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The Three Characteristics of Existence

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The Buddha in fact defined three main characteristics of existence, which include Suffering, impermanence and the concept of no unique self.
Suffering, as defined before, comes from life, as sickness, loneliness, old age, or just a general feeling of life not being what it should. Part of the problem is, that we wish life to be permanent when all existence is impermanent, everything is subject to continuous change. Birth and death are part of that process of change.
All life, yours, mine, your family and friends, is like a flowing river. While it may appear the same when you look at a river, each moment is different and every view of the river is different. Nothing in nature is what it was the moment before. Every living thing is in a continuous state of flux.
In our lives, our bodies grow when we are young, and change as we age. Relationships come and go, often because personalities, interests and attitudes change.
As we live, we take on both positive and negative habits and we cling to ideas which we associate with "our permanent selves". But our permanent self is a myth, and once we learn that, we can look beyond the need to have life stay the same.
The most challenging concept for those brought up in a Christian community is the concept of "no self". I haven’t used the term "soul" as Buddhism puts a different emphasis on this.
While The Buddha saw life continuing after death, he described it more as the lighting of one candle by another, the flame originates at the first flame, but the second is a consequence of the first, and not a unique reproduction of it.
Essentially, however, he saw us as a collection of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

While he saw no separate self or ego, he did emphasize the interdependence of all life as well as dependence on what had gone before.
The concept of no eternal self was also radical in the era in which The Buddha lived. Hinduism, the main religion of India at that time, generally accepted the idea of the eternal self. The body is destroyed but the self lives on. And that was an unchanging identity which was locked in by fate to a particular way of life and determined which caste system you belonged to.
The Buddha rejected this Hindu concept and taught instead the interconnectedness of life. Each self has no fixed reality, but is a constantly changing self and dependent on changing conditions.
So each person has a physical body which is dependent on food and warmth, and develops in response to those inputs and to the ageing process. Our feelings change with our mood and our time in life, and as a direct result of perceptions which comes from what we see and hear around us. We make decisions based on our feelings and perceptions and these constitute our mental formations.
From these four, body, feelings, perceptions, and mental formations comes consciousness which is dependent on the other four. And the sum of these is what we refer to as self, so therefore, according to The Buddha, there is no fixed definable self. You are still there, with a personality and feelings, and with tremendous possibility for change, and not locked in to some rigid fate, because your nature is built on change.
In fact, The Buddha took a Middle Way on the definition of self. He saw the self as dependent on everything that had gone before, and constantly changing in response to an interconnecting and changing reality. While we are not permanent and fixed entities, we are certainly part on the on-going reality.
Once this is understood, once interconnectedness becomes part of the way of seeing the world, then Suffering arises from the personal concept of an independent self.

One of the very core teachings of the Buddha about the nature of reality can be summarised in three points which are known as the Three Characteristics of Existence. When distinguishing whether a teaching is in accordance to the Buddhadharma (the teachings of the Buddha), whether it is true authentic Buddhist teachings, the 3 Dharma Seals serve as a very useful guideline. All true Buddhist teachings must be in accord with the 3 dharma seals. Why? Because the 3 dharma seals are the nature of reality, and if the teaching is not in accord with the nature of reality, it is falsehood, so they cannot be considered Buddhadharma which literally means 'truths of the Awakened One'. But not only that... the 3 Characteristics of Dharma is not only meant to be understood theoretically. The dharma seals must be directly experienced from moment to moment by all sincere practitioners, we must bear witness the Emptiness truth in action - the moment ceases as it arises, and there is no-self apart from this, and any identification of self, any sense of aversion and clinging, any desire (see 4 noble truths), based on Ignorance, results in Suffering.

"If you can't understand and see all of the teachings taking place right Now, then it is not true knowledge." - Thusness

When Buddhism talk about Emptiness, it can also be understood in terms of the Three Characteristic of Existence, because of these Three Characteristics, all things are devoid of inherent, permanent, solid existence. Emptiness is the ultimate nature of all things and is essential for all Buddhists to not only understand it, but intuitively, directly experience this in every moment. This leads to freedom. Fully realising it is Enlightenment.

I shall share some very well written articles on the Three Dharma Seals, written by a modern Arhat (a person who has attained Enlightenment, Nirvana, and freedom from the samsaric cycles of birth and death), known as Dharma Dan.

