The Real Facts of Life
Reflections on the Three Marks of Existence
By Sumano Tong
Buddha taught that all conditioned things - ourselves included -have three characteristics:
impermanence (anicca), un-satisfactoriness (dukkha), and selflessness or non-substantiality
(anattá). When we fail to recognize these three characteristics of existence,
we regard that which is impermanent as permanent, that which is unsatisfactory
as pleasure, and the selfless as possessing an unchanging self.
summed up these tendencies in the Pali word avijja, ignorance. Being ignorant
of our own true nature, and of the true nature of the things around us, we engage
in actions based on these delusions, and thereby we accumulate kamma, which keeps
us in bondage to the cycle of birth and death.
It is through understanding
these characteristics that wisdom arises. Only then can one free oneself from
the bonds of rebirth and attain Nibbána, the permanent end of suffering.
following article is a humble attempt to analyze the three characteristics of
existence based on day-to-day observations. It makes no pretense at erudition
or mastery of the scriptures. By reflecting on my own daily experience, and on
the experiences of others, I have jotted down various pointers to the three characteristics
in facts and events lying just beneath our noses. I hope these reflections will
help you, too, to see the truth of the Dhamma more dearly in your own everyday
Analysis of Anicca
What is the meaning of the word "anicca"?
The Pali word "anicca" means impermanent.
What is impermanent?
One is oneself impermanent, both physically and mentally, and all conditioned
things around one are impermanent.
In what way is one's physical body impermanent?
One's posture is constantly being changed from one of the following
to another: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.
State of health
health is ever fluctuating depending on many factors. Some days one feels well,
other days one feels ill; some days one feels energetic, other days one feels
Immediately after the body is cleaned, it gradually becomes
soiled again due to the secretion of skin grease and sweat and due to contact
with pollutants in the environment.
Growth and decay
The hair of one's head
and one's nails are constantly increasing in length; body hairs are constantly
falling off and being replaced; the skin of the whole body is constantly being
shed and worn away; the body cells are always being replaced; one's body mass
(weight) is ever fluctuating; the whole body is gradually ageing and one day it
Nutrients for the Body Flowers
The air that one breathes in is
being converted to carbon dioxide. The water one drinks is converted to sweat
and urine. Within a day the food one eats turns into feces.
In What Way Is
One's Mind Impermanent?
One's bodily sensations alternate between
pleasure and pain, hunger and fullness, thirst and satiation.
feelings vary between pleasure, displeasure, and indifference, depending on many
factors, such as the sense object one experiences.
One's state of mind is ever
changing from one to another: joyful, angry, sad, happy, bored, worried, greedy,
One's interests change as one grows older.
of the things around oneself also change with time or with one's age, e.g., one's
choice of colors, one's preference for type of material or design, or one's opinion
about an issue.
In What Way Are The Things Around One Impermanent?
artifacts (houses, buildings, bridges, roads, cars, etc. gradually get soiled
by the dirt in the environment, wither due to exposure to ultra-violet rays from
the sun, and get eroded by chemical laden rain. Due to wear and tear, some day
the mechanism of such objects will cease to function.
Things in vogue
to the advancement in science and technology, their designs, materials, and methods
of use change with time. These changes apply to all human artifacts.
wither, and decay.
ripen, fall off the tree, and decay.
shed their bark and seasonally shed their leaves.
Grass in the fields
constantly being replaced by younger blades of grass.
All sentient life forms
gradually ageing and being replaced by their offspring. Daily a large number of
species are becoming extinct.
Hills , mountains, and plains
are ever rising
and sinking, usually imperceptibly, due to geological processes such as faulting,
folding, large scale uplift, and volcanic activity.
are always flowing
and their waters are ever changing. They either widen, become narrower, dry up
drought, or overflow during a flood. Their shapes and directions change
with the passage of time.
