The Three Characteristics of Existence (Tri Lakshana)

By Amarasiri Weeraratne
Courtesy : Vesak Lipi
The Three Characteristics of Existence
In the Anguttara Nikaya 111. 134, the Buddha teaches as follows:”Whether Perfect Ones appear in the world or not, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact, and fixed law that all formations (sankharas) are impermanent, that they are subject to suffering, and that every thing is without and Ego.”

These three characteristics of Anitya, Dukkha and Anatma, are the salient features of sentient existence. In the Buddha-Dharma these are called the “Trilakshana” or The Three Cardinal Features of Life.

Everything that undergoes change, is impermanent and unstable. There is the process of arising, reaching a peak, and passing away. The transitory nature of life is recognised in all religions and philosophies. It was the materialist Omar Khayyam, who wrote:-
“Each morn a thousand roses brings you say, Yes, but where goes the rose of yesterday? And that same summer which brings the rose, Shall take Jamshid and Kaikhobad away.”
Even the priceless inventories of ancient time are gradually wearing away.

Our own bodies too undergo change and lead to the inevitable decay and death. Thus we see that impermanence is the first cardinal feature of life. The Buddha says that, what is not stable is not worth clinging to, and is not worthy of our attachment. The glory of Greece is no more, and the grandeur of Rome is relegated to the limbo of the forgotten past. It is so with all things in this world. Truly as Thomas Gray said “The paths of the glory lead but to the grave”. The Buddha points out the unsatisfactory nature of life, and tells us that’s its first characteristics is transiency. He advocates the cultivation of the qualities of non-attachment and dispassion to this phantom show that we all call life. His doctrine is one which leads to non-attachment (viragaya), and disgust or dissatisfaction (nibbidyaya) with the fleeting vicissitudes of life. Nirvana is not a heaven up in the sky with its unspeakable boredom of eternal life and eternal happiness, but it is a state of happiness that comes with the eradication of greed, ill-will, and ignorance. The person grounded in virtue (sila) who trades the Noble Eightfold-Path can transcend the impermanence, and the unsatisfactory nature of life, and attain the enduring bliss of Nirvana.

Parents suffer when their children fall ill, but when they recover the parents are happy. But is there any guarantee that the child will not fall ill again? It is so with all things. A Latin author said “Eheu fugaces labuntur anni”. Alas! the fleeting years slip away, and we with them”. Therefore the first cardinal feature of life and all things therein is its instability or Anityata. It is this instability that makes Dukka or the unsatisfactory nature of life bearable. Otherwise human beings would die of boredom with what we call pleasure, and the agony of what constitutes suffering. How long can we revel in seeking satisfaction with this process of change, decay, and death? Surely, when one realizes with intuitive wisdom that comes from Vidharshana meditation, that all things are transcient, he will get disgusted with this process of mutability. That disgust will pave the way for progress towards Nirvana. Therefore it is said in verse 287 of the Dhammapada.

“That all things rise and cease to be, when with wisdom one does see, fed up with ill, he will be trading the way to purity.”

In Pali:- Sabbe sanhara anicca ti Yada pannaya passati Atha nibbhindati dukkhe Esa maggo visudhiya”

Dukkha means suffering, or the unsatisfactory nature of life. Etymologically ‘Du’ means difficult or unpleasant.” Kha stands for to bear. Thus Dukkha connotes difficult to bear and what is unpleasant, to be born of life’s difficulties and sorrow from the slightest irritations, boredom, frusrtations, to actual anger mental and physical pain. To be able to comprehend dukkha fully, one must be able to take into consideration the entire process of perpetual wandering in Sansara, the long chain of rebirths, and not merely one single-life-time which may sometimes not be very painful. On the other hand, no right thinking man who who sees the vast process of suffering around him in this world can be happy and unmoved by it even though he may not be having a bad quota of suffering due to his good kamma in the past.

