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Three Characteristics of Being

As noted elsewhere, the central message of Buddhism is, "The world is not as you see it -- change."

What, then, are we supposed to see? How are we supposed to consider this world? The Buddha provided three basic characteristics to life.

Impermanence

Sometimes it seems we stand at a certain vantage point where a mountain seems eternal, while a butterfly's life is fantastically short. In reality, all things are in a state of flux, perhaps a negative way of saying, "All things are in the process of becoming...."

What, the Buddha asks, are we to cling to? Our bodies? And yet most of us are all too conscious of the deterioration and decay of our bodies as we age, and we are aware that the cells in our body constantly remake us from moment to moment. We take out memberships in gyms to retard the process of aging, but we are not able to hold back the changes for long. Accumulating wealth and status, a long line of publications or fine cars, none of this gives us peace of mind because all of it changes.

By wishing or acting as if things were otherwise, we bring ourselves anguish and anxiety -- and this is the spirit behind the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, namely desire as the source of our unhappiness.

The Buddha’s last words were: "All things are subject to change. Practice with diligence..."


Suffering

The Truth of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Suffering is a fact of life which people can see for themselves. It is one of the three characteristics of existence.

Whatever is impermanent is also suffering. Everything which arises will last only for a time, then it decay and finally dies. Repeated birth and death is hard to endure, It disturbs one’s peace and mind and is a cause of suffering.

Thus old age, sickness and death which are evidence of the impermanence of life are forms of suffering. Since people tend to cling to youth, health, relationship and material achievements, the realization that these are impermanent, cause anxiety and fears. It is said that even the gods trembled when the Buddha reminded them that the heavens are also impermanent.

Understanding that suffering is universal and inevitable enables one to face the realities of life with calmness of mind. One will be able to cope with old age, sickness and death without becoming disheartened or desperate. It also encourages people to look for solution to the problem of suffering just as Prince Siddhartha did.

No-Self

Who am I? When a person looks at a photograph of themselves when they were a child, where is that child? Am I, indeed, the same from moment to moment? Hardly -- one moment I'm happy and content, the next anxious and prone to anger. Out of convention and convenience we refer to ourselves, as "I", but the question becomes what is this mysterious I? Is is consciousness? Is it my physical body? My emotions? My thoughts?

Chasing after this mysterious "I" is a baffling activity and one which we usually ignore, taking for granted that "I" exist in the sense that I am a noun, a thing, something that could be identified as a thing-in-itself, separate from other things.

Yet the Buddha's insight was that there is no self, no "I" to locate. This is disconcerting to some and small wonder, for it cuts at the very sense of who we think we are. To make matters worse, many of those who present their approach to Buddhism emphasize this characteristic of life in a way that can seem fatalistic. It is almost as if pessimists grab onto Buddhism because it confirms the worst -- that we simply don't exist.

But, as the Buddha would say, this is a great truth that is liberating, not defeating. It is a realization that is positive, not negative. True, as we measure the size of our ego and the corresponding demands that life treat us a certain way, this can be classified as bad news! What we come to in this (at first) bitter realization is that we are not things, but events. We are not nouns, but rather verbs. We are not alone and static, but a process that cannot be separated from the all that is and will be.

If we are empty of self, says the wonderful Thich Nhat Hahn, then what does that mean? He uses the example of a piece of paper and says, basically, if you look at this paper and really see it, you are seeing the tree this was made from, the person who cut that tree down, the family he or she came from. You are seeing the rain that gave it nourishment, the sun that provided for its growth and development, the earth that supported it. If you take away any of those elements, the paper cannot exist.

The paper, therefore, is empty of anything that we would recognize as paper. Certain things have come together, interdependently, in this object we call a piece of paper. So, while the paper is void or empty of self, it is full of "non-paper elements."

In the same way, we are made up not of a self, but of the stars and the sun, of the earth and rain, mutually interdependent in ways that are striking that when we see this, really see it, we have no words. We have, then, seen the world as it is, not as we imagine or wish it to be, and we see the process in others around us and in the clouds and in our own state of being.


Four Noble Truths

Say what you will about the Buddha, he had a thing for numbers. Often you'll read in Buddhist literature, "Oh, so-and-so, there are 153 defilements that mark a monk," etc. etc. I have a feeling that this was to help people in memorizing the teachings, but no doubt over the centuries things have grown a bit, so that, when or if Buddha spoke the words, there were perhaps, well, maybe 6.

But we can be sure that when it comes to the core of the Buddhist teaching, the number 4 has not been added to or taken away from. There are Four Noble Truths on which virtually all the rest that follows must hang.

Our purpose in this section of the site is to keep things relatively brief, so you can be sure that more about the Four Noble Truths will pop up from time to time via the Teachings or the Dharma.

But for now, here is an overview of this essential facet of Buddhism.