Their water is gradually converted into
clouds and the clouds send down rain, which again enters the seas. The tide is
alternating between high and low tides. The seabed is ever rising or sinking,
though very slowly.
is constantly changing its color morning, noon,
afternoon, evening, and night. Its appearance is constantly changing depending
on the weather, and is different on sunny, clear, cloudy, and rainy days. The
positions of the sun, moon, other planets, clouds, and stars are ever changing.
is always changing its composition, and scientists are convinced that some
day it will burn out, just as millions of other stars have expired or are expiring
this very moment.
constantly alternates between its waxing and
constantly change from spring to summer, summer
to autumn, autumn to winter, and winter to spring again.
after being prepared gradually starts to decay or to grow stale.
What Is The Meaning Of The Word "Dukkha"?
word "dukkha" is often translated as suffering, un-satisfactoriness,
pain, or sorrow. It encompass all
unpleasantness, from the slightest uneasiness
to unbearable torment.
In what way is one subject to suffering?
can be physical, mental, or a combination of both.
1. We must be reborn over
and over again, and birth is suffering.
2. After one is born, one is always
liable to fall ill, and illness is suffering.
3. After we have passed the prime
of youth, our vitality starts to decline and we begin to grow old. Old age is
4. We must face inevitable death, and that is suffering.
associate with the unpleasant is suffering.
6. To be separated from the pleasant
7. Not to have one's wishes fulfilled is suffering.
composite body itself is a cause of suffering.
In what way is birth suffering?
Birth leads to old age, sickness, and death as well as to all other kinds
In what way is sickness suffering?
One's liability to sickness
is itself a cause of suffering, for we often worry about falling ill.
we do fall ill, the illness may be short-termed, chronic, or life-threatening.
We suffer physically when experiencing any of the following: fever,
chill, ache, pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, giddiness, weakness
of the limbs, cough, running nose, itchiness, sore throat, sprain, fracture, insomnia,
loss of appetite, cuts and abrasions, piles and fissures.
We suffer mentally
when our wish, "May this sickness quickly pass" is not fulfilled.
We suffer physically when we contract such diseases as diabetes, kidney
failure, heart condition, bronchitis, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, Lupus, hepatitis,
We suffer mentally worrying that the sickness might worsen, or when the
wish, "May I be permanently cured of this illness" is not fulfilled.
threatening and degenerative illnesses
The physical suffering we undergo is
dependent on the type of illness - such as cancer, AIDS, etc. - but illness always
brings bodily suffering.
We suffer mentally knowing that there is little hope
of recovery and that our days are numbered. We suffer even more when anticipating
permanent separation from our loved ones.
Evidence for anxiety about health
We are extra careful in selecting the food we eat and prefer
food low in salt, sugar, and cholesterol content, free from artificial coloring
and preservatives, but high in fiber and enriched with minerals.
We make regular
visits to the health-food shop to purchase vitamins, bee pollen, calcium supplements,
garlic pills, cod liver oil, bird's nests, Ganoderma (Ling Zhi), ginseng root
and ginseng extracts, all sorts of herbs and herbal extracts, and other nutritional
We install drinking water filters and air purifiers in our homes.
visit the oxygen bar to breathe in 95 percent concentrated oxygen.
We buy health
enhancing equipment such as massaging chairs and devices, exercise bicycles, tread
mills, rowing machines and various instruments for measuring blood pressure, blood
glucose, pulse rate, cholesterol level, etc.
We go to the doctor for regular
medical checkups and health screening.
We seek physical treatments such as
massage therapy and foot reflexology, healing by crystals and stones, etc.
attend health promoting meditation sessions.
We subscribe to tele-medical services.
What Way is Ageing Suffering?
Degeneration of one's physical appearance
hair thins and turns gray, our hairline recedes, our skin dries and wrinkles,
pigmented spots appear on our skin, our shoulders start to droop and our spine
bends, our muscles turn flabby, bags appear under our eyes, our cheeks and eyelids
sag, our teeth turn yellow or become chipped and we start to lose our teeth, our
face loses its youthful luster, our eyes and hair become dull, our nails are discolored,
when we smile wrinkles form on our face.
