Updated: Jun 13
The Three Characteristics and The Body
The Buddha’s teachings point to three characteristics that all things, mental and physical, share. While they may be different in many other ways, all things display these three characteristics: change, unsatisfactoriness, and not self. While we speak about them separately, they are really three different facets of the same thing.
The most universal aspect of this realm that we live in is change. In fact, wherever the word life is used, one could substitute the word change. Life would not be as we know it if it were not constantly changing; therefore, the fact that all things display this characteristic is completely natural and could not be otherwise.The other two characteristics (unsatisfactoriness and not self) are simply a nuance or different indication of the reality of incessant change.
Our bodies are the supreme teachers of change. Birth, old age, sickness and death are manifestations of change. Getting sick, feeling better, getting injured and healing all happen due to change. We can also experience change on a much subtler level as we cultivate the ability to feel the body in its fine material form and notice tiny sensations that quickly sparkle in and out of existence. The only way not to notice change in the body is to ignore the body, which is quite common for most people in our society. This is why using the body as the meditation object is so helpful. It helps us to stop ignoring the body and, in turn, to stop ignoring change.
One of the fortunate things we as humans have going for us is a built-in homing device in our hearts that won’t let up until we reach “home,” which is a deep and lasting peace and contentment. One of the unfortunate things that we as humans grapple with is that, for the most part, we are confused about how exactly to get “home.” We end up thinking that sense pleasures are the way to go, when, in fact, they don’t have the capacity to give us what we so deeply want. They are not wrong, bad or evil, they simply can’t lead us "home."
Our task as Dharma practitioners is to see that sense objects of the mind and body are unsatisfactory for the task of finding lasting happiness. To the degree that we can see this, we will be less likely to chase after sense pleasures and more likely to open up to the possibility of finding lasting happiness where it actually is to be found–right here in this moment, in this very heart/mind.
The first and most important step toward real happiness is seeing/experiencing the limitations and drawbacks of sense pleasures (e.g., they get addictive). Again, the body is an excellent teacher. During one meditation period we can experience pleasant sensations as they change into neutral or unpleasant ones, or simply disappear. We may have a moment when the whole body feels just fine and think, “I’ve got it,” only to feel bodily sensations change the next moment. Even the intense, all pervading pleasure in the body that comes with deep Samadhi disappears once we stop meditating. The strength, suppleness and health of youth change into the lack of energy, stiffness and ill health of old age. In the end, there is nothing about the body that’s going to give us lasting happiness. We simply have to bring the proper attention to it in order to see this for ourselves.
The teachings of not self do not imply that there isn’t a person here, but that the person doesn’t exist in the way we are used to perceiving it to be. As with unsatisfactoriness, not self is born of constant change, from our bodies changing, to the moods that flicker through the heart. What we call our “self” is simply a constellation of physical sensations and mental phenomena that is in constant flux. Which “self” are we: the one who was tired this morning or the one full of energy now; the one who was calm an hour ago or the one currently filled with anger? What we are lasts for only a moment and then changes. So, there is a self here, but that self is born and dies in an instant, only to be replaced by the next self that follows the same pattern.
Another way of exploring this phenomenon is to bring awareness to the body and see that it is truly not self. Consider that if the body were indeed our self, we would have control over it. But since it gets sick, ages and eventually passes away, all of which is beyond our control, how could it be our self? What comes and goes cannot be taken as a self. There’s nothing like mindfulness of the body to bring this into clear view, which is one reason the Buddha emphasized mindfulness of the body in his teachings.
In this practice of noticing the three characteristics by being mindful of the body, we’re simply learning to bring a closer attention to the somatic experience of the body. In doing so, we stop ignoring what is obvious to one who attends to the body in this way. We literally stop being ignorant. By seeing the drawbacks of sense pleasures, we cultivate the very experience that supports the abandonment of craving and the attainment of Nibbana.