Everything just investigate in the mirror of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta. So you have to understand everything is not sure, unreliable, uncertain, everything is without a self! And if you don’t know that you are suffering. So if you hear something, if you taste something, whatever it is, everything just falls under these three characteristics. Everything with your experience is just anicca, dukkha, anatta.

Vesak Day this year (2024) fell on Wednesday 22 May, and I thought it was interesting that there were three incidents around Vesak Day, which serve as a useful personal reminder & reflection through the lens of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta(non-self).


Anicca, dukkha, anatta are frequently known as the Three characteristics, and is frequently mentioned in the same breath by senior monks in the Theravada tradition.

In the suttas, the three characteristics first makes an appearance in the Anattalakkhanasutta (Characteristics of Non-Self) by the Buddha. It’s a powerful sermon which created the world’s first five fully enlightened beings (after the Buddha himself):

What do you think, mendicants? Taṁ kiṁ maññatha, bhikkhave,

Is form permanent or impermanent?” rūpaṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vā”ti?

“Impermanent, sir.” “Aniccaṁ, bhante”.

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?” “Yaṁ panāniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vā taṁ sukhaṁ vā”ti?

“Suffering, sir.” “Dukkhaṁ, bhante”.

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: “Yaṁ panāniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vipariṇāmadhammaṁ, kallaṁ nu taṁ samanupassituṁ:

‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’? ”‘etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti?

“No, sir.” “No hetaṁ, bhante”.

… (the above and below are repeated for the remaining five aggregates: feeling, perception, will, consciousnesses) … “So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’“ Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, yaṁ kiñci rūpaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁ ajjhattaṁ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṁ vā sukhumaṁ vā hīnaṁ vā paṇītaṁ vā yaṁ dūre santike vā, sabbaṁ rūpaṁ: ‘netaṁ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṁ yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṁ.


The first incident which really drove home the point about anicca was the unfortunate turbulence which struck Singapore Airlines 321, and killed a man and injured almost 60 people. SQ 321 really drives home the point that life is fundamentally unreliable.

Earlier, I had written anicca as “impermanence”, but that doesn’t fully convey the sheer magnitude of anicca. Just like how the word “turbulence” brings to mind a little rumble on a flight, rather than the plane dropping 6,000 ft in 4 minutes.

Anicca is the opposite of nicca, which in the Pali Vinaya is used to describe “regular, consistent, reliable” things. (Interestingly, the Chinese translation for anicca is closer to the Pali: it is 无常, which is similarly a negation of “regular, consistent”.) For example, a person who regularly brings food on Monday to the monastery would be considered to be bringing “nicca” food. Anicca means the exact opposite.

So anicca doesn’t just mean “irregular, inconsistent”: it also means “unreliable”, for isn’t reliability just a form of regular consistency?

Anicca isn’t just about the rug being pulled under your feet: it’s about the rug being pulled under your feet, as well as the floor, the apartment below, and the apartment below it, and so on, for 6,000 ft, or more.

Anicca isn’t just about the waves on the lake getting large and small: it’s about the lake there one day, and suddenly completely disappearing.

Anicca is about what you assume will be there, which will not.

What am I assuming and taking for granted now? And how can I know it will still be there in the next moment?


The next incident which happened in the last few days, was that I fell sick: I came down with flu-like symptoms, with the usual cough, congestion, snot, chills, the works. I tested negative for Covid, and the symptoms also present differently (for Covid vs. Flu, for me).

I had originally planned to spend Vesak Day on a self-retreat, keeping 8 precepts and focusing on meditation. I still proceeded to carry out the self-retreat, keeping the 8 precepts, focusing on meditation, and switching off all devices.

But instead of meditating on the breath, I found myself constantly reflecting on the pains, aches and discomfort I felt in my body. It was unavoidable: the pains and aches and discomfort was just in my face, and I couldn’t turn away from them. I was also so tired that my mind kept going to sleep, and having all these weird, vivid dreams, before my mind went “oh, I fell asleep again”.

The experience was also different from before: I had intense aches and pains around my hips and lower back, which made very little sense to me as I’ve never experienced these as flu symptoms before.

So I just made peace with everything I experienced, as much as I could.

And it occurred to me that, this is life, and it is suffering as the Buddha mentioned in his first sermon:

Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṁ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṁ na labhati tampi dukkhaṁ—saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.

SN 56.11 Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta

Sickness really drives home the point that good health is taken for granted. Oh, how I wished I could sleep without waking up to a nose full of mucus and a chest full of phlegm!

But sickness also drove home another point which I never fully realized: what we take as enjoyment, is also really suffering. Try reading a book when you’re very sick and tired (which I did yesterday): it’s even more tiring and agonizing.

The dukkha-dukkha of sickness really also reinforces the fact of anicca, that our good health is dependent on conditions which will eventually disappear. We will eventually get old, sick, and die. So we should really treasure the time and opportunity to practice the Eightfold Path properly.

What am I waiting for, in order to practice?


The last incident which happened in the last few days, had to do with a South Korean DJ who dresses as a monk, and includes Buddhist sutras in his mixes.

This episode has created a furor, with both Malaysian and Singaporean Buddhist leaders requesting the respective public authorities to cancel his permit to perform. And it seems that they have been heard, with the Minister for Home Affairs issuing a statement on Facebook, and the nightclub agreeing to remove religion from the performance.

On a Whatsapp group which I’m a member of, this topic was also energetically shared and debated, with some calling for appeals to the Minister for Home Affairs. There were others who felt that this could have been dealt with a different way, while others expressed discomfort about a fake monk.

It seems to me, though, that most people missed the real point (imo).

The real point is that, you can only be upset if you take on a sense of self, based on something which is not a self. And if you’re upset, then maybe that defilement is the main thing for you to focus on, for your practice!

For this is what the Buddha had to say in the Anattalakkhanasutta:

Mendicants, form is not-self. “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā.

For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel form: Rūpañca hidaṁ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṁ rūpaṁ ābādhāya saṁvatteyya, labbhetha ca rūpe:

‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ ‘evaṁ me rūpaṁ hotu, evaṁ me rūpaṁ mā ahosī’ti.

But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel form: Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ anattā, tasmā rūpaṁ ābādhāya saṁvattati, na ca labbhati rūpe

‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ ‘evaṁ me rūpaṁ hotu, evaṁ me rūpaṁ mā ahosī’ti.

(… and the Buddha repeats the same for the rest of the five aggregates)

The real point isn’t about the South Korean DJ, it’s not about “respecting the Vinaya”, it’s not about “the sentiments of the Buddhists”, it’s arguably not even about the outreach to non-Buddhists.

The real point is about the arising of defilements, due to that fundamental delusion of a self. If there is suffering, it’s because there is a self somewhere which has been taken up. And ironically and sadly (on Vesak Day), my fellow Buddhists don’t realize that they have taken on a sense of self, exactly against what our teacher the Buddha had taught.

The truth is that, our five aggregates are not me, not mine, not a self. That’s true for our five aggregates, let alone for other five aggregates, whether it’s our family, friends, DJs or otherwise.

What do I take myself to be? And how can I let go of that sense of self?


While I have used a story to highlight each of the three characteristics, if you really focus on it, you will recognize that all three aspects anicca, dukkha, anatta, are actually in each story.

Started on 23 May 24 at 1038hrs.
Finished on 23 May 24 at 1206hrs.
Edited on 23 May 24 at 1409hrs.