The Three Characteristics of Existence

By Robert Brumet

The term Insight Meditation is translated from the Pali¹ word vipassana which generally means “attaining clear insight into the nature of reality.” From this deep insight one can become liberated from the delusions that entangle us in the world of the conditioned mind and give birth to the experience of suffering.

What is it that we will see as “we see clearly into the nature of reality?” The answer cannot be put directly into words because words cannot convey the profundity or the ephemeral nature of the experience itself. It would be somewhat like trying to describe the taste of a strawberry to a person who has never tasted one. You have to taste it yourself to truly understand.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, this liberating insight awakens one to a deep understanding of the three characteristics of conditioned existence which are dukkha, anicca, and anatta. These are Pali words which are often translated into the English words: suffering, impermanence, and no-self. It can take a while to unpack the meaning of these words because there is no simple correspondence between Pali and English, and because these ideas may seem strange, and perhaps antithetical, to our materialistic and pleasure-oriented culture.

To begin with, the term conditioned existence generally refers to the world of time, space, and form. It is the world in which everything that exists is contingent upon certain conditions for its existence. It is the world with which we are most familiar, and some people believe that it is the only world that exists.

Dukkha, which is often translated as suffering, refers to the inherently unsatisfying nature of conditioned existence. In this context, it points to the truth that nothing in this realm of existence is permanently satisfying. The world of time, space and form can give us pleasure, and it may satisfy us momentarily, but it cannot provide permanent satisfaction. We can find no basis for lasting happiness in this realm alone; this world of conditioned existence is inherently unsatisfying, in and of itself. We can find happiness while we are in the world, but we cannot find it from the world.

Anicca, or impermanence, is sometimes stated as “the inherently changing nature of all things.” But this definition does not go quite far enough. Impermanence implies not only that reality consists of things that are always changing; but it means that change itself is the essential nature of conditioned existence. In other words, the universe is not a big machine which is constantly changing; the universe is more like a symphony, which is nothing but a stream of ever changing vibrations emerging and disappearing into a background of silence. Reality then, is a verb, not a noun.

Attachment is the futile attempt to possess the ever-changing notes of the universal symphony. Attachment causes suffering because there is truly nothing we can hold on to. Resisting change is like trying to freeze sound waves; it cannot be done. Our futile attempts to possess or resist this ever-present flow will cause suffering.

Anatta is usually translated into the term no-self, which is an idea that may seem very strange in a culture which is dedicated to preserving and adorning our individuality, and the “rights” attached to that perceived individuality. But if we frame this within the context of anicca, which tell us that nothing is permanent, we see that anatta can mean “no permanent self.” Self is also a verb, rather than a noun; an activity, rather than a thing.

 Another perspective on anatta is that it can mean “no separate self.” In other words, self is seen as part of the phenomenon of conditioned existence, all of which is interconnected and contingent upon certain conditions for its existence. Just as anicca tells us that there is “no such thing as a thing,” anatta tells us that there is no reality to separateness; everything is interconnected and interwoven.

This discussion provides a brief overview of the three characteristics of existence from a Theravada Buddhist perspective, and as such it may be helpful to our understanding of the dharma; but like the menu in a restaurant, it is not an end in itself, it is intended to point to the real thing; which in this case, is the experience of vipassana itself. I invite you to taste it for yourself!

[1] Pali is the language in which the first written teachings were recorded, and is likely the language spoken by the Buddha.