The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

[I wrote the following article as a submission to the Guest Writings section of the Kenneth Folk Dharma site. Kenneth teaches a model of meditation practice which he calls The Three Speed Transmission, and this article was written to fit that model (hence the references to various “Gears”).]

The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

“Monks, [all phenomena are] impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” ~The Buddha, from the Pali Canon*

The purpose of the Vipassana (Insight) side of the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission is to directly apprehend the Three Characteristics of phenomena via one’s direct moment-to-moment experience. The Three Characteristics are Impermanence (Pali: anicca), Suffering (dukkha), and Nonself (anatta). It is easy to contemplate these characteristics in an intellectual way, but experiencing them directly is another thing entirely. The direct apprehension of these characteristics is what leads to swift progress along the path of insight.

What follows are some basic ways in which one may directly apprehend each of the Three Characteristics through the practice of Vipassana meditation:

Impermanence: When one looks at a candle flame, it appears as though it is a separate thing. In actuality, it is constantly burning itself away. There is not one flame that exists from moment to moment. The same is true of the sensations that make up the totality one’s phenomenal experience.

If we pay attention to the activity of breathing, we notice that one moment the belly is rising, and the next it is falling. If we pay close attention to our hands and feet, we notice the quick rise and fall of each tingling sensation (i.e. vibrations). Each pulse, flicker, itch, and subtle movement will be seen to arise and vanish completely many times during each second of observation. Thoughts and mental images suddenly appear, and then vanish as quickly as they came. Everything that can be observed will be seen to arise and then vanish. This is perhaps the simplest way to observe any of the Three Characteristics, so it’s a good place to start.

Suffering: Tere are two simple ways to observe the Suffering characteristic. First, Suffering is said to be concealed by changing in to different postures. For example, if one decides to sit for a long period, they will eventually have to use the bathroom. The discomfort of a full bladder causes one to get up. When we examine our experience we see that we are always changing position to relieve discomfort of some kind. Realizing this, we realize the Suffering Characteristic.

The second way the Suffering Characteristic is observed is to notice how nothing can be held on to. A pleasant mind state arises, and we think, “Yes, this is it! I could stay like this forever.” But the state changes, even if we don’t want it to. In each moment one is either visited by unpleasant circumstances or watching the pleasant circumstances fall away. As painful and frustrating this is to experience, directly apprehending the Suffering Characteristic in this way brings insight.

Nonself: There are two basic ways to observe the characteristic of Nonself. First, as one observes the characteristics of Impermanence and Suffering, the meditator will understand that there is no one in control of what occurs. Thoughts just come and go. Pains and discomforts just happen, without any prior authorization from an “I.” Even the recognition of these processes seems to arise naturally without any prompting. With the realization that no one is running the show, we observe the Nonself Characteristic.

The second way to observe the characteristic of Nonself is through the practice of self-inquiry** (one of my all-time favorite practices). After noticing that no observable phenomena seem to be controlled by a separate observer, the meditator may ask, “Then who/what am I?” By asking, “Who am I?” the meditator begins the active search for a self essence. But s/he will quickly discover that anything that can be observed is by definition NOT an observer. When the sensations of experience that lie previously hidden are revealed, the meditator will continue to apprehend thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” The Nonself Characteristic is perhaps the most of important of all three. In the words of the Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Silananda, “No realization of Truth can occur without the knowledge of the anatta (no-soul) nature of things.”***

Conclusion: Working with the Three Characteristics involves more than just thinking about them. Rather, it is by direct apprehending these characteristics that one begins to gain insight into the Ultimate truth of things. In so doing, the meditator working on the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission will make their way through the stages of the Progress of Insight**** which leads to the attainment of stream entry (sotapanna): the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravada tradition.

* (SN 22:45; III 44-45)

** Self-inquiry is also the practice of the 2nd Gear (Dwell as the “Witness.”).

*** Sayadaw U Silanadna, No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of ANATTA (full PDF download).

**** For more information, see Kenneth’s pages on the Progress of Insight (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five).


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Theravada

4 responses to “The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

  1. Nice introduction. P.S. This is the first I’ve heard of Kenneth’s site! Some thoughts:

    Anicca – I was reading a book on General Semantics a while back (“Drive yourself Sane”) and it quoted some guy saying that to talk accurately about change, we should really say “change thinging” instead of things changing! Really turns the tables!

    Dukkha – On a Goenka retreat, the big G man often gets practioners to realise and move beyond suffering by talking about the “impersonal” nature of all sensations. For some reason, the word “impersonal” has been really helpful for me when working with suffering. I can flick it on like a switch to get some momentum in a sit.

    Anatta – A favourite quote of mine – “We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” (Norbert Wiener)

    I find I often trip myself up investigating no-self by trying to get “underneath” all experience. Of course, then I’ve missed the fact that the “getting underneath” urge also arose on without some fixed agent behind it… In the end, only letting go really gets me there, and that itself takes some skill.

    • Jackson

      Thanks for the comment, Dan. I like what you’ve added to the discussion.

      Regarding your thoughts on anatta… letting go is essential for insight, and I think that things really start moving when letting go is somehow combined with wise effort and investigation. In other words, merging surrender with earnest investigation is a way to really get things moving. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but learning to do this can work wonders in one’s practice (it has for me).

      • In other words, merging surrender with earnest investigation is a way to really get things moving. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but learning to do this can work wonders in one’s practice (it has for me).”

        That’s very good to know, thanks! When the letting go approach really opened up for me (very noticeable), I was at first worried that I was not investigating and “seeing through” everything. I think that was just a hangover from doing a lot of hardcore vipassana in the beginning. Nowadays I’m more comfortable with letting go, and at the current stage of my practice I find that nearly all my excursions into new meditative territory are after/during deep “letting go” focused sits. They are often “deep” and trance-like.

      • Jackson

        Sounds about right 🙂 What’s been helpful for me when those trance-like states come about is to pinpoint what it is that is so compelling about them. Is it the seamless quality of awareness in the moment? Is it the shift in perception? Is it being grounded in the body? Whatever it is, it’s a good idea to look for it and pay close attention to any signs of fluctuation.

        Practice well!

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