In a letter to the Hon. Lionel Sumaratunga the Ven. Ñanavira wrote:
"You ask whether aniccatá (or impermanence) in the Dhamma does not refer to things regarded objectively rather than subjectively. Certainly, aniccatá does not not refer to things regarded objectively (note the double negative); and there are, no doubt, passages in the Suttas where this meaning is intended (or at least not excluded). It is clear enough that a person regarding any thing as objectively permanent (as the Christians, for example, regard God or heaven or hell) cannot even begin to understand the Buddha's Teaching. An aspiring Buddhist must first of all understand that there is no single thing (objectively speaking) that lasts for ever.
But if aniccatá means no more than this, we soon run into difficulties; for modern physical science, which is as objective as can be, says the same thing -- indeed, it goes further and says that everything is constantly changing. And this is precisely the point of view of our modern commentators. The Buddha, as you may know, has said,
Yad aniccam tam dukkham;
yam dukkham tad anattá What is impermanent is suffering;
what is suffering is not-self;
and I was told that one gentleman several years ago argued from this that since a stone is impermanent it must therefore experience suffering. And not only he, but also most of the Buddhist world agree that since a stone is impermanent -- i.e. in perpetual flux (according to the scientific concept) -- it has no lasting self-identity; that is to say, it is anattá or not-self. The notion that a stone feels pain will probably find few supporters outside Jain circles; but this objective interpretation of the Buddha's Teaching of anattá is firmly established.
'But what' perhaps you may ask 'is wrong with this?' In the first place, it implies that modern science has caught up with the Buddha's Teaching (which, presumably, we can now afford to throw overboard, since science is bound to make further progress) -- see, in this connexion, note (j) in the Preface of Notes, beginning 'It is all the fashion...'. In the second place, it involves the self-contradictory notion of universal flux -- remember the disciple of Heraclitus, who said that one cannot cross the same river even once (meaning that if everything is in movement there is no movement at all).[a] In the third place, if aniccatá refers only to things regarded objectively and not subjectively (as you suggest), the subject is ipso facto left out of account, and the only meaning that is left for attá or 'self' is the self-identity of the object. But -- as I point out in the admittedly very difficult article ATTÁ -- the Dhamma is concerned purely and simply with 'self' as subject ('I', 'mine'), which is the very thing that you propose to omit by being objective. The fact is, that the triad, anicca/dukkha/anattá has no intelligible application if applied objectively to things. The objective application of aniccatá is valid in the exact measure that objectivity is valid -- that is to say, on a very coarse and limited level only. Objectivity is an abstraction or rationalization from subjectivity -- even the scientist when he is engaged on his experiments is at that time subjective, but when he has finished his series of experiments he eliminates the subjectivity (himself) and is left with the objective result. This means that though there can be no objectivity without an underlying subjectivity, there can quite possibly be subjectivity without objectivity; and the objective aniccatá is only distantly related to the much finer and more subtle subjective aniccatá. It must be remembered that it is only the ariya, and not the puthujjana, who perceives pure subjective aniccatá (it is in seeing subjective aniccatá that the puthujjana becomes ariya; and at that time he is wholly subjective -- the coarse objective perception of aniccatá has been left far behind) -- see, in this connexion, PARAMATTHA SACCA §4 (I think). Objective aniccatá can be found outside the Buddha's Teaching, but not subjective aniccatá." (emphasis mine)