Change is inherent in all phenomenal existence. There is nothing animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic that we can label as permanent, since even as we affixed that label on something it would undergo metamorphosis. Realizing this central fact of life by direct experience within himself, the Buddha declared, "Whether a fully Enlightened One has arisen in the world or not, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact and fixed law that all formations are impermanent, subject to suffering, and devoid of substance." Anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (insubstantiality) are the three characteristics common to all sentient existence.
Of these, the most important in the practice of Vipassana is anicca. As meditators, we come face to face with the impermanence of ourselves. This enables us to realize that we have no control over this phenomenon, and that any attempt to manipulate it creates suffering. We thus learn to develop detachment, an acceptance of anicca, an openness to change, enabling us to live happily amid all the vicissitudes of life. Hence the Buddha said that:
To one who perceives the impermanence, O meditators, the perception of insubstantiality manifests itself. And in one who perceives insubstantiality, egotism is destroyed. And (as a result) even in this present life one attains liberation. The comprehending of anicca leads automatically to a grasp of anatta and dukkha, and whosoever realizes these facts naturally turns to the path that leads out of suffering.
Given the crucial importance of anicca, it is not surprising the Buddha repeatedly stressed its significance for the seekers of liberation. In the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta, the principal text in which he explained the technique of Vipassana, he described the stages in the practice, which must in every case lead to the following experience:
(The meditator) abides observing the phenomenon of arising . . . abides observing the phenomenon of passing away . . . abides observing the phenomenon of arising and passing away.
We must recognize the fact of impermanence not merely in its readily apparent aspect around and within us. Beyond that, we must learn to see the subtle reality that every moment we ourselves are changing, that the "I" with which we are infatuated is a phenomenon in constant flux. With this experience we can easily emerge from egotism and so from suffering.
Seeing this, O meditators, the well-instructed noble disciple becomes satiated with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind (i.e., with sensory existence altogether). Being satiated he does not have the passion for them. Being passionless he is set free. In this freedom arises the realization that he is freed.
In this passage the Buddha makes a sharp distinction between knowing by hearsay and by personal insight. One may be a sutavā, that is, someone who has heard about the Dhamma and accepts it on faith or perhaps intellectually. That acceptance, however, is insufficient to liberate anyone from the cycle of suffering. To attain liberation one must see truth for oneself, must experience it directly within oneself. That is what Vipassana meditation enables us to do.
If we are to understand the unique contribution of the Buddha, we must keep this distinction firmly in mind. The truth of which he spoke was not unknown before him and was current in India in his time. He did not invent the concepts of impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality. His uniqueness lies in having found a way to advance from hearing truth to experiencing it.