The Buddha taught three characteristics (ti-lakkhaṇa) that apply to all existence in Samsāra, namely impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self or selflessness (anatta).
Nibbāna, on the other hand, is permanent and free from unsatisfactoriness, but even Nibbāna has no self, is selfless.
Thus, the attainment of Nibbāna is not the joining with a greater whole or merging a universal power or principle, with Brahma, the divine or something similar. For all these examples are based on a concept of ‘I’ or the merging of the ‘I’ with ‘something’.
The three characteristics are of great importance because direct experiential insight into one of these characteristics opens the gate to Nibbāna.
By understanding that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and without an identifiable self, the mind can be released and become completely free from desire, hatred and ignorance.
Impermanence (anicca) is often summed up in the Pali Canon with the expression ‘all that has arisen will pass away’.
So important is the rise and fall of things that the Buddha devoted his very last words to this (DN 16):
“Perishable, subject to change, are all formations. Aim relentlessly [for liberation]!”
And even after the death of the Buddha, Sakkha, king of the gods, emphasizes its importance with the words (DN 16):
“Conditions are impermanent, their nature is to rise and fall; having arisen, they cease; their stilling is true bliss.”
At first glance this seems a simple and in everyday life very recognizable statement in the sense of ‘everything comes to an end’, but the words of the Buddha have a more far-reaching meaning than that.
The rising and passing away happens from moment to moment, with such an enormous speed that to everyday perception these moment seem to be a continuous stream.
It can be compared to a movie in which the fast playback of separate images creates the illusion that there is actually movement.
It is the same for mental processes and matter. If concentration is high enough, insight and wisdom can be developed by looking at this instantaneous arising and decay.
With high concentration, you can see that the total of mental processes and matter (nāma-rūpa) is distorted.
It is not the simple observation that a thought comes and goes or the body changes from day to day, for that is a very gross observation.
It is about experiencing at the most subtle level that both the matter of the body and its environment and the mental continuum consist of separate moments that are in continuous flux.
And if impermanence is seen, the other two characteristics follow naturally.
If we cling to that which is impermanent with the misconception that it is permanent, dukkha, the second characteristic, arises.
Dukkha is most often translated as suffering or stress, and it is in these forms that dukkha is most often experienced. But in its more general sense dukkha refers to the unsatisfactoriness that is inherent in all conditioned phenomena.
That leaves the third characteristic, non-self (anattā), one of the most crucial terms in the Dhamma.
In our daily lives we constantly look at and experience ourselves and the world from an ‘I’ perspective. ‘I’ look into the world, ‘I’ want this, ‘I’ don’t want this, this is ‘mine’, etc.
And irrevocably the differentiation and comparison between ‘me’ and ‘the other’ follows. This discernment lies at the root of all the conflicts in the world.
The Buddha repeatedly indicates that the ‘I’ view is a wrong one, not in accordance with reality.
This wrong view is an illusion maintained by desire, hatred and ignorance, and can be seen through concentration and insight. This is what the Buddha taught (SN 22:95):
“Suppose a man of good sight would see the foam on the river Ganges as he rides past, and he would look at it and examine it thoroughly; then, having thoroughly examined it, he would see the foam as empty, volatile, and without substance. In exactly the same way, the monk looks at all material phenomena, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and states of consciousness – whether in the past, the present or the future, far away or near. And when he sees them, and examines them thoroughly, he sees them as empty, vacant, without a self.”
In the standard formula, the Buddha makes the connection with the other two characteristics.
If things are impermanent, then clinging causes suffering. If there were a self, then that self would be able to decide just to be happy and content, but we know from expirience that this is not possible.
We do not have full control over our happiness (or other aspects of consciousness for that matter), any more than we do over the change of our bodies. How, then, can you speak of a self?
We can’t, says the Buddha. Of course, this is just a cognitive theorem to get a first hairline crack in the image of the self through reasoning.
Another cognitive example is thinking about the reality of the concepts we tend use.
Take a house for example. What is a house? If we remove the roof, the doors and windows, is it still a house? Is the house the walls, the foundation, the land it stands on? Soon you will come to the conclusion that a house is nothing more than an agreement.
It is very important, of course, to be able to talk to each other, but it has no real existence, no intrinsic value.
The problem is that we still value these agreements, these concepts. We cling to them as if they do have value.
However, just as with impermanence and suffering, so non-self can ultimately be expirienced by seeing the arising an decay of nāma-rūpa.
Whoever sees this can only conclude that there is no permanent entity, that there are only separate moments that are conditioned and conditioning among themselves.
This conclusion is consistent with everyday life, for although at some point we cannot choose to feel a certain way, we can work on the conditions for a certain mental attribute to emerge more often and more solidly.
If we don’t make an effort, these will be unwholesome traits, nourished by desire, hatred and ignorance. If we do make an effort, we can slowly but surely, very patiently replace these with their positive counterparts and thus purify our mind and make it receptive to liberating insight.
It might be good to put some extra nuance to this in order to prevent people from thinking that such an insight comes abruptly.
After all, unnoticed, we have often created an opinion about the self.
That is, we think ‘I am this’ and can reason this out for ourselves. With the first hairline cracks that arise from meditation and contemplating non-self it is possible that this view diminishes in strength and stops at some point.
The next step is when we notice that we still have the ‘I am’ thought. We may no longer have a comprehensive view about it, but still experience our ‘personal’ existence as a real entity.
By continuing to develop concentration and insight, this too can be transcended at some point.
But even then we are not finished.
Even for those who have made the superhuman effort to transcend the ‘I am’ level, the perception ‘I’ remains. By this we mean that as soon as we open our eyes and look into the world we do this from an ‘I’.
Only at the very last step towards liberation can this ‘I’ be given up.
So do not think too easily about giving up the self, for it is not easy. And do not rejoice too much (maybe only a little) when you have taken a first small step, for the road is long and it takes a lot of patience and effort to really get to the deepest level through one’s own experience of the rising and passing away of phenomena, the suffering that arises by clinging to them, and the non-self that is inherent in them, and thus put an end to the unsatisfactoriness of existence.
This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276