Finding peace in every situation
This article is the concluding part of our exploration of the Buddha's second discourse, which we started last week - if you'd like some context (not to mention the first half of the text), you might like to go back and check that out.
In the first part, we focused on anatta - the teaching on not-self, or non-self - which is the primary theme of the discourse. However, the Buddha goes on to introduce two more important concepts, anicca (impermanence/inconstancy) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness/unreliability), and then tie those two and anatta together into a scheme that's become known as the Three Characteristics of Existence - a fundamental pillar of early Buddhist insight practice. He goes on to say what the consequences of a sufficiently deep exploration of the Three Characteristics might be - and it's pretty life-changing. So let's get into the text!
Having explained the basic idea of anatta to the monks (see last week's article for details) and invited them to explore the principle thoroughly, the Buddha then begins a question-and-answer session which he uses to introduce the other two characteristics. We begin with anicca.
What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?”
The Pali word anicca is usually translated as 'impermanence', although it also has a sense of 'inconstancy'. So this covers both things which may hang around for a while but don't ultimately last (like an ice cream melting at room temperature), and things which appear to be consistent but are prone to vanishing unexpectedly (like my internet connection).
On one level, it can seem screamingly obvious that things are impermanent, no matter what scale we look at, and we may be tempted to think 'Yeah, impermanence, so what?' We know that civilisations rise and fall, friendships and governments (and prime ministers) come and go, bodily sensations change from moment to moment.
And yet sometimes the impermanence of the world can really take us by surprise. I started a new job recently, having moved there from one which really wasn't working out for me, and after a settling-in period I'm really starting to enjoy it. Then I found out that there are changes coming which could potentially be really inconvenient for me. In the moment when I was given the news, I felt something akin to betrayal - I've finally got my job sorted out, how dare it go and change on me? Maybe you've experienced something similar, when you'd finally got all your ducks in a row, only for something unexpected to mess the whole thing up again.
In the specific quotation above, the Buddha is essentially claiming that all form is impermanent - that is, all material things. We can look at this both in terms of ourselves, where 'form' refers to the physical body, or to the material universe in its entirety. Whatever we examine, we won't find anything which is not subject to coming and going, beginning and ending, birth and death, rise and fall.
As I said last week, don't just take the Buddha's word for it (or mine)! Check it out for yourself. Find the most permanent, reliable, consistent physical things you can. Are they still going to be like that a year from now? Ten years? A hundred? A million? A billion? Some things change slower than others, but I've yet to find anything that doesn't change at all... but like I said, don't take my word for it.
The Buddha continues:
“But if it’s impermanent, is it dukkha or sukha?”
The Pali word dukkha is most commonly translated as 'suffering', but that's an unhelpful translation in this context. What the Buddha is getting at is better rendered as 'unreliable' or 'not a dependable source of happiness'. (Dukkha is here contrasted with sukha, which is usually translated as 'happiness' or 'joy'.)
He's not saying that 'because everything changes, it all sucks'. Ice cream changes, but I still like it if I eat it quickly enough that it doesn't turn into a goopy mess (but slowly enough that it isn't frozen solid either - navigating the impermanence of ice cream is a tricky business). What the Buddha is saying is that impermanent things are not 100% reliable - precisely because they'll change on you. My job is great... until it changes in a way that I don't like. My internet connection is awesome, until it has an unplanned outage and I can't watch videos of baby goats when I want to.
Again, this is something we should check out for ourselves. We can pretty easily thing of unsatisfactory things which are not sources of happiness, but most of us have go-to things which can pretty reliably brighten our day. But is that always true? If I eat some ice cream, I may feel a bit happier for a while - but if I keep eating ice cream, does it continue to produce happiness consistently? (I can assure you it does not.)
Now we return to last week's theme:
“But if it’s impermanent, dukkha, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”
Last week, Buddha suggested that, no matter what aspect of ourselves we examined, we wouldn't find anything which we could entirely control, so that we could have it just the way we want it all day every day - and, therefore, there was no aspect of our experience which could really be called 'me' or 'mine'. This is a high standard, but that's the point - as we discussed last time, we tend to feel that we have some 'essence', some essential 'me-ness', which really is permanent and dependable, and so the Buddha is challenging us to find anything at all in our experience which could possibly meet that high bar.
Now he's backing up his previous claim that there's nothing meeting those criteria with an argument which both works on the logical level and gives us something to investigate in meditation. If we really, truly, carefully and thoroughly examine every aspect of material form in our experience, and 100% of it turns out to be subject to changing and vanishing outside of our control (anicca), then it can't possibly be a dependable source of happiness (dukkha), and as such is not fit to be regarded as 'me' or 'mine' (anatta). Boom.
Of course, the material world isn't the only place where an 'essence of me' might be hiding - what about the mental world?
Extending this analysis to the remaining aggregates
The Buddha continues:
“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?” …
“Is perception permanent or impermanent?” …
“Are choices permanent or impermanent?” …
“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?”
