My life blew up in my face around four months ago, and I’ve been thrown off my writing ever since. I don’t want to go into details out of concern for others’ privacy, but will simply resume posting, beginning with a dharma talk I gave yesterday at the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center on the Three Characteristics. May it be to the benefit of all beings.
The Three Characteristics
One of the foundational teachings of Buddhism is that there are three characteristics that are integral to absolutely everything we experience. These are dukkha (which is often translated as suffering, but perhaps better as unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self or not-self). Thus all of lived experience in this world is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and devoid of a solid, enduring self.
Now we can understand each of these characteristics at two levels. First, there is a mundane or everyday sense, which everyone can relate to without special training. In addition, there is a more refined or supra-mundane sense, which we begin to experience when we train our minds through meditation practice. I will begin by describing each of the three characteristics in the everyday sense.
Dukkha, translated usually as suffering, is something all of us can understand easily. Everyone without exception encounters the ills life has to offer, although for some it seems that bad fortune is worse than for others. Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall” addresses this phenomenon in a famous scene:
I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.
Obviously, people with certain disabilities might beg to differ with his characterization of their lives as horrible, yet his point is that ordinary life is not happy, but miserable. People suffering famine, genocide, torture, and war are obviously in a different situation than those of us in the western white middle classes, and yet even our fortunate lives are subject to the kinds of suffering that render us miserable. If we die young, there is a sense of unfulfilled potential and tragedy, while if we live to be old, we watch our friends, acquaintances, and family members die. Losing a parent is traumatic, no matter how old or how sick, while losing a child is devastating. In the lottery of life, those of us who escape losing our parents by default die young enough for our parents to outlive us.
Yet even taking these things into account, we might look around us and be tempted to conclude that some people seem to have all the luck. They grow up in relatively uncomplicated, prosperous families, get into the best schools, enjoy robust health and good looks, marry well, and have good-looking, healthy, accomplished, and loving children. Everything they touch seems to turn to gold. Yet even these individuals are subject to sickness, old age, and death. In the Upajjhatthana Sutta the Buddha offers five recollections to keep us mindful of these things:
I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds (karma) are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my karma. My karma is the ground on which I stand.
Knowing the very conditions of our existence, we begin to recognize that there is no basis for envy or resentment of anyone. All of us are in the same boat, even those who enjoy better seats on the boat. When we embrace this knowledge fully we can open up to unconditional love, compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves, and the experience of joy in the joy and good fortune of others. The painful sense of separation between self and others begins to dissolve.
The inevitability of old age, sickness, and death is central to the characteristic of impermanence in the mundane sense. We all experience changes throughout our lives, some of them longed-for (for example, New Year’s resolutions, which are all about desired change), but others deplored. When we are children we look forward to growing up and having the power and autonomy we assume our parents have. When we are young adults we take our strength and beauty for granted, but desire the money and status that older people seem to enjoy. As we age we undergo change, noticing our flagging energy, grey hairs, and weight gain. It gets more difficult to undertake what at one time we could do with ease. Many of us marry, start families, and watch our children go through the changes we remember from our own youth.
Circumstances around us change as well. Older people often deplore these changes, looking back to the good old days when we imagine things were better. Life was simpler back in the old days, we didn’t have all of today’s modern conveniences and electronic gadgets but we knew how to have our own fun, people used to look out for one another unlike the impersonal society around us today, and so on. Change, in fact, is at the root of a lot of life’s unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha.
Our children grow up and move away, leaving us with empty nests and a sense of bewilderment over where it all went. Family members die and we find ourselves missing them at certain times of the year, especially the holidays. The jobs we once enjoyed no longer give us the same satisfaction they once did, as a new boss or a new policy takes over. Many jobs disappear altogether, never to return, taking with them our identities and our sense of purpose and community. At no point can we rely on anything to remain the same for as long as we’d like.
Even desired changes are unreliable. People who win the lottery or lose significant amounts of weight, for example, often find that they are no happier than they were before. New problems take over where old ones leave off. When Obama was elected in 2008, I thought a new age of enlightened government had dawned, only to find myself horrified by the way he was treated by the opposition. Those of us who now anticipate a happier 2019 with a Democratic majority in the House will doubtless find ourselves frustrated by the limits of positive change—although don’t get me wrong, I am one of the hopeful ones. For every chance to make things better, however, the realities of life remain.
