The three characteristics
of existence

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The three universal characteristics of existence are:

  • the impermanence (anicca),
  • the pain or suffering (dukkha), and
  • the non-self, the non-soul, the non-essence (anattā).

As stated by the Buddha:

“Whether the Buddhas appear in the world or not, this cosmic element (dhātu), this constant state, this perpetual law, this capitulation still exists, meaning that:

All activities are temporary (sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā),

all activities are pain and suffering (sabbe saṅkhārā dukhā), and all phenomena are no-self (sabbe dhammā anattā)”. (AN Uppāda Sutta)

The impermanence points to the basic fact that nothing in the world is fixed or permanent. Instability and change prevail in all activities and actions, in all mental and material phenomena, all of which tend to rise and fall.

Although the phenomena around us seem to be permanent and unchanging, they are in fact fleeting processes that are constantly changing.

We ourselves are not the same people, whether physically or emotionally or spiritually, that we were ten years ago or even ten minutes ago. Therefore, by living the way we live as beings moving in quicksand, it is not possible to attain permanent security and happiness.

Thus, each person is essentially subject to constant change, since his body, his feelings, his perceptions, his thoughts, etc. change each passing moment.

The word dukkha means physical and psychological pain experienced due to the attachment to temporary and unstable things, such as material and mental phenomena, and in general the unsatisfactory and imperfect nature of life itself.

The repressive nature of all mental and material phenomena, due to their constant rise and fall, thus becomes the basis of strain, suffering and pain in this unstable world.

However, this does not mean that Buddhists believe that there is only pain to be found in life. They believe that there are moments of happiness in life, but they do not last because they are subject to the law of change and impermanence.

The notion of the non-self indicates that, ultimately, there is nothing perpetual or unchanging in human nature that one can call “self”, “soul” or “ego”, and consolidate a stable sense of “ego”. The whole concept of the “ego” is in fact a fundamentally wrong concept that seeks to settle into an unstable and temporary aggregate of material and mental elements.

Although everything gives the impression of being compact, it is in fact nothing more than an aggregation and combination of different elements. If we remove the tiles, beams, bricks, stones, etc. from a house that looks solid, then there will be no “house” separate from these elements. The name “home” that we gave it is just a cluster, a heap of building blocks that last as long as these elements are placed in this specific shape. The same elements can be disconnected and reconnected as something else.

Similarly, what we call “ego”, “self” or “soul”, which gives us the impression that it is compact, is in fact nothing more than a cluster (khandha) of various elements, comprising:

  1. the material body (rūpa–khandha)
  2. the emotion (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral) (vedanā–khandha)
  3. the perception (saññā–khandha)
  4. the mental functions (saṅkhāra–khandha), and
  5. the consciousness (viññāna–khandha)

And these elements are constantly changing. They are flowing like a river, which retains an apparent identity, although the water droplets that compose it are different at all times.

Similarly, a person maintains an apparent identity, which they call “self”, “ego” or “soul”, although the body, emotions, perceptions, ideas, and the

consciousness that shapes it are subject to constant change and differ at all times.

So the concepts of “self”, “ego”, or “soul” are an illusion when one tries to identify with one of the five aggregates, or with all of them.

In the ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca) there are only changing processes of physical and mental phenomena that constantly rise and fall according to the causes and conditions (hetu-paccaya) which are constantly changing themselves.

The rise and fall is a core feature of the entire universe and a characteristic of the condition-dependent phenomena. The dependence on circumstances, as well as causality, are integral parts of existence.

All phenomena in the material, physical and spiritual world are produced by a combination of causes and conditions. They are not absolute, self-existent, unchanging, independent and irrelevant to other things. They are made up, comprised, formed, shaped, molded and created by conditions. They are dependent and interdependent on conditions. That is why they are called condition-dependent. And all conditions constantly rise and fall, according to other conditions and causes. Thus, the rise and fall reveal that the nature of conditions is transient, temporary, short, ephemeral, instantaneous, fleeting, momentary, unstable, impermanent.

Ultimately, neither inside nor outside of mental and material phenomena can something be found that could be considered as an autonomous, independent, distinct self, soul or any other essence that is immutable, irreversible, permanent, continuous, lasting, fixed, immovable, indivisible, self-existent, autogenous, perpetual, perennial, immortal and indestructible.

What exists is the changing process of conditions (paccaya) and the effects of conditions (paccayupanna-dhamma), not a being, a person, a woman, a man, a self, something that belongs to a self, an ego and something that belongs to me, someone and something that belongs to someone.

Beings are complex and ever-changing, with an existence that is not autogenous but dependent on causal factors.

The words “self”, “soul”, “personality”, “ego”, “person”, “man”, “woman”, etc., are merely common expressions; relative, ceremonial, conventional truths (vohāra- vacana, loka-vohāra, sammuti-sacca).

All knowledge of the ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca) can be attained with methodical and systematic observation through insight meditation (vipassanā), which eliminates ignorance (avijjā) or delusion (moha).

The ignorance or delusion about the three characteristics of existence is considered to be the first link in the overall process of saṃsāra, the “cycle

of birth and death”, the”cycle of rebirth”, where a being is subjected to repeated existence in an endless cycle of suffering.

Therefore, the elimination of this ignorance through direct insight into the three characteristics puts an end to saṃsāra and, consequently, an end to the pain and suffering as described in the third of the Four Noble Truths regarding the cessation of pain (dukkha nirodha or nirodha sacca).