How letting go of the need for certainty frees us to enjoy our lives
A central teaching in early Buddhism is the Three Characteristics of Existence - three fundamental properties which apply to literally everything we experience. It's said that having a clear enough experience of any two of these at the same moment can trigger stream entry, the first stage of awakening in the early Buddhist path - so it's clearly important material. On the other hand, at first glance the Three Characteristics can strike modern readers as pessimistic or gloomy, and we can feel discouraged from exploring them further.
So in this article I'll lay out each characteristic in turn, to give us a sense of what's being described, and then look at why their seemingly negative message is actually good news after all.
The Three Characteristics
Impermanence (Pali: anicca, Sanskrit: anitya), also translated as inconstancy, is the recognition that all things in our experience change. At one level, it's obvious to us that civilisations rise and fall, fashions come and go and so on, but here we're talking about something much more immediate and in-your-face. The claim here is that everything we experience - whatever we see, hear or feel, internally or externally - is subject to change. The phenomena of our experience arise, hang around for a while, and then pass away again. Your most compelling thoughts, that itch on your nose in meditation that seems like it's never going to stop, the deep-seated conviction in the depths of heartbreak that you'll never be happy again - all of these things come and go. Some of them come and go faster than others, but nothing lasts forever.
Unsatisfactoriness (Pali: dukkha, Sanskrit duhkha), also translated as unreliability, or (somewhat unhelpfully, I think) 'suffering', is the recognition that nothing in our experience provides a complete, self-sufficient, lasting source of happiness. In one sense this is obvious if we've already accepted impermanence - if all things come and go, how could anything provide lasting happiness? But the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness has a slightly different spin on it - it points to the subtle sense of discontent which is present even in the most positive experiences. You may have had the experience of your enjoyment of a concert, film or book being slightly tainted by the sense that you expected it to be better somehow. Perhaps you bought a new house, and at first it was a beautiful palace, everything you wanted it to be... and then you noticed that the roof leaks in heavy rain, or the toilets don't quite flush right, or the wallpaper is peeling, or the neighbours are noisy. Little by little, the unsatisfactory elements creep into your awareness, eating away at your perfect happiness.
Essencelessness (Pali: anatta, Sanskrit: anatman), also translated as corelessness or (again, not entirely helpfully) as 'non-self', is the recognition that nothing has any 'inherent existence'. Of the three, this is the trickiest to explain, but I'll take a swing at it. What this is pointing to is that everything in our experience comes about as the result of causes and conditions coming together, rather than simply popping into the world fully-formed exactly the way it has always been. Consider a candle, which gradually melts into a puddle of wax. Is the puddle of wax still a candle? No. Where did the candle go? Well, it changed into the puddle of wax, maybe. But at what exact moment did it stop being a candle and start being a puddle of wax? It turns out that, although we tend to look at the world in terms of solid objects - a world of things - it's actually much more accurate to look at it in terms of processes, where the name 'candle' is simply a temporary label we hang onto part of our experience for a brief period of time, for the sake of convenience. Early Buddhism focuses on applying this teaching first and foremost to our sense of self - as we look inside and try to find any element of ourselves which is the 'essence of me', we discover that we can't find it at all. All we find is more and more processes, each of which break down into more and more sub-processes the more closely we look.
What's going on here?
But hang on, you might be thinking, if it really is true that absolutely all of our experience is characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and essencelessness, how come we don't see things that way? On the contrary, we see a world of solid objects, and we tend to have a sense that lasting happiness is just around the corner, if only we could solve enough of our problems.
One way to look at this is in terms of the developmental process that we undergo when we're born. At first, we're ejected from the womb into a strange world that we don't understand at all. We're totally helpless, utterly dependent on those around us to keep us alive. But over time, we learn to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, start to figure out what we can and can't eat, what we like and dislike, and so on. We gradually develop a sense of individuality, and with it, the ability to take care of ourselves and navigate the world as independent individuals. (That's one way to look at what it means to become an adult.)
So we develop a way of seeing the world which is based fundamentally around bringing order to chaos. Rather than experiencing our visual field as a meaningless soup of colours and shapes, we learn to divide it up into discrete, labelled objects and compare those objects to see which ones we like and which ones we don't. And, of course, we do the same for what we hear, think and feel. Soon, we have access to a view of the world which is nicely carved up into boxes, each rated out of 10.
The problem is that this way of viewing the world is so effective that we come to rely almost exclusively on this way of being, to the point that we forget that it's just one way of looking. The view becomes the truth. At rare moments in our lives, we may touch into another way of being - perhaps we're standing on a beach watching the ocean, or walking in the woods, and for a time we seem to be able to take in the whole scene all at once, with no need to divide it up into categories. And perhaps those moments are simply happy memories that we don't think about too much, or perhaps we start going to the beach or the woods from time to time, because those places give us access to this experience that is strangely rewarding even though we don't fully understand it.