Although Mahayana Buddhists in China regarded the three Dharma seals as the Dharma seals of Hinayana, asserting that there is only one Dharma seal (Shi2 Xiang4 Yin4) in Mahayana, the Dharma seal of the ultimate reality, of the true aspect of all phenomena, One Dharma Seal/Emptiness is essentially the same thing as the three dharma seals except it's all-in-one. At a higher level Mahayana's "Emptiness" and One Dharma Seal is a more direct way of expressing reality and is enough if one truly understands it, but still it is important to know about the basics of the 3 dharma seals, and by entering through the door of the three seals one can experience One Reality.

The Three Dharma Seals are so essential that I think every Buddhist practitioner, insight meditators, but not only Vipassana - even if you practise Vajrayana, do Zazen, etc (there's something on that later) should take some time to read it.


The Three Characteristics are so central to the teachings of the Buddha that it is almost inconceivable how little attention the vast majority of so-called insight meditators pay to them. They are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. I cannot possibly stress enough the usefulness of trying again and again to really understand these three qualities of all experience. They are the stuff from which ultimate insight at all levels comes, pure and simple. They are the marks of ultimate reality. Every single time I say, “understand the true nature of things,” what I mean is, “understand the Three Characteristics.” To really understand them is to be enlightened.

Somehow this exceedingly important message just doesn't typically seem to get through to insight meditators, and thus they spend so much time doing anything but looking precisely moment to moment into the Three Characteristics. They may be thinking about something, lost in the stories and tape loops of the mind, trying to work on their stuff, philosophizing, trying to quiet the mind, or who knows what, and this can go on for year after year, retreat after retreat, and of course they wonder why they don't have more insight yet. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions, but you do not have to be part of it! You can be one of those insight meditators that knows what to do, does it, and finally “gets it” in the grandest sense.

The big message here is: drop the stories, find a physical object like the breath or body or pain or pleasure or whatever, and look into the Three Characteristics precisely and consistently! Drop to the level of bare sensations! This is vipassana, insight meditation, or whatever you want to call it. It is the way of the Buddhas. All the “opening to it,” “just being with it,” “letting it go” and all of that are quite important, as we will see later, but insight meditators must, repeat, must, look into the following:


All things are impermanent. This is one of the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha and the second to last sentence he uttered before he died: “All phenomena are impermanent! Work out your salvation with diligence!” In his last words, he said everything you need to know to do insight practices. Things come and go. Nothing lasts for even an instant! Absolute transience is truly the fundamental nature of experiential reality.

What do I mean by “experiential reality?” I mean the universe of sensations that you actually experience. There are many gold standards for reality. However, when doing insight practices, the only useful gold standard for reality is your own sensate experience. From the conventional point of view, things are usually thought to be there even when you can no longer experience them, and are thus assumed with only circumstantial evidence to be somewhat stable entities. Predictability is used to assume continuity of existence. For our day-to-day lives, this assumption is adequate and often very useful.

For example, you could close your eyes, put down this book, and then pick it up again where you left it without opening your eyes. From a pragmatic point of view, this book was where you left it even when you were not experiencing it in any way. However, when doing insight practices, it just happens to be much more useful to assume that things are only there when you experience them and not there when you don’t. Thus, the gold standard for reality when doing insight practices is the sensations that make up your reality in that instant. Sensations not there at that time do not exist, and thus only the sensations arising in that instant do exist. In short, the vast majority of what you usually think of as making up your universe doesn’t exist the vast majority of the time, from a pure sensate point of view. This is exactly, precisely and specifically the point. Knowing this directly leads to freedom.

It is wise to reflect on death and all of that, for it is useful and true. This is a reflection on ordinary reality and thus an aspect of training in morality that is commonly used to develop motivation to train in insight. Far better to see one sensation arise and pass away. What do I mean by this? I mean that sensations arise out of nothing, do their thing, and vanish utterly. Gone. Utterly gone. Then the next sensation arises, does its thing, and disappears completely. “That's the stuff of modern physics,” one might say. “What does that have to do with practice?”

It has everything to do with practice! We can experience this, because the first set of vibrations we have access to isn't actually that fast. Vibrations. That's right, vibrations. That's what this first characteristic means: that reality vibrates, pulses, appears as discrete particles, is like TV snow, the frames of a movie, a shower of vanishing flower petals, or however you want to say it. Some people can get all into complex wave or particle models here, but don't. Just look into your actual experience, especially something nice and physical like the motion and sensations of the breath in the abdomen, the sensations of the tips of the fingers, the lips, the bridge of the nose, or whatever. Instant by instant try to know when the actual physical sensations are there and when they aren't. It turns out they aren't there a good bit of the time, and even when they are there, they are changing constantly.

