Guide to Buddhism: Step 4 – The Universal Truths

Overview of the Three Universal Truths of Existence

Understanding the three universal truths or characteristics of existence is an essential element of Buddhism.

These teaching, along with the Four Noble Truths, Karma, and the Five Aggregates of Experience, are key to obtaining wisdom.

The three characteristics of existence are:

  • 1) impermanence
  • 2) unsatisfactoriness; 
  • 3) not-self.

In other words, everything is constantly changing; nothing can be permanently satisfying or dependable; and nothing can be said to be truly ours or absolutely who and what we are

Put in even simpler terms, everything is transient, imperfect and ownerless. Once we come to see and know these three qualities through direct experience then we will possess insight.

These three characteristics are always present and they tell us about the nature of our existence. By studying each, we can learn to develop renunciation or non-clinging.

Once we fully understand that existence is universally characterized by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self, then we will know uncertainty.

We will then let go of things and not hold on to them. Once we eliminate our attachment to existence, we obtain nirvana.

Stated another way, the purpose of understanding the three characteristics is to remove attachment by removing the misunderstanding or delusion that existence is permanent, pleasant and has something to do with the self.

This is why understanding the three characteristics is a component of wisdom.

I. The First Universal Characteristic: Impermanence

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once marked that one cannot step into the same river twice.

This observation illustrates the ever-changing and transient nature of things. As we’ve discussed in our more detailed post on Impermanence: The Only Thing Constant Change and When it Comes to Old Age, Sickness and Death – We are All in the Same Boat, everything is subject to the law of impermanence.

This includes our physical body, which is subject to constant change. We grow old and gray – our teeth and hair fall out.

If you need any proof of impermanence of the physical form, just look at the photograph on your driver’s license or passport of the years.

Similarly, our mental states are impermanent. At one moment we are happy and at another moment sad.

As infants, we hardly understand anything.

Then as adults in the prime of life, we understand a great deal more. Finally, in old age, we lose the power of our mental faculties and become like infants again.

This universal law of constant change is true of everything we see around us. Not one of the things we see will last forever – not the houses or apartments, not the rivers or islands, not the mountain chains or the oceans.

We know for a fact that all of these things in nature, even the solar system itself, will one day decline and cease to exist. It doesn’t matter how durable or forever-lasting we think they might be.

Impermanence is a fact that can be verified by direct, immediate observation. Understanding impermanence serves as an antidote to greed and anger.

How can understanding impermanence help me in my daily life?

Understanding the concept of impermanence is important not only in our pursuit of inner peace but is also useful in our daily lives.

For example, recognizing that our relationships with friends, enemies and our families are in constant change can be enormously helpful.

Think for a moment, how often do friendships and marriages fail because one or both parties fail to take into account the fact that the other partner has changed?

It is only nature that people’s attitudes and interests change over time.

Relationship problems often develop because we lock ourselves into fixed, artificial, unchanging ideas of ourselves, our friends and our relatives.

Because we fail to see the constant change in ourselves and others, we fail to develop our relationships appropriately and therefore often fail to understand one another.

Similarly, in our work and careers, we don’t stand a chance of succeeding if we don’t keep up with changing trends, tools, and technologies in our professions.

Understanding impermanence is necessary if we are to be successful, effective, competitive and creative in how we handle our personal and professional affairs.

When we see that all things are perishable and change every moment, we begin to see that things have no substantial existence of their own – that inside us, there is nothing like a self, nothing substantial.

In this sense, impermanence is directly related to the last of the three characteristics, the characteristic of not-self.

II. The Second Characteristic: Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness

Buddha taught that impermanence is not the cause of suffering.

If impermanence  always caused suffering, then there would be no cure for suffering – no path to inner peace – no hope for any of us.

Rather, impermanence is only an opportunity or occasion for suffering because impermanence only results in suffering so long as ignorance, craving and clinging are present.

How is this so?

In our ignorance of the real nature of things, we crave and cling to objects in hope that they will become permanent, that they will yield permanent happiness.

Yet the wise know this to be impossible.

We suffer because we fail to understand that youth, health and life itself are impermanent. When this occurs, impermanence is an occasion for suffering.

Similarly, when we fail to recognize the impermanent nature of possessions, power and prestige, we crave and cling to them. When they end, impermanence is an occasion for suffering.

However, if we have wisdom and do not cling or crave, then we can experience the impermanence of every situation, every encounter and every object with peace.

III. The Third Characteristic: Non-Self

The third universal characteristic of existence is the characteristic of not-self or non-self. This is one of the really distinct features of Buddha’s teachings versus other religions.

