The subject today is the three universal characteristics of existence. This is an important part of the teachings of the Buddha. Like the Four Noble Truths, karma, the teaching of dependent origination and the five aggregates, the teaching of the three characteristics is part of what we might call the doctrinal contents of wisdom. In other words, when we talk about the knowledge and the understanding that is implied by wisdom, we have this teaching in mind.
Before we examine the characteristics individually, let us come to an understanding of what they mean and in what way they are useful. First of all, what is a characteristic and what is not? A characteristic is something which is necessarily connected with something else. Because the characteristic is necessarily connected with something, it can tell us about the nature of that thing. Let us take an example. Heat for instance is a characteristic of fire but not a characteristic of water. Heat is the characteristic of fire because the heat of the fire is always and invariably connected with fire. On the other hand, the heat of water depends on external factors – an electric stove, the heat of the sun and so forth. But the heat of fire is natural to fire. It is in this sense that the Buddha uses the term “characteristic” to refer to facts about the nature of existence, that are always connected with existence and that are always found in existence. The characteristic heat is always connected with fire. So we can understand something about the nature of fire from heat. We can understand that fire is hot. We can understand that we can use fire to cook our food, to warm ourselves and so forth. The characteristic of heat tells us something about fire, how to use fire and what to do with fire. If we were to think of the characteristic of heat as connected with water, it would not help us to use water because heat is not always connected with water. We cannot cook our food with water. We cannot warm ourselves with water. So when the Buddha said that there are three characteristics of existence, He meant that these characteristics are always present in existence, and that they help us to understand what to do with existence.
The three characteristics of existence that we have in mind are the characteristics of impermanence (Anitya), suffering (Duhkha) and not-self (Anatma). These three characteristics are always present in or are connected with existence, and they tell us about the nature of existence. They help us to know what to do with existence. What we learn to develop as a result of understanding the three characteristics is renunciation. Once we understand that existence is universally characterized by impermanence, suffering and not-self, we eliminate our attachment to existence. Once we eliminate our attachment to existence, we gain the threshold of Nirvana. This is the purpose that understanding the three characteristics serves. It removes attachment by removing delusions, the misunderstanding that existence is permanent, is pleasant and has something to do with the self. This is why understanding the three characteristics is part of the contents of wisdom.
Let us look at the first of the three characteristics of existence, the characteristic of impermanence. The fact of impermanence has been recognized not only in Buddhist thought but also elsewhere in the history of philosophy. It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who remarked that one could not step into the same river twice. This remark, which implies the ever-changing and transient nature of things is a very buddhistic remark. In the Buddhist scriptures, it is said that the three worlds (Dhatus) are impermanent like autumn clouds; that birth and death are like a dance; and that human life is like a flash of lightning or a waterfall. All these are compelling images of impermanence and they help us to understand that all things are marked or characterized by impermanence.
If we look at our own personality, we will find that our bodies are impermanent. They are subject to constant change. We grow thin. We grow old and grey, our teeth fall out, our hair falls out. If one needs any proof of the impermanence of the physical form, one need only look at one’s own photograph on one’s own driving licence or passport over the years. Similarly, our mental states are impermanent. At one moment we are happy, and at another moment we are sad. As infants, we hardly understand anything. As adults, in the prime of life we understand a great deal more. And again in old age we lose the power of our mental faculties and become like infants. Our minds are also characterized by impermanence. This is true also of the things that we see around us. Everything we see around us is impermanent. Not one thing will last forever – not the office blocks, nor the temples, nor the rivers and islands, nor the mountain chains, nor the oceans. We know for a fact that all these natural phenomena, even those that appear to be the most durable, even the solar system itself will one day decline and become extinct.
This process of constant change of all things – personal and impersonal, internal and external, goes on constantly even without our noticing it, and it affects us intimately in our daily life. Our relations with other individuals are subject to the characteristic of impermanence and change. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends. Enemies even become relatives. Relatives become enemies. If we look closely at our life, we can see how all our relationships with other people are marked by impermanence. Our possessions are also impermanent. Those things that we dearly love – our homes, our automobiles, our clothes, all these are impermanent. All of them will decay and eventually be destroyed. So in every aspect of our life, whether it be personal or material, or whether with regard to our relationships with others, or whether it be our possessions, impermanence is a fact, verified by direct immediate observation.
Understanding impermanence is important not simply for our practise of the Dharma but also in our daily life. How often do friendships deteriorate and end because one of the persons involved has failed to take account of the fact that his friend’s attitudes, interests and so forth have changed? How often do marriages fail because one, or both, of the parties fails to take account of the fact that his or her partner has changed? It is because we lock ourselves into fixed, artificial unchanging ideas of the character and personality of our friends and relatives that we fail to develop our relationships with them positively and because of this failure we often fail to understand one another. Similarly, in one’s career or public life, one cannot hope to succeed if one does not keep abreast of changing situations like, for instance, new trends in one’s profession or discipline. So whether it is in regard to our personal life or in regard to our public life, understanding impermanence is necessary if we are to be effective and creative in the way that we handle our personal or professional affairs.
