Introduction -2 – The Three Characteristics of Nature

1. In the previous post, we discussed two of the three main ways that suffering arises, the viparināma dukkha (suffering due to our inability to maintain things to one’s satisfaction) and the sankhāra dukkha (suffering due to our excess attachment for things). Both these are experienced in this very life, but unless we take time and contemplate on those, we may not even be aware of those.

  • There is nothing much we can do about the viparināma dukkha, other than to eat well, exercise regularly, and keep up with healthy habits for maintaining a healthy body and a mind.
  • We can lessen the sankhāra dukkha by gradually losing excess attachment to worldly things. This happens automatically when we start grasping the Three Characteristics of nature, which we will discuss below.

2. The third category of suffering arises directly: getting burned, stabbed/shot, etc. Beings in the apayas encounter this more, and in the niraya (lowest realm) that is all one feels. For example, a person who made money by killing another or by stealing from another may live well in this life (at least outwardly), but will be subjected to much suffering in the upcoming births. This is the worst category of dukkha dukkha, which arises due to immoral actions of the past. Until the death of the physical body, even an Arahant is subjected to dukkha dukkha.

  • Therefore, the third category of suffering, dukkha dukkha, arises basically due to immoral acts; see below. The severity of suffering of course depends on the severity of the violation. We will discuss this in detail in the paticca samuppāda (“pati+ichcha” leading to “sama”+”uppāda”) steps in future posts; see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda“, where it is briefly discussed how one’s actions lead to effects that are similar “in kind”.

3. All our acts (including speech and thoughts) are sankhāra, thus dukkha dukkha arises due to the worst forms of sankhāra, which we call immoral acts.

Everything happens due to a reason (cause). If one does a good deed, that will lead to good results, and bad deeds will lead to bad results. This is the basis of science and also how nature works. “Every action has a reaction”; it is guaranteed, sooner or later.

  • This is why rebirth is a reality of nature. There are people who live lavishly with money earned by immoral deeds; the consequences will be realized in the future rebirths.
  • It also explains why different people are born with different levels of health, wealth, beauty, etc., and also why there are innumerable varieties of animals with different levels of suffering.
The Three Characteristics

4. Most people can distinguish between moral and immoral acts. Immoral acts are killing, stealing, inappropriate sexual behavior, lying, slandering, gossiping, harsh speech, and getting “drunk” with not only drugs or alcohol, but also with wealth, fame, power, etc (The BIG EIGHT as discussed in the Meditation section).

  • When we also include the wrong views/hate in the mind, there are ten, which are called the ten defilements or “dasa akusala” in Pali. These acts not only are inappropriate but also will have adverse consequences for the well being of everyone. Societies cannot function well if people act immorally.

5. Most religions teach how to live a moral life, may be with some exceptions for example of killing of animals as immoral. Basically all religions encourage “building better societies”. Therefore morality and moral laws are common to all cultures and religions.

  • Without having this moral foundation, it is hard to comprehend the deeper aspects that we will discuss next, and analyze in the paticca samuppāda.
  • However, it is important to realize that one will be free of all ten defilements only upon reaching the Arahant stage. Keeping the five conventional precepts is a good start.
  • When one starts following the Path, one is bound to break the trend once in a while. A child learning to walk will fall many times. Many people get discouraged when they do an immoral act occasionally; but just to realize that one did a mistake, and that it bothers one’s mind, means one HAS MADE PROGRESS. 

6. The uniqueness in Buddha Dhamma is to show that in the wider world view, building better societies (i.e., living a moral life) is NOT ENOUGH in the LONG TERM in the rebirth process. In this wider world view, anyone can be born anywhere in the 31 realms, including those dreaded lower four realms. It is a much bigger world than we normally experience.

  • Doing immoral acts makes one eligible to be born the lower four realms, and be subjected to dukkha dukkha. However, even if one does not do a single immoral act in this life, that does not guarantee avoidance of rebirth in the lower four realms, BECAUSE we all have done immoral deeds in our previous lives. What we have in the past remain until that kammic power is exhausted OR until one attains Nibbāna. Again this is part of the “bigger world view” now spanning time.