Gradual failing of one's sense faculties:
are unable to see distant objects or fine details of nearby objects. We must make
use of eyeglasses.
We are unable to hear soft sounds, and become sensitive
to loud noises. We become dependent on a hearing aid.
to odors is reduced.
We lose our appreciation of tastes.
of our bodily structure
Our teeth become weak and brittle; our bones become
porous and brittle, increasing our vulnerability to fractures; our joints loosen,
increasing our vulnerability to sprains. Weaker bones and muscles mean clumsiness
in our movements, pains in our joints, and other frailties.
We have to undergo reduced endurance in physical activities
such as prolonged walking due to lack of stamina; reduced general flexibility
and agility resulting in slower responses and reflexes; reduced capability in
weight-bearing tasks such as carrying heavy objects; lowered resistance to microbes
and viruses; longer recovery period after sickness or injury; difficulty in falling
asleep and shorter span of sleep.
The unfortunate contract illnesses such as
senile dementia, incontinence, and Parkinson's disease.
Men need a longer time
to urinate due to the gradual enlargement of the prostrate gland as a result of
Women stop menstruating while men need a longer time to achieve erection.
degeneration of the mental faculties
Memory fades more quickly and concentration
becomes weaker. Studies show that the ageing brain may to some extent lose its
depth perception and have more difficulty in locating objects in space or in quickly
identifying geometric shapes.
The things people do to camouflage ageing
blacken their hair with dyes; undergo plastic surgery to remove wrinkles and bags
under their eyes; use various skin moisturizers to hide the signs of ageing; use
spectacles with bifocal lenses (but without parting lines); seek regular youth
enhancement injections; whiten their teeth with polish or by chemical or laser
treatment; get dentures to replace missing teeth; apply facial cosmetics to emulate
the lost luster of youth.
Some take new anti-ageing compounds aimed at the
symptoms of ageing, such as: anti-impotence treatment (Viagra), bone density regulators,
baldness remedies, Ginkyo Bilboa for the brain, African tree bark to pump up the
libido, Saw Palmetto for the prostrate, chelated minerals and amino acids for
energy, youth hormones (dehydroepi-andsterone or DHEA), etc.
In what way is
Death is suffering due to:
One's fear of physical suffering
at the time of death.
One's fear of mental suffering at the dying moment.
misery over being permanently separated from one's loved ones.
One's fear of
the unknown beyond death.
The suffering of death is more intense when one dies
in the prime of youth, or when one is enjoying success in one's education or career;
or when one is rich, powerful and famous; or when one is enjoying a happy family
with a caring spouse and lovely children.
From the Buddhist standpoint, death
is suffering because it leads to rebirth, which entails a renewal of the whole
mass of suffering.
In what way is association with the unpleasant suffering?
It is painful to work with inconsiderate or uncooperative colleagues;
to be subordinate to an excessively demanding or unreasonable superior; to have
an apathetic or dishonest business partner; to live next to inconsiderate neighbors;
to be married to an unsuitable spouse; to witness strained relations between one's
spouse and one's parents and family members.
It is unpleasant to
be born in a place where the basic requisites of food, clothing, medicine, and
shelter are scarce or not easily available.
It is unpleasant to dwell in an
uncomfortable environment, one which is eerie, hazardous, badly colored, poorly
ventilated; too bright or too dark; too quiet or too noisy; too dry or too humid;
too warm or too cold; stinking and polluted; or when the contacting surfaces are
filthy, sticky, slippery, too hard, too rough, irregular; or when there are obstacles
to movement and physical constraints, etc.
It is unpleasant to dwell in a place
infested with pests such as cockroaches, lizards, and rats.