While understanding impermanence yields these immediate benefits, here and now, it is particularly effective as an aid to our practice of the Dharma. The understanding of impermanence is an antidote to desire and ill-will. It is also an encouragement to our practice of the Dharma. And finally, it is a key to understanding the ultimate nature of things, the way things really are.
Remembering death especially is said to be like a friend and a teacher to one who wishes to practise the Dharma. Remembering death acts as a discouragement to excessive desire and ill-will. How many quarrels, petty disagreements, life-long ambitions and enmities fade into insignificance before the recognition of the inevitability of death? Throughout the centuries, Buddhist teachers have encouraged sincere practitioners of the Dharma to remember death, to remember the impermanence of this personality. Some years ago, I had a friend who went to India to study meditation. He approached a very renowned and learned Buddhist teacher and asked him for some meditation instructions. The teacher was reluctant to teach him because he was not convinced of his sincerity. My friend persisted and asked him again and again. Finally, the teacher said to him, “You will die, meditate upon that.” Meditation on death is extremely beneficial. We all need to remember the certainty of our death. From the moment of our birth, we move inexorably towards death. Remembering this, and remembering that at the time of death, wealth, family and fame will be of no use to us, we must turn our mind to the practice of the Dharma. We know that death is absolutely certain. There has never been a single living being who has escaped death.
Yet, while death itself is certain, the time of death is uncertain. We can die at any moment. It is said that life is like a candle in the wind, or a bubble of water. At any moment it may be snuffed out. At any moment it may burst. Understanding that the time of death is uncertain, and that we have now the conditions and opportunity to practise the Dharma, we ought to practise it quickly so that we may not waste this opportunity and this precious human life.
Finally, understanding impermanence is an aid to the understanding of the ultimate nature of things. Seeing that all things are perishable, and change every moment, we also begin to see that things have no substantial existence of their own. That in our persons and in the things around us, there is nothing like a self. So in this sense, impermanence is directly related to the third of the three characteristics, the characteristic of not-self. Understanding impermanence is a key to understanding not-self. We will talk more about this later. For the moment, let us now go on to the second of the three characteristics, the characteristic of suffering.
The Buddha has said that whatever is impermanent is suffering, and whatever is impermanent and suffering is also not-self. Whatever is impermanent is suffering because impermanence is an occasion for suffering. It is an occasion for suffering and not a cause of suffering because impermanence is only an occasion for suffering so long as ignorance, craving and clinging are present. How is that so? In our ignorance of the real nature of things, we crave and cling to objects in the forlorn hope that they may be permanent, that they may yield permanent happiness. Failing to understand that youth, health and life itself are impermanent, we crave for them, we cling to them. We long to hold on to our youth and to prolonging our life and yet because they are impermanent by nature, they slip through our fingers like sand. When this occurs, impermanence is an occasion for suffering. Similarly, we fail to recognize the impermanent nature of possessions, power and prestige. We crave and cling to them. Once they end, impermanence is an occasion for suffering. The impermanence of all situations in samsara is a particular occasion for suffering when it occurs in the so-called fortunate realm. It is said that the suffering of the gods is even greater than the suffering of living beings dwelling in the lower realms of existence when they see that they are about to fall from the heavens into lower realms of existence. Even the gods trembled when the Buddha reminded them of impermanence. So because even those pleasant experiences which we crave and cling to are impermanent, so impermanence is an occasion for suffering and whatever is impermanent is also suffering.
Now we come to the third universal characteristic of existence, the characteristic of not-self, or impersonality, or insubstantiality. This is in a sense one of the really distinctive features of Buddhist thought and of the teachings of the Buddha. During the later development of religion and philosophy in India, some Hindu schools became increasingly similar to the teachings of the Buddha, in their techniques of meditation and in some of their philosophical ideas. So it became necessary for Buddhist masters to point out that there was still one distinctive feature that set Buddhism apart from the Hindu schools that so closely resembled it. That distinctive feature is the teaching of not-self.
Sometimes, this teaching of not-self is an occasion for confusion because often we wonder how one can deny the self. After all, we do say “I am speaking” or “I am walking,” or “I am called so and so”, or “I am the father or the son of such and such a person.” So how can we deny the reality of that “I”? In order to clarify this, I think it is important to remember that the Buddhist rejection of the “I” is not a rejection of this convenient designation, the name “I”. Rather, it is a rejection of the idea that this name “I” stands for a substantial, permanent and changeless reality. When the Buddha said that the five factors of personal experience were not the self, and that the self was not to be found within them He meant that on analysis, this name “I” did not correspond to any essence or entity.
