Handbook for Mankind

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


We shall now discuss in detail the three characteristics common to all things, namely impermanence, unsatisfactoriness (suffering) and non-selfhood.

All things whatsoever have the property of changing incessantly; they are unstable. All things whatsoever have the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness; seeing them evokes disillusionment and disenchantment in anyone having clear insight into their nature. Nothing whatsoever is such that we are justified in regarding it as “mine.” To our normally imperfect vision, things appear as selves; but as soon as our vision becomes clear, unobscured and accurate, we realize that there is no self-entity present in any of them.

These three characteristics were the aspect of the teaching which the Buddha stressed more than any other. The entire teaching when summed up amounts simply to insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-selfhood. Sometimes they are mentioned explicitly, sometimes they are expressed in other terms, but fundamentally they aim at demonstrating the same single truth. The impermanence of all things had been taught before the time of the Buddha, but it had not been expounded as profoundly as it was by the Buddha. Unsatisfactoriness, likewise, had been taught but not in its full depth. It had not been treated from the point of view of causation, and no directions had been given as to how it could be thoroughly and completely done away with. Earlier teachers had not understood its true nature as did the Buddha in his enlightenment. As for non-selfhood in the ultimate sense, this is taught only in Buddhism This doctrine tells us that a person who has complete understanding of the “what is what” or the nature of things will know that nothing whatsoever is a self or belongs to a self. This was taught only by the Buddha, who truly had a complete and thorough understanding of the “what is what” or the true nature of things. The ways of practice designed to bring about insight in these three characteristics are numerous; but one single noteworthy fact is bound to be revealed once that perfect insight has been attained, namely the fact that nothing is worth grasping at or clinging to. There is nothing that we should want to get, to have, to be. In short: nothing is worth getting; nothing is worth being. Only when one has come to perceive that having anything or being anything is a delusion, a deception, a mirage, and that nothing at all is worth getting or worth being, has one achieved true insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-selfhood. A man may have been reciting the formula: “anicca, dukkha, anatta” morning and evening hundreds and thousands of times and yet not be able to perceive these characteristics. It is just not in their nature to be perceptible through hearing or reciting.

Now intuitive insight, or what we call “seeing Dhamma,” is not by any means the same thing as rational thinking. One will never come to see Dhamma by means of rational thinking. Intuitive insight can be gained only by means of a true inner realization. For instance, suppose we are examining a situation where we had thoughtlessly become quite wrapped up in something which later caused us suffering. If, on looking closely at the actual course of events, we become genuinely fed up, disillusioned and disenchanted with that thing, we can be said to have seen Dhamma, or to have gained clear insight. This clear insight may develop in time until it is perfected, and has the power to bring liberation from all things. If a person recites aloud: “anicca, dukkha, anatta” or examines these characteristics day and night without ever becoming disenchanted with things, without ever losing the desire to get things or to be something, or the desire to cling to things, that person has not yet attained to insight. In short, then, insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-selfhood amounts to realizing that nothing is worth getting or worth being.

There is a word in Buddhism that covers this completely, the word sunnata, or emptiness, emptiness of selfhood, emptiness of any essence that we might have a right to cling to with all our might as being “mine.” Observation, which leads to the insight that all things are devoid of any essence that is worth clinging to is the real core of the religion. It is the key to Buddhist practice. When we have come to know clearly that everything of every kind is devoid of selfhood we can be said to know Buddha-Dhamma in its entirety. The single phrase “empty of self” sums up the words “impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not self (anatta).” When something is perpetually changing, devoid of any permanent unchanging element, it can also be said to be empty. When it is seen to be overflowing with the property of inducing disillusionment, it can be described as empty of any entity that we might have a right to cling to. And when we discover on examination that it possesses no stable component whatever that could be “self,” that it is simply nature, changing and fluctuating in accordance with the laws of nature, which we have no right to call a self, then it can be described as empty of self. As soon as any individual has come to perceive the emptiness of things, there arises in him the realization that it is not worth getting or being any of those things. This feeling of not desiring to get or to be has the power to protect one from falling slave, to the defilements or to any kind of emotional involvement. Once an individual has attained this condition, he is thenceforth incapable of any unwholesome state of mind. He does become carried away by or involved in anything. He does not become in any way attracted or seduced by anything. His mind knows permanent liberty and independence, and is free from suffering.