It is unpleasant
to live in proximity to harmful and ferocious animals such as lions, tigers, snakes,
scorpions, and crocodiles.
It is unpleasant to live in a politically unstable
country where one's life is constantly at risk.
It is unpleasant to have to
live in a place where one's livelihood is dependent on unreliable conditions or
where destructive natural forces may unexpectedly strike; for example, in the
form of drought, famine, floods, locusts, rodents, or any other pests.
unpleasant to live in a place affected by climatic phenomena such as El Nino,
La Nina, the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole.
It is unpleasant to live in
a place frequently struck by floods, mudslides, hailstorms, droughts, forest fires,
waves, hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, tidal waves, and volcano eruptions.
is unpleasant to live in a place affected by dense electronic radiation, smog,
or polluted air.
It is stressful to be awaiting the outcome of an
attempt to rescue a loved one involved in a disaster; to sit for an examination;
to attend a job interview; to give an important presentation before a group of
superiors; to have to meet important people; to await the results of a medical
test .for a critical diagnosis; to lose one's job; to undergo a marital separation
It is stressful to work long hours to meet deadlines, with no alternative.
It is also stressful to take on more than one job in order to make ends meet.
moments particularly for the young include: their first date with a member of
the opposite sex; their first meeting with their future parents-in-law; awaiting
the arrival of a baby, etc.
In what way is separation from the pleasant suffering?
Temporary separation such as having to leave one's loved ones for
another country to pursue further studies or career.
Permanent separation due
to the death of a loved one.
Being abandoned by one's siblings.
to leave the place of work which one considered pleasant due to the expiry of
one's contract; leaving a country which one considered pleasant due to immigration
The death of a pet, or the breakage or loss of a favorite
In what way is it suffering not to have one's wishes fulfilled?
men would like to be handsome, tall, with a muscular body; most women would like
to be beautiful, tall, with an attractive figure. Yet only a very small minority
obtain such qualities.
Everyone would like to be free from physical defects,
yet some are born with a disfigured face, limbs, and body. Some are hairless,
hare-lipped, or with defective sexual organs. Some have unsightly birthmarks,
skin discoloration, foul body odor, bad breath, sweaty palms, a rough voice, pimples,
freckles, rough skin, unsightly body hairs, etc.
Some of the things men and
women do to enhance their looks:
Attend grooming courses; seek facial treatments;
use cosmetics and perfumes; take up body building or aerobic exercises; whiten
their teeth and replace unsightly teeth with dentures; fill dental cavities with
porcelain (instead of metal); use contact lenses; dye their hair; wear abdominal
bands; undergo surgery for jaw-line correction; wear wigs or resort to hair transplants
or herbal massages for baldness.
Some of the things women do to improve their
Participate in slimming programs; perm their hair; take treatment for
wrinkles, freckles, or pigment problems; undergo surgery such as double eyelids
creation; insert artificial body implants such as nose bridges and silicon breasts;
liposuction; wear push-up brassiere; tattoo their eyebrows; body and limb wraps;
mud or herbal baths; manicures; re-align teeth with braces; wear high-heeled shoes;
wear clothes with shoulder pads; stick on artificial fingernails and eye lashes.
hopes to be healthy throughout their lives, but not all are blessed with health.
Various illnesses to which one is subject have been enumerated above. Besides
one's own infirmity, one also experiences intense suffering when a loved one becomes
critically ill and can only survive by receiving a bone-marrow transplant, or
a platelets transfusion, or a blood transfusion of a rare blood group. If a suitable
donor is unavailable one experiences indescribable anxiety and agony.
fail to fulfill this wish despite their untiring efforts. One feels unhappy when
one makes a bad investment, when interest rates decline, when the stock market
takes a dive, and when one does not win the lottery. Some attempt to "peep"
into the future to identify "opportunities for wealth and luck" through
astrology, palmistry, crystal ball gazing, and geomancy.
tries to find happiness in accordance with their individual conceptions of happiness.
