Universal characteristics in Buddhism
by J. P. Pathirana
There are universal characteristics of existence which you and I and everyone of us are subject to and there is no way of escape. This is an important aspect of the teachings of the Buddha. Like the Four Noble Truths, Kamma, Dependent Origination and the five aggregates; the three characteristics of the teachings of the Buddha is the 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 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, 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 of 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 it and what to do with it. 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 there are THREE characteristics of existence, He meant that these characteristics are always present in existence and that they help to understand what to do with existence.
The three characteristics of existence that we have in mind are the characteristics of Impermanence (Anitya), suffering (Dukkha) and no-self (Anatma). These three characteristics are always present in or are connected with existence. They help us to know what to do with existence and also tell us the nature of existence. What we learn to develop as a result of understanding the three characteristics is renunciation. Once we understand that existence is universally characterised by impermanence, suffering and no-self, we eliminate our attachment to existence. Once we eliminate our existence, we gain the threshold of Nibbana. 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 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 recognised 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 everchanging and transcient 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 characterised 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 gray - our teeth fall out, our hair falls out. If one needs any proof of the impermanence of the physical form, one need only to 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 facilities and become like infants. Our minds are also characterised by impermanence. This is also true of the things that we see around us. Everything we see around us are 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 appear to be most durable, even the solar system itself will one day decline and become extinct. 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 things have no substantial existence of their own. Understanding impermanence is a key to understanding of no-self.
Let us now go to the second of the three characterics, the characteristic of suffering. The Buddha has said that whatever is impermanent is suffering - because impermanence is an occasion for suffering. It is an occasion for suffering and a cause of suffering because impermanence is an occasion for suffering so long as 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 understnad 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 for 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. The impermanence of all situations in samsara is a particular occasion for suffering when it occurs even in the so-called fortunate realms. It is said that 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 to the lower realms of existence. Even the gods trembled when the Buddha reminded them of impermance. Even those pleasant experiences which we crave and cling to are impermanent and whatever is impermanent is also suffering.
Now, let us go to the third universal characteristic of suffering, the characteristic of no-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. Sometimes, this teaching of no-self is an occasion for confusion because often we wonder how can one 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 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 "I" is not a rejection of this convenient designation, the name "I". Rather, it is rejection of the idea that this name "I" stand 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 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 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 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 cart 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 in the body. Similarly, the mind is not the self. The mind is subject to constant change. The mind is forever jumping 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 posssess the mind because the mind becomes excited and depressed against our wishes. Although we know 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, our feelings and ideas, we can nowhere find the self. There is a very simple exercise 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 paronia. We will be able to relate freely, spontaneously and creatively. Understanding no-self is therefore an aid to living. Through the understanding of impermanence, suffering and no-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 pleasant and the error of seeing things as self. When these delusious are removed, wisdom arises. Just as when darkness is removed, wisdom arises. And when wisdom arises, one experiences the peace and freedom of Nibbana or Nirvana