We are typically quite sloppy about what are physical sensations and what are mental sensations (memories, mental images, and mental impressions of other sensations). These two kinds of sensations actually oscillate back and forth, a back and forth interplay, one arising and passing and then the other arising and passing, in a somewhat quick but quite penetrable fashion. Being clear about exactly when the physical sensations are there will begin to clarify their slippery counterpart that helps create the illusion of continuity or solidity: flickering mental impressions.

Coming directly after a physical sensation arises and passes is a separate pulse of reality that is the mental knowing of that physical sensation, here referred to as “consciousness” (as contrasted with “awareness” in Part III). By physical sensations I mean the five senses of touch, taste, hearing, seeing, and smelling. This is the way the mind operates on phenomena that are no longer there, even thoughts, intentions and mental images.

Since I just used this dangerous phrase “the mind,” I should quickly mention that it cannot be found. I’m certainly not talking about the brain, which we have never experienced, as the standard for insight practices is what we can directly experience. As an old Zen monk once said to us in his extremely thick Japanese accent, “Some people say there is mind. I say there is no mind, but never mind. Heh, heh, heh!”

However, I will use this dangerous phrase “the mind” often, or even worse “our mind,” but think to yourself when you read it, “He’s just using conventional language, but really there are just utterly transient mental sensations. Truly, there is no stable entity called ‘the mind’ which can be found! By doing insight practices, I will fully understand this!” If you are able to do this, we’ll get along just fine.

This mental impression of a previous sensation (often called “consciousness” in Buddhist parlance) is like an echo, a resonance. The mind takes a crude impression of the object, and that is what we can think about, remember and process. Then there may be a thought or an image that arises and passes, and then, if the mind is stable, another physical pulse.

Each one of these arises and vanishes completely before the other begins, so it is extremely possible to sort out which is which with a stable mind dedicated to consistent precision and to not being lost in stories. This means that the instant you have experienced something, you know that it isn't there any more, and whatever is there is a new sensation that will be gone in an instant. There are typically many other impermanent sensations and impressions interspersed with these, but, for the sake of practice, this is close enough to what is happening to be a good working model.

Engage with the preceding paragraphs. They are the stuff upon which great insight practice is based. Given that you know sensations are vibrating, pulsing in and out of reality, and that, for the sake of practice, every sensation is followed directly by a mental impression, you now know exactly what you are looking for. You have a clear standard. If you are not experiencing it, then stabilize the mind further, and be clearer about exactly when and where there are physical sensations. Spend time with this, as long as it takes. The whole goal is to experience impermanence directly, i.e. things flickering, and what those things are doesn't actually matter one bit!

How freeing! Interpretation is particularly useless in insight meditation, so you don't have to spend time doing it when you are on the cushion. Throughout this book I recommend reflecting on spiritual teachings and how to bring them to bear on our life, but not on the cushion. Thoughts, even supposedly good ones, are just too slippery and seductive most of the time, even for advanced meditators, though if you can avoid getting lost in their content they are as valid a stream of objects as any other. Try to limit yourself to a few minutes of reflection per hour of meditation. This should be more than enough. There are simply no substitutes for this sort of momentum in practice.

How fast are things vibrating? How many sensations arise and vanish each second? This is exactly what you are trying to experience, but some very general guidelines can provide faith that it can be done and perhaps point the way as well. Begin by assuming that we are talking about one to ten times per second in the beginning. This is not actually that fast. Try tapping five to ten times per second on a table or something. It might take two hands, but it's manageable, isn't it? You could obviously experience that, couldn't you? That's the spirit!

There are faster and slower vibrations that may show up, some very fast (maybe up to forty times per second) and some very slow (that are actually made up of faster vibrations), but let's just say that one to ten times per second can sometimes be a useful guideline in the beginning. Once you get the hang of it, the faster and slower vibrations are no big deal. Alternately, depending on how you practice, conceiving of this as like a shower of raindrops, a pointillist painting in motion, or 3D TV snow might help. Reality is obviously quite rich and complex, and thus the frequencies of the pulses of reality can be somewhat chaotic, but they actually tend to be more regular than you might expect. Also, there are not really any “magic frequencies.” Whatever frequency or pulse or whatever you are experiencing at that moment is the truth of that moment! However, in the beginning you should go for faster vibrations over slower ones and then try for wider ones over those that are more narrow.