(1) Life is suffering. Now, there are those who bring a dour attitude to Buddhism and then ascribe that attitude to Buddhism, and this first truth is an ample opportunity if one is not careful. Obviously, not EVERYthing in life is suffering. Then again, the suffering inherent in everything is not so obvious! We can understand the concept that illness, poverty, dying, love affairs gone bad and most modern country and western music represents some fairly strong levels of suffering. When one thinks of something that appears to be devoid of suffering -- say, a new romantic interest -- life seems delightful. But lurking beneath this in our minds are the very beginnings of suffering.

To use the above example -- when we do find ourselves in a new relationship, all the love songs seem to be speaking to us, yes? But with that love comes attachment and soon one might worry, "What if she (or he) leaves?" If it's a new car we have purchased, we worry suddenly about car thieves or parking in a parking lot so somebody in a decidedly older car can open their door with a bit too much enthusiasm.

The real truth is that beneath the moments of happiness and joy we still find a certain fear, and this suffering on all levels was one of the insights of the Buddha who, rather than decide life was terrible and throw up his hands looked upon all beings with the heart of compassion.

(2) Suffering is caused by desire. We suffer because we want. This is not exactly the same desire thing as wanting world peace or wanting to be enlightened (although those can also lead to suffering), but rather a different level and kind of desire. This desire is the desire to close the gap between the way the world is and the way we see it or wish it would be. It is our desire to live in a world where our ego demands things go its way or we will be terribly, terribly miserable, disappointed or simply invalid as a human being.

In reality, it is not what happens to us that makes us suffer, but rather our belief about what happens to us. If, for example, we believe that we should get a certain job and it doesn't happen that way, our reaction is to assume the world has treated us unfairly again, that we've gotten the short end of the stick. This is monkey mind at its worst. Where, one might ask, is it written that we MUST have a certain job or a certain achievement. If it was true that we "must" then we would have, the world would have either been wired that way or twisted itself like a contortionist to give us what we demand.

While "desire" is a traditional translation and view of this truth, the key is more often found in the "demanding" aspect. We live as if such-and-such MUST happen and if it doesn't we'll be (a) crushed (b) cheated or (c) a pitiful creature who just didn't have the talent, brains or luck to make something happen.

Another way of looking at this is to realize that we are suffering because of desire and desire is a form of attachment. Attachment, then, is a wish to control. When things are out of control, we're closer to Buddha-mind or the heart of the Buddha because that's when control takes place, by letting go.

(3) Remove suffering by removing desire. Ah, well, we're not to walk around as zombies. Keep in mind the central tenet of this website -- that we see the world incorrectly and that vision must be changed. When one finds out it is the attachment and what Albert Ellis calls "musterbation" that is causing our suffering, one can go to work on one's mind and way of looking at things and can, bit by bit, remove the suffering. How? Fortunately, the Buddha did have one more Noble Truth.

(4) One's world-view can change through the Eightfold Path. We need a path, guidelines to let us know when we're on and off the beam. Since much of Buddhism does not rely on teachers but tells you to work out your own liberation with diligence, it's essential to have something to tell us where we are in the process. The Eightfold Path seeks to do just that:

The path is traditionally broken down into three areas -- Wisdom, Morality and Meditation.

Wisdom

Right View
Right Thought


Morality

Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood


Meditation

Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration/Meditation


These will be covered in greated detail under Dharma as this site develops and certain are addressed on a regular basis in e-zine, DharmaNotes. For now, a few things to note. First, "Right" means "Correct" or behavior or actions that lead to the goal of dispelling suffering.

Under Wisdom, Right View has to do with one's point of view, the view that one is undertaking a path of spiritual liberation and that one has great faith in that way. This is not blind faith, but the kind of faith that takes a scientist into her lab or allows a baker to place his bread in the oven. It is faith that leads one to take the steps necessary to experience and verify and test. With that in mind, it is often said that to practice Buddhism one must have great faith and be a great skeptic at the same time, because nothing, ultimately, can be taken without experience and thought and action. Correct or Right Thought has to do with the thinking process, unemcumbered by drugs or alcohol, but also a process that deals with the facts and observes clearly and deeply, as the scientist mentioned above.

Under Morality, these are fairly straight forward. At least in terms of theory, while practice gets a little tricky. One must not gossip or lie or slander. One must take actions that are appropriate and avoid those which are not -- such as muder or theft. Finally, one's vocation must be such that it allows you to your work without leaving the heart of the Buddha. Selling guns at S-Mart, for example, is not considered a very cool occupation for a Buddhist.

Meditation is actually one of the more popular parts of the path. There are countless books on the process of meditation and how to do it, and more people spend time reading about it then doing it, yes. Also, the earlier steps may be actually more difficult and less glamourous. After all, you can tell your friends, "I'm going to go meditate" and they'll be impressed. If you say, "I'm not going out and steal," they may find that to be commendable but somewhat expected. The moral efforts and the wisdom of the heart are essential if one is to have any meaning whatsoever to their meditation practice. Meditation and mindfulness are frequent subjects in our forum as well as in the DharmaNotes and Dharma area of this site.

While there may be a love of numbers in Buddhism and four noble truths and an eightfold path, can you think of 1 reason not to follow them?