None of this means that we shouldn’t celebrate the good things of this world and work to remedy the bad things, or that we give up taking care of ourselves and others. What we want to cultivate is the equanimity to face the inevitable ebb and flow of life with as much courage and awareness as we can muster.
I’ve observed a lot of arguments over the best translation for this characteristic: is it no-self, or not-self, or even non-self? The question is hard to resolve, because the first syllable is a negation of what follows, atta, or in Sanskrit, atman, meaning self or soul. Some say that what is being negated is not any and all selfhood, but a stable, abiding self, while others see the negation as total. We can look to the Buddha’s teachings in the Suttas for some clarification, beginning with the Anatta-lakhanna Sutta. He describes to his monks a series of attributes to which we might attach a sense of an enduring self: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. The problem is that none of these are within a person’s control. The Buddha then asks his monks the same series of questions for each attribute:
“What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, O Lord.”
“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”
“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”
“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”
“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”
For those of us trying to grasp what this means for our lives, it might be helpful to consider that nothing, from our bodies to our thoughts, is personal. When someone insults us, it’s not personal. When it’s cold outside, it’s not personal. When we’re in a bad mood, it’s not personal. I invite you to fill in the blanks in any way you choose. Anger, hurt feelings, the answer to a problem, the determination to begin a task may all arise, but none of it is you, me, or us. We recognize this fact when we begin to observe closely. Addiction is a good example: at some point, at some time, triggered by whatever, the addict has had enough, and recovery begins. Fear descends on us unasked for, and then withdraws. Sexual desire appears and then disappears. We begin a project with a plan for how it will go, and find ourselves looking at something quite different at completion.
The changes occurring in the course of our lives give the lie to any sense of a separate, enduring Self. I may continue to exhibit qualities that were in evidence when I was a child, but these qualities do not in themselves constitute a self. Even the “I” pronoun with which I am making all these observations is merely a convention. To quote George Harrison, “and life goes on within you and without you.”
As this characteristic becomes clearer to us, we suffer less. We do not respond with hurt feelings or with defensive anger in the way we once did. Working to hold ourselves together is, according to the Buddha, the true basis for dukkha. We open ourselves to the Divine Abidings of unconditional love for all living things, compassion for all suffering, joy in every good thing, and equanimity in all circumstances when we finally see through the illusion of Self.
It is time now to move on to the less obvious ways of understanding the three characteristics. But before I begin to discuss them at the level of the supramundane, I wish to point out that the mundane is by no means trivial or even inferior to the supramundane. Understanding the three characteristics as we live in this world is foundational to our ethical behavior. Still, with vipassana, or insight (“clear seeing”), we can put our experience under a powerful microscope. The microscope is our minds, highly trained by practice. When we do this, the lessons penetrate to a deeper level of understanding, and have the ability to transform the way we experience the world.
There are countless approaches to practice, and unfortunately, practitioners often argue vigorously over which is the right or best one. Even yogis at high levels of attainment can get attached to the path they were taught, the path that brought them their attainments. None of this means that the rest of us must throw up our hands and conclude there’s no way of knowing what to think. I have my own set of criteria for effective practice, which I’ll outline here.
- First, a good practice is effective in bringing insight. Now I recognize that many meditators are not interested in acquiring a microscope, and I honor that choice. Most people in our culture these days are trying to find relief from the stresses in their lives (stress being another translation for dukkha), and a meditation practice helps them find a measure of peace and balance. But for people seeking a more advanced level of insight, a practice should help them do that. Some practices are particularly powerful, but since this is a talk about the three characteristics and not about practice per se, I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here.
- Second, a good practice is balanced. Imbalance can lead to negative personal side effects, all the way to the horrifying examples we see of dharma teachers abusing their positions and their students. To my mind, a balanced practice is one that incorporates all of the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is no good practice that bypasses morality, and practice that leads to an attainment topheavy with insight and not much else is not good practice.