The problem of suffering is universally recognized. It has grappled the attention of thinkers, theologians and religionists in all climes and ages. In the words of a Hebrew prophet, “Man is born to trouble as sparks fly upwards.” It was the celebrated Greek poet Homer who said, “For men on earth it’s better not to be born at all, or being born to pass through the gates of Hades with all speed.” Socrates the sage of Greece, remarked that, if the troubles of men were to be reshuffled and distributed, each man would be content with his own quota, and would not like to share that of another. So much steeped and ingrained in suffering is the world.

Let us look at the forests and the ocean depth. Here the stronger preys upon the weaker. Amongst men too, the economically stronger preys upon the weaker by exploitation of labour. The whole of creation can be summed by in the words “eating and avoiding being eaten”. Sir Edwin Arnold remarks of in his “Light of Asia”.
“Beauteous is the earth,  but all its forest-broods, Plot mutual slaughter, hungering to live, of sapphire are the skies, but when men cry Famished, no drops they give”.

It was Tennyson the son of a Clergyman, who wrote, “Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break.” Instances can be multiplied from the world’s literature to show that the keynote that underlines existence is suffering. It is on this central theme that the Buddha built up his doctrine. He too was concerned with the same problem which confronted all thinkers. “One thing do I teach,” declared the Buddha, “and that is suffering and how to get rid of it.” Elsewhere the Buddha has said, that just as there is one flavour in the ocean, and that the taste of salt, there is one flavour in my doctrine, and that the flavour of deliverence from suffering. The Four Noble Truths are the heart-core and corner stone of the Buddha·Dharma. Of these truths, the first is the recognition of the universality of suffering.
Thus we see that the Buddha-Dharma is founded on facts which can be verified by our own experience, and not on any sort of dogma, or speculative assumption, and not to be accepted of faith alone, e.g. “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”, The truth of suffering can be verified by each individual for himself, because life is one big picture dominated by suffering. Those natural and reared on the obsession that life was created and is maintained by a merciful God, would find this truth distasteful, because it exposes the imperfection of the Creator and his handwork. The five solutions offered in Christian Theology to the problem of suffering and its compatibility with the concept of a merciful Creator have been found to be unsatisfactory and founded on logic as has been explained and admitted by Alstair M. Maclntyre* in his book “Problems of Christian Belief”.

The beliver in God fights shy of the truth of suffering because, it furnishes damning evidence against the all-merciful, and all-powerful concept attributed to the Creator. In this connection the words of Sir Charles Bradlaught are worth quoting:-

“The existence of evil (suffering) is a terrible stumbling block to the theist.
Pain, misery, crime, poverty confronts the advocates of eternal goodness, and challenge with unanswerable potency his declaration of Diety as all-good, and ail-powerful”

Robert Blatchford in his “God and My Neighbour” wrote:-
“The world is full of sorrow, pain, hatred, crime and war. If God is a tender, loving, all knowing, and all-powerful heavenly father, why did he build a world on such cruel lines? Why does he not give the world, peace, health, and happiness?”

Thomas Huxely presented the truth of suffering with devastating effect on the Creator-God concept, when he said:-
“Since thousands of times a minute, were our ears only sharp enough, we should hear the sighs and groans, and pains like those heard by Dante at the gate of Hell, the world cannot be governed by a benevolent God.”

Professor Leuba, of Brian Maw College has questioned the scientists of America in a circular, and discovered that more than half of them did not believe in a personal God, nor in a personal immortality. Therefore, it is no wonder that Bishop Ayer of New York lamented in his book, “God Answers Man’s Doubts”:- “Higher education is becoming viciously antagonistic to Christianity … One must admit that there are times when atheism seems logical even if a cold and heartless answer to the problem in this sense.”
“Thus we will have to agree with Professor W. T. Stace of Princeton University, U.SA the author of “Buddha or Christ” that “while modern science makes a shipwreck of Christianity, it does not touch Buddhism”. Indeed, it is this scientific and rational approach so fateful to Christianity that is favorable to the spread of Buddhism in the West.