The statement “Nothing is worth getting or being” is to be understood in a rather special sense. The words “get” and “be” refer here to getting and being with a deluded mind, with a mind that grasps and clings wholly and entirely. It is not suggested that one could live without having or being an thing at all. Normally there are certain things one can’t do without. One needs property, children, wife, garden, field and so on. One is to be good, one can’t help being a winner or a loser, or having some status or other. One can’t help being something or other. Why then are we taught to regard things as not worth getting or being? The answer is this: the concepts of getting and being are purely relative; they are worldly ideas based on ignorance. Speaking in terms of pure reality, or absolute truth, we cannot get or be anything at all. And why? Simply because both the person who is to do the getting and the thing that is to be got are impermanent, unsatisfactory (suffering) and nobody’s property. But an individual who doesn’t perceive this will naturally think “I am getting…, I have…, I am….” We automatically think in these terms, and it is this very concept of getting and being that is the source of distress and misery.

Getting and being represent a form of desire, namely the desire not to let the thing that one is in the process of getting or being disappear or slip away. Suffering arises from desire to have and desire to be, in short, from desire; and desire arises from failure to realize that all things are inherently undesirable. The false idea that things are desirable is present as an instinct right from babyhood and is the cause of desire. Consequent on the desire there come about results of one sort or another, which may or may not accord with the desire. If the desired result is obtained, there will arise a still greater desire. If the desired result is not obtained, there is bound to follow a struggling and striving until one way or another it is obtained. Keeping this up results in the vicious circle: action (karma), result, action, result, which is known as the Wheel of Samsara. Now this word samsara is not to be taken as referring to an endless cycle of one physical existence after another. In point of fact it refers to a vicious circle of three events: desire; action in keeping with the desire; effect resulting from that action; inability to stop desiring, having to desire once more; action; once again another effect; further augmenting of desire … and so on endlessly. Buddha called this the “Wheel” of samsara because it is endless cycling on, a rolling on. It is because of this very circle that we are obliged to endure suffering and torment. To succeed in breaking loose from this vicious circle is to attain freedom from all forms of suffering, in other words Nirvana. Regardless of whether a person is a pauper or a millionaire, a king or an emperor, a celestial being or a god, or anything at all, as long as he is caught up in this vicious circle, he is obliged to experience suffering and torment of one kind or another, in keeping with his desire. We can say then that this wheel of samsara is well and truly overloaded with suffering. For the rectifying of this situation morality is quite inadequate. To resolve the problem we have to depend on the highest principles of Dhamma.

We have seen that suffering has its origins in desire, which is just what the Buddha set out in the Second Noble Truth. Now there are three kinds of desire. The first kind is sensual desire, desiring and finding pleasure in things: in shapes and colors, sounds, scents, tastes, or tactile objects. The second kind is desire for becoming, desire to be this or that according to what one wants. The third kind is desire not to become, desire not to be this or that. That there are just these three kinds of desire is an absolute rule. Anyone is defied to challenge this rule and demonstrate the existence of a kind of desire other than these three.

Anyone can observe that wherever there is desire, there distress is too; and when we are forced to act on a desire, we are bound to suffer again in accordance with the action. Having got the result, we are unable to put an end to our desire, so we carry right on desiring. The reason we are obliged to continue experiencing distress is that we are not yet free from desire, but are still slaves to it. Thus it can be said that an evil man does evil because he desires to do evil, and experiences the kind of suffering appropriate to the nature of an evil man; and that a good man desires to do good, and so is bound to experience another kind of suffering, a kind appropriate to the nature of a good man. But don’t understand this as teaching us to give up doing good. It is simply teaching us to realize that there exist degrees of suffering so fine that the average man cannot detect them. We have to act on the Buddha’s advice: if we are to break free from suffering completely, simply doing good is not sufficient. It is necessary to do things beyond and above the doing of good, things that will serve to free the mind from the condition of serfdom and slavery to desire of any kind. This is the quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching. It cannot be bettered or equalled by any other religion in the world, so ought to be carefully remembered. To succeed in overcoming these three forms of desire is to attain complete liberation from suffering.