Don't worry if things look or feel solid sometimes. Just be with the solidity clearly and precisely, but not too tightly, and it can start to show its impermanence. Be aware of each exact moment in which you experience solidity and its beginning and ending. Remember that each experience of solidity is a separate, impermanent sensation! Many people begin practicing and really want to solidify something like the breath so that they can actually pay attention to it. They become frustrated when they have a hard time finding the breath or their body or whatever. The reason they can’t find it is not because they are a bad meditator but because they are having direct insight into how things actually are! Unfortunately, their theory of what is supposed to happen involves really perceiving something solid and stable, so they get very frustrated. You should now be able to avoid a lot of that frustration and begin to appreciate why knowing some theory is important.

It is also worth noting here that the frequency or rate of these vibrations may change often, either getting faster or slower, and that it is really worth trying to see clearly the beginning and ending of each vibration or pulse of reality. These are actually at least two different sensations! It is also useful to check out exactly what happens at the bottom, middle, and top of the breath if you are using the breath as an object, and to examine if the frequency stays stable or changes in each phase of the breath. Never assume that what you have understood is the final answer! Be alert! Explore carefully and precisely with openness and acceptance! This is the door to understanding.

One last thing about vibrations: looking into vibrations can be a lot like any other sport. It can be thought of the way we might think of surfing or playing tennis, and this sort of game-like attitude can actually help a lot. We're “out to bust some vibrations!” as a friend of mine enthusiastically put it. You don't know quite what the next return or wave is going to be like, so pay attention, keep the mind on the pulse of the sensations of your world just as you would on the wave or ball, and keep playing!

I highly recommend this sort of speed in practice not only because that is how fast we have to perceive reality in order to awaken, but also because trying to experience one to ten sensations per second is challenging and engaging. Because it is challenging and engaging, we will be less prone to getting lost in thoughts rather than doing insight practices. Our minds have the power to perceive things extremely quickly, and we actually use this power all the time to do such things as read this book. You can probably read many words per second. If you can do this, you can certainly do insight practices.

If you can perceive one sensation per second, try for two. If you can perceive two unique sensations per second, try to perceive four. Keep increasing your perceptual threshold in this way until the illusion of continuity that binds you on the wheel of suffering shatters. In short, when doing insight practices, constantly work to perceive sensations arise and pass as quickly and accurately as you possibly can. With the spirit of a racecar driver who is constantly aware of how fast the car can go and still stay on the track, you are strongly advised to stay on the cutting edge of your ability to see the impermanence of sensations quickly and accurately.

I will relate four of the many little exercises that I sometimes do that I have found useful for jump-starting and developing insight into impermanence. They will demonstrate how we can be creative in exploring our reality precisely but hopefully they will not be thought of in some sort of dogmatic way. These objects and postures are not that important, but understanding impermanence directly is.

In one of these exercises, I sit quietly in a quiet place, close my eyes, put one hand on each knee, and concentrate just on my two index fingers. The theory tells me that it is definitely not possible to perceive both fingers simultaneously, so with this knowledge I try to see in each instant which one of the two finger’s physical sensations are being perceived. Once the mind has speeded up a bit and yet become more stable, I try to perceive the arising and passing of each of these sensations. I may do this for half an hour or an hour, just staying with the sensations in my two fingers and perceiving when each sensation is and isn’t there. This might sound like a lot of work, and it definitely can be until the mind settles into it. It really requires the concentration of a fast sport like table tennis. This is such an engaging exercise and requires such precision that it is easy not to be lost in thought if I am really applying myself. I have found this to be a very useful practice for developing concentration and debunking the illusion of continuity. You can pick any two aspects of your experience for this exercise, be they physical or mental. I generally use my fingers only because through experimentation I have found that it is easy for me to perceive the sensations that make them up.

In another related exercise, I do the same sort of thing, sitting quietly in a quiet place with my eyes closed, but instead I concentrate on the sensations of the front and back of my head. With the knowledge that the illusion of the watcher is partially supported by one impermanent sensation incorrectly seeming to perceive another impermanent sensation which it follows, such as the sensations in the back of the head incorrectly seeming to perceive the sensations of the front of the head which they follow, I try to be really clear about these sensations and when they are and aren’t there. I try to be clear if the sensations in the head are from the front or the back of the head in each instant, and then try to experience clearly the beginning and ending of each individual sensation.

This practice also requires a table tennis-like precision. Half an hour to an hour of this can be quite a workout until the mind speeds up and becomes more stable, but this sort of effort pays off. When I am engaged with this practice, there is little room to be lost in thought. I have also found this a very useful practice for developing concentration and debunking the illusion of continuity and the illusion of a separate self (more on that later).