Most people identify happiness with the gratification of sensual desire, but sensual
desire is insatiable and hence in the end the pursuit of sensual pleasures only
Others view as the source of happiness the acquisition of
wealth and property, or personal success in their professional careers, or the
achievement of fame and repute. Such aims, however, cannot always be realized.
When we fail to achieve them we feel frustrated and upset. But even when we succeed,
such attainments cannot last forever, and thus when they slip away from us we
are left feeling dejected and depressed.
One cannot find the
ideal life-partner despite one's efforts; married couples who wish to have children
cannot do so; or when they have children, the children are not of their preferred
One's love for another is unrequited.
One children are un-filial.
are insecure regarding their basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and
Others feel insecure regarding their job, especially in a job-scarce
environment, or on account of such financial conditions as inflation or recession.
others, who live in an societies plagued by war, riots, and looting, must worry
about their physical safety.
The blind wish to see, the
deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, the lame to walk, the bedridden paralytic to
move around again. Yet because they cannot fulfill these wishes, they experience
disappointment and suffering.
In what way is the composite body itself a cause
It is a cause of suffering because one constantly and continually
must protect it from hunger, thirst, and changing climatic conditions; keep it
healthy by regular exercise; keep it clean by washing, bathing, and excretion;
keep it neat and tidy by trimming one's nails and cutting one's hair.
also a cause of suffering because in the end, despite all our efforts, it succumbs
to old age, illness, and death.
Analysis of Anattá
the meaning of the word "anattá"?
The Pali word "anattá"
is often translated as non-self, non-ego, ego-less-ness, impersonality, and substance-less-ness.
One is oneself substance-less, and all conditioned things
around one are substance-less.
In what way is one substance-less oneself?
human being is actually a combination of material and mental phenomena classified
into five categories or "aggregates." These are:
Of these, form is material, and the other four
are mental phenomena.
How does one regard material phenomena as the self?
body (as a whole) is regarded as "I" and "mine"
think "I sit," "I walk," "I stand," "I lie
down," we take the whole body, by way of its posture, to be "I."
we think, "My height is 1.8 meters," we take the whole body, by way
of its dimensions, to be "mine."
Ironically, without a mirror, we
cannot even see our whole head, neck, or back, yet we claim that our body is our
self. Even what we see in the mirror is just a reflection of the body, not the
Individual parts of the body are regarded as "I" and
"My hair is shiny": an attached
body part (the hair on the head) is taken to be "mine."
to touch silk": an attached body part (the skin on the palm and fingers)
is taken to be "I."
"Oops! A strand of my hair has fallen into
the soup!": a detached body part (a strand of hair) is taken to be "mine."
am sending my urine sample to the laboratory for analysis": a detached body
part (urine) is taken to be "mine."
How Does One Regard Mental Phenomena
as the Self?
Contact between sense base and sense object being regarded as
Example: eyes + visible form: "I saw a rainbow."
sense base (eyes) equals "I"
This example is applicable to the other
sense bases: ear, nose, tongue, and body.
Feeling that arises through such
contact being regarded as "I"
Example: (skin of) whole body + tactile
object (cold air): I feel cold in here."
Implication: unpleasant bodily
feeling equals "I"
Example: eyes + visible form, combined with ears
+ sound: "I like this movie."
Implication: pleasant feeling equals
States of mind being regarded as "I"
felt very restless this morning."
Implication: mental state (restlessness)
Example: "I feel guilty about visiting her so seldom."
mental state (guilty conscience) equals "I"
Example: "I was
worried that you wouldn't come back.'
Implication: mental state (worry) equals
Objects being regarded as "mine:"
"My dentures are getting loose."