How can we eliminate desire, extinguish it, cut it out at its roots and put an end to it for good? The answer to this is simply: observe and take note of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness (suffering) and non-selfhood until we come to see that there is nothing worth desiring. What is there worth getting or being? What is there such that when a person has got it or becomes it, it fails to give rise to some kind of suffering? Ask yourself this question: What is there that you can get or be that will not bring distress and anxiety? Think it over. Does having a wife and children lead to lightheartedness and freedom or does it bring all sorts of responsibilities? Is the gaining of high position and title the gaining of peace and calm or the gaining of heavy obligations? Looking at things in this way, we readily see that these things always bring only burden and responsibility. And why? Everything whatsoever is a burden simply by virtue of its characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non selfhood. Having got something, we have to see to it that it stays with us, is as we wish it to be, or is of benefit to us. But that thing is by nature impermanent unsatisfactory and nobody’s property. It cannot conform to the aims and objectives of anyone. It will only change as is its nature. All our efforts, then, are an attempt to oppose and withstand the law of change; and life, as an attempt to make things conform to our wishes, is fraught with difficulty suffering.

There exists a technique for coming to realize that nothing at all is worth getting or being. It consists in examining things deeply enough to discover that in the presence of craving one has feelings of a certain kind towards getting and being; that when desire has given way completely to insight into the true nature of things, one’s attitude towards getting and being is rather different. As an easy example let us consider eating. One man’s eating accompanied by craving and desire for delicious tastes must have certain features that distinguish it from another man’s eating, which is accompanied not by desire, but by clear comprehension, or insight into the true nature of things. Their eating manners must differ, their feelings while eating must differ, and so must the results arising from their eating.

Now what we have to realize is that one can still eat food even though one lacks all craving for delicious tastes. The Buddha and Arahants, individuals devoid of craving, were still able to do things and be things. They were still able to do work, far more in fact than any of us can with all our desires. What was the power by virtue of which they did it? What corresponded to the power of craving, of desiring to be this or that, by virtue of which we do things? The answer is that they did it by the power of insight, clear and thorough knowledge of what is what or the true nature of things. We by contrast are motivated by desire, with the result that we are, unlike them, continually subject to suffering. They did not desire to get or possess anything, and as a result others were benefited thanks to their benevolence. Their wisdom told them to make it known rather than remain indifferent, and so they were able to pass the teaching on to us.

Freedom from craving brings many incidental benefits. A body and mind freed from craving can look for and partake of food motivated by intelligent discrimination and not, as before, by desire. If we wish to break free from suffering, following the footsteps of the Buddha and the arahants, then we must train ourselves to act with discrimination rather than with craving. If you are a student, then learn how to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, and verify that studying is the very best thing for you to be doing. If you have a job of some kind, then learn how to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, and satisfy yourself that that job is the best thing for you to be doing, and of benefit to all concerned. Then do it well, and with all the coolness and equanimity your insight provides. If, in doing something, we are motivated by desire, then we worry while doing it and we worry when we have finished; but if we do it with the guiding power of discrimination, we shall not be worried at all. This is the difference it makes.

It is essential, then, that we be always aware that, in reality all things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and not selves, that is, that they are not worth getting or being. If we are to become involved in them, then let us do so with discrimination and our actions will not be contaminated with desire. If we act wisely, we shall be free of suffering right from beginning to end. The mind will not blindly grasp at and cling to things as worth getting and being. We shall be sure to act with wakefulness, and be able to proceed in accordance with tradition and custom, or in accordance with the law. For example, though we may own land and property, we need not necessarily have any greedy feelings about them. We need not cling to things to the extent that they become a burden, weighing down and tormenting the mind. The law is bound to see to it that our piece of land remains in our possession. We don’t need to suffer worry and anxiety about it. It isn’t going to slip through our fingers and disappear. Even if someone comes along and snatches it from us, we can surely still resist and protect it intelligently. We can resist without becoming angry, without letting ourselves become heated with the flame of hatred. We can depend on the law and do our resisting without any need to experience suffering. Certainly we ought to watch over our property; but if it should in fact slip out of our grip, then becoming emotional about it won’t help matters at all. All things are impermanent, perpetually changing. Realizing this, we need not become upset about anything.

