The Three Characteristics -- By Peter Da Costa

The very essence of the Dhamma is transience. In other words, once the mind has been clearly penetrated, revealing its true nature, the Dhamma can then be forgotten about. You won't need it any more: you've become it. You're transient too. Don't believe me? Just look at the way everything rises and falls both from one moment to the next; and also how this accumulated conditioning itself reaches a peak, thereafter declining until final disintegration, the act of which then conditions the next arising: e.g. from one lifetime to the next, e.g. tectonic plates.

At the very heart of the Dhamma is the concept of No-Self. There are two ways of considering No-Self. The most direct way is to view it as an expression of the inherent void within all phenomena, i.e. everything is void of a self, or neurotic ego. This void is both passionless and spaciousness, whilst containing within itself the entire cosmos in a constant flux of conditioned and conditioning change: i.e. the very transience mentioned above.

Whilst this sounds quite wonderful, even mystical, there is the second and probably more practical approach. To wit, if there is nothing of a permanent or unchanging nature, then there is nothing of an independent nature. For example, if something "is" unchanging or permanent, it would have to be independent of, i.e. unaffected by, the rest of the universe. So the corollary of No-Self is total universal interdependence. To investigate No-Self we do nothing less than investigate total universal interdependence. In its simplest form this is what we would normally know as 'cause and effect'.

'Cause and effect' is the key observational process which, when applied repeatedly over a significant period of time, gradually undermines all sense of permanence and independence of any and every concept including of course that of the Self, either on the personal level or a 'universal' one.

Finally the remaining characteristic, which is common to all phenomena, is that of Dukkha. Dukkha, as used within a Buddhist context, does not have a direct English equivalent. The usual rendering is 'unsatisfactoryness'. This may well be technically correct, but it does nothing for the practical meditator or aspiring contemplative, that I assume to be the typical reader of this Web page. For myself, the most widely applicable equivalents are 'anguish', 'despair' or even 'frustration'. Feeling can be pleasant or unpleasant, and thus categorize our entire field of experience. Pleasant experiences can be seen as anguish because they do not last in time. In fact the better they are the quicker time seems to fly: and nothing can bring them back.

Correspondingly, unpleasant things, just as transient as the pleasant, are perceived as longer lasting, to an extent directly proportional to the degree of unpleasantness: and nothing can speed their subsiding. Thus, all things can appear to be anguish, despairing or frustrating, hence, dukkha.

When any of these three characteristics are seen with sufficient detachment and clarity there is a resulting sense of insight, which leads to dispassion and Nibbana, which unsurprisingly enough exhibits the characteristic spaciousness of No-Self.

For the new practitioner, with a lot of pent up, inefficient and dissipated energy, just waiting for the flood gates to burst open, this can happen quite suddenly. Any progressive, or intermediate, stages become telescoped and indistinguishable. But this is no problem. The average yogi has his whole life ahead of him in which to refine and develop clarity around such things.

May the investigation of these three characteristics in all perceptions of every kind lead the intrepid yogi to the eventual fully awakened state that is wisdom, and the final liberation of the heart that is true compassion.

Peter Da Costa

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