a Dhamma or not ?

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  • Anicca/Dukkha/Anatta Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 23:45

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No, traditionally, the 3 concepts of anicca, dukkha and anatta are defined as tilakkhana i.e. 3 characteristics and not as dhammas per se.

When something is defined as a dhamma, the immediate question is, is it conditioned or unconditioned? If the dhamma is conditioned, it leads to suffering else it is something desirable. Logically, anicca and dukkha are conditioned and as Buddhists, we strive to eradicate them. But what about anatta? Is it conditioned or not? Do we eradicate anatta to find the true atta (self)? Why do we need to realize sunyata in order to attain Nibbana then? If Nibbana is anatta, why do we need to be enlightened since anatta is already in you and me? This leads to potential logical conundrums that requires careful qualifying and phrasing in order to prevent ourselves from getting stuck in philosophical quagmire.

If Buddhists had to navigate gingerly around this maze of potential contradictions, how would non-Buddhists respond? Would they be willing to spend the same amount of time and effort to understand all the intricacies and definitions?

No, I think they would simply assume Buddhism is a self-contradictory religion and a poor example as a philosophy. This is a self-inflicted bad image that comes from using a very broad and loose term. It is an unnecessary headache. We can simply side-step this problem by avoiding the definition of anicca, dukkha and anatta as dhammas or talking about them as dhammas. Besides, if you do a Google search for these 3 terms, you'll find that the majority of the sites refer to them as signs, marks or characteristics rather than as laws, truths or principles.

Of course, if you are not a Buddhist to begin with, the state of Buddhism or its image is not of your concern then just ignore the above. With Metta.

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The term "dhamma" has this sense, among others, from this dictionary entry:

the way things are; a natural law, custom, tradition; the essential nature, the way, of men or animals.

It means "natural law" or "natural principles".

And in the following sutta, "sabbe sankhara anicca" is noted as a natural law or principle.  

“Mendicants, whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles:
“Uppādā vā, bhikkhave, tathāgatānaṁ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṁ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā.

all conditions are impermanent.
Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā.

all conditions are suffering.
Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā.

all things are not-self.
Sabbe dhammā anattā.
AN 3.136

So the answer is yes, the three marks of existence are dhammas, in the sense of natural laws.

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The original context of this question was a debate we had about Emptiness.

The users responding from Mahayana perspective were talking about self being a bundle of skandhas while appearing as entity. That's what Mahayana means when it says that self is empty. This is known as "the [ontological] emptiness of [phenomenal] self".

The OP disagreed and said that self is not empty. Instead, he said, all dhammas are empty of self, in the sense that they are not self, not me, not mine. This includes the dhamma known as Emptiness.

Another user responded that perhaps we were not talking about emptiness as a conditioned dhamma (that has the characteristic of anatta etc.), but rather we were talking about self being a bundle with no core, so emptiness as a principle, not a thing.

To this the OP responded that Emptiness is definitely a conditioned dhamma with characteristics of anicca/dukkha/anatta applying to it too, resulting in this question. In my answer to that question I argued that reification of dhammas as if they were something concrete, as it is done in Theravada Abhidhamma, is absurd and leads to nonsensical outcomes.

In that answer, I said that Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta are also like that, principles rather than phenomena that themselves are subject to these principles. Because if Anicca were a conditioned dhamma, it would itself be impermanent, leading to infinite regress.

And if Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha were unconditioned dhammas, they would have to be synonyms of Nibbana, because no other dhamma is unconditioned in Theravada. (And that may be true, actually, who knows... ;)

But in this question, the OP is asking whether Anicca etc. can be called dhammas in any sense. Sure, they can be called dhammas in the sense of "some thing". But that's not what we were talking about originally. We were debating whether Emptiness, just like Impermanence and Unreliability, is a universal characteristic of all phenomena, or a conditioned phenomenon.

I hope it's clear now.

The OP should rephrase his question to ask "are these conditioned dhammas". Otherwise this looks like cheating in debate by suddenly using the same word in a different sense.

And my answer is, no they are not conditioned dhammas, and neither is Emptiness. All of these are dhammas only in the sense of "some thing", but no one ever calls them dhammas in this sense. They are known as "characteristics" (Pali lakkhana).

