January 10, 2012

What is Anicca, Really? ~ Hector Barrientos-Bullock

Frederick Stendebach

Anicca means more than simply “living in the present.”

Not too long ago, an article was written concerning Anicca (Ah-Nee-Cha), which I will admit I disagreed with.

Many in the yoga and Buddhist community would ask, 

“Why would you disagree with Anicca? It’s one of the core concepts in Buddhism. There is no way you can disagree with that.” 

In reality, I don’t. I agree it is a core concept of Buddhism and it is difficult to disagree with, in and of itself, and of that I don’t disagree with.

I disagree with its use. 

I found Buddhism when I was 16 years old in the suburbs or Woodbridge, Virginia. 
My friends were very Bohemian in the 90s, part of a “hyper intelligent” yet artistic crowd that should have been outcasts but somehow were ultra popular. We would spend many days skipping school, talking with transients in Dupont Circle park, visiting museums and having long discussions with Krishna Apostates that populated around Washington, DC and the northeast in that period (I even ran into Krishna Apostates while attending Navy A school in Philadelphia, and when I left the Navy while in Seattle. They somehow always sought me out).

Buddhism came part and parcel to me with a foray into Taoism and Brahmanism, initiated upon me by my good friend Nick Hablenko. I will always remember his words when attempting to describe Taoism to a mutual friend, Ashlee, while smoking in our friend Ross’s parents’ garage: 

“Reading a book on Taoism just means you’ve read a book on Taoism…”

 The no nonsense description of Taoism and the also “tongue in cheek” of his description was not lost upon me, as he knew.

Due to my discussions with Nick I fell not only into Taoism and Hinduism, but also Buddhism, as I realized it was just a description of how I already lived my life. I was selfless, I didn’t smoke or drink like the rest of them, I didn’t do drugs, I had no expectations of anyone. I just saw things as they were and accepted them for what they were. I pulled back the veil in daily life, thus Buddhism (and in some ways Taoism) was an obvious fit for me. 

I guess it also helped that some of my favorite bands at that time were The Police and The Beatles.


I know all of this seems as though I’m rambling, and the question would be, “what does any of this have to do with Anicca?” 

All of this is Anicca. Memories of the past that have happened and, though not forgotten, are in a way impermanent. 

So why do I disagree with the article and its use of Anicca? 

To understand Anicca we must first touch upon Dukkha.

Dukkha would be the real core concept of Buddhism, and is very difficult to describe in any western language. In the west it has been attempted to boil it down to core concepts, but that, in practice, is nearly impossible. We have mistranslated what Siddhartha Gautama meant as Dukkha to “suffering,” but that is not the true meaning.

We must remember that most of what has been chosen to be practiced in Buddhism came from a man of mid-life crisis age that left his family without a word. He had a fear of aging and death as any man fearing his mortality would. 

It’s best said by him:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: Birth is Dukkha, aging is Dukkha, sickness is Dukkha, death is Dukkha. Presence of objects we loathed is Dukkha; separation from what we love is Dukkha; not getting what is wanted is Dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are Dukkha.”

Dukkha means, in the best way to describe it,  “unsettling.” Though it has always been attributed to “suffering” in the west, that is incorrect. Its true meaning should more be attributed to “stress.”

Those words are what describe the Buddha’s view of Dukkha and are the origin of Anicca, Anicca being those worries mentioned by the Buddha and the Dukkha of those things being the emotion arising as they occur. 

To the layman of the West, it can be said that the original article is not wrong, and I am just foolish to disagree with it, but in a way it is. 
Choosing to change locales, directions, and move to a different location is not really Anicca.

What the article described is more in line with what is described as Dukkha, as can be seen here, but Dukkha has been largely ignored in the west. 


Well I have a few theories, but let me first touch upon what I have seen and experienced as described to me as Anicca or impermanence, so it can be understood where I am “coming from,” so to speak. 

Recently I went through (am still going through) a separation. One of the key factors being that my spouse had “found a new life in yoga” and suddenly found need to find herself, at my expense, of course.

My spouse used a description of all things being impermanent to describe, actually to excuse, her part in the dissolution of our marriage. 

I, Buddhist for twenty years at that time (now twenty one years), found something unsettling in what she was saying. Not that this sudden bombshell was not disturbing enough, but her use of the concept of impermanence.

On the surface she may have seemed right, but due to what I’d always lived in Buddhism, a way of life and not a way to feel special or part of a new, trendy, private club, I suddenly realized how much she, and I later learned many, did not actually understand about Buddhism or impermanence.

Tanais Fox

From there I became part of the Burning Man culture, again because I saw aspects of it I liked and agreed with, Buddhism and spirituality being a core aspect that drew me in. But, again, as I delved deeper into the culture, witnessing its proliferate “polyamory,” I again saw how the concepts of Buddhism had been abused. 

I witnessed so many couples, male and female, cajole their significant others into “accepting impermanence” as way to overcome such emotions as jealousy, or a reason as to why they just “weren’t working out”, and again I felt that familiar “Dukkha” rise within me. 

Something just was not right.

A decision one makes to make changes is not Anicca. To be honest, it is barely Dukkha. It is a decision one has made that one should continue to take full responsibility upon oneself, not explain away as one Buddhist concept or another, to escape their core responsibility of their actions. 

That is not what Buddhism was ever meant for. Even in the later years, when the Buddha grew from the solitary, almost egocentric view of a child, to the inclusive view of an adult, he never explained away or neglected responsibility for his actions. 
His was a path of discovery. I have even been told the Rinpoches, upon coming to the west, equated Buddhism with developmental psychology, and in practice I have learned, from my experience, they are correct.  He took the long road so we could skip to the middle way.

Anicca is the concept of change that is so spouted upon in Buddhism but not fully understood in the west. It is the cycle that continues all through out life. It is the fact that nothing ceases to exist, such as memories, but the “moment” has passed, or “changed.”

It’s said best by renowned Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse:

“We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.”

What Anicca is not is an excuse to be irresponsible, to “live in the present” as it were, but rather “to be present,” as is intended to be learned through meditation and mindfulness practice. 
And Anicca is not the sentimentality one feels of those past moments in time; that is Dukkha. 

I will admit I largely ignored this in the past, “only seeing the positive” in people, requiring my own personal experience to open my eyes to it, another “Nirvana,” or “Awakening,” if you will.

And now that I have “Re-awakened,” I feel cannot sit idly by and allow this misuse of such a potentially great way of life. If only people would stop “using” it and instead actually understand it enough to “live” it. 

And that is the wish I have for everyone, as I sit here, within Dukkha, writing these words.


Hector Barrientos-Bullock began his foray into Buddhism, Taoism, and Brahman(ism) at the age of 16 after reading revelations and realizing fear was not what he felt a religion should be based upon. He joined the US Navy JUST so he could go to Japan and fulfilled that wish on his first tour, allowing him to visit Buddhist temples in Hong Kong, Kamakura, Australia, Singapore and Thailand. He works as a government contract accountant (sporadically) with plans to travel the world in the next year or two. He’s a “Burner”, a novice poi spinner and hoop dancer, has a passion for Jaguars, MINIs. British Motorcycles, learning languages to communicate with more people, and is constantly told he is an amazing dancer (so it MUST be true.) He continues self study in Buddhism, mostly living the Dharma rather than misunderstood dogma, and his two cats think HE is the BIGGEST cat they have ever seen.

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