- Thirdly, a good practice takes into account the needs and situation of the individual student. It would be a bad idea to take someone with severe depression or psychotic tendencies and send that person on a rigorous course of powerful insight practice, for example. Some people have natural abilities for concentration, whereas others need help with it. Someone in the midst of a challenging life, caring for children and/or sick relatives while holding down a difficult job, is going to have a different approach to practice than a person with a stable life and abundant free time.
Be that as it may, my emphasis in this section is on vipassana, clear seeing, on what happens when we get that microscope and begin to see the three characteristics in all sensations, beyond our experience of everyday life. I shall begin with anicca, impermanence, because in my own tradition and experience that is the one that appears first.
In the fifth-century a.d. the Sri Lankan monk Buddhaghosa wrote a commentary called the Visuddhimagga, which maps a series of stages that practitioners experience as they develop insight. This map, called the Progress of Insight, has sixteen stages altogether, leading ultimately to a breakthrough moment at the end that is the culmination of what has come before. I will focus on a few of these in a general way, beginning with the fourth stage, called “Insight knowledge into the arising and passing away of all phenomena” (“A&P” for short). This is the point at which impermanence is brought home to us at a microscopic level. Experience takes on a vibratory quality that can lead to an ecstatic explosion of sensation. We are not just seeing change over time; what we are seeing is each sensation as nothing more than a momentary blip, no sooner experienced than gone, to be replaced by whatever comes next. There is a sense of awe and excitement, as the meditator watches these sensations come and go at lightening speed. Practice becomes effortless and even thrilling.
The A&P has the feel of a tremendous breakthrough, which in fact it is, but eventually it is followed by a series of insight stages into dukkha, suffering, beginning with the fifth insight stage, Dissolution. Whereas at the A&P the meditator sees phenomena rise and pass away in real time, at Dissolution everything appears to be lost, gone before it is even experienced, as if the observer is barely alert enough to notice. It’s a tremendous letdown after the excitement of the A&P, yet it’s as necessary to insight as the more powerful and gratifying experiences of that prior stage. An entire parade of nastiness follows: insight into Fear, Misery, and Disgust, followed by insight into Desire for Deliverance. Sometimes these insight stages pass quickly, while at other times people can get stuck in them, maybe even for years. The last of the dukkha insight stages is called Reobservation, which pulls together all of the unpleasantness that has gone before.
What are these like in real time? Insight involves being able to see all experience in samsara, the world on the wheel of craving, aversion, and delusion, for what it is. The essence of these stages lies in the fact that we are still invested in the illusion of Self, even though we have experienced the breaking up of the sensations that constitute Self in the ecstasy of the Arising and Passing Away. Jack Kornfield has written a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, but we could at this point in the Progress of Insight map say that we are experiencing After the Ecstasy, the Freakout. This is why insight at this level can be unsafe for some people, especially those with a fragile sense of their own boundaries. We all need functioning egos to get through the day, for without them we are left unprotected in the face of a world of confusion. We need teachers and a sangha to whom we can turn to be reassured that we will eventually emerge on the other side, and to help us do that skillfully.
So, a person could have nightmares, flashes of panic, bouts of crying, and feelings of nausea. On the cushion this can amount to unpleasant sits with painful sensations, while off cushion a person can experience unexplained mood swings that can be confusing to themselves and to those around them. There’s a researcher at Brown University named Willoughby Britten who specializes in helping people through these stages, which are all too often ignored in traditional teaching.
Eventually a practitioner comes out on the other side into a stage called Insight into Equanimity, in which experience becomes peaceful and beautifully vibratory. Everyone loves equanimity, and most would be happy to stay there forever. Think of those days or experiences when everything clicks, when the sky takes on a particularly lovely shade of blue, the breezes are gentle and refreshing, and there is harmony within oneself and in relation to others. Shinzen Young describes happiness as “the body is at ease and the mind has answers.” Equanimity feels like this.
The Progress of Insight path is also called the Path of Purification. Having been through the disconcerting freakout of the dukkha stages, we have looked at life honestly in its suffering and unpleasantness, and have arrived at a sense that whatever happens, we can deal with it. Of course this feeling is temporary, like all the other stages on the path, and most of the time meditators fall back into the earlier stages to experience them again. This is a cycle that can repeat over and over, in fact, until the true breakthrough occurs, leading to the insight into anatta. Once again, I will not go into the nuts and bolts of how that happens here, but will instead describe what the experience of not having a self is like.
