Understanding the three universal characteristics is an essential element of Buddhism. The teaching of the three characteristics (like the four noble truths, karma, and the five aggregates of experience), is key to obtaining wisdom.
The three characteristics of existence are: 1) impermanence; 2) suffering or unsatisfactoriness; and 3) not-self. These three characteristics are always present and they tell us about the nature of our existence. By studying each, we can learn to develop renunciation or non-clinging. Once we fully understand that existence is universally characterized by impermanence, suffering and not-self, then we can eliminate our attachment to existence. Once we eliminate our attachment to existence, we obtain nirvana.
Stated another way, the purpose of understanding the three characteristics is to remove attachment by removing the misunderstanding or delusion that existence is permanent, pleasant and has something to do with the self. This is why understanding the three characteristics is a component of wisdom.
I. The First Characteristic: Impermanence
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once marked that one cannot step into the same river twice.
This includes our physical body, which is subject to constant change. We grow old and gray – our teeth and hair fall out. If you need any proof of impermanence of the physical form, just look at the photograph on your driver’s license or passport of the years.
Similarly, our mental states are impermanent. At one moment we are happy and at another moment sad. As infants, we hardly understand anything. Then as adults in the prime of life, we understand a great deal more. Finally, in old age, we lose the power of our mental faculties and become like infants again.
This universal law of constant change is true of everything we see around us. Not one of the things we see will last forever – not the houses or apartments, not the rivers or islands, not the mountain chains or the oceans.
We know for a fact that all of these things in nature, even the solar system itself, will one day decline and cease to exist. It doesn’t matter how durable or forever-lasting we think they might be. Impermanence is a fact that can be verified by direct, immediate observation. Understanding impermanence serves as an antidote to greed and anger.
How can understanding impermanence help me in my daily life?
Understanding the concept of impermanence is important not only in our pursuit of inner peace but is also useful in our daily lives. For example, recognizing that our relationships with friends, enemies and our families are in constant change can be enormously helpful.
For example, how often do friendships and marriages fail because one or both parties fail to take into account the fact that the other partner has changed? It is only nature that people’s attitudes and interests change over time.
Relationship problems often develop because we lock ourselves into fixed, artificial, unchanging ideas of ourselves, our friends and our relatives. Because we fail to see the constant change in ourselves and others, we fail to develop our relationships appropriately and therefore often fail to understand one another.
Similarly, in our work and careers, we don’t stand a chance of succeeding if we don’t keep up with changing trends, tools, and technologies in our professions. Understanding impermanence is necessary if we are to be successful, effective, competitive and creative in how we handle our personal and professional affairs.
When we see that all things are perishable and change every moment, we begin to see that things have no substantial existence of their own – that inside us, there is nothing like a self, nothing substantial. In this sense, impermanence is directly related to the last of the three characteristics, the characteristic of not-self.
II. The Second Characteristic: Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness
Buddha taught that impermanence is not the cause of suffering. If impermanence always caused suffering, then there would be no cure for suffering – no path to inner peace.
Rather, impermanence is only an opportunity or occasion for suffering because impermanence only results in suffering so long as ignorance, craving and clinging are present. How is this so? In our ignorance of the real nature of things, we crave and cling to objects in hope that they will become permanent, that they will yield permanent happiness. Yet the wise know this to be impossible.
We suffer because we fail to understand that youth, health and life itself are impermanent. When this occurs, impermanence is an occasion for suffering. Similarly, when we fail to recognize the impermanent nature of possessions, power and prestige, we crave and cling to them. When they end, impermanence is an occasion for suffering. However, if we have wisdom and do not cling or crave, then we can experience the impermanence of every situation, every encounter and every object with peace.
III. The Third Characteristic: Non-Self
The third universal characteristic of existence is the characteristic of not-self or non-self. This is one of the really distinct features of Buddha’s teachings versus other religions. Often the teaching of not-self causes confusion because people wonder how one can deny the self. After all, we do say, “I am walking” or “I am speaking” or “I am called so and so” or “I am the father of such and such person.” So how can we deny the reality of that “I”?
It is important to remember that the Buddhist rejection of “I”, “Me” and “Mine” is not a rejection of this convenient designation or convention, i.e., a person’s name or reference to “I”, “Me” or “Mine”. Rather, it is a rejection of the idea that this name or term “I” stands for a substantial, permanent and changeless being. When Buddha examined the Five Aggregates of Experience, he noted that “the self” was not found to be one of them. Buddha meant that, upon analysis, this name or the term “I” does not correspond to any essence or entity.
Buddha’s rejection of the self is a rejection of the belief in a real, independent, permanent entity that is represented by the name or term “I”. Such a permanent entity would have to be independent and sovereign in a way that a king is the master of those around him. It would have to be impervious to change and such a permanent entity, such a self, is nowhere to be found.
As evidence that the self is nowhere to be found either in the body or in the mind, you can try a very simple exercise. If we all sit quietly for a brief period of time and look within our bodies and minds, without fail we find that we cannot locate a self anywhere. The only possible conclusion is that “the self” is just a convenient name for a collection of factors. There is no self, no soul, essence, and no core of personal experience apart from the ever-changing, impermanent physical and mental factors of personal experience such as our feelings, ideas, habits and attitudes.
How can rejecting the idea of “a self” benefit us in our daily lives?
But why should we care to reject the idea of a self? Will doing so benefit us at all? Yes, we can benefit in two important ways. First, we can benefit on a mundane level, in our everyday lives, in that we become more creative, more comfortable, more open people.
As long as we cling to the self, we will always have to defend ourselves, our property, our prestige, and our opinions. But once we give up the belief in an independent and permanent self, we will be able to relate to other people and situations without being defensive. We will be able to act freely, spontaneously and creatively.
How is rejecting the idea of “a self” a key to enlightenment?
The belief in a self is synonymous with ignorance, and ignorance is the most basic of the three afflictions. Once we identify or imagine ourselves as an entity, we create a separation between ourselves and the people and things around us. Once we have this concept of self, we respond to the people and things around us either attachment or anger. Believe in the concept of self blocks the path to inner peace because the self is the source and the cause of all suffering.
We should do our best to reject and eliminate this idea of a self rather than trying to defend, protect and preserve it. When we understand through study, consideration and meditation that all things are impermanent, are full of suffering, and are not-self.
Further, we must strive for our understanding of these truths to not merely be intellectual or academic but for these truths to become part of our immediate experience. When these delusions are removed, wisdom arises. And when wisdom arises, we experience the inner peace and freedom of nirvana.