Implication: tangible object attached
to body (dentures) equals "mine"
Example: "This is my car."
tangible object not attached to body (car) equals "mine "
Example: "After the race, my energy is drained."
intangible object pertaining to body (i.e., energy) equals "mine"
"I've achieved only half of what I'd hoped to do.
object not pertaining to body (achievement) equals "mine"
"His words hurt my pride."
Implication: intangible object not pertaining
to body (self-respect) equals "mine"
Example: "I'm reputed to
be a responsible person."
Implication: intangible object not pertaining
to body (reputation) equals "mine"
One's attributes being regarded
as "I", "me" and "mine"
Example: "I was
Implication: attribute (self-esteem) equals "I"
"I'm afraid of snakes."
Implication: attribute (fear) equals "I"
"I can sing English songs."
Implication: attribute (ability) equals
Example: "I'm a teacher."
(occupation) equals "I"
Example: "I'm twenty years old."
attribute (age) equals "I"
Example: "I'm a man," "I'm
Implication: attribute (gender) equals "I"
"That's me in the photograph!"
Implication: attribute (printed image
of body) equals "me"
Example: "That's me in the mirror."
attribute (reflected image of one's body) equals "me"
left my body warmth on that seat."
Implication: attribute (conducted warmth)
Example: "That's an insult to my intelligence."
attribute (intelligence ) equals "mine"
Example: "My memory
is not as good as yours."
Implication: attribute (memory) equals "mine"
"My name is Paul."
Implication: attribute (name) equals "mine"
one's associates as "mine"
Example: "This is my father."
father equals "mine"
Example: "This is my wife/husband; those
are my children."
Implication: wife/husband and children equals "mine"
what way are all conditioned things around oneself substance-less?
conditioned things that we perceive through our senses are in reality not what
they appear to be for the following reasons:
The limitations of our senses
come into contact with things around us through the five physical sense bases,
namely the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and the body. We conceive all phenomena through
the mind base.
However, what we see with our eyes represents only a small segment
of the spectrum of electromagnetic rays, for the optic nerves of humans are sensitive
only to waves with lengths ranging from around 400 to 700 mu. Those waves that
are present but outside this range - such as infrared rays, ultraviolet rays,
and X-rays - are invisible to us.
Likewise we can hear only sound waves that
are within the sound spectrum of humans. Such limitations apply to the nose, tongue
and the mind as well.
It is generally acceptable
to say, "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west." In actuality,
however, the sun neither rises nor sets. The earth merely revolves on its axis
relative to the sun. The so-called "sunrise" of one continent is the
"sunset" of another. In this context is it possible to locate the exact
position of the horizon? Can one touch a rainbow?
The composite nature of things
the component parts of a thing are separated, the thing loses its identity and
assumes another. For example, when a car is dismantled the concept "car"
disappears and its identity is replaced by "bumper," "windscreen,"
"steering wheel," "tire," and so forth.
A chopped-up pig
is known as "pork."
A flattened carton is called cardboard.
are also cases where the identity of a thing changes even without the apparent
separation of its constituent parts. For example, when a person dies the concept
"man" is replaced by that of "corpse."
State of flux
is not possible to step into the "same" river twice since its waters
are ever changing.
From moment to moment the flame of a candle is neither the
same nor totally different.
Advancements in science and technology
show appears real enough to invoke passions, but in reality it is merely a display
of images produced by light and accompanied by sound.
An event recorded on
a video-camera appears to be real, but what happens if one replays it in reverse
order? One will see a recorded event that has never taken place!
By using photo-imaging
software to modify a photograph taken with a digital camera, one can portray oneself
standing on the peak of Mount Everest - clad only in swimwear!
One can produce
a show depicting oneself dancing with a cartoon figure like Mickey Mouse or appear
to act alongside film stars who have long been dead.
