The Three Characteristics

Even though I was originally brought up in a Catholic household, Eastern philosophies — most notably Buddhism (Zen) and Taoism — have continued to color many of my experiences as an adult. When I was living in Boston, Massachusetts I would frequently participate in the weekly "Dharma Talks" given at the Insight Meditation center in nearby Cambridge.

As someone always seeking to bridge the divide between religion and science, I found the Buddhist approach to working with Reality incredibly fascinating. For all of the "woo-woo" surrounding it, I was surprised to discover the rigorous approach they took towards understanding the world of conscious experience.

According to tradition, there are "three characteristics" represent the three qualities that define experiential Reality.1 According to author Daniel Ingram, these three characteristics are: impermanence, suffering, and no-self. Being focused on the movements of the mind, however, the "three characteristics" represent "aspects to explore", rather than "things to believe in". As with all mystic paths, everything is quite literally up to individual interpretation.2

By exploring their thought-stream and the world around, an individual can directly realize the impermanent nature of reality — thereby helping them resist the tendency to hold onto and "grip" particular objects or experiences. By developing a deep understanding of this "impermanence", it is possible to gain insight into individual suffering, which is frequently caused by ignoring the transitory nature of this realm.

The concept of "no-self", also referred to as "not-self" (or annata), takes this idea of non-permanence to its logical conclusion — challenging the idea of an unchanging, or permanent "self". I will return to this idea in future posts but for now, it will suffice to say that each of us, as participants in an ever-changing universe, are in a constant state of flux as well.

What does any of this matter? From both a mystic and scientific perspective, the "three characteristics" provide individuals with another way to view themselves, others, and the world around them. Moreover, if someone chooses to explore these ideas in greater detail, the necessary tools are readily at hand. All an individual has to do is note the movements of their thoughts, or, barring that, simply take some time to notice the changing movements of the world.