Phenomena have three universal characteristics.
The Buddha stated that all phenomena universally have three characteristics, the Three Universal Truths. They are impermanence, suffering (permanent happiness is not possible) and non-self (the idea of a ‘self’ is a delusion). The Buddha asserted that everything in the physical world (and everything in the phenomenology of psychology) is subject to these three truths.
The Buddha said: “All is impermanent. The eye is impermanent, visual objects, whatever is felt as pleasant or unpleasant or neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant, born of eye-contact is impermanent. Likewise, with the ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All formations are impermanent. Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation. The world is as impermanent as autumn clouds. Birth and death are like a flash of lightning.”
Humans are attracted to the illusion that existence is permanent. Yet the body’s composition of flesh, bones, and blood decays minute by minute. The mind is no different. Mood, attitude, happiness depends on many causal factors, which are inconsistent and uncertain. One moment a person is happy, the next unhappy and a bit later, maybe sad.
Phenomena are equally impermanent; the whole universe is in a state of perpetual change. Relationships change, seasons change. Everything one treasures will decay and fall apart. Life can end at any moment. Death is a certainty.
The Buddha said that what ordinary people call happiness, the enlightened ones call suffering. As stated previously, the world, life is in a persistent state of impermanence. The human mind craves certainty, reliability. When one is happy, one doesn’t want the happiness to stop. Yet, everything will come to an end. That is the only definite certainty. Disregarding this universal truth becomes the kernel of suffering. Craving for and grasping at permanence generates suffering. All that arises will last for a time; then will decay and ultimately disappear.
Acceptance of suffering as a universal condition makes for a big step towards calming the mind. The physical and the psychological realms cannot provide enduring satisfaction or lasting happiness. Even the gods in the god realm trembled when the Buddha reminded them of impermanence. All the pleasant experiences we crave are impermanent. Impermanence is the source of suffering. Grasping at the idea of permanence is a delusion that ends in disappointment, as does the greed for material possessions.
There is no place for a permanent, changeless ‘I’ in Buddhism. All phenomena, from greatest to tiniest, are temporal. So what about the ‘self’? Is the body the permanent self? If it were, it would be able to will itself to consistent health and vitality. However, the body turns old, sick and declines. No willing can stop this. How about the mind? The mind has little control over its mood, agitation, reaction or depression. If the mind were self-governing, it would never become disturbed, distracted and excited against its own will.
The Buddha explains this point with the chariot analogy. The chariot is a collection of parts that assemble in a certain way and collectively provide a particular function. None of the chariot’s parts, individually taken, are the chariot itself, nor can they individually provide its function. So the reality of the chariot is no more than a convenient description of parts and function.
The word ‘self’ is, like the chariot, a useful way of describing the many related factors that make up a person’s experience. ‘Self’ is a continuum of impermanent, highly changeable physical and mental perspectives.
‘Seeing things as they really are’ means seeing reality consistently in the light of the Three Universal Truths. Believing in a permanent, unchanging ‘self’ is the biggest obstacle on the path towards liberation. Ignoring the truth of impermanence creates the separation of I like, I don’t like, or I’m indifferent. In this way, an individual divides the continuum of existence into self and other, a fundamental delusion. Integrating the Three Universal Truths into everyday life by applying this insight on thoughts and actions unveils the door to freedom from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Meditation becomes the primary tool to deepen that understanding.
Nirvana is beyond description, beyond knowing, beyond imagination, beyond concepts. There is nothing that can be ‘said’ about nirvana.