Friday, September 27, 2013

HfM:Ch3 The Three Universal Characteristics

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 3: The Three Universal Characteristics here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 3: The Three Universal Characteristics

The whole of the Buddha's teachings can be seen as an exposition that everything is impermanent,  not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves (non-selves); these are the Three Universal Characteristics.

Impermanence and unsatisfactoriness had been taught prior to the Buddha, but he revealed them more profoundly and related them to causation.  Non-self is only taught by Buddhism; that nothing is a self or belongs to a self.

One who perfectly understands these characteristics will not be deluded or deceived into thinking that something is worth having or becoming.  (This sense of "worth" is clarified later.)

You can't reach this level of understanding (seeing Dhamma) by simple reasoning.  However, if you have looked back on something that had you infatuated, and you then considered the trouble it had caused you, to such a point that you became disenchanted with that thing, then you can be said to have gained true understanding, and such reflection will lead you to liberation from all things.

The phrase "empty of self" could sum up the Three Universal Characteristics, and, indeed, all of Buddha's teachings.  If something is always changing, there is no permanent entity to call a self.  Perceiving this emptiness of self in all things reveals that nothing is worth getting or becoming.  This perspective prevents delusions and emotional attachment, and such understanding is truly liberating.

Now, "worth having" or "worth becoming" must be understood in a special sense.  Life itself necessitates that we will "have" and will "be" certain things.  However, we must understand the deeper truth; that this "having" and "being" are simply terms of convenience, like the sun "rising".  Truly, nothing is permanent, fully satisfying, or belonging to anyone, so we should not fool ourselves thinking that "I'm getting... I have... I'm becoming... I am..." because the thoughts of possessiveness are the source of our distress.

It is the desire in getting or becoming which causes dukkha.

Dukkha, translated usually as "suffering", and less often as "unsatisfactoriness", is pain, sickness, greed, hate, anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, discontent, sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, delusion, etc.  It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction.  So it is far more broad than just "suffering".  Instead, it is a status which results from the imperfection in everything.

The false instinct that things are desirable starts at birth.  We act on those desires.  If some desires are achieved, they give way to other desires.  If not achieved, we struggle until those desires are satiated in one way or another.  This cycle repeats endlessly.  Desire -> Action -> Result -> Desire...  If we can break this cycle, we can achieve Nirvana; permanent freedom from dukkha.  By contrast, anyone at any status is guaranteed to experience dukkha if they are in this cycle.  Morality alone will not break the cycle.  Right understanding will.

So desire causes dukkha, and it comes in three forms:
  1. Sensual desire (touch, taste, smell, etc.)
  2. Desire to be something (good parent, leader, healthy, respected, etc.)
  3. Desire not to be something.(foolish, wrong, sick, in trouble, incarcerated, etc.)
We will experience dukkha in proportion and degree of our desires.  Both evil and good people experience dukkha in accordance with their desires, even if those who do good sometimes experience dukkha in ways that they do not realize.  So we must go beyond good to attain complete liberation from dukkha.  This teaching is not in any other religion.

We can eliminate desire by carefully observing the Three Universal Characteristics in everything.  Ask yourself: what is there that does not bring about dukkha?  Every choice you make brings consequences, opportunity costs, or the burden of responsibilities.  Even things which appear good inherently drive us to maintain or protect them, or otherwise be anxious about their destruction or loss.

Once desire is replaced with clear understanding, attitudes toward things change.  For example, a person with clear understanding does not crave delicious tastes, but rather sees food as a means of sustaining the body.

Although people with clear understanding of the true nature of things inherently lose all desire, they tend to work harder, better, and more benevolently because they are motivated by wisdom.  These people make decisions not based on desires, but rather by objective evaluations which point to the most suitable actions.  While we may worry about the trials and tribulations that come with actions when motivated by desire, these people instead handle all perturbations with peaceful equanimity.

If we develop a full, intuitive understanding of the Three Universal Characteristics, we'll know that nothing is worth having or being, and so our actions will be insightful and logical as opposed to grasping and clinging at things as slaves to our own desires.  Worry and anxiety will disappear.  We can own things without being mentally encumbered by them.