“Being” is the same. There is no need to cling to one’s state of being this or that, because in reality there is no satisfactory condition at all. All conditions bring about suffering of one kind or another. There is a very simple technique, which we must have a look at later, known as vipassana, the direct practice of Dhamma. It consists of close introspection, which reveals that there is nothing worth being, or that there is really no satisfactory state of being at all. Have a look at this question yourself; see if you can discover any satisfactory condition or state of being. Being a son? a parent? husband? wife? master? servant? Is any of these agreeable? Even being the man with the advantage, the one with the upper hand, the winner–is that agreeable? Is the condition of a human being agreeable? Even the condition of a celestial being or a god–would that be agreeable? When you have really come to know the what is what, you find that nothing whatsoever is in any way agreeable. We are making do with mindlessly getting and being. But why should we go risking life and limb by getting and being blindly, always acting on desire? It behoves us to understand things and live wisely, involving ourselves in things in such a way that they cause a minimum of suffering, or ideally, none at all.

Here is another point: we must bring to our fellow men, our friends, and particularly our relatives and those close to us, the understanding that this is how things are, so that they may have the same right view as we have. There will then be no upsets in the family, the town, the country, and ultimately in the whole world. Each individual mind will be immune to desire, neither grasping at nor becoming wrapped up in anything or anyone. Instead everyone’s life will be guided by insight, by the ever-present, unobscured vision that there is in reality nothing that we can grasp at and cling to. Everyone will come to realize that all things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and devoid of any self-entity, that none of them are worth becoming infatuated with. It is up to us to have the sense to give them up, to have right views, in keeping with the Buddha’s teaching. A person who has done this is fit to be called a true Buddhist. Though he may never have been ordained nor even taken the precepts, he will have truly penetrated to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. His mind will be identical with that of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. It will be uncontaminated, enlightened and tranquil, simply by virtue of not grasping at anything as worth getting or worth being. So a person can readily become a genuine, full-fledged Buddhist simply by means of this technique of being observant, perceiving impermanence, unsatisfactoriness selfhood until he comes to realize that there is nothing worth getting or being.

The lowest forms of evil originate in and are powered by desire to get and to be; milder forms of evil consist of actions less strongly motivated by desire; and all goodness consists of action based on the finest, most tenuous sort of desire, the desire to get or to be, on a good level. Even in its highest forms, good is based on desire which, however, is so fine and tenuous that people don’t consider it in any way a bad thing. The fact is, however, that good action can never bring complete freedom from suffering. A person who has become free from desire, that is to say an Arahant, is one who has ceased acting on desire and has become incapable of doing evil. His actions lie outside the categories of good and evil. His mind is free and has transcended the limitations of good and evil. Thus he is completely free of suffering. This is a fundamental principle of Buddhism. Whether or not we are able to do it or wish to do it, this is the way to liberation from suffering. Today we may not yet want it; some day we are bound to want it. When we have completely given up evil and have done good to our utmost, the mind will still be weighed down with various kinds of attenuated desire, and there is no known way of getting rid of them other than by striving to go beyond the power of desire, to go beyond the desire to get or be anything, bad or good. If there is to be Nirvana, freedom from suffering of every kind, there has to be absolute and complete absence of desire.

In short, to know what is what in the ultimate sense is to see everything as impermanent, unsatisfactory and devoid of selfhood. When we really know this, the mind comes to see things in such a way that it does not cling to get or to be anything. But if we have to become involved in things in the ways known as “having” and “being,” then we become involved intelligently, motivated by insight, and not by desire. Acting thus, we remain free from suffering.