Impermanence, Selflessness, and Dissatisfaction
Buddhism is neither a religion nor a philosophy, but rather a way of
life. This does not imply that Buddhism is nothing more than an ethical code:
it is a way of moral, spiritual and intellectual training leading to complete
freedom of the mind. (DeSilva, 1991:p 5). Of the many Buddhist sects, Zen
Buddhism places particular emphasis on living the right’ life, and does not
revolve around rite and ritual. Buddhism outlines the three characteristics of
existence, which aids one in achieving enlightenment. Impermanence,
selflessness, and dissatisfaction are concepts that are easily understood on an
intellectual level, but to apply these concepts in one’s life is challenging.
Impermanence is concerned with the thought that nothing remains static, and
change is to be expected. Selflessness holds that there is no immortal soul or
external Self that exists in each individual; (Fadiman & Frager,1994:p 545)
selflessness is closely connected with impermanence. Dissatisfaction is a
larger concept entir ely- it involves the acknowledgment that suffering exists.
The world is founded on suffering, (DeSilva, 1991:p 21) and once anything
becomes a problem there is bound to be suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or
conflict- conflict between our desires and the state of reality.
Dissatisfaction is the most difficult characteristic of existence to apply to
one’s life, as it involves not only the acceptance of this state, but also
outlines one on how to treat and cure this state.
The notion that the world is an ever-changing environment on all levels
of existence is not a radical idea. In fact, those that have not yet accepted
change as a natural state of nature is denying the reality of life. A being and
the empirical world are both constantly changing. They come into being and pass
away. All is in a whirl, nothing escapes this inexorable unceasing change, and
because of this transient nature nothing is really pleasant. There is happiness,
but very momentary, it vanishes like a flake of snow, and brings about
unsatisfactoriness (DeSilva, 1991:p 29). Both pleasant and unpleasant
conditions come and go, it is then the responsibility of the individual to deal
with each situation in the right’ way. Understanding that there is no
universal truth, that thoughts and ideas evolve- leaves one open to improve and
grow- a goal of Buddhism. The concept of impermanence is significant from a
psychological standpoint, as it encourages individuals to deal with situations
with more flexibility, as well as understanding. Impermanence allows one to
possess a firm grip upon reality, knowing that there is an ever-changing
landscape, encouraging one not to take things for granted.
Related to impermanence, is the concept of selflessness. Selflessness
involves the knowledge that there is no immortal soul or eternal Self that
exists in each individual (Fadiman & Frager, 1994:p 545). The so-called
individual is a collection of attributes, all of which are impermanent and
constantly changing. According to the Buddha, the person is made up of five
basic factors- body, perception, sensation, consciousness, and mental activities.
(Fadiman & Frager, 1994:p 545) Selflessness enables the individual to focus
upon the external with the understanding that I’ is not of significant priority.
In taking the importance away from the individual, it permits one to become
concerned with issues not related directly to the self. The fact that the world
is constantly changing, and that one does not possess an immortal soul; allows
the stage to be set for dissatisfaction, as it encompasses a number of
Dissatisfaction exists, it is not a foreign notion. To this single
problem we give different names: economic, social, political, psychological, and
even religious problems. Do they not all emanate from that one single problem,
namely unsatisfactoriness? If there is no unsatisfactoriness, why need we
strive to solve them? Does not solving a problem imply reducing the
unsatisfactoriness? (DeSilva, 1991: p 48) Dissatisfaction is in essence
suffering, the fundamental problem of life. Suffering appears in two forms;
psychological and physical- which falls into three categories.
Ordinary suffering includes; birth, death, sickness, old age, unpleasant
conditions, grief, etc. It is typical to experience these sufferings throughout
the duration of one’s life. The second type of suffering is suffering produced
by change, followed by suffering as conditioned states. Suffering as
conditioned states occurs when an individual is attached to; matter, sensations,
perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. The Buddha points out that
people suffer change every moment ant this change brings about
unsatisfactoriness; for whatever is impermanent is unsatisfactory- there is no
lasting bliss. (DeSilva, 1991:p 73) Following the understanding of the
characteristics of existence, in particular, that of dissatisfaction and
suffering- the Four Noble Truths await. These truths in no way contradict the
aforementioned characteristics, but rather, explain how they can be dealt with
in a constructive manner.
It is not difficult to grasp the concepts of impermanence, selflessness,
or dissatisfaction- carrying the meaning of these words into ones daily life,
conversely, is a task. Impermanence is perhaps the easiest concept of the three
to accept, as our world seems to change more rapidly than ever, and one becomes
accustomed to this. It would only be logical for this to apply to an
individual’s spiritual being as well. One must be prepared to acknowledge that
how they perceive their external condition is constantly evolving. From a
personal point of view, it is my belief that Buddhism is quite grounded and
sound as a guide for living one’s life. It in no way inhibits your nature, but
rather instills a degree of gentleness and thoughtfulness into one’s life, it
results in examination of one’s behavior. From my limited perspective,
selflessness is somewhat difficult to accept, as I believe that each person is
unique, and possesses some form of immortality- a soul for example. The fact
that we are composed of mortal, constantly changing components does not prove
that individuals are wholly mortal. An individual is composed of a great deal
more than body, perception, sensation, consciousness, and thought. It is my
belief that there are facets of an individual that cannot be so easily explained.
One cannot argue that suffering and dissatisfaction are non-existent. By
acknowledging these facts of life, an individual is in the fortunate position of
having the ability to end the suffering conditions, whether they be
psychological or physical.
Consequently, the Buddhist characteristics of existence are useful to
the average individual. These concepts can aid the individual in healthy
analysis of their behavior and motivations, as well as offer methods that enable
one to actively change aspects of their life that they may be dissatisfied with.
DeSilva, J.The Spectrum of Buddhism: The Writings of Piyadassi.
Buddhist Missionary Society: New York, 1991.
Fadiman, J. Personality and Personal Growth. HarperCollins College
Frager, R.Publishers: United States, 1994.
Suzuki, D.T.Manual of Zen Buddhism. Rider: London, New York, 1956.