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Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-Self

There is always “the one who knows,” even in an ignorant person who inherently senses when he is deceiving himself and the world. This is a form of self-delusion, but as most of the world is similarly self-deluded, it seems easier to go along with the flow of the madding crowd, following the current of common illusion and fashion, acting in what we may recognize as being based in “bad faith.” Playing along with the game, while secretly seeing and knowing that it is all nothing more than a bizarre and absurd sham.

Rather than live unauthentically in “bad faith,” it is better to strive authentically and with determination against the world of worldly sham and delusion. To strive with the exceptional energy and diligence needed to see clearly through the Wrong View of worldly delusion to the true base of truth and reality that brings ultimate freedom from impermanence, suffering, and non-self. These are the Three Signata, or as they are often called, the three signs, characteristics, or marks of reality and existence.

We cannot even identify ourselves as a continual receptor of impressions and feelings. Regarding what we may call our psychological selves, the Buddha says:

“Sensations and feelings are transient, what underlies the arising of these (such as the sense organs depending on the body) is also transient.

“Arisen form is transient. How could sensations and feelings be permanent?

“Similarly, perceptions, dynamic processes of the mind, and consciousness—all these, arising from what is transient, cannot but be transient.” (S.111, 23)

To put it in few words, trying to hang onto what we do not want to let go of is an unsatisfactory feeling, which is usually translated into English as suffering (Pali: dukkha). This includes a continuing sense of ongoing uncertainty and resultant irritation.

Furthermore, in the perceptions and the dynamic processes of the untrained mind, what is observed by the trained mind is seen as arising—only within vain, mental formulations—and then passing away as the accompanying impression, or moods, or moments of consciousness change.

The trained mind expects and sees that everything arising will be temporary, and this way of seeing, observing, and analyzing gives insight into how the transient nature of things can never lead to a mental state that will be satisfactory for long. In an oft-quoted dialogue, the Buddha asks:

“What think ye, Brethren, is the body permanent or transient?

“It is transient, Sir.”

“Now, that which is transient—is it satisfactory or unsatisfactory?”

“It is unsatisfactory, Sir.”

“What think ye, Brethren, sensation, perception, mental process and consciousness—are all these permanent or transient?”

“They are transient, Sir.”

“Now, what is transient—is that satisfactory or unsatisfactory?”

“It is unsatisfactory, Sir.”

Thus, a general state  of unsatisfactoriness has become the general state of the mind of mankind in this worldly world. This world in which people are struggling frantically to escape their own mental feelings of uneasiness, dissatisfaction, and a perverse and pervading sense of general worldly malaise. They grasp vainly at fleeting external sensations and resultant expectations that may arise—which promise freedom from mental stress and uneasiness, which promise, at least, some alluring satisfaction to momentarily ease their everyday state of mental “dis-ease” in this ongoing, ever-turning, dependent and conditioned world of samsara.

This can be explained in other words. To quote Prof. O. H. de A Wijesekera:

The Master has said that the sentient being is so constituted that he hankers [for what is] pleasurable and shuns what is non-pleasurable. . . . He hankers after what is satisfactory for himself and recoils from what is unsatisfactory. (Three Signata, Wheel Series 20)

Put simply, this means that humans selfishly seek what is satisfactory for nourishing their needs, and when they do not get what they want, they feel dissatisfied and cast about in frustration and irritation. They try to avoid dissatisfaction in the fulfillment of personal desires—often, consciously or unconsciously, it may be added, at the expense of others.

That the truth of suffering is not obvious to most who hear about it in a Dhamma talk or read about it in a book is most clear in the statements of the Buddha: that there are only very few in this world who have developed their vision sufficiently clearly to see the truth of the cause of human suffering.

A well-known quotation will help us understand the teaching further. The Buddha said:

“This indeed, brethren, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha, namely the fact that birth itself is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha; to be joined with what is unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from what is unpleasant is dukkha; failure in getting what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five groups of the physical and mental qualities making up the individual due to grasping are themselves dukkha.” (Vin. I. p. 10; s.V.421)

Without an understanding of this Noble Truth of dukkha, the meditative practitioner will not make much progress on the path. The Buddha once summed up his teaching in one sentence:

“I teach suffering and the end of suffering.” (M. 22)

Moreover, if what the Buddha has said about impermanence (anicca) and suffering (dukkha) are true, it follows that any sense which consciousness may have of being a permanent self or entity is also delusory. “Permanent consciousness” in the Buddhist view is a contradiction in terms based on Wrong View.

Regarding the delusion of “self,” the Buddha said:

“Give up what does not belong to you. Such giving up will long conduce to your weal and happiness. And what is it that does not belong to you? Materiality, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

“These do not belong to you, and these you should give up. Such giving up will long conduce to your weal and happiness.” (S. XXII, 33)

And further:

“It is impossible that anyone with right view could see anything as self.” (M.115)

And furthermore:

“The learned and noble disciple does not consider materiality, feelings, perceptions, formulations of consciousness as self, nor self as the owner of these groups.” (S.XX, 117)

And most important perhaps:

“One should not imagine oneself as being identical with the eye, should not imagine oneself as being included in the eye, should not imagine oneself as being outside the eye, should not imagine, “The eye belongs to me.” And so on with the ear, nose, tongue, body, and conscious mind.

“One should not imagine oneself as being identical with physical objects, sounds, odors, tactile and mental objects. One should not imagine oneself as being included in them or outside of them. One should not imagine, ‘They belong to me.’”

In short, one should not imagine experience or consciousness to be self:

“Consciousness is not self. Causes and consequences of the arising consciousness, they are, likewise, not self. Hence, how could it be possible that consciousness, having arisen through something that is not self, could ever be self.” (S.XXXV,141) 

Related features from BDG

Concerning Impermanence
Impermanence Is in Sight
Young Voices: What to Do with Impermanence
Impermanence and Nothingness

More from Theravada Teachings by David Dale Holmes

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