First, let me emphasize that Buddhism teaches that self is an illusion, and that we create this illusion by stringing together experiences as if they are solid and enduring, whereas in fact they are vibratory and fleeting. We could do a direct pointing exercise in which we look all over for the elusive self, just as the Buddha did in the Anatta-lakhannasutta Sutta quoted earlier. Perhaps we might look at our bodies or our heads and try to locate the self in space. For most of us, the prime location we imagine for it is behind the eyeballs, as if there were a little person lurking in that spot directing the whole show.
The absurdity of this image is obvious, but there is more to the illusion than that: we see our pretend-selves in everything that is “out there” as well as inside our heads or our heart centers or wherever. When we admire a flower, we project our enjoyment onto the image/scent/texture of the flower, bringing that object into our own felt-sense of who or what we are (“I am a person who admires flowers”). The flower then becomes an extension of our self-talk, and of ourselves. As we continue to engage in self-talk, we flesh out the object we are working so hard to create and sustain. Every strongly held opinion, every preference, every judgment we make, even seemingly trivial ones like “onions are disgusting,” gets woven into the portrait. The desire to live a full life, to travel, to experience the world, is all part of that creative act that engages us for our entire lives, until it somehow mysteriously stops.
The most famous pointer the Buddha has given us is the Bahiya Sutta, in which he instructs his interlocutor as follows:
Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of dukkha..
This, then, is the supramundane understanding of anatta, according to which the self has no place either in the world out there or in here.
What is life like without a self? Pretty much the same as life with it, minus the irritating pebble in our shoe, or the hot coal we are always carrying around. There is no angel choir, nor are there visions (although these can come with advanced-level concentration states). Life goes on as before, complete with sickness, old age, and death. We do our jobs, raise our children, retire, hang out with our friends, drink coffee (or not), with the one exception that we are not inserting Self-illusion into everything we do and experience. Objects appear as they are, empty and luminous. In the words of Sara Teasdale,
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
As depressing as this may sound, what it describes is a world that is empty of the self delusion. The war in this context is what I would describe as our samsaric war of craving, clinging, and aversion. After the war is done things appear just as they are. They do their thing, oblivious to whether we are present or absent.
There is a lot of debate about how this state comes about, but I find that the Progress of Insight map, with its path of purification, works as well as any other system I have seen. Its use is a key part of the Mahasi Sayadaw Burmese Insight tradition, but some would argue that it unfolds for all spiritual practitioners in all traditions. I have read and listened to many discussion of this question, from which I’ve drawn the conclusion that the map may be imperfect and maybe even counterproductive at times, but it is nonetheless a powerful tool for turning an untrained mind into a microscope.
I would like to conclude with Daniel Ingram’s parable of the kazoo. Life is like a beautiful concert, performed by the most celebrated symphony orchestra, in a perfectly designed hall. We have paid substantial sums of money to hear this wonderful performance. The players are all in their appointed places: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion in full array, with a renowned conductor ready to begin. There is, however, an old, beat-up little chair in front of everything. Just as the conductor is about to bring down his baton, a shabbily dressed elderly man carrying a kazoo shuffles out onto the stage, and half apologetically takes his seat in the chair. He has no idea what the orchestra is about to play, he hasn’t even rehearsed with them, but as the music begins he takes up his kazoo and several beats out of sync begins to interpret what the orchestra is playing. The audience is so transfixed by the kazoo’s sound that it doesn’t even listen to the orchestra, focusing entirely on the little kazoo player’s interpretation. Sometimes the rich tapestry of orchestral sounds will stand out and catch a listener’s attention for a moment, but inevitably the kazoo succeeds in covering it up.
Such is life in samsara. The point of practice is to begin to hear the orchestra. There will still be the buzz of the kazoo as part of the mix, but our attention will no longer be fixed on it as the dominant sensation. This is your life, for which you have paid a high price. The Buddha is telling you to do everything you can to sense the amazing tapestry that life weaves at every single moment. It is your birthright.