In another exercise, which is quite common to many meditation traditions, I sit quietly in a quiet place, close my eyes, and concentrate on the breath. More than just concentrating on it, I know that the sensations that make up the concept “breath” are each impermanent, lasting only an instant. With this knowledge, I try to see how many individual times in each part of the breath I can perceive the sensations that make up the breath. During the in-breath I try to experience it as many times as possible, and try to be quite precise about exactly when the in-breath begins and ends.

More than this, I try to perceive exactly and precisely when each sensation of motion or physicality of the breath arises and passes. I then do the same for the out-breath, paying particular attention to the exact end of the out-breath and then the beginning of the new in-breath. I don’t worry about how I am breathing because it is not the quality of the breath which I am concerned with or even what the sensations are, but the ultimate nature of these sensations: their impermanence, their arising and passing away. When I am really engaged with bending the mind to this exercise, there is little room to be lost in thought. I have found this to be a very useful practice for developing concentration and penetrating the illusion of continuity.

In the last exercise, I take on the thoughts directly. I know that the sensations that make up thoughts can reveal the truth of the Three Characteristics to me, so I have no fear of them; instead I regard them as more glorious opportunities for insight. Again, sitting quietly in a quite place with my eyes closed, I turn the mind to the thought stream. However, rather than paying attention to the content like I usually do, I pay attention to the ultimate nature of the numerous sensations that make up thoughts: impermanence. I may even make the thoughts in my head more and more intense just to get a good look at them.

It is absolutely essential to try to figure out how you experience thoughts, otherwise you will simply flounder in content. What do thoughts feel like? Where to they occur? How big are they? What do they look like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How long do they last? Where are their edges? Only take on this practice if you are willing to try to work on this level, the level that tries to figure out what thoughts actually are rather than what they mean or imply.

If my thoughts are somewhat auditory, I begin by trying to perceive each syllable of the current thought and then each syllable’s beginning and ending. If they are somewhat visual, I try to perceive every instant in which a mental image presents itself. If they seem somewhat physical, such as the memory of a movement or feeling, I try to perceive exactly how long each little sensation of this memory lasts. This sort of investigation can actually be fairly easy to do and yet is quite powerful. Things can also get a bit odd quickly when doing this sort of practice, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes thoughts can begin to sound like the auditory strobing section of the song “Crimson and Clover,” where it sounds like they are standing at a spinning microphone. Sometimes the images in our head can begin to flash and flicker. Sometimes our very sense of attention can begin to strobe. This is the point! The sensations that imply a mind and mental processes are discontinuous, impermanent.

Again, this practice requires steadiness and determination, as well as precision. When I am really engaged with this, there is no time to be lost in the content of the thoughts, as I am trying too hard to be clear about the beginning and ending of each little flicker, squawk and pulse which makes up thought. This can be an especially fun practice when difficult thoughts are distracting me from a physical sensation. I can turn on them, break them down into meaningless little blips, little vibrations of suchness, and then they don’t have the power to cause me any trouble. They just scatter like confetti. They are seen as they are: small, quick and harmless. They have a message to convey, but then they are gone.

When I am done with this exercise, I return to physical objects and their arising and passing. However, I have found taking on the sensations that make up thoughts to be another very useful exercise for developing concentration and penetrating the illusion of continuity. It doesn’t matter if they are “good thoughts” or “bad thoughts,” as all mental sensations are also dripping with ultimate truth that is just waiting to be discovered, and thus I can proceed in my investigation with confidence regardless of what arises. Whether our illusions are penetrated using physical sensations or mental sensations is actually completely irrelevant.

Hopefully these exercises will give you some idea about how one might practice understanding impermanence. Impermanence is a true mark of ultimate reality, so just understanding this again and again can be sufficient to drum it into our thick heads, debunk the illusion of continuity, and once this is drummed into our thick heads we are free. This can be a subtle business, so be patient and persevere. Remember all three trainings. Following flickering sensations and understanding the other two characteristics of suffering and no-self that they manifest can be a powerful and direct cause for deep insights and awakenings.

For five years of my practice I was basically a One Technique Freak, and that technique was noticing how sensations flicker. I would do it as often as I could, i.e. basically whenever I didn’t have to be doing something that required concentration on the specifics of my life. I would be riding an elevator, just trying to see when I could feel each foot, or lying down to sleep and noticing how many times I could experience the sensations of my breath in each second. I also tried to notice this aspect of things for every single sensation that occurred during my formal practice. I used lots of objects, usually those that were presenting strongly at that time, and would use some variations on the above techniques as well as some others that I will mention shortly to keep me from getting stuck, but the aspect of my world that I tried to notice, things flickering, was always the same. I found that by making this sort of commitment to understanding one of the most basic assumptions of insight practices I was able to make fast progress and gain the ultimate insights I was looking for.