7. This was the core message of the Buddha: That no matter how well we live this life (and it is essential to do that), that does not guarantee a “suffering-free” future. Until one attains at the least the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna, one is not free from suffering in the four lower worlds.

  • We can look at it this way too: Even if we live a good, moral life in this life, we do not know under what conditions we will be born in the next life, even if it is a human life. If we are born to an immoral family, or be exposed to immoral friends, in the next life we may commit acts that deserves birth in the four lower realms.
  • This is why we need to strive to attain the Sōtapanna stage in this very life.

8. This is what is embedded in the three characteristics of “this wider world” of 31 realms. We may be born in the highest Brahma world, but one day that life will end and we will inevitably get to the four lowest realms (apāyas) at some point. The Buddha said, “there is no refuge” anywhere in these 31 realms.

9. In the previous post we discussed why we “cannot keep any part of our physical body to our satisfaction”. If we think through how dukkha dukkha arises, we can see that “we cannot maintain anything to our satisfaction” anywhere in these 31 realms in the long term. This is the first characteristic of “this world of 31 realms”: anicca. Just one word says it all.

  • Because of anicca, no matter how much we struggle to achieve sense pleasures, we will eventually encounter suffering, especially in the four lower realms. We always have viparināma dukkha and sankhāra dukkha (both may be hidden in the apparent sense pleasures temporarily), and we cannot avoid dukkha dukkha without attaining the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.
  • Thus anicca leads to the second characteristic of dukkha.
  • Therefore, as long as we crave for existence and sense pleasures “in this world”, we are truly helpless in the LONG TERM; this is the third characteristic of anatta. There is “no refuge” in this world of 31 realms.

10. At first it is difficult to see why these three characteristics are a such a big deal. They are the KEY to stop the causes for suffering.

  • Just the realization that it is harmful and unfruitful to attach to things in this world leads to the first stage of Nibbāna, the Sōtapanna stage. Buddha Dhamma is a complete description of nature. Just being able to comprehend the unfruitfulness of attachment to worldly things (and aversion, which arises from attachment as we will see), is the first and most important step in the Noble Eightfold Path, Samma Ditthi or “clear comprehension”.

11. It is important to realize that detachment to worldly things CANNOT be done by forcing the mind. If someone tries to give away one’s wealth without truly realizing the benefits of that, one will likely to generate friction or remorse later, which could have adverse effects.

  • It may be hard to believe, but the real happiness ARISES (and one will be able to donate things with joy, because one will automatically see the fruitless of craving for worldly things) as one starts comprehending the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, and realize that it is possible to stop all three form of suffering. It is permanent sense of relief, and not like a sense pleasure that lasts only for a short time.
  • As we go through the steps in the paticca samuppāda cycles, the meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta will become clear. One could and should read other related posts too. At some point, things will start “clicking” into place and then it will become easier. Just a glimpse of the “light” will make it easier to “see”.

12. The lack of this knowledge (or even better stated as wisdom or panna), is called ignorance (avijjā). Thus the whole paticca samuppāda cycle starts with ignorance (avijjā), and explains how avijjā gives rise to dukkha under different conditions. There is another paticca samuppāda cycle that explains how dukkha can be stopped from arising.  We will discuss both starting with the next post. Thus avijjā leads not only to immoral acts, but also to unfruitful acts; both immoral and unfruitful actions are included in sankhāra.

13. I know I am using more and more Pali words as we proceed. But by now one should be able to grasp the meaning of those key words; one can always go back to earlier posts in this series to refresh memory. It is cumbersome to keep stating “it is not possible to maintain things to one’s satisfaction”; it is much easier to say, “anicca”. No other language can succinctly state the nature of the “whole world” in just three words: anicca (pronounced “anichcha”), dukkha, anatta (pronounced “anaththa”).

  • As we saw above, dukkha has much deeper meaning than the “feeling of discomfort or pain”.
  • Even avijjā and panna do not have corresponding words in English to convey the exact meaning. As we discuss further, the meanings will become more clear.
  • Thus my goal to is to first describe these key Pali words in plain English and then use them in the subsequent posts, while staying away from other Pali words that are not critical for understanding the core message of the Buddha.

Next, “Avijja paccaya sankhāra“, …………..

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