The Buddha has used the example of the chariot and the forest to explain the relation between the term ‘I’ and the components of personal experience. The Buddha has explained that the term “chariot” is simply a convenient name for a collection of parts that is assembled in a particular way. The wheels are not the chariot. Neither is the axle, and neither is the carriage, and so forth. Similarly, an individual tree is not a forest. Neither is a number of individual trees a forest. There is no forest apart from the individual trees. The term forest is just a convenient name for an assembly of individual trees. This is the thrust of the Buddha’s rejection of the self. The Buddha’s rejection is a rejection of the belief in a real, independent, permanent entity that is represented by the term “I”. Such a permanent entity would have to be independent, would have to be sovereign in the way that a king is master of those around him. It would have to be permanent, immutable and impervious to change, and such a permanent entity, such a self is nowhere to be found.
The Buddha has applied the following analysis to the body and mind to indicate that the self is nowhere to be found either in the body or the mind. The body is not the self. For if the body were the self, the self would be impermanent, would be subject to change, decay, destruction, and death. So the body cannot be the self. The self does not possess the body, in the sense that I possess a car or a television, because the self cannot control the body. The body falls ill, gets tired and old against our wishes. The body has a shape which often does not agree with our wishes. So in no way does the self possess the body. The self is not in the body. If we search our body from the top of our head to the tip of our toes, we can nowhere locate the self. The self is not in the bone, nor in the blood, nor in the marrow, nor in the hair, nor in the spittle. The self is nowhere to be found within the body. Similarly, the mind is not the self. The mind is subject to constant change. The mind is forever jumping about like a monkey. The mind is happy at one moment and unhappy at the next. So the mind cannot be the self for the mind is constantly changing. The self does not possess the mind because the mind becomes excited or depressed against our wishes. Although we know that certain thoughts are wholesome, and certain thoughts are unwholesome, the mind pursues unwholesome thoughts and is indifferent towards wholesome thoughts. So the self does not possess the mind because the mind acts independently of the self. The self is not in the mind. No matter how carefully we search the contents of our mind, no matter how carefully we search our thoughts, feelings, and ideas, we can nowhere find the self.
There is a very simple exercise that anyone of us can perform. We can all sit quietly for a brief period of time and look within our body and mind, and without exception we will find that we cannot locate the self anywhere within the body nor the mind. The conclusion remains that the self is just a convenient name for a collection of factors. There is no self, no soul, no essence, no core of personal experience apart from the ever-changing, interdependent, impermanent physical and mental factors of personal experience such as our feelings, ideas, thoughts, habits, and attitudes.
Why should we care to reject the idea of self? How can we benefit by rejecting the idea of self? Here too, we can benefit in two important ways. First of all, in our everyday life, on a mundane level we can benefit in that we will become more creative, more comfortable, and more open people. So long as we cling to the self, we will always have to defend ourselves, to defend our possessions, property, prestige, opinions and even our words. But once we give up this belief in an independent and permanent self, we will be able to relate to other people and situations without paranoia. We will be able to relate freely, spontaneously and creatively. Understanding not-self is therefore an aid to living.
Even more importantly, understanding not-self is a key to enlightenment. The belief in a self is synonymous with ignorance, and ignorance is the most basic of the three defilements. Once we identify, imagine, or conceive of ourselves as an entity, we immediately create a schism, a separation between ourselves and the people and things around us. Once we have this conception of self, we respond to the persons and things around us either with desire or with aversion. In this sense, the self is the real villain of the piece. Seeing that the self is the source and the cause of all suffering, and seeing that the rejection of the self is the cause of the end of suffering, rather than trying to defend, protect and preserve the self, why should we not do our best to reject and eliminate this idea of the self? Why should we not recognize that personal experience is like a banana tree or like an onion, that when we take it apart piece by piece, that when we examine it critically and analytically, we find that it is empty of any essential, substantial core, that it is devoid of the self?
When we understand that all things are impermanent, are full of suffering, and are not-self, and when our understanding of these truths is not merely intellectual or academic but through study, consideration and meditation, the facts of impermanence, suffering and not-self become part of our immediate experience. Through the understanding of impermanence, suffering, and not-self, we will have freed ourselves of the fundamental errors that imprison us within the cycle of birth and death – the error of seeing things as permanent, the error of seeing things as pleasant and the error of seeing things as self. When these delusions are removed, wisdom arises. Just as when darkness is removed, light arises. And when wisdom arises, one experiences the peace and freedom of Nirvana.
This week we have confined ourselves to looking at personal experience in terms of body and mind. Next week we will look more deeply into the Buddhist analysis of personal experience in terms of the elements of our physical and mental universe.