Practice Guides January 1, 2018

The Three Characteristics

Sean Oakes

“All created things are impermanent … suffering … not-self.”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.

(Dhammapada 277-79)

Interwoven with the list of the five aggregates, which describes what we cling to in every kind of experience, is a short list of three characteristics of all phenomena: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness. The Buddha would teach them in order, like a logical proposition: everything changes, so grasping is both fruitless and painful, and nothing that constantly changes can be a reliable identity. Our practice with the three characteristics is to explore ongoing experience with mindfulness, see impermanence and suffering first-hand, and feel the implications for who we think we are.

The three characteristics (tilakkhaṇa), or “marks,” are central in our practice of Insight Meditation because impermanence is what mindfulness is designed to reveal. Impermanence is often described as the doorway to seeing the other two characteristics, and to the entire path.

When the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’. (SN 22.102)

The Three Characteristics

  1. Impermanence (anicca)

  2. Unsatisfactoriness/suffering (dukkha)

  3. Selflessness/not-self (anattā)

Impermanence (anicca)

Impermanence is obvious at a general level—we can easily see that things are changing. But the insight into impermanence cuts through clinging by going deeper. One of the most powerful phenomena we cling to is the sense of a lasting individual self, which is such a deeply-rooted perception that it seems true. It is this deep but mistaken felt sense of who we are that impermanence challenges. The pervasive nature of impermanence thus creates both other characteristics: suffering and selflessness.

Unsatisfactoriness/Suffering (dukkha)

In the teaching on the first Noble Truth, the Buddha described suffering as a subtle unsatisfactoriness in every conditioned experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Dukkha is present when we are having experiences we didn’t want (pain, loss, harm) and not getting those we want (pleasure, certainty, safety).

The suffering of dukkha is caused not just by the normal discomforts of bodily and social life, but by the added emotional constriction of grasping (taṇhā). Because everything is impermanent, even beautiful and wholesome experiences like a loving relationship, moments of joy, or spiritual experiences are marked by the inevitability of loss, and therefore tend to be grasped at. Understanding the relationship between grasping and suffering is at the heart of our practice.

Selflessness/Not-self (anattā)

The suffering of loss is most deeply felt when it touches experiences we define ourselves by. When we lose people we love, or are startled into feeling our own fragility or mortality, or find a long-held worldview shaken by doubt, our very identity can feel unmoored. The insight into impermanence leads inevitably, the Dharma teaches us, toward the insight into selflessness (anattā).

Commonly translated “not-self,” anattā does not mean that we are wrong to feel like we are an individual or to celebrate or defend aspects of our identity that define us within culture, like our race, gender, sexuality, or heritage. But it does mean that none of those things should be thought of as permanent or as attributes that define us outside of the context of our culture and conditions. The Buddha explicitly connects the insight into impermanence with seeing through the illusion of the separate self, which leads directly to liberation.

From what are sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress born and produced? It’s when an uneducated ordinary person … regards form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form. But that form of theirs decays and perishes, which gives rise to sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.

Sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress are given up when you understand the impermanence of form—its perishing, fading away, and cessation—and you truly see with right understanding that all form, whether past or present, is impermanent, suffering, and perishable. When these things are given up there’s no anxiety. (SN 22.43)

Practicing with the Three Characteristics

Many discourses use the list of the five aggregates (khandha) to spell out what the three characteristics apply to form, feeling, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. All of the aggregates are impermanent and therefore cannot give lasting satisfaction or be a reliable basis for a lasting self. A chapter of the Connected Discourses (Saṃyutta Nikāya 18) also has the Buddha teaching his son Rāhula to reflect on the characteristics as they relate to the six sense bases: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and mental/emotional phenomena.

Our core practice of mindfulness is said to lead naturally to the insight into impermanence, but for many practitioners, specifically focusing on observing change supports this powerful reflection. The Buddha talked about bringing mindfulness to the beginning, middle, and end of phenomena in order to see the process of impermanence firsthand.

Observing the beginning of a sensory experience, like the beginning of the in-breath in meditation or the beginning of a strong emotion triggered by something someone says or does, can show us how experiences arise based on conditions. Observing how seemingly ongoing experiences, like a mood or even an aspect of our identity, change as we find ourselves in new contexts reveals how illusory even temporary constancy can be. And observing the endings of experiences can offer the most direct and piercing window into the reality of impermanence and loss, as all seemingly solid perceptions finally reveal themselves to be fleeting, made up of fluctuating moments inseparable from the context they arise in.

While it can seem like this practice might lead toward nihilism and feeling ungrounded, the Buddha assures us that it does not. The only thing lost when we understand that nothing can be held onto is the suffering we experience by grasping. Joy and appreciation of beauty can even increase when anxiety around loss diminishes. Seeing impermanence and understanding that suffering is simply the “rope burn” that comes when we cling to that which is inevitably slipping through our fingers, the heart can finally relax into true presence and freedom.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher, Movement Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.