- The Three Universal Characteristics
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
The subject of this chapter is the three universal characteristics of
existence. This is an important part of the teaching of the Buddha. Like the Four Noble
Truths, karma, interdependent 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 understanding that are implied by
wisdom, we have this teaching also in mind.
Before we examine the three characteristics one by one, let us try to
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 that is
necessarily connected with something else. Because a 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 of water. Heat is a
characteristic of fire because it is always and invariably connected with fire, whereas
whether or not water is hot 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 or always found in existence. The characteristic "heat"
is always connected with fire. We can understand something about the nature of fire from
heat. We can understand that fire is hot and therefore potentially dangerous, that it can
consume us and our possessions if not controlled. Yet we can also use fire to cook our
food, to warm ourselves, and so forth. Thus the characteristic of heat tells us something
about fire, what fire is, 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 understand the nature
of water or use water intelligently because heat is not always connected with water. Water
cannot necessarily burn us or consume our possessions, nor can we necessarily cook our
food with water or warm ourselves with water. Hence 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 understand what to do with existence.
The three characteristics of existence that we have in mind are (1)
impermanence, (2) suffering and (3) not-self. These three characteristics are always
present in or connected with existence, and they tell us about the nature of existence.
They help us know what to do with existence. As a result of understanding the three
characteristics, we learn to develop renunciation, or detachment. Once we understand that
existence is universally characterized by impermanence, suffering, and not-self, we
eliminate our attachment to existence. And once we eliminate our attachment to existence,
we gain the threshold of nirvana.
This is the purpose of understanding the three characteristics: it
removes attachment by removing delusion--the misunderstanding that existence is permanent,
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 elsewhere in the history of ideas. It
was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who remarked that one cannot step into the
same river twice. This observation, which implies the ever-changing and transient nature
of things, is a very Buddhistic one.
In the Buddhist scriptures, it is said that the world is 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 which
help us understand that all things are marked or characterized by impermanence.
If we look at ourselves, we find that our bodies are impermanent and
subject to constant change. We grow thin. We grow old and gray--our teeth and hair fall
out. If you need any proof of the impermanence of the physical form, you need only look at
the photograph on your driver's license or passport over 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; as adults in the prime of life, we understand a great deal
more; in old age, we lose the power of our mental faculties and become like infants.
This is true also of the things we see around us. Not one of the things
we see around us will last forever--not the apartment buildings, the temples, the rivers
and islands, the mountain chains, or 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 cease to exist.
This process of the constant change of things--personal and impersonal,
internal and external--goes on constantly even without our noticing it, and affects us
intimately in daily life. Our relations with other people are subject to the
characteristic of impermanence and change. Friends become enemies; enemies become friends.
Enemies even become relatives, while relatives become enemies. If we look closely at our
lives, we can see how all our relationships with other people are marked by impermanence.
Our possessions are also impermanent. All the things that we dearly love--our homes, our
automobiles, our clothes--are impermanent. All of them will decay and eventually be
destroyed. In every aspect of our lives--whether it be mental or material, whether it be
our relationships with others or our possessions-- impermanence is a fact that is verified
by direct, immediate observation.
Understanding impermanence is important not simply for our practice of
the Dharma but also in our daily lives. How often do friendships deteriorate and end
because one of the two persons involved fails to notice that his or her friend's attitudes
and interests have changed? How often do marriages fail because one or both parties fail
to take into account the fact that the other partner has changed? It is because we lock
ourselves into fixed, artificial, unchanging ideas of the characters and personalities of
our friends and relatives that we fail to develop our relations with them appropriately
and hence often fail to understand one another. Similarly, in our careers or public life,
we cannot hope to succeed if we do not keep abreast of changing situations, such as new
trends in our professions or disciplines. Whether in our personal lives or in our public
ones, understanding impermanence is necessary if we are to be effective and creative in
how we handle our personal and professional affairs. Although 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 attachment
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 practice the Dharma. Remembering death acts as a
discouragement to excessive attachment and ill-will. How many quarrels, petty
disagreements, lifelong ambitions and enmities fade into insignificance before 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
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 told him to come the following day. Full of anticipation, my friend went to
see him as he had been instructed. The master said to him, "You will die; meditate on
Meditation on death is extremely beneficial. We all need to remember
the certainty of our own deaths. From the moment of birth, we move inexorably toward
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 minds to practice of the Dharma. We know
that death is absolutely certain. There has never been a single living being who has
escaped it. And yet, although 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, it may burst. Understanding that the time of
death is uncertain, and that we now have the conditions and opportunity to practice the
Dharma, we ought to practice it quickly, so as not to waste this opportunity and precious
Finally, understanding impermanence is an aid to understanding the
ultimate truth about the 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,
nothing substantial. In this sense, impermanence is directly related to the last 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, but for the moment let us
go on to the second of the three characteristics, the characteristic of suffering.
