August 15, 2011

The Three Universal Characteristics of Existence

In Rita Gross's Tricycle Retreat, "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners," we have been discussing what aspects of the Buddha's teachings already existed in the time of the Buddha and what aspects were unique ideas of the Buddha. For example, in the teachings of the Upanishads, an important group of texts in Hinduism, it is stated that beneath our superficial self, or ego, that we will find a true self, a soul. In the Upanishads this true self is called Atman. This notion of a permanent soul, which was quite popular in the time of the Buddha, was addressed in the Buddha's teachings on The Three Universal Characteristics of Existence and marks a very important divergence of Buddhism from Hinduism.

From Week 3 of Rita's Tricycle Retreat,

One of the most famous teachings of early Buddhism is that all beings are fundamentally characterized by The Three Universal Characteristics of Existence.

The first that all sentient beings suffer. This is the same teaching as the First Noble Truth, which I like to translate simply as, "If you go about things in a conventional way without thinking about them very much it won't work very well, you will end up suffering." Suffering is inherent in living an undisciplined, conventional lifestyle.

The second of the three characteristics shared by all sentient beings is impermanence. I think that's really the fulcrum of Buddhist teachings altogether. Everything is impermanent. When we really cop to the fact that everything is impermanent, that is the way we start to dig ourselves out of cyclic existence and find our way into deathlessness of nirvana. If we really get that down we will will have to stop clinging. We will see that it is pointless to cling to things because clinging is like trying to grasp at a handful of water, it just falls through your hands.

According to Buddhist teachings, among the things that people cling to most desperately is the idea, "I Exist" or "I Am." The Buddha said that, in fact, this sense of being an eternal being—of having an eternal, separate self— is an illusion. It is that illusion of having an eternal separate self that causes all the suffering in the world, both our suffering and other people's suffering. We get involved in protecting territory and fighting over territory all because we cling to the illusion of a permanent separate self that we need to take care of and defend. The fact that there is no such permanent separate self is the Buddhist teaching of egolessness.  In Sanskrit, this is the teaching of Anatman, or "Not-Self," which is the third characteristic of existence. If you've been following along listening, maybe taking notes, you can go back and see that this is exactly the opposite of Atman, the true self that the Seers of the Upanishads were talking about. An is the Sanskret prefix that means "No" or "Not there." Anatman literally means "No Atman."

Many of us know this as the Pali term Anatta, which means, "The lack of a permanent, separate self." This does not mean that we don't have personalities of that we do not experience ourselves as unique individuals. Buddhists aren't so silly as to think we should give up experiencing ourselves as unique. Personality is not the problem.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

In short, the reality of life is difficult at best. Also, it is quite fleeting, some of us dying at birth, others after only 80 years. Finally, there is no permanent, individual "soul" destined to go to heaven or to hell.