The next characteristic is suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Sounds grim or pessimistic at first, and perhaps deservedly so in one sense, but it is also a powerful statement that our moment-to-moment experience will not permanently satisfy ever. It will never happen. Why? Because everything is impermanent, that's one reason why! I just said that nothing lasts, meaning that you can actually experience everything that you normally think of as a solid world arising and passing instant to instant. So what could last for even the blink of an eye to satisfy? Nothing!

The point is not to be a radical, pessimistic, nihilistic cynic. The point is that it is not a thing that will help, but an understanding of something in the relationship to things. There is no thought, mind state or whatever which will do it. This is not to say that conventional day-to-day wisdom, such as taking care of ourselves and others, isn't also quite important: it very much is. Remember that awakening is not a thing or a mind state or a thought, it is an understanding of perspective without some separate thing that perceives.

There is a great relieving honesty in the truth of suffering. It can be very validating of the actual experience of our life and also give us the strength to look into the aspects of life that we typically try to ignore and run from. Even some deep and useful insights can be distinctly unpleasant, contrary to popular belief!

There is more to this truth, and it relates to the third characteristic, no-self. We are caught up in this bizarre habit of assuming that there is an “I.” Yet the definition of this seemingly permanent thing has to keep constantly changing to keep up the illusion in an impermanent world. This takes up a lot of mental time and is continually frustrating to the mind, as it takes so much constant work and effort. This process is called ignorance, i.e. the illusion of an “I” and thus that everything else is “not I.”

This is the illusion of duality, and the illusion of duality is inherently painful. There is just something disconcerting about the way the mind must hold itself and the information it must work to ignore in order to maintain the sense that there is a permanent and continuous self. Maintaining it is painful and its consequences for reactive mind states are also painful. It is a subtle, chronic pain, like a vague nausea. It is a distortion of perspective that we have grown so used to that we hardly notice it most of the time. The suffering caused by continually trying to prop up the illusion of duality is fundamental suffering. This definition of suffering is the one that is most useful for insight practices.

To actually feel moment to moment this quality of reality can be hard to do, not because suffering is so hard to find (it has actually been said to be the easiest of the three to tune into), but because it takes a certain amount of bravery. Yet, it is so well worth it. If we finally wake up to this quality of suffering we will effortlessly let it go, drop it like a hot coal that we have finally realized we were holding. It really works like that, and letting go in this way means being free. Investigate your experience and see if you can be open to that fundamental, non-story based aspect of your bare experience that is somehow unsettling, unpleasant, or unsatisfactory. It can be found to some degree in every instant regardless of whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Once you have some mental stability, you can even look into the bare experience of the sensations that make up the stories that spin in your mind and see how unsatisfactory and unsettling it is to try to pretend they are a self or the property of some imagined self. If we continue to habituate ourselves to this understanding moment to moment we may get it into our thick heads and finally awaken.

My favorite exercise for examining suffering is to sit in a quite place with my eyes closed and examine the physical sensations that make up any sort of desire, be it desire to get something, get away from something or just tune out and go to sleep. At a rate of one to ten times per second, I try to experience exactly how I know that I wish to do something other than simply face my current experience as it is. Moment to moment, I try to find those little uncomfortable urges and tensions that try to prod my mind into fantasizing about past or future or stopping my meditation entirely.

For that meditation period, they are my prey and nourishment, opportunities to understand something extraordinary about reality, and so I do my very best to let none of them arise and pass without the basic sense of dissatisfaction in them being clearly perceived as it is. I turn on sensations of the desire to get results, turn on the pains and unsettling sensations that make my mind contract, turn on the boredom that is usually aversion to suffering in disguise, turn on the sensations of restlessness that try to get me to stop meditating. Anything with fear or judgment in it is my bread and butter for that meditation period. Any sensation that smacks of grandiosity or self-loathing is welcomed as a source of wisdom.

A half hour to an hour of this sort of consistent investigation of suffering is also quite a workout, particularly as we spend most of our lives doing anything but looking to these sorts of sensations to gain insight from them. However, I have found that this sort of investigation pays off in ways I could never have imagined.

Looking into unsatisfactoriness may not sound as concrete as the thing about vibrations, but I assure you it is. Even the most pleasant sensations have a tinge of unsatisfactoriness to them, so look for it at the level of bare experience. Pain is a gold mine for this. I am absolutely not advocating cultivating pain, as there is already enough there. Just knowing in each precise instant how you actually know that pain is unsatisfactory can be profound practice. Don't settle for just the knee jerk answer that “of course pain is unsatisfactory.” Know exactly how you know this in each moment, but don't get lost in stories about it. This is bare reality, ultimate reality we're talking about. Just be with it, engage with it, and know it as it is at a very simple level.