That is not to say that we will not defend what we own.  We can and will resist what we own being taken from us, but we'll do so calmly and intelligently.  Should our property still be taken despite our resistance and the legal protections available, we'll still not be upset, as we understand both that anger will not help and that all things are impermanent anyway.

Consider being something.  Is there really anything that you can be that does not inherently have its own type of dukkha associated with it?  Child?  Parent?  Boss?  Worker?  Married?  Single?  No.  All states have some form of associated dukkha.

So when we know and understand the true nature of things, we will not be slaves to our desires, mindlessly pursuing things to have or become.  Instead, we will live wisely and direct our efforts appropriately.

When we have this understanding, we should share it with those close to us, and others.  The more widespread this understanding is, that everything is impermanent,  not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves, the more peaceful and wise the world will act.

Anyone who observes and studies these Three Universal Characteristics within their own lives can become a fully enlightened Buddhist, without ever having been a monk or studied the texts.

Both the worst evils and the highest goods are driven by desires to have and to be something.  No matter how good our desires are, they will still be associated with some from of dukkha.  The way to Nirvana is to completely transcend desires, both bad and good.  Then we will be free of all dukkha, and we will do what is right because we will understand the best thing to do, not because we desire to be good.

True liberation comes from fully understanding that everything is impermanent, not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves (non-selves).  With this understanding, everything we are involved in is handled intelligently and driven by insight, as opposed to being driven by desire and inherently yielding dukkha.

My Take

From this chapter, I had a sense of what this flavor of Buddhism was really about; becoming Spock-like.

For the non-geeks out there, let me explain.  Spock was a lead character from the science fiction drama Star Trek.  He was half-human, half-Vulcan.  The Vulcans were a species of humanoids who had powerfully destructive emotions, but had long ago developed a species-wide behavioral-management program to suppress all emotion, and thereby act only according to logical and rational choices.  Spock, with his Vulcan upbringing, served as a trusted adviser to the captain of the star-ship Enterprise, supplying recommendations based on purely objective evaluations.

While the Vulcans sought to eliminate emotional influence, the Buddha sought to eliminate the influence of desire.  These views are sort of two sides of the same coin, because desire implies an emotional component.

Spock isn't the whole picture of Buddhism, obviously.  Vulcans never claimed to be experiencing bliss by operating at a non-emotional level.  Furthermore, the Vulcans were working to suppress emotion, while Buddhists work to eliminate desire.  As any psychologist will tell you, there is a huge difference between suppression and elimination.

However, when you are reading Buddhist passages about not desiring to be or to have something, it may help to think of it in terms of human desiring versus an objective Vulcan-like selection of what to be or what to have.  Buddhism isn't saying that when you reach Nirvana that you will never have anything or be anything ever again, nor that you will never work towards having or being something ever again.  Rather, it's just that in the enlightened state, what you have, or work towards having, and what you are, or work towards becoming, will be the result of objective, emotionless decisions.


  1. Wow, great Spock graphic -- did you make it? Very nice.

    Some forms of Buddhism do seem like an effort to stop desire and emotions attached. Buddhism-on-the-ground doesn't look anything like that, of course. And other Buddhisms stress seeing through our emotional habits, reactions and views of reality so that our emotions are healthy and not reactive and driven by fear, greed and apathy. That change may look like loss of desire but actually it would be only loss of mundane self-destructive desires.

    I think that may be the apologetics of other Buddhists.

  2. Thanks Sabio. Yes, I sketched that out myself, based on a still pic from the show.

    Sure, "Buddhism-on-the-ground" is as different as monastic Christianity versus "Christianity-on-the-ground". Should we expect any different? Not to mention how Buddhism blended with existing local religions, like Shinto, creating localized versions a bit removed from the origin. Heck, the pictures of some of the porcelain figures you've seen in this series (as you may know) represent the three after-life judges, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, etc. This is all pretty far from the fairly philosophical Buddhism that Buddhadasa presents.

    The "other Buddhisms" you mention are, perhaps, along the lines of what I have discussed with my friend in how to make Buddhism more practical. I'm going to make a post about that after this series is complete.