The Noble Eightfold Blog

The Three Characteristics

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


All conditioned phenomena have three characteristics. In Pāli these terms are anicca, dukkha, and anattā, that is that all phenomena are 1) impermanent/inconstant/unreliable, 2) suffering/stressful, and 3) non-self.

Let's start with the standard formula.  Here is how the Buddha describes them in the Majjhima Nikāya:

“Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is material form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is feeling…Is perception… Are formations…Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“No, venerable sir.” - [MN 22.26-27]

Let's take a look at what he means.

Anicca: Impermanence

“Bhikkhus, you may well acquire that possession that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might endure as long as eternity. But do you see any such possession, bhikkhus?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“Good, bhikkhus. I too do not see any possession that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and that might endure as long as eternity.” - [MN 22.22]

The Pāli term "annica" is usually translated as "impermanence", but that does not capture the essence of the word. Most people, after modest reflection, can see that everything is impermanent. Even the universe itself will collapse, so that does not leave much of a future for the corner drug store. But given the time frame, very few people worry about that. On a much shorter time frame, people are not even concerned with their own mortality until it becomes a reality. Sometimes not even then.

The Buddha's teachings on this topic are subtle. As we have seen, we live in a causal universe, a world of causes and conditions, not things. Life is like the ocean, rising and falling moment by moment. But we are not mere pawns in a relentless sea of change. Our choices shape our experience. Our past karma is like the hand we are dealt in poker; our present karma - our present choice - is how we play that hand. So the first step is to make skillful choices. We shape our experience, not just become victims to it. Thus the teachings on virtue, concentration and wisdom help us to fabricate a better outcome.

The law of impermanence has good news and bad news. The good news is that impermanence is empowering. If our lives were pre-determined, or controlled by some higher power, or simply random and chaotic, there would be nothing we can do to make them better.

But in a world of causes and conditions, what we do matters. We shape our experience of the present, and we work toward a brighter future by making wise choices. Of course, that is not to deny the fruition of past karma, or the uncontrollable circumstances like the weather or shifting tectonic plates. But one of the things that practice teaches us is not to worry about those things. We can't do anything about them, but we can choose how to respond to them, and that is where we put our energy. You are a pilot in a plane. You can't control the weather, but you can control the plane.

We shape both the events of our lives and how we experience those events. We shape the events of our lives by being virtuous. We shape our experience of those events by cultivating a more skillful mind, one that is happy, contented and equanimous.

We have already discussed how the practice of virtue affects our experience of the present and the future. Our perceptions can be healthier, more skillful, and more pleasant. Even our experience of feelings as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral change. When I first took up cycling and I was climbing a hill, my quadriceps muscles would hurt. Cyclists call this "quad burn". It was unpleasant. But as I rode more, I experienced the quad burn as pleasant. Thus the same sensations were unpleasant at one time, and pleasant at a different time.

A simpler example is food. There are foods that we like as children, and don't like as adults. The converse is also true. The food is the same, but our experience of it changes.

Some people say that you can experience the present moment in a way that is divorced from any pre-conditioning. This is not possible. Our experience of the present moment is always conditioned. (The only thing that is unconditioned is nirvāṇa.) This is why two people can be in the same circumstances but experience it in two different ways.

Some years ago I had a job working with high-resolution video boards for computers. That is when people still used film in cameras, and a hot topic was why the color in prints did not look like the color in real objects. Kodak spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. It turns out that the reason has nothing to do with film technology. When you look at a fire engine, the mind knows the context, and applies certain rules to what you see. But when you look at a photograph of a fire engine, the mind knows that it is looking at a picture, and applies different rules. Thus, it is technically impossible to render the fire engine in the same way in a photograph as in real life, unless you can fool the mind into thinking it is looking at a real fire engine.

Our experience of the present moment is always conditioned by our mind, but that conditioning is also impermanent and constantly changing. That change can happen in a negative or a positive way. As people get older they sometimes become bitter and angry, and this makes their experience of the present moment more unpleasant and less skillful. One of the things that we are trying to do is develop the mind in a positive and more skillful way.

While a belief in rebirth is not necessary to benefit from the Buddha's teachings, it is very helpful in some circumstances. Sometimes our life situation is such that the immediate future looks pretty bleak. I have always been inspired by people who are loving and compassionate even in the most desperate circumstances. In concentration camps there are people who comfort others even as they are dying. In that type of situation it is helpful to have an understanding of the bigger picture, and the ultimate value of virtue.

The bad news about impermanence is that while we can improve our experience of the present moment, and we can improve the odds of being happy and useful, even that is inconstant and unreliable. Planes crash. Tectonic plates move. Wars are fought. It is an uncertain world. So that is why ultimately we want to go beyond conditioned experience.

We begin by learning how to develop better causes and conditions for better results. And then we get to the place where our happiness is unconditioned, where it is certain.