The last and perhaps most misunderstood of the Three Characteristics is no-self, also rendered as egolessness or emptiness. Emptiness, for all its mysterious sounding connotations, just means that reality is empty of a permanent, separate self. The emphasis here absolutely must be on the words “permanent” and “separate.” It doesn't mean that reality is not there, or that all of this is illusion! Solidity is an illusion, permanence is an illusion, that the watcher is a separate thing is an illusion, but all of this isn't an illusion. Sure, all experience is utterly transient and ephemeral, but that is not quite the same as everything being an illusion. There is a habit of reading just a bit too much into things and coming out with the false conclusion that all of this means that there is some separate, permanent us. Reality is actually fine just as it is and always has been, but there is a deeper understanding of it that is called for.

Let's talk a little bit about this concept and how the illusion of a self is created in the first place before we talk about how to use this powerful and profound concept of no-self in simple ways in practice. Some theory really can be useful to the practice, as all of it can be understood directly once one has some stability of mind and a bit of insight into what is mind and what is body, and when each is and isn't there.

We have this notion that there is really a permanent “I.” We might say, “Hello, I am...” and be quite convinced that we are talking about a permanent, separate thing that can be found. However, if we are just a bit more sophisticated we might ask, “What is this 'I' which we are sure is us?” We have grown so accustomed to the fact of the definition changing all the time that we hardly notice it, but the point of insight practice is to notice it, and to see just what it is that we are calling “I” in each moment.

We may begin with the obvious assumption: we are our body. This sounds nice until we say something like “my body.” Well, if it is “my body,” that seems to imply that, at that moment, whatever it is that owns the body wasn't the body. Suppose someone points to our toenails. They surely seem to be “me,” until we clip them, and then they are “not me.” Is this really the same body as when we were born? It isn't even made of the same cells, and yet it seems to be a permanent thing. Look more closely, at the sensate level, and you will see that moment to moment it isn't. At the level of actual experience, all that is found is flickering stuff. So impermanence is closely related to no-self, but there is more to no-self than that.

Perhaps thoughts are the “I.” They may seem more like the “true I” than the body does. But they come and go to, don't they? Can we really control these thoughts? Are they something solid enough to assume that they are an “I”? Look closely and you will see that they are not. But again, no-self is more profound than this.

There also seems to be something that is frequently called “the watcher,” that which seems to be observing all this, and perhaps this is really the “I” in question. Strangely, the watcher cannot be found, can it? It seems to sometimes be our eyes, but sometimes not, sometimes it seems to be images in our head and sometimes something that is separate from them and yet watching the images in our head. Sometimes it seems to be our body, but sometimes it seems to be watching our body. Isn’t it strange how we are so used to this constant redefinition of ourselves that we never stop to question it? Question it! This odd sense of an unfindable watcher to which all of this is happening yet which is seemingly separate from all that is happening, which sometimes seems in control of “us” and yet which sometimes seems at the mercy of reality: what is it really? What is going on here?

One of my teachers once wisely said, “If you are observing it, then it isn't you by definition!” Notice that the whole of reality seems to be observed. The hints don't get any better than this. Here are three more points of theory that are very useful for insight practices and one’s attempts to understand what is meant by no-self:

1. There are absolutely no sensations that can observe other sensations! (Notice that reality is made entirely of sensations.) 2. There are no special sensations that are uniquely in control of other sensations. 3. There are no sensations that are fundamentally split off from other sensations occurring at that moment. To begin to unravel this mystery is to begin to awaken. Simply put, reality with a sense of a separate watcher is delusion, and unconditioned reality, reality just as it is, is awakening.

Quick point here: people can use the truth of no-self to rationalize all sorts of strange behaviors because they misunderstand it as nihilism. “It's all illusion anyway,” they might say. It absolutely isn't. All of this can only be understood at the level that makes the difference by simple, clear, precise practice, so just keep at it.

One more related thing here that is very important: ego is a process of identification, not a thing in and of itself. It is like a bad habit, but it doesn't exist as something that can be found. This is important, as this bad habit can quickly co-opt the language of egolessness and come up with phrases as absurd as: “I will destroy my ego!” But, not being a thing, it cannot be destroyed, but by understanding our bare experience, our minds, the process of identification can stop. Any thoughts with “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” in them should be understood to be just thoughts which come and go. This is not something you can talk yourself out of. You have to perceive things as they are to stop this process.