Reference: The Dhamma Theory. Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma by Y. Karunadasa Buddhist Publication Society Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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Whenever a mendicant practices breathing while observing impermanence,

Yasmiṁ samaye, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ‘aniccānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘aniccānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

or observing fading away,

‘virāgānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘virāgānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

or observing cessation,

‘nirodhānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘nirodhānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

or observing letting go—

‘paṭinissaggānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘paṭinissaggānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

at that time they meditate observing dhamma in dhamma, aware, and mindful, rid of covetousness and displeasure for the world.

dhammesu dhammānupassī, bhikkhave, tasmiṁ samaye bhikkhu viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

Having seen with wisdom the giving up of covetousness and displeasure, they watch over closely with equanimity.

So yaṁ taṁ abhijjhādomanassānaṁ pahānaṁ taṁ paññāya disvā sādhukaṁ ajjhupekkhitā hoti.

That’s why at that time a mendicant is meditating by observing an aspect of principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of covetousness and displeasure for the world.

Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, dhammesu dhammānupassī tasmiṁ samaye bhikkhu viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

MN 118

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    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 2:51
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There is lot of confusion about what is Dhamma. In this specific case there is a confusion about Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta being a Dhamma or not ?

Consider a concept “बहाव”. You will not understand it. Why? because you have not learned it. There is beginning of the learning of concept called “बहाव”. It has a beginning and whatever which has a beginning must have an end. This is called looking with an eye of Dhamma. Understanding of Concept itself is impermanent, it arises , changes and vanishes. In that sense concepts Annica, Dukkha and Anatta are sanskaras or Dhammas. The understanding of those concepts are impermanent. That is one way of looking at it . Another way to look at it is by applying the concept to create another truth. “ बहाव” is a Hindi word and it means “flow”. “Flow” is a concept which is understood because we were taught using Dhammas like water flows , milk flows , honey flows. We create another truth “ all liquids flow”. Now this is another Dhamma or sanskhara. What we are doing is using impermanent learned concepts to create another truth. We further create more truths :

All sanskharas are Anicca.

All sanskharas are Dukkha.

All Dhammas are Anatta.

In a way Anicca , Dukkha and Anatta were learned or had a beginning conditionally. Concepts themselves are impermanent as mind is impermanent. And using impermanent concepts we generate impermanent understanding of truths. Impermanent understanding of truths doesn’t mean they are lies.

Therefore we see that even concepts are sanskharas.

Coming to the objection that if Anicca is impermanent then doesn’t it lead to infinite regress? My answer is no. Anicca or impermanence is impermanent in a different way. It was learned , had a beginning of understanding therefore it is impermanent but the truth “ Sabbe sanskharas Anicca “ remains forever true.

Therefore Anicca , Dukkha and Anatta are Dhammas of the mind. But Sabbe sanskars Anicca, Sabbe sanskars Dukkha and Sabbe Dhamma Anatta remains true forever independent of mind observing it. It is the Dhamma of immortal mind.

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  • Is there any sutra where the Buddha talk about how anicca, dukkha or anatta begin? The claim that there is a type of anicca, dukkha and anatta belonging to the mortal mind and another type belonging to the immortal mind is something novel.
    – Desmon
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 12:22
  • @Desmon dependent origination talks about origin of Dukkha and what liable to origination is subject to cessation conditionally. Understanding of Anicca , Dukkha and Anatta are impermanent but the truth they stand for are immortal. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 12:29
  • Dheeraj, I think you are confusing the concept, someone's understanding of concept's meaning, and the actual something "out there" that the concept is pointing to. It seems like in your answer it's all blended together. But I agree Dukkha is one confusing example. Is Dukkha of Four Noble Truths the same dukkha as in the tilakkhana?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:11
  • @AndriyVolkov all concepts are learned including that of Dukkha. Understanding of Dukkha is impermanent. But the truth sabbe sanskar Dukkha is immortal. Similarly sabbe sanskar Anicca is immortal. It has always been so and will remain so forever. These truths therefore these Dhammas are deathless. I have improved the answer. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 13:26

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