Dukkha: Suffering/Stress

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. - [MN 56.11]

The Pāli word "dukkha" is usually translated as "suffering". Some people find that word too strong. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says that when he was in Thailand, someone was complaining to him about how Buddhists are always talking about suffering. He said to Ṭhānissaro, "I don't suffer". So Ṭhānissaro said to him, "Well, do you have stress in your life?" The man said, well, oh, yeah, I have a lot of stress in my life. So Ṭhānissaro prefers the word "stress" to "suffering". Everyone can relate to stress.

Buddhism gets a reputation for being pessimistic because of the First Noble Truth. But notice how the Buddha describes suffering. He does not say that life is suffering. This is a common misunderstanding. He lists specific types of suffering. Birth is suffering. Death is suffering. Union with what is displeasing is suffering. Separation from what we want is suffering. The five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. He gives us examples of suffering, an inventory. He never actually defines the term.

This is quite a hot button issue. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II said:

"...the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology (doctrine of salvation)."

Ajahn Punnadhammo notes that this belief is not just a problem with non-Buddhists:

This is not a criticism limited to the Catholics, either. Many who are in partial sympathy with Buddhist ideas voice similar objections. For instance, on a web-site called "A Call for a New Buddhism" we find the following;

1) Life is suffering. Is human life essentially painful from the moment of birth to the moment of death? Even ordinary life can be full of fun, adventure, friends, romance, good food, music and art. In many ways Buddhism has become an anti-life religion that appeals to those who always see the glass half empty rather than half full. Why should we deny the fact that life can be an enjoyable adventure and not just a pitiful veil of tears?

- [Ajahn Punnadhammo, "Is Buddhism Negative?"]

I love his response:

On one occasion someone [asked me] why Buddhists only talk about suffering and I couldn't resist replying that that isn't true, we also talk about grief, pain, lamentation, misery and despair.

- [Ajahn Punnadhammo]

Once he pries his tongue out of his cheek, Ajahn Punnadhammo goes on to say:

The objection comes primarily from a reading of the First Noble Truth (in translation) as "Life is suffering." Part of the problem is that old bug-bear, translation. I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again, languages are not perfectly isomorphic. Pali does not completely map into English on a word for word basis. The Pali word translated as "suffering" is "dukkha" which is much broader than the English word. In some contexts, suffering works well enough but the problem comes when we encounter the teaching that all conditioned experience is dukkha and translate that as suffering. A poke in the eye with a sharp stick is both suffering and dukkha. A delicious slice of rhubarb pie is dukkha but it certainly isn't suffering.

So what exactly is dukkha then? It is a universal characteristic of all conditioned phenomena experienced with the physical senses or the mind. It points to that aspect shared by all such experience as being imperfect, unsatisfactory, in some way incomplete or provisional. Some experiences can give us joy, but no experience can be completely sufficient. There is never enough rhubarb pie.

- [Ajahn Punnadhammo]

In other words, there are limits to what sense pleasures can provide.

My experience with the practice is that I actually enjoy sense pleasures more because there is no clinging or craving getting in the way. I live in New Mexico, which has breathtaking vistas, and I can simply enjoy them in the moment. And when the moment passes, it passes, free from the angst of wanting more, or wanting it again and again and again.

I have used the term "five aggregates" without defining it, so here is a good time to do that, especially since - as the Buddha says here - the "five aggregates subject to clinging" are suffering.

According to the Buddha, there are five aspects to conditioned human experience:

  1. The body
  2. Feelings - the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experience of the senses
  3. Perception - how we perceive, identify, or name our experience
  4. Mental fabrications - our thoughts and emotions
  5. Consciousness - our awareness of our experience

In fact, these five aggregates can conflate to just two: mind and body.

These aspects of our experience are, of course, inconstant and unreliable (anicca). They change from moment to moment. It is our clinging to these inconstant, unreliable processes that causes stress.

When we experience pleasant sensations, we want to hold on to them. When we don't experience pleasant sensations, we seek them out. When we experience unpleasant sensations, we want them to go away. When we do not experience unpleasant sensations, we want to avoid them. This is the moment by moment struggle that we fight within ourselves. We are chasing sense pleasures around like mercury on a lab table.

Curiously, psychologists tell us that when we seek sense pleasures but are never satisfied, we pursue them even harder. It is as if pounding our head on the table causes pain, so if we just pound a little harder the pain will stop.

What most of us experience when it comes to addiction is a pattern of continually seeking more of what it is we don't really want and, therefore, never being fully satisfied. And as long as we are never satisfied, we continue to seek more, while our real needs are never being met.

- [Sally Erickson, What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire]

Fortunately, the Buddha has a better idea. We start by cultivating the pleasure born of seclusion. This is, at least, a healthier way of experiencing pleasure. No one has ever committed a crime due to serenity. And then, with patience and persistence, we go beyond that to nirvāṇa, the unconditioned.