A commonly heard one is, “I am always identifying with things, I am always attached to things,” with the implication that there is actually someone who is “bad” for “doing” this. Try to avoid this sort of story making, this sort of unmindful mental spinning, but be kind to yourself if it happens. The sensations that make up these thoughts are just empty in the best of ways.

So who is it that awakens? It is all of this transience which awakens, though for a more mystical, thorough and seemingly ridiculous answer take a look at No-self vs. True Self in Part III.

We don't have to sort this all out at once. We can begin with simple steps and the rest will fall into place if we are diligent and skillful.

So, now that I have made the possible seem mystical and abstruse, hopefully I will make it seem very attainable. The big, practical trick to understanding egolessness is to tune into the fact that sensations arise on their own in a natural causal fashion, even the intentions to do things. This is a formal practice instruction.

This may sound hard until you think about it and then perhaps it may become so obvious it may seem trite. But it isn't, and understanding it again and again, moment to moment, can bang the truth into us, and if we fully get it we will be free. So, start and perhaps remain with obvious things like physical sensations. They just show up and check out over there, don't they? Tune into this. Allow this quality of things arising and passing on their own to show itself. Notice that whatever is observed isn't “us.” Do this again and again and again at a rate of one to ten times per second as before. That is all there is to it. See, that wasn't so hard!

Thoughts, the breath, and all of our experience don't quite seem to be in our control, do they? That's it! Know this moment to moment. Don't struggle too much with reality, except to break the bad habits of being lost in stories, poor concentration, and a lack of understanding of the Three Characteristics. Allow vibrations to show themselves and tune into the sense that you don't have to struggle for them to arise. Reality just continues to change on its own. That's really it. Investigate this again and again until you get it. Notice that this applies to each and every sensation that you experience.

So, while we can direct the mind to penetrate into phenomena with great precision and energy, we can also sit quietly and allow reality to just show itself as it is. Both perspectives are important and valuable, and being able to draw on each along the way can be very helpful. Said another way, we can realize that reality is already showing itself, settle quietly into this moment, and be clear and precise about it.

Obviously there is a bit of a paradox here relating to effort and surrender. In many ways it is at the heart of the spiritual life. There is a lot of advice available on this point, but in terms of insight meditation practice I would say this: If when meditating you can perceive the arising and passing of phenomena clearly and consistently, that is enough effort, so allow this to show itself naturally and surrender to it. If not, or if you are lost in stories, then there are some teachings coming up in the other lists that may help.

For day-to-day reality, the specifics of our experience are certainly important, but for insight into the truth of things in meditation they largely aren't. Said another way, it is neither the object of meditation, the causes of the object of meditation, nor the significance of the object of meditation, but the truth of the sensations that make up that “object” which must be understood. Once you can tell what is mind and what is body, that's for the most part enough. So don't make stories, but know this: things come and go, they don't satisfy, and they ain't you. That is the truth. It is just that simple. If you can just not get to caught up in the content and know these simple, basic and obvious truths moment to moment, some other wordless and profound understanding may arise on its own.

A useful teaching is conceptualizing reality as six sense doors: touch, taste, seeing, hearing, smelling, and thought. It may seem odd to consider thought as a sense door, but this is actually much more reasonable than the assumption that thoughts are an “us” or “ours” or in complete control. Just treat thoughts as more sensations coming in which must be understood to be impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self. In this strangely useful framework, there are not even ears, eyes, skin, a nose, a tongue, or a mind. There are just sensations with various qualities, some of which may imply these things for an instant.

Bare experience is just dancing, flickering color, form, energy and space, basically, and the knowledge of these (which is not as fundamentally different from them as you might suspect). Try to stay close to that level when you practice, the level of the simple, direct, obvious, literal. But whenever you are lost in interpretation much beyond this, that ain't insight meditation, as much as people would like it to be. Have I said this enough? Okay, then.

I realize that most people go into meditation looking for stability, happiness, and comfort in the face of their own existence. I have just said that I have spent many years cultivating extreme experiential instability, careful awareness of the minutia of my suffering and the clear perception that I don’t even exist as a separate entity. Why this would be a good idea is a very complex topic that I will try to deal with later, but I can honestly say that these practices are without doubt the sanest thing I have ever done in my life.

One more little carrot: it is rightly said that to deeply understand any two of the characteristics simultaneously is to understand the third, and this understanding is sufficient to cause immediate first awakening.