This course involves lessons which lead students through a stepwise, progressive enumeration of groups of Dhammas similar to that found in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. The Course is broken up into Eight Units with each unit providing enough material for a suggested two weeks of in-depth study. The course discussion forum hosted through Discord can be reached through the link to the right.

1.7 – The Three Characteristics (Aniccatā; Dukkhatā; Anattatā)




he three aspects of reality which form the subjects of this lesson – impermanence (aniccatā), stress (dukkhatā), and not-self (anattatā) – lie at the very core both of Buddhist theory and practice. The Buddha taught that these three truths, referred to in commentarial literature as the Three Characteristics (tilakkhaṇaṃ), apply to all conditioned phenomena – animate, inanimate, sentient, insentient, past, future, present, colossal, and microscopic. Far from merely providing a description of the world, insight into these three characteristics is the heart of the Buddha’s prescription for alleviating human suffering. By deeply understanding these aspects of reality, through intellectual contemplation and meditative observation, the practitioner “sees things as they really are”: that all compounded things are impermanent; that anything impermanent is stressful; and that anything stressful is not worthy of taking as self. Through the power of this clear seeing (vipassanā), we let go of craving, attachment, and the compulsion to becoming and are fully liberated, having realized Nibbāna, the highest peace. And it is only within this unconditioned Nibbāna that the first two of the Three Characteristics do not manifest. That is, Nibbāna is note only the supreme state of happiness but is also permanent and stress-free. But, note too, even Nibbāna is not self. In this lesson we will explore these Three Characteristics through primary texts and engaging commentary focusing on lived practice and inclining ourselves toward Nibbāna.


You may download the topic’s flashcard deck on Quizlet or Anki for further study.

Pre-test yourself

1) Definitions

  • Note: In Pali, the initial letter(s) “a-” and “an-” at the beginning of aniccatā and anattatā indicate a negation of the word which follows. So, while niccatā and attatā mean “permanence” and “selfness”, aniccatā and anattatā mean “impermanence” and “selflessness”.
  • Note: In Pali, the two final letters of each of these terms, “-tā” indicate an abstract meaning of the base word. So, while, anicca means “impermanent”, aniccatā means “impermanence”, etc.
  1. Aniccatā
    1. impermanence
    2. transience
    3. changeableness
    4. (Pali English Dictionary entry) niccatā – the opposite of aniccatā (negations are not listed in the PED)
  2. Dukkhatā
    1. stress/tension/strain
    2. suffering
    3. dis-ease
    4. (Pali English Dictionary entry) dukkha/dukkhatā
    • It is important to note the distinction between the dukkha of the Three Characteristics here and its meaning as the first Noble Truth. While the Three Characteristics (including dukkha) are universal principles that apply to all phenomena without exception, the dukkha of the First Noble Truth is the personal suffering caused by craving and ignorance which can be transcended through practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. Thus, the dukkha of the Three Characteristics – as it applies to even inanimate and insentient things (in addition to animate and sentient ones) – might best be rendered as stress, tension, or strain. These are terms from physics and refer to the entropy of matter, that is, the lack of order and potentiality to decline into disorder inherent in all phenomena.
  3. Anattatā
    1. not-self
    2. selflessness
    3. no soul (questionable)
    4. (Pali English Dictionary entry) attan – the opposite of anattā (negations are not listed in the PED)

Review (Click text for answer)

2) Sutta Selections

  1. Aniccatā
    1. Iti 3.36 Stay Focused on Anicca
    2. SN 35.82 “The World”
    3. AN 7.70 Similes for the Shortness of Life>
    4. AN 7.70 How Short is Life?
  2. Dukkhatā
    1. SN 56.11 The Wheel of Dhamma – Dukkha
    2. MN 22 What the Buddha Teaches
    3. AN 6.63 What to Know about Dukkha
  3. Anattatā
    1. SN 22.59 The Discourse on Not-Self (Anattalakkhana SUtta)
    2. SN 22.99 Not Running Around Self

    Review (Click text for answer)

3) Ancient Commentary

  1. Aniccatā
    1. The Path of Purification (p. 341 of pdf)
  2. Dhukkhatā
    1. The Path of Purification (p. 569 of pdf)
  3. Anattatā
    1. The Path of Purification (p. 694 of pdf)

Review (Click text for answer)

Modern Commentary

  1. Aniccatā
    1. BPS Collected Essays “Impermanence (Anicca)”
    2. S.N. Goenka “Anicca”
  2. Dukkhatā
    1. BPS Collected Essays “Suffering (Dukkha)”
    2. Ajahn Thanissaro “The Weight of Mountains”
  3. Anattatā
    1. BPS Collected Essays “Egolessness (Anattā)”
    2. Ajahn Thanissaro “The Not-Self Strategy”
    3. N.K.G Mendis “On the No-Self Characteristic”

Review (Click text for answer)