Therefore, the Buddha exhorts us to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and make an end of the sufferings in Sansara. The delusion called attachment to existence has to be abandoned by under standing the true nature of life in the light of the knowledge of the First Noble Truth-viz. Suffering (in Pali, Dukkha). This understanding is conducive to progress on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Therefore it is said in verse 288 of the Dhammapada:-
“When with wisdom one does see, that in all things there’s no felicity. Disgusted with ill, he will be Treading the path to purity”

In Pali:- Sabbe sankahara dukka ti
Yada Pannaya pasati Atha nibbhindai dukkhe Esa maggo visudhiya”

The third feature of all forms of existence is Anatma, or the absence of anything, enduring, or an Ego. This is the most difficult of the Buddha’s teaching. All, other religious systems including the six systems of Hindu philosophy, teach that there is something enduring permanently in man, and that they call the “soul”. The Buddha was the only teacher who was able to overcome this universal illusion. Plato ard the Greek philosophers spoke of the immortality of the soul. They have mistaken the impermanent stream of consciousness that exists in a flux and manifests itself from one life to another, for an immortal soul.

The Buddha rejected the all theories regarding the immortality of the soul, and said that the mind of man undergoes change even more rapidly than the body, and there is no place for a soul in either the mind or the body. The mind-flux that persists during one’s life and remanifests itself in a new life after death is not to be mistaken for an unchanging, eternal soul. According to the Buddha, the illusion that this mind-flux is an eternal soul, imutable and changeless is the greatest of all delusions. The fallacy is the cause of all trammells, and unrest in the world.

“The Ego-illusion is the cause of all passions and defilements” worte Santideva in his classic “Bodhichariyavatara”. As Santideva is a Mahayanist teacher, this is sufficient proof that the Anatma doctrine is accepted by the Mahayana Buddhists. The ego-illusion is a deep-seated fallacy in the human mind, and can only be eliminated by attaining the first stage on the patch to sainthood, namely the Sotapatti stage.

In the Sanyutta Nikaya, Chapter 12, the Buddha says “It would be better for the world ling to regard this body built up, of the four elements as his Ego rather than the mind, for it is evident that the body may last a year, two, three unto a hundred years, and more, but that which is called thought, mind or consciousness is arising continually during day, and night, as one thing, as passing away as another thing. The Buddha analysed the mind for the vestige of a soul, and declared that only sensations, perceptions and thought processes and consciousness were there. All these He declares to be impermanent, arising, and passing away. But their rapid continuation created the illusion of an egoentity persisting in man. Just as when the parts are rightly set, we use the term chariot to a combination of wheels shaft, axle etc., we use the term man, to a combination of psycho-physical forces.

“Just as the ship goes by the winds impelled, Just as the shaft goes by the bowstring’s force So goes the body in its forward move, Full driven by the virant thrust of air,
As to the puppet’s back the dodge-tread tied, So to the body-doll the mind is tied,
And pulled to that body, moves, stands, sits.”

For modern psychology the soul is a complete superfluity, having no right to a place among its first principles. That the belief is thoroughly unscientific is borne out by the following statement of Prof: Mac Dougal:-
“It is a matter of common knowledge that science has given its verdict against the soul, has declared the conception of a soul.. is a mere survival from primitive culture, one of the many relics from savage superstition that obstinately persists among us in defiance of the clear teaching of modern science.”

It is the acceptance of this doctrine that distinguishes the genuine Buddhist from the spurious one. In determining the true doctrines of the Buddha, the Elders who took part in the Third Council have declared that three words consisting of eight letters cpnstitute the core of the Buddha-Dharma.
Those three Pali words when written in the original scripts are, Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta. In Pali Language:-
“Na hi sila kattam hetu, Uppajjanti Tathagatha Attakkhra tini pad a 5ambuddhena pakasita.”

“Not mere teachers of ethics right, Are the Buddhas who the Dhamma teach, Three words contained in letters eight, Constitute the core of what they preach.”