THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF EXISTENCE: PRACTICE
In Buddhist philosophy there are Three Characteristics of Existence realized by the Buddha. These characteristics arise from the realities of causality and causally conditioned phenomena, and fall away due to the same realities. These characteristics are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. You cannot practice the three characteristics, yet your practice is interdependent on your realization of these philosophical concepts.
A passage in many discourses reads: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded (the conditioned) things; they are of the nature of arising and falling away. Having come into being, they cease to exist.” Things are characterized as impermanent because they are subject to three stages of being: arising (uppada), falling away (vaya), and decay or change (thitassa annathatta). Impermanence is a synonym for the Buddhist ideal of ‘arising and falling away’ or ‘birth and death’. Birth in the human sense, birth of an idea, also in the sense of the combining of material phenomena from constituent parts into what is viewed as an object fit into this concept. Death as applied to living beings is readily understood; death of inanimate phenomena is sometimes termed destruction even though nothing is every truly destroyed. Inanimate death is experienced as the breaking down of its present form.
Impermanence is causality and it causally conditions all phenomena, and the same is true for suffering and not-self. Things are impermanent due to the causal nature of the Universe and human beings suffer and exist as not-self due to that same nature. All phenomena from the material to the immaterial, from rocks to emotions act as both cause and effect as they arise and fall away. A rock striking you on the head can be a cause of pain; emotional pain can be a cause for you to throw a rock. All things are causally conditioned due to the causal nature of the Universe. You were not in pain until the rock hit you on the head; you reacted with emotion when you threw the rock. Experiences are causally conditioned by internal and external factors.
Impermanence is the reality that all things are temporary and this reality is a cause of suffering. Nothing lasts forever in any specific form. Even the protons, electrons and neutrons that are the building blocks of all material phenomena undergo constant changes. Impermanence cannot be stopped and this leads to suffering because human beings crave permanence. Impermanence happens. It can happen naturally or it can be made to happen. Impermanence can be slowed down or speeded up if appropriate actions are taken. Actions taken can result in unwholesome transformation or in wholesome transformation dependent on intent, effort and mindfulness. Choosing to guide the causes and effects of impermanence is a path to the alleviation of suffering.
Impermanence is an unavoidable reality in Buddhist philosophy. ‘You cannot practice impermanence but you can practice how you use that reality; how you respond to its cause and effect. You can accept that impermanence is a reality and then learn ways to transform that information into knowledge by making it a factor in how you deal with the suffering that impermanence can be the cause of.’
Think okay, impermanence is a reality . . . now what. How can I most effectively respond to impermanence? You are actually already doing this, you just might not realize it.
You check the weather report each morning before going to work. It shows no chance of rain that day. You look outside and see gray clouds piling up. You take an umbrella just in case. This is responding appropriately to the suffering caused by impermanence.
Last year you got an eye exam and bought new glasses. At the time you also set an appointment for this year. This is responding appropriately to suffering caused by impermanence.
Your drop your favorite Happy Birthday coffee cup and it shatters against the tile floor in the kitchen. You get angry, slam your fist into the refrigerator. Two of your knuckles crack and the refrigerator stops working. This is responding inappropriately to suffering caused by impermanence.
It can seem that impermanence is a pretty negative reality. Negative experiences happen like the weatherman is wrong, health issues arise, relationships end, loved ones die, new cars get damaged, and you’re supposed to deal with these unwholesome events appropriately. For a Buddhist that is exactly what you’re supposed to do. You might ask then, “If impermanence is unavoidable then what can I do about it?” The answer is found within the reality of impermanence.
Remember earlier the statement ‘You cannot practice impermanence but you can practice how you use that reality; how you respond to its cause and effect. You can accept that impermanence is a reality and then learn ways to transform that information into knowledge by making it a factor in how you deal with the suffering that impermanence can be the cause of.’ The reality of the not-self is causally conditioned by the effects of impermanence; effects that you can allow to be uncontrolled or you can choose to control them, a lot of them at least.
The Buddhist ideal of not-self owes its arising to the Buddha’s realization of the reality of impermanence. He further realized that while impermanence was a factor in suffering, it could also be a factor in the alleviation of suffering. His acceptance that all phenomena are impermanent and that human beings are phenomena logically led to the realization that no aspect of being a human is permanent. There is a self, a not-self. It is a person who is continually undergoing a process of transformation so why not learn to channel that impermanence toward wholesome change and then make that a factor in how a person thinks and acts.
Like any Buddhist practice the causal potential begins with you. You can realize the reality of impermanence by just looking at yourself in a mirror. You can realize the reality of suffering through the lens of your own experiences. You can realize the reality of the not-self by taking a rigorously self-honest look at how you have changed, and how you continue to change in each moment. You develop a deep understanding and acceptance of the three characteristics through insight gained about yourself and your own life.
You only have to view your own existence through a lens of rigorous self-honesty to fully realize that impermanence, suffering and the not-self are truths. Realization that while this teaching has its foundation in human existence the realities of impermanence, suffering and not-self encompass the causal universe will arise as your Buddhist practice matures. The dharma of impermanence, suffering and not-self are truths beyond the human condition. All phenomena are impermanent. Human kind are not the only beings that suffer. All phenomena are causally conditioned and so have no permanent aspect, are not-self.
The Three Characteristics of Existence are realities; they are dharma. They are realities that arise as both cause and effect of your practice. For example, practicing generosity of spirit can alleviate suffering, making that suffering impermanent in that moment. Practicing mindfulness can bring about loving-kindness where hatred once arose revealing the not-self, the potential for further change.