“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”
“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”
As I noted last week, I've written previously about the Five Aggregates, so check out that article if you aren't familiar with them. But in a nutshell, the remaining four aggregates represent the aspects of our experience which are purely mental - our preferences (whether we find something pleasing, displeasing or meh), our perceptions (the way we see and understand the world; our concepts), our choices (intentions, impulses and other mental activity relating to the sense of will), and our consciousness (our ability to know what's going on).
Each of these, the Buddha says (of course, by now you know you've gotta check this out for yourself), is going to turn out to be impermanent and inconstant; consequently, each will turn out to be not a reliable source of happiness; and, as a result, none is a suitable hiding place for this elusive 'essence of me'.
On that bombshell...
This is starting to sound like bad news. For one thing, it's starting to sound like there's a good chance that I don't actually exist. But leaving aside that whole existential crisis, there's a bigger problem - if we can't find anything constant or reliable, anything that's a dependable source of happiness, then what the heck are we supposed to do? Where do we hang our hat, so to speak? Maybe Buddhism really does say that everything sucks after all!
Well, let's see what the Buddha goes on to say. Maybe it'll help. (Maybe not. It's hard to tell with these old texts sometimes.)
Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. Being disillusioned, desire fades away. When desire fades away they’re freed. When they’re freed, they know they’re freed. They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’”
This is dense, so let's take it a line at a time.
Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with [the aggregates].
A central idea in Buddhism is that we spend most of our time caught up in an illusion - an illusion of permanence, of dependability, of essential natures. We believe that we inhabit a solid, reliable, logical, predictable world, and if we can just arrange our affairs correctly then we'll be happy for the rest of time. And despite all the evidence to the contrary - all the bumps and bangs of life, all the unexpected let-downs and sudden upheavals - on an unconscious level we cling desperately to this comforting, but ultimately illusory, belief.
When we really examine the Three Characteristics in our experience, over and over again, we gradually become convinced that the world isn't really the way we thought it was. Everything changes; nothing is totally dependable; nothing is fixed.
Being disillusioned, desire fades away.
As we come to this new understanding, our relationship to what's going on changes. Previously, we believed on some level that we could get lasting happiness 'out there' if we could only collect all the Pokemon (or whatever). Having seen that that kind of strategy is never going to work - not because we're not trying hard enough, but simply because that isn't what reality is actually like - the impulse to reach out and fiddle with everything until it's just to our liking fades away. No matter what's going on in our life, no matter how good our material circumstances, we know we'll always be able to find something wrong with it - so why worry? (Hopefully it goes without saying that this doesn't mean that people in extreme poverty or lacking basic human needs should just suck it up and stop complaining. But if you're agonising over whether your jacket pocket is big enough for the iPhone 14 or whether you'd be better off with the 14 mini, you can probably relax. I just bought a 13 mini, so whichever one you get you'll have a fancier phone than me.)
When desire fades away they’re freed.
And this, just this, is the end of our struggle. Gone is the subtle itch at the back of our minds that says 'Yes, but wouldn't it be so much better if..?' Reality simply is what it is, and it's fine - even when it sucks. It might sound paradoxical, but there's a kind of 'meta-OKness' which is available in any situation, whether that situation is pleasant or unpleasant. As our practice is developing, it's likely that we'll each find a limit beyond which we lose sight of that 'OKness', but over time, as our realisation deepens, it becomes available in a wider and wider range of circumstances. Then, as Marcus Aurelius said, it is possible to be happy even in a palace.
(I have a student who reliably objects at this point that they don't just want to feel 'OK' all the time - they want to have fun! Well, I'm not saying you can't have fun, or that you'll be limited to one emotion for the rest of your life - quite the opposite, actually. What I'm saying is that, even in the most excitingly fun life imaginable, aspects of it are unavoidably going to suck if we continue to insist that the universe should line itself up to our satisfaction. If we can instead let go of the illusion that this would ever be possible, then our wellbeing is no longer dependent on things being arranged to our liking. It doesn't mean you have to give up ice cream if you like it, but if you order ice cream and they tell you there's none left, it won't spoil your evening any more.)
When they’re freed, they know they’re freed. They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’”
'What had to be done has been done' is the standard form of words that we find in the Pali canon when a monk wants to announce to the Buddha that he or she has become an arahant - a fully awakened one. Thus, what the Buddha is saying is that if you take your exploration of these Three Characteristics far enough, you too can go all the way, and become free.
And, in fact, that's exactly what happens next.
The Five Guys wake up
That is what the Buddha said. Satisfied, the group of five mendicants were happy with what the Buddha said. And while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the group of five mendicants were freed from defilements by not clinging.
If you saw my articles on the Buddha's first discourse (part 1, part 2), you might remember that that discourse was also given to his five ascetic friends, and at the end of the discourse one of them (Kondañña) attained stream entry, the first stage of awakening. This time around, all five guys go all the way to arahantship. Nice! (Maybe that's why they decided to go into business together.)
So perhaps you've attained arahantship just by reading these articles - if you have, please leave a comment to let me know. But if not, at least you have the next best thing - the framework of the Three Characteristics, which you can use to explore your subjective experience in your meditation practice. Sooner or later you'll find your own way to 'disillusionment', freedom from desire, and ultimately a lasting peace of mind.
May you, too, do what has to be done, and find freedom in this very life.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!