The virtual infant "Cha-Cha,"
who displays lifelike bodily movements, is actually a 3-D animation package created
by a computer artist by applying realistic human movement to a digitally created
In the virtual reality system MIRAGE (Modeling and Immersion in
Real time Advanced Graphics Environment), one simply needs to put on a pair of
3-D goggles to "walk through" a building, decide on its interior decor
and color schemes, even how the furniture is positioned, before the building is
Likewise, without leaving one's study, one can "explore" the
tombs of the pharaoh of Egypt with convincingly true-to-life sights and sounds.
voice of someone who does not even exist can be generated by means of a voice
By animatronics one can produce a thrilling show of computer graphics.
the Virtual Aquarium, video images are used to re-create swimming fish with special
filming technology and lighting.
2. Conditioned things do not possess a fixed
substantial nature due to their dual aspects.
The moment the door is opened on to a pitch-dark room, darkness
instantly disappears and is replaced by light. This leaves an interesting question:
Where does the darkness go, and where does the brightness come from?
These characteristics are relative. An object considered "light"
in comparison with something heavier than itself may be "heavy" when
compared with something else lighter than itself.
These characteristics are
also subject-dependent. An object considered "light" by a young adult
is experienced as heavy by children and the elderly.
Cold and hot
when the temperature is 55° F will be experienced as cool in early autumn
but as warm in early spring. A beverage of the same temperature will be experienced
as cool if it is tea but as warm if it is lemonade.
Cleanliness and dirtiness
comparison, what is deemed clean by us will be dirty to a surgeon about to perform
a critical operation. One's body is considered clean immediately after a shower.
After a period of time, it is deemed dirty again. One may ask: At precisely which
point in time does cleanliness turn into dirtiness?
We can apply the same consideration
to: youth and old age; the blooming and withering of flowers; the freshness and
staleness of food; hunger and satiation; slow motion and fast motion; the present,
past and future.
Things undergo changes, not only with the passage of time,
but also in relation to space. Some space-dependent relative characteristics are:
low and high;
long and short.
Examples can be multiplied ad
infinitum. Work out the implications for yourselves.
ask: How do the three characteristics relate to one another?
Before we answer
this question, it is timely to analyze what we regard as happiness.
happiness can be classified under the following headings:
of sensual desires
That is, the happiness that comes from seeing pleasant objects,
hearing pleasant sounds, smelling pleasant odors, tasting pleasant flavors, touching
pleasant surfaces, and entertaining pleasant thoughts.
2. Being healthy and
It is only when one is healthy and strong that one can enjoy sensual
pleasures and embark on any activity that one finds pleasurable.
3. Being youthful
This enables one to enjoy feeling superior to others and to
enjoy their admiration (and sometimes their envy).
4. Having pleasant relationships
includes having a happy family life, true friends, and pleasant colleagues. One
feels happy when the love or concern one showers on others is requited.
Having high social status
For some this is relative to the quality and quantity
of their possessions.
Others regard high education as a status symbol.
happiness is derived from feeling superior to others or from winning their admiration
(and sometimes their envy).
6. Being famous or renowned
One enjoys being
known, recognized, and admired by others.
7. Being powerful
One enjoys having
others at one's disposal.
8. Being safe and secure
One feels happy when
one is not in debt; has no worry about food, clothing, shelter, and medicine;
has a stable job and lives in a peaceful country.
Most of the above goods can
be acquired by wealth. Thus wealth seems to be the main basis of happiness.
let us return to the question: How do the three characteristics relate to one
Impermanence leads to suffering
Impermanence leads to suffering
because that which we regard as a source of happiness does not last forever. Whatever
in the world we turn to as a source of happiness will inevitably be overrun by
aging, decay, death, and destruction.
Why are we often moved to tears when
we flip through old photo albums, listen to songs from the "good old days,"
watch a show one had seen long ago, touch objects of sentimental value, or visit
places pertaining to one's childhood or youth? The reason is that we are still
attached to the sentiments (happiness included) we experienced at that time, which
we are not able to bring back! We have aged, and so have the people at that time.