Anatta: Non-self

Next comes one of the most misunderstood teachings of the Buddha, the teachings on "anatta", or "not self".

Let's start with what anatta is not. It is not nihilism. You hear this so often in Buddhist circles that it has become a sort of mystical truism.

The Buddha never answered the question of whether there is a soul or a self. Rather he consistently declared this is a topic that is of no value. It only serves as a distraction in the search for an end to suffering:

Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, does not understand what things are fit for attention and what things are unfit for attention. Since that is so, he attends to those things unfit for attention and he does not attend to those things fit for attention.

This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go? - [MN 2.6-7]

What he did say is that we suffer because we self-identify with the five aggregates of clinging. Let's look again at the beginning quote on the Three Characteristics:

“Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is material form permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, venerable sir.”
“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”
“Suffering, venerable sir.”
“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”
“No, venerable sir.”

“Bhikkhus, what do you think? Is feeling…Is perception… Are formations…Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, venerable sir.”
“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”
“Suffering, venerable sir.”
“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”
“No, venerable sir.” - [MN 22.26-27]

If you substitute the words "inconstant and unreliable"" for the word "impermanent", you can see how the meaning of the teaching becomes clear.

There are a couple of points here. First, the Buddha is not saying that the five aggregates are the source of suffering, it is our clinging to them that is the problem. On the contrary, the skillful use of the five aggregates is part of the solution to our problem. He then goes on to say that anything that is inconstant and unreliable will lead to suffering, just like an old car or untrustworthy romance.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu goes on to say this:

The self strategy that the Buddha recommends using along the path derives from the question at the basis of discernment: "What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?" This question contains two ideas of self. The first is the idea of the self as agent, the producer of happiness; the second is the idea of the self as the consumer of happiness. When the question says, "What, when I do it", the "I" here in "I do it" is the self as producer. The "my" in "my long-term welfare and happiness" is the self as consumer of happiness.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Selves and Not-self]

A healthy attitude toward one's self is a good strategy. Being addicted to and self-identifying with inconstant and unreliable processes is not a good strategy. Developing virtue, concentration and wisdom is a good strategy. The issue of whether there is a self is irrelevant, and it is a hindrance to Awakening. Don't worry; get happy.

Another way that the Buddha shows the Three Characteristics is by relating them to sense pleasures:

Bhikkhus, sensual pleasures are impermanent, hollow, false, deceptive; they are illusory, the prattle of fools. Sensual pleasures here and now and sensual pleasures in lives to come, sensual perceptions here and now and sensual perceptions in lives to come-both alike are Māra’s realm, Māra’s domain, Māra’s bait, Māra’s hunting ground. On account of them, these evil unwholesome mental states such as covetousness, ill will, and presumption arise, and they constitute an obstruction to a noble disciple in training here. - [MN 106.2]

(Note: "Māra" represents temptation.)

What is impermanent cannot be "regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” He says this more explicitly elsewhere:

Now there comes a time when the water element is disturbed and then the external earth element vanishes When even this external earth element, great as it is, is seen to be impermanent, subject to destruction, disappearance, and changeˌ what of this body, which is clung to by craving and lasts but a while? There can be no considering that as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am.’ - [MN 28.7]

Thus, the Buddha makes two points here. One is particularly interesting from a scientific standpoint, and that is that the earth itself is impermanent. Given the era, that is an extraordinary statement. The second point is that if the body is the "self", what happens when the body dies? The only way to reconcile the body as the "self" is to adopt a nihilistic point of view, one that has already been summarily rejected. The same is true for the other four aggregates, all of which are also impermanent.

But the most important issue is the clinging. We have already seen this in the context of dependent co-arising. And here the clinging is tightly bound with becoming. We self-identify with constantly changing phenomena. If we can put down the clinging, we can put down becoming, and we can save ourselves a lot of grief.

The Buddha is not making a metaphysical statement about whether we exist or do not exist or both exist and not exist or neither exist or not exist. It is about "how", not "what". He is describing the process whereby we create suffering for ourselves, and how our self-identification with the aggregates causes so much mischief in the world. When we self-identify with gender, race, nationality, religion, profession, even being human, we cause a lot of trouble.


The Three Characteristics of experience are as follows:

  1. Impermanence - All phenomena are inconstant and unreliable.
  2. Suffering - What is inconstant and unreliable is stressful.
  3. Non-self - Anything that is a constantly changing process cannot be regarded as a permanent "self".

A useful tool in our practice is to be sensitive to the process of becoming, whereby one self-identifies with the processes of body and mind.

A good strategy for the skillful pursuit of happiness is to develop dispassion for sense pleasure, replacing it with the pleasure born of seclusion. While this type of pleasure is still conditioned, it is much more skillful and less prone to mischief.