These kinds of experiences are a clue that something important is missing from our usual carved-up way of seeing the world. If we live only from the perspective of division and separateness, we attempt to inhabit a world which is fundamentally out of step with the way things are - as the Three Characteristics point out. All phenomena are impermanent - the objects we experience refuse to stay in one neat box for all time, but pop into existence, move from one box to another and then vanish, just as we were starting to feel like we'd got them figured out. All phenomena are unreliable, and not a source of lasting happiness - we might have something pegged as an 8 out of 10, but the more we look at it, the more we notice its flaws, and that 8 drops to a 7. And all phenomena are without a fundamental essence - including us. Something might move from an 8 to a 7 not because of some as-yet unnoticed flaws, but because we ourselves changed, and as a result our relationship to the object is different.
Three doorways to mystery and beauty
At this point, you might be feeling a little uneasy. After all, I'm kinda pulling out the rug from underneath you - I'm pointing out that everything in our lives, absolutely everything, is subject to change, is ultimately unsatisfactory, and isn't even well-defined to begin with. Even if this were true, why on earth would we want to inhabit the unreliable, murky, chaotic world that the Three Characteristics seem to describe?
So at this point I'd like to offer a different sense of the world view that a sufficiently deep grasp of the Three Characteristics can open up for us, heavily informed by the Zen tradition, which in general tends to place greater emphasis on engaging with life in the midst of all its complexities, as opposed to renouncing the whole thing in disgust and removing oneself from it.
First, impermanence. Yes, this means that everything comes and goes - and, ultimately, that everything we love will someday change and vanish. But, given that this is true whether we like it or not, what should we do about it? Refuse to engage with anything because it will only be taken away from us? Or can we instead take this opportunity to see our present good fortune and experience some genuine gratitude for the people and things in our life - even the difficult ones, who help to make us who we are? It's easy to take the conveniences of modern life for granted, but it's really pretty amazing that we live at a moment in human history when we can use the Internet to access so much of humanity from the comfort of a chair. Frankly, it's pretty amazing that many of us can get clean, drinkable water in our homes just by turning on a tap. Most of the people who've ever lived have not had these conveniences - and there's no guarantee that people in the future will have them either. Furthermore, recognising our own impermanence can be a powerful spur to action. Death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain; how do we want to use the time we have left? Seeing the world in this way can open up a profound sense of the preciousness of each moment of our lives, allowing us to appreciate what we have, and act in ways that we won't regret when we no longer have the opportunity to go back and try to fix our mistakes.
Second, unsatisfactoriness. As one teacher once put it, this sounds a bit crap. Everything is unsatisfactory? Everything sucks? Wow, fun meditation practice you have there, buddy. But here's another way to look at it. If nothing ever possibly could be 100% perfect and completely satisfactory, and we really, truly understand that, then we're free to drop our demands that our experience be exactly what we want. We can see the imperfections in our favourite things not as irritating flaws that should have been better, but as the inevitable result of being a thing in the world. We can move from loving the attractive and resenting the flawed to embracing the flaws as part of the whole - we can enjoy what we have for what it is, warts and all. And we can bring this same approach to the people in our lives - including ourselves. That isn't to say that we stop trying to improve ourselves because 'that's just how I am', but at the same time we recognise that our ideal of perfection is simply a guiding star for us to follow because we feel inspired when we do so, as opposed to an attainable standard that we're currently failing to reach.
And third, essencelessness. As we explore this deep and profound teaching, we find that 'things aren't things' - that what we experience only exists because of the coming together of inconceivably many other factors, each balancing, supporting and contextualising everything else. If we go far enough, we can see that in order for anything at all to exist, it depends on the whole universe. Starting from a simple exploration of how a single, seemingly solid object came into being, we soon find ourselves exploring a vast, interconnected web of relationships, a kind of universal tapestry in which each thread is constantly shifting and changing. As we realise the mind-boggling complexity required for anything at all to happen, we shift from a world of neat little formulas and reductive explanations to a world which seems increasingly mysterious and full of wonder. We can, at times, be struck by sheer amazement that we're here at all, and profoundly grateful for the opportunity to explore even the tiny corner of the universe that's available to us in our brief lives.
Ehipassiko: come and see for yourself
The Buddha would frequently tell his followers not to accept what he said simply because he'd said it, but to investigate it for themselves, using the phrase 'ehipassiko', literally meaning something like 'come and see'.
In the same way, the Three Characteristics are not something we're supposed to 'believe' in order to be 'good Buddhists'. They're a description of reality which we can explore and test for ourselves, not by thinking and philosophising but by looking at our immediate experience, in any moment, including right now. Do you find anything at all which is permanent and completely unchanging? Do you find anything which is totally satisfactory and will always remain so? Do you find anything which exists 100% solidly in its own right, rather than as the product of a combination of conditions?
In fact, not only do you not have to believe anything you read here, but if you've read it and still think it sounds crap, you're very welcome to remain sceptical - in the words of the great Zen teacher Jiyu Kennett, if a teaching doesn't sit well with you, you are right to doubt what you think it means. This practice isn't about blindly accepting things that strike you as stupid, unhelpful or wrong. Come and see for yourself! If you're right and it's a load of rubbish, then your own explorations should confirm that, shouldn't they?
And if it turns out that there's some merit in the Three Characteristics after all, then maybe you, too, will discover a way of relating to the world that makes plain the preciousness of each moment; that allows us to accept flaws as an integral part of something's beauty rather than merely a sign that things could have been better; and that opens up a sense of the profound mystery of existence and the vast web of interconnectedness that produced us, sustains us and will continue long after we're gone.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!