Some may have died, while children have grown into adults. Places and objects
have changed or no longer exist. Those events cannot be repeated.
As soon as
they pass, events that bring happiness lead to suffering. That explains the "down"
feeling which some experience when their holiday comes to an end. Those "encore
cries" at the end of an emotionally-charged concert can be attributed to
Present suffering exists due to the belief in a self
We are conditioned
from the time of birth to regard things that are really substance-less as possessing
a self or substantial nature.
By positing a real self, we draw a line to demarcate
that, which is self from that which is not self but surrounds the self. Being
ignorant of the fact that all things around the self are also substance-less,
we categorize them into the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral.
to the notion that there is a self, which "feels," "enjoys,"
and "suffers," we desire the pleasant and detest the unpleasant. When
the pleasant changes, we suffer. By not understanding that the unpleasant is also
ever changing, we suffer too when we are exposed to unpleasant conditions.
belief in the self is reinforced when others shower praise on us or when we achieve
recognition. These tendencies condition our perceptions and influence our thoughts,
words, and deeds.
In reality, the "enjoyment" and "suffering"
are merely our responses to the feelings that arise when our senses contact their
respective sense objects. The self that "feels" is merely the arisen
Believing that the self exists leads to future suffering
to a pleasurable feeling (caused by a pleasant sense object) with desire, kamma
Likewise, by responding to an unpleasant feeling (caused by
an unpleasant sense object) with repulsion, kamma is also accumulated.
is rooted in our ignorance about the three characteristics. As long as ignorance
about the three characteristics remains, when the present life comes to an end,
one must undergo rebirth. Rebirth entails the whole mass of suffering (dukkha).
schools of thought argue that "suffering makes us mature," that we should
"learn to appreciate love," that "tough times build character,"
that "turmoil can toughen people," that "pain warns us of danger,"
and so on.
It is not my intention here to discuss the necessity or purpose
of suffering in human life; nor do I wish to paint a seemingly "pessimistic"
picture of life. My aim is only to review life's stark realities, which many people
take for granted.
To understand this point, one need only answer this question
honestly and without prejudice: "Do I suffer?"
At this juncture of
understanding the three characteristics of existence intellectually, what can
we do to improve on the situation? We should strive ardently to realize their
existence in all our day-to-day activities.
The Following are Some Suggestions:
Be more sensitive towards the changes that occur to and
within one's body
Always be aware of the changes that occur in one's thoughts,
feelings, and opinions.
Maintain keen observation of the changing nature of
all the things and events around oneself.
To realize suffering:
the type of suffering one is experiencing whenever some type of suffering arises.
Contemplate one's body and see clearly that the body,
being an object of cognition, cannot properly be considered one's self.
aware of one's mental reactions when any of the senses contacts its respective
sense object. See that because these mental phenomena are conditioned by a sense
faculty and objects, they cannot be a substantial self.
See that the things
around one are devoid of any "substance" or "entity." Reflect
on their impermanence, and see that because they are impermanent they cannot be
taken as substantial, self-subsistent realities.
See that these things are
dependent for their existence and sustenance on their own proper conditions, and
thus lack the independence of conditions essential to the concept of substance.
Buddha has given a detailed exposition on this practical aspect of training in
the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthána Sutta). By
ardently establishing these four foundations of mindfulness, one will eventually
realize that all phenomena are merely physical and mental processes.
due to other supportive conditions. Those supportive conditions also arise due
to some other supportive conditions. They are ever changing and do not possess
any unchanging entity of their own.
This wisdom will transform our thoughts,
words, and deeds. Eventually it will free us from the cycle of birth and death,
bringing us to the ultimate end of suffering: that which is permanent, ever blissful,
and beyond causes and conditions - Nibbána.
The author, Sumano Tong,
is a Buddhist of Chinese descent born and living in Singapore. He learned Buddhism
from the late Mr. T. A. Simon and the late Ven. Narada Mahathera.
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