Before you dive into the concept of not-self, you should make sure that you have a solid understanding of impermanence.

It is key to understanding the concept of ‘not-self’, i.e., this is not myself and this does not belong to me.

This concept is summarized in the expression, “There’s no such thing as yours or mine in all the universe.” The Buddha taught that the body is not substantial or a real being, but rather an object void of substance.

But we refuse to listen and stubbornly cling to it. If our bodies could talk, they would be telling us all day and night: “You’re not my owner, you know.”

The concept of not-self is directly related to impermanence but we often resist its teaching because we have been attached to the idea of self since birth. It is this attachment that is a cause of suffering.

With a clear understanding of impermanence, we can overcome the false believe that the body is a self.

With insight, we can learn to view the body as just the body to overcome the delusion of the sense of self.

It’s normal for the idea of not-self to be unsettling or confusing at first

Often the teaching of not-self causes confusion because people wonder how one can deny the self. After all, we do say, “I am walking” or “I am speaking” or “I am called so and so” or “I am the father of such and such person.”

So how can we deny the reality of that “I”?

It is important to remember that the Buddhist rejection of “I”, “Me” and “Mine” is not a rejection of this convenient designation or convention, i.e., a person’s name or reference to “I”, “Me” or “Mine”.

However, these conventions must not be confused with the natural, universal law of impermanence.

Rather, it is a rejection of the idea that this name or term “I” stands for a substantial, permanent and changeless being.

When Buddha examined the Five Aggregates of Experience, he noted that “the self” was not found to be one of them. Buddha meant that, upon analysis, this name or the term “I” does not correspond to any essence or entity.

Buddha’s rejection of the self is a rejection of the belief in a real, independent, permanent entity that is represented by the name or term “I”.

Such a permanent entity would have to be independent and sovereign in a way that a king is the master of those around him. It would have to be impervious to change and such a permanent entity, such a self, is nowhere to be found.

As evidence that the self is nowhere to be found either in the body or in the mind, you can try a very simple exercise.

If we can let go of what we are not, then the nature of what is real comes clear.

Think about when we have a headache or stomach ache – the body never asks us permission first, it just follows its natural course. This shows that the body doesn’t have an owner.

If we all sit quietly for a brief period of time and look within our bodies and minds, without fail we find that we cannot locate a self anywhere.

The only possible conclusion is that “the self” is just a convenient name for a collection of factors.

There is no self, no soul, essence, and no core of personal experience apart from the ever-changing, impermanent physical and mental factors of personal experience such as our feelings, ideas, habits and attitudes.

While this is a difficult concept to grasp, it’s not beyond our ability, and the reward is peace and contentment.

When we see everybody and everything as simply elements, there is no need or room for anger, greed and delusion.

How can rejecting the idea of “a self” benefit us in our daily lives?

But why should we care to reject the idea of a self? Will doing so benefit us at all? Yes, we can benefit in two important ways.

First, we can benefit on a mundane level, in our everyday lives, in that we become more creative, more comfortable, more open people.

As long as we cling to the self, we will always have to defend ourselves, our property, our prestige, and our opinions.

If you think, “I am smart, I am wealthy, I am important, I understand all about Buddhism,” then you do not understand not-self and will suffer as a result.

You should be aware and know what is going on around you but don’t attach yourself to that information or knowledge.

When we clearly known that everything of every kind is impermanent and not-self, we can be said to know the path to inner peace in its entirety.

But once we give up the belief in an independent and permanent self, we will be able to relate to other people and situations without being defensive. We will be able to act freely, spontaneously and creatively.

How is rejecting the idea of “a self” a key to enlightenment?

Buddha taught that there is no better way to overcome suffering than to see that “this is not myself” and “this is not mine.”

The belief in a self is synonymous with ignorance, and ignorance is the most basic of the three afflictions.

Once we identify or imagine ourselves as an entity, we create a separation between ourselves and the people and things around us.

Once we have this concept of self, we respond to the people and things around us either attachment or anger. Falsely believe in the concept of self blocks the path to inner peace because the self is the source and the cause of all suffering.

We should do our best to reject and eliminate this idea of a self rather than trying to defend, protect and preserve it.

When we understand through study, consideration and meditation that all things are impermanent, are full of suffering, and are not-self.

Further, we must strive for our understanding of these truths to not merely be intellectual or academic but for these truths to become part of our immediate experience. When these delusions are removed, wisdom arises.

And when wisdom arises, we experience the inner peace and freedom of nirvana.

Next: Step 5: Eliminating Attachments