The Buddha 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. Impermanence is an occasion for
suffering rather than a cause of suffering because impermanence is only an occasion for
suffering as long as ignorance, craving, an clinging are present.
How is this 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 them and cling to them. We long to hold onto our youth and prolong
our life, yet because they are impermanent by nature, they slip through our fingers. When
this occurs, impermanence is an occasion for suffering. Similarly, we fail to recognize
the impermanent nature of possessions, power, and prestige, so we crave and cling to them.
When 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 realms. It is said that the suffering of the gods is even greater than
the suffering of beings in the lower realms because the gods see that they are about to
fall from the heavens into those lower realms of existence. Even the gods trembled when
the Buddha reminded them of impermanence. Thus because even those pleasant experiences we
crave and cling to are impermanent, impermanence is an occasion for suffering, and
whatever is impermanent is suffering.
Now we come to the third universal characteristic of existence, the
characteristic of not-self, impersonality, or insubstantiality. This is one of the really
distinct features of Buddhist thought and of the teaching of the Buddha. During the later
development of religion and philosophy in India, Hindu schools became increasingly similar
to the teaching of the Buddha in their techniques of meditation and in some of their
philosophical ideas. Thus it became necessary for Buddhist masters to point out that there
was still a 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 a cause of confusion because
people wonder how one can deny the self. After all, we do say, "I am speaking"
or "I am walking," "I am called so and so" or "I am the father
(or the son) of such and such a person." How can we deny the reality of that
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
or term "I." Rather, it is a rejection of the idea that this name or term
"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 or term "I"
does not correspond to any essence or entity.
The Buddha used the examples of a chariot and a forest to explain the
relation between the name or term "I" and the components of personal experience.
The Buddha explained that the term "chariot" is simply a convenient name for a
collection of parts that are assembled in a particular way. The wheels are not the
chariot, nor is the axle, nor is the carriage, and so forth. Similarly, a single tree is
not a forest, nor are a number of trees.
Yet there is no forest apart from individual trees, so the term
"forest" is just a convenient name for a collection of trees. This is the thrust
of the Buddha's rejection of the self. His rejection 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, would have to be sovereign in the
way 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 applied the following analysis to indicate that the self is nowhere to be found
either in the body or the mind: (1) 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. Hence the body cannot be the self. (2) 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 an appearance which
often does not agree with our wishes. Hence in no way does the self possess the body. (3)
The self does not exist in the body. If we search our bodies from the tops of our heads to
the tips of our toes, we can nowhere locate the self. The self is not in the bone or in
the blood, in the marrow or in the hair or spittle. The self is nowhere to be found within
the body. (4) The body does not exist in the self. For the body to exist in the self, the
self would have to be found apart from the body and mind, but the self is nowhere to be
In the same way, (1) the mind is not the self because, like the body,
The mind is subject to constant change and is agitated like a monkey. The mind is happy
one moment and unhappy the next. Hence the mind is not the self because the mind is
constantly changing. (2) 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 unwholesome, the mind pursues unwholesome thoughts and is
indifferent toward wholesome thoughts. Hence the self does not possess the mind because
the mind acts independently of the self. (3) The self does not exist in the mind. No
matter how carefully we search the contents of our minds, no matter how carefully we
search our feelings, ideas, and inclinations, we can nowhere find the self in the mind and
the mental states. (4) The mind does not exist in the self either because again the self
would have to exist apart from the mind and body, but such a self is nowhere to be found.
There is a very simple exercise that any one of us can perform. 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 within the body or the mind. The only
conclusion possible is 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, habits, and attitudes. Why
should we care to reject the idea of a self? How can we benefit by rejecting the self? We
can benefit in two important ways. First of all, 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, opinions, and even our statements. 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 paranoia. We will be able to act freely, spontaneously, and creatively.
Understanding not-self is therefore an aid to living.
Second, and even more important, 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 afflictions. 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
people and things around us with either attachment or 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
that rejection of the self is the cause of the end of suffering, why not do our best to
reject and eliminate this idea of a self, rather than trying to defend, protect, and
preserve it? Why not recognize that personal experience is like a banana tree or an
onion--that when we take it apart piece by piece, examining it critically and
analytically, we will find that it is empty of any essential, substantial core, that it is
devoid of self? When we understand--through study, consideration, and meditation--that all
things are impermanent, are full of suffering, and are not-self, and when our
understanding of these truths is no longer merely intellectual or academic but becomes
part of our immediate experience, then the understanding of the three universal
characteristics will free us of the fundamental errors that imprison us within the cycle
of birth and death--the errors of seeing things as permanent, happy, and having to do with
the self. When these delusions are removed, wisdom arises, just as, when darkness is
removed, light arises. And when wisdom arises, we experience the peace and freedom of
nirvana. In this chapter we have confined ourselves to looking at personal experience in
terms of body and mind. In the next chapter we will look more deeply into the Buddhist
analysis of personal experience in terms of the elements of our physical and mental
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 105-114].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing