Practical Value of the Three Signs

Practical Value of the Three Signs

From a prac­ti­cal point of view, the teach­ings touch on imper­ma­nence more than the oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics, because imper­ma­nence is more appar­ent. The state of pres­sure, stress and fric­tion—dukkhatā—is mod­er­ate­ly dif­fi­cult to observe and is there­fore referred to less. The char­ac­ter­is­tic of non­self is the most sub­tle and dif­fi­cult to see, and is referred to the least. The more obvi­ous sign of imper­ma­nence is used as a foun­da­tion to explain the char­ac­ter­is­tics of dukkha and nonself.

The fol­low­ing two vers­es of the Bud­dha show the val­ue of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics for Dham­ma practice:

Indeed, all con­di­tioned things are imper­ma­nent, prone to arise and pass away. Hav­ing arisen, they cease; their com­ing to rest is truest bliss.1

Monks, all con­di­tioned things are of a nature to decay; strive to attain the goal by dili­gence.2

The first verse advo­cates a prop­er rela­tion­ship to the world and to life in gen­er­al: the val­ue of thor­ough­ly com­pre­hend­ing that all things are com­pound­ed, unsta­ble, and sub­ject to change; they can­not be com­mand­ed at will, they accord with caus­es, and they exist ‘just so.’ With this knowl­edge a per­son main­tains an appro­pri­ate atti­tude towards life and cling­ing ceas­es. Despite alter­ation, decay and dis­ap­pear­ance of cher­ished objects, the mind is not over­whelmed and dis­turbed; it remains clear, radi­ant and joy­ful on account of its innate wis­dom. This verse empha­sizes lib­er­a­tion of the heart—transcendence—which is the ben­e­fit of spir­i­tu­al practice.

The sec­ond verse calls atten­tion to vir­tu­ous con­duct, which is con­ducive to the real­iza­tion of the supreme state. This real­iza­tion stems from the knowl­edge that all things are ephemer­al and sub­ject to pres­sure. Flux is per­pet­u­al, time­less and inex­orable. Human life espe­cial­ly is fleet­ing, uncer­tain and unre­li­able. Know­ing this, one makes effort in that which should be done and refrains from that which should be avoid­ed. One does not pro­cras­ti­nate or waste oppor­tu­ni­ties. One strives to rec­ti­fy harm­ful sit­u­a­tions, takes heed to pro­tect one­self from fur­ther dam­age, and cul­ti­vates virtue by reflect­ing with wis­dom, which accords with con­di­tions. As a result, one ful­fils one’s respon­si­bil­i­ties and attains one’s goals. This verse empha­sizes dili­gence and care­ful atten­tion, which are mun­dane and prac­ti­cal qual­i­ties. These qual­i­ties are the ben­e­fit of prop­er action.

One should apply this sec­ond, engaged course of action to all lev­els of human affairs, from per­son­al to social issues, from sec­u­lar mat­ters to the supreme, and from earn­ing a liv­ing to seek­ing the enlight­ened truth of the Bud­dha. The fol­low­ing teach­ings of the Bud­dha high­light this quality:

Monks, con­sid­er­ing per­son­al well-being, you should accom­plish it with care. Con­sid­er­ing oth­ers’ well-being, you should accom­plish it with care. Con­sid­er­ing the well-being of both, you should accom­plish it with care.3

There is one qual­i­ty, Great King, which secures dual wel­fare, both present (vis­i­ble) wel­fare, and future (sub­tle) wel­fare…. This qual­i­ty is heed­ful­ness (appamā­da)…. A wise per­son who is heed­ful secures dual wel­fare, both present and future. The stead­fast one, by secur­ing (these two) ben­e­fits, is called a sage.4

Monks, a per­son of good moral con­duct, per­fect in moral con­duct, through care­ful atten­tion to his affairs, gains much wealth.5

By earnest endeav­our (appamā­da), monks, I attained enlight­en­ment. And you too, monks, if you put forth unde­terred effort … in no long time you shall real­ize the goal of the holy life by way of supe­ri­or wis­dom in this very life.6

The two ben­e­fits, from spir­i­tu­al prac­tice and from prop­er action, are mutu­al­ly sup­port­ive. By their con­sum­ma­tion through right train­ing a per­son obtains supreme well-being.

1. The Spiritual Practice Leading to Liberation

Spir­i­tu­al ben­e­fit, and the prac­tice for its ful­fil­ment, relates direct­ly to the high­est goal of Bud­dha-Dham­ma. It is of utmost impor­tance, con­cern­ing the entire spec­trum of Bud­dhist teach­ings. Because many details of its devel­op­ment require spe­cial under­stand­ing, the texts refer to it fre­quent­ly and at length. Some texts, for exam­ple the Visud­dhimag­ga, out­line this devel­op­ment as an ordered sys­tem. Rather than describe specifics here, I will only offer a broad summary.

Those peo­ple who dis­cern the three char­ac­ter­is­tics grow in wis­dom and acquire a clear­er under­stand­ing of life. In addi­tion, they nor­mal­ly under­go two impor­tant trans­for­ma­tive men­tal stages:

Stage 1: Once a per­son under­stands con­di­tion­al­i­ty more clear­ly, and has gained an inter­me­di­ate insight into imper­ma­nence, dukkha and non­self, a reac­tion occurs. A feel­ing aris­es unlike any feel­ing pre­vi­ous­ly expe­ri­enced. Where­as for­mer­ly the per­son was cap­ti­vat­ed and delight­ed by sense objects, hav­ing now dis­cerned the three char­ac­ter­is­tics sen­ti­ment changes into dis­con­tent­ment and aver­sion, and some­times into dis­gust. At this stage emo­tions are pre­dom­i­nant over wis­dom. Despite the defi­cien­cy of wis­dom and the remain­der of men­tal bias, this stage is nonethe­less impor­tant and occa­sion­al­ly even cru­cial for escap­ing from the pow­er of attach­ment and for attain­ing the per­fec­tion in stage 2. Con­verse­ly, by stop­ping at this point a person’s prej­u­dice can be harmful.

Stage 2: At this stage a per­son has cul­ti­vat­ed a thor­ough under­stand­ing of real­i­ty: wis­dom has entered the stage of com­ple­tion. All feel­ings of repul­sion dis­ap­pear, replaced by a feel­ing of equa­nim­i­ty. There exists nei­ther infat­u­a­tion nor dis­gust, nei­ther attach­ment nor aver­sion. There remains only a lucid under­stand­ing of things as they tru­ly are, in addi­tion to a feel­ing of spa­cious­ness. A per­son is able to act appro­pri­ate­ly and judi­cious­ly. This lev­el of men­tal devel­op­ment, includ­ed in the prac­tice of insight med­i­ta­tion (vipas­sanā), is called ‘equani­mous knowl­edge of for­ma­tions’ (saṅkhāru­pekkhā-ñāṇa). It is a nec­es­sary stage of direct real­iza­tion of truth and of the com­plete free­dom of the heart.

There are two impor­tant fruits of lib­er­a­tion, espe­cial­ly when lib­er­a­tion is com­plete (in stage 2):

Free­dom from suf­fer­ing: Lib­er­at­ed indi­vid­u­als are relieved of all oppres­sion that results from cling­ing. Hap­pi­ness exists inde­pen­dent of allur­ing mate­r­i­al objects. The mind is unre­strict­ed, joy­ous, fear­less and sor­row­less. It is not strick­en by the vac­il­la­tions of world­ly con­di­tions (lokad­ham­ma). This fea­ture affects ethics as well since these peo­ple do not cre­ate prob­lems by vent­ing unhap­pi­ness on oth­ers, which is a sig­nif­i­cant cause for social con­flict. They devel­op virtues, notably lov­ing-kind­ness and com­pas­sion, which act for the wel­fare of all.

Absence of defile­ment: Lib­er­at­ed per­sons are free from the pow­er of defile­ments, for exam­ple greed, anger, cov­etous­ness, prej­u­dice, con­fu­sion, jeal­ousy and con­ceit. Their minds are clear, unfet­tered, calm and pure. This fea­ture has direct influ­ence on behav­iour, both indi­vid­ual and social. Per­son­al­ly, they apply wis­dom in an unadul­ter­at­ed way; they are not biased, for exam­ple, by aver­sion or self­ish ambi­tion. Exter­nal­ly, they do not com­mit offences prompt­ed by the defile­ments. They per­form whole­some actions right­eous­ly and with­out hes­i­ta­tion since no defile­ments like lazi­ness or self-cen­tred­ness impede and disturb.

Nev­er­the­less, when still not ful­ly devel­oped and exist­ing in iso­la­tion (i.e, not sup­port­ed by the prac­tice of heed­ful­ness), spir­i­tu­al prac­tice can still be harm­ful since the good can be a cause for unskilfulness.7 Hav­ing attained some spir­i­tu­al gain and found peace and hap­pi­ness, peo­ple are like­ly to rev­el in this hap­pi­ness. They are like­ly to rest on their lau­rels, aban­don effort, or neglect unfin­ished respon­si­bil­i­ties. In short, they fall into heed­less­ness, as con­firmed by the Buddha’s words:

And how, Nandiya, is a noble dis­ci­ple one who dwells neg­li­gent­ly? Here, Nandiya, a noble dis­ci­ple pos­sess­es firm con­fi­dence in the Bud­dha … the Dham­ma … and the Saṅgha…. He pos­sess­es the virtues dear to the Noble Ones…. Con­tent with this firm con­fi­dence … with these virtues, he does not make fur­ther effort…. In this way, Nandiya, a noble dis­ci­ple dwells neg­li­gent­ly.8

The way to avoid such harm is to inte­grate the sec­ond practice.

2. The Practice of Heedfulness

Peo­ple gen­er­al­ly fol­low two ten­den­cies while con­duct­ing their affairs. When oppressed by suf­fer­ing or in cri­sis, peo­ple has­ten to amend the sit­u­a­tion. Some­times they are able to solve the prob­lem, while at oth­er times they can­not and must face loss or ruin. Even if they suc­ceed, they expe­ri­ence much dis­tress and strug­gle to find a last­ing solu­tion; they may even find defeat amidst their suc­cess: ‘Win the bat­tle but lose the war.’ While at ease in every­day life, hav­ing attend­ed to imme­di­ate con­cerns, peo­ple become com­pla­cent, allow­ing the days to pass by search­ing for plea­sure or indulging in grat­i­fi­ca­tion. They do not occu­py them­selves with avoid­ing future harm. Unless cor­nered, they post­pone their respon­si­bil­i­ties. Assault­ed by afflic­tion or dan­ger, they has­ten to find relief; hav­ing escaped, they are con­tent to par­take in their delights. This cycle con­tin­ues until one day they are pow­er­less to alter the course of events or are destroyed in their attempt to escape.

The con­duct described above is pamā­da, which can be var­i­ous­ly trans­lat­ed as neg­li­gence, heed­less­ness, lax­ness, dis­re­gard, lack of effort, and lethar­gy. It tends to go hand in hand with laziness.

The oppo­site qual­i­ty is dili­gence (appamā­da),9 which is roused and guid­ed by mind­ful­ness. Dili­gent per­sons are con­tin­u­al­ly aware of what must be avoid­ed and what must be pur­sued, and com­mit them­selves to these tasks. They rec­og­nize the impor­tance of time, of work, and of the slight­est respon­si­bil­i­ty. They are not intox­i­cat­ed or over­ly enthralled by life. They make every effort to avoid trans­gres­sion and miss no oppor­tu­ni­ty to grow in virtue. They has­ten towards their goal or towards the good with­out inter­rup­tion, and take great care in their preparations.

An under­stand­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics direct­ly pro­motes dili­gence, because when one knows that all things are imper­ma­nent, unsta­ble, fleet­ing, non-com­pli­ant, and sub­ject to caus­es, then only one way of prac­tice remains, which is to act in con­for­mi­ty with caus­es and con­di­tions. This means that one makes effort to pro­tect one­self from unwhole­some influ­ences, to repair dam­age, to pre­serve ben­e­fi­cial qual­i­ties, and to act mer­i­to­ri­ous­ly for fur­ther progress. This prac­tice involves inves­ti­gat­ing causal­i­ty and act­ing accord­ing­ly. For exam­ple, aware that all things are sub­ject to change, one strives to act in such a way that desired salu­tary con­di­tions exist as long as pos­si­ble, and that they give the max­i­mum ben­e­fit to others.

Upon clos­er exam­i­na­tion, one sees that the real cause for or force behind this dili­gence is suf­fer­ing. People’s rela­tion­ship to suf­fer­ing, how­ev­er, affects their reac­tion to it, result­ing in either heed­less­ness or care. And even care­ful respons­es vary in qual­i­ty. An analy­sis of this dynam­ic will show the val­ue of appamā­da. There are three ways to respond to suffering:

1. Con­duct Based on Stress of Suf­fer­ing: Some peo­ple indulge in com­fort and plea­sure, neglect their respon­si­bil­i­ties, do not con­sid­er poten­tial dan­ger, but rather wait until dan­ger con­fronts them. Faced with trou­ble and neces­si­ty, they has­ten to rem­e­dy the sit­u­a­tion, some­times suc­cess­ful­ly, some­times not.

2. Con­duct Based on Fear of Suf­fer­ing: Some peo­ple fear suf­fer­ing and dif­fi­cul­ty, and so strive to pre­vent hard­ship. Although their attempts to estab­lish more secu­ri­ty are usu­al­ly suc­cess­ful, their minds are bur­dened by anx­i­ety. Besides fear­ing suf­fer­ing, they suf­fer from fear, and they act prompt­ed by this sec­ondary source of distress.

3. Con­duct Based on Knowl­edge of Suf­fer­ing: Some peo­ple reflect with wis­dom on how to man­age with poten­tial suf­fer­ing. They are not intim­i­dat­ed by fear since they under­stand the nature of the three char­ac­ter­is­tics; they rec­og­nize poten­tial dan­ger. They inves­ti­gate the dynam­ics of change, rely­ing on the aware­ness of imper­ma­nence and the lib­er­ty and flex­i­bil­i­ty afford­ed by the char­ac­ter­is­tic of non­self, to choose the best way for­ward. In addi­tion, they use past expe­ri­ence as a les­son to pre­vent suf­fer­ing and to steer towards the great­est pos­si­ble good. They are relieved of as much suf­fer­ing as is in their pow­er, to the point of being free from all men­tal suf­fer­ing and anxiety.

The first type of behav­iour is heed­less; types two and three are per­formed with care, but type two is a cau­tion fed by defile­ment and thus bound up with suf­fer­ing. Type three, on the oth­er hand, springs from wis­dom, and is there­fore trou­ble-free: no men­tal suf­fer­ing aris­es. This is full and prop­er heed­ful­ness, which only an ara­hant prac­tis­es per­fect­ly. The qual­i­ty of vig­i­lance for unen­light­ened per­sons depends on their abil­i­ty to apply wis­dom (in line with type three), and on the reduc­tion of stress caused by fear and anx­i­ety (of type two).

As described above, ordi­nary peo­ple are not the only ones sus­cep­ti­ble to heed­less­ness; per­sons in the ini­tial stages of enlight­en­ment can be care­less as well. The rea­son for this care­less­ness is con­tent­ment, sat­is­fac­tion, or com­pla­cen­cy con­cern­ing excep­tion­al qual­i­ties that they have attained. They delight in hap­pi­ness and ease, and aban­don their spir­i­tu­al work. Anoth­er rea­son is that they have per­ceived the three char­ac­ter­is­tics; they have a pro­found under­stand­ing of change, they are rec­on­ciled to con­di­tion­al­i­ty, and they are not trou­bled by decay and sep­a­ra­tion. Because of this ease and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, they stop; they show no fur­ther inter­est and make no effort to deal with unre­solved issues. They neglect the nec­es­sary tasks for pre­ven­tion or improve­ment, allow­ing prob­lems to sim­ply remain or even wors­en. In this case, the attain­ment of spir­i­tu­al ben­e­fit, or of (ini­tial) lib­er­a­tion, is the grounds for care­less­ness. These indi­vid­u­als act incor­rect­ly; their prac­tice is one-sided and incom­plete, lack­ing the effort required to achieve the full val­ue of heed­ful­ness. To rec­ti­fy this sit­u­a­tion, they must be aware of both ben­e­fits, the spir­i­tu­al and the heed­ful, and bring them to completion.

One cause for heed­less behav­iour is attach­ing to non-attach­ment. Thor­ough knowl­edge of things based on an under­stand­ing of the three char­ac­ter­is­tics loosens or releas­es cling­ing to things. This non-cling­ing is at the heart of lib­er­a­tion and free­dom from suf­fer­ing, lead­ing to the ulti­mate goal of Bud­dhism. In prop­er prac­tice let­ting go occurs by itself; it is a con­se­quence of clear­ly see­ing things accord­ing to the truth of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. Some peo­ple, how­ev­er, do not yet have this lucid dis­cern­ment; they have sim­ply heard about this truth and ratio­nal­ize about it. Fur­ther­more, they hold on to the idea that by grasp­ing noth­ing what­so­ev­er they will be released from suf­fer­ing. Think­ing in this way, they try to prove to them­selves and oth­ers that they do not attach to any­thing, or are free of defile­ment, to the extent of tak­ing noth­ing seriously.10 The result is func­tion­al imbal­ance, inat­ten­tive­ness and neg­li­gence. This is attach­ment to non-attach­ment: it is a coun­ter­feit non-attachment.

Com­par­ing activ­i­ties prompt­ed by dif­fer­ent moti­va­tions will help to explain the activ­i­ty prompt­ed by heed­ful­ness. Com­pare the four kinds of activ­i­ty and inactivity:

  1. Some peo­ple do not act if they receive no per­son­al advan­tage or if they will lose an advan­tage. They act to gain or to pro­tect an advantage.
  2. Some peo­ple do not act because they attach to non-attach­ment: they abstain from act­ing to show that they are free of defilement.
  3. Some peo­ple do not act as a result of care­less­ness, delight­ing in con­tent­ment and ease. Unaf­flict­ed by suf­fer­ing, or resigned to con­di­tion­al­i­ty, they are complacent.
  4. Some peo­ple act or refrain from act­ing depen­dent on wise con­sid­er­a­tion of the cir­cum­stances. Know­ing that some­thing should be done, they act even if they gain no advan­tage. Know­ing that some­thing should not be done, they refrain even if by act­ing they would gain an advan­tage. When action is called for, they act imme­di­ate­ly, with­out hes­i­ta­tion or delay.

The fourth kind is prop­er action per­formed with pure mind­ful­ness and wisdom.

The Buddha’s guide­lines for heed­ful action are twofold, con­cern­ing both inter­nal and exter­nal activ­i­ties. The for­mer are the exhor­ta­tions to spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment, to make effort towards high­er states of con­scious­ness, which is equal to attain­ing the spir­i­tu­al ben­e­fit from the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics or the lib­er­a­tion of the heart. In brief, this activ­i­ty is ‘per­son­al improve­ment.’ The lat­ter are the teach­ings for dai­ly life and inter­ac­tion with the world: the urg­ing for dili­gence in work, the ful­fil­ment of respon­si­bil­i­ties, the solu­tion and pre­ven­tion of prob­lems, the devel­op­ment of virtue, and the fos­ter­ing of social well-being. In brief, this is ‘social improvement.’

The teach­ings of heed­ful­ness encour­age con­tem­pla­tion on three peri­ods of time: The past, in order to draw lessons from past events and expe­ri­ences, and to use these lessons as incen­tives for fur­ther effort; the present, for greater urgency in one’s activ­i­ties, for not post­pon­ing, and for mak­ing the most of each moment; and the future, to reflect on poten­tial change, both ben­e­fi­cial and destruc­tive, by using wis­dom to exam­ine causal­i­ty, fol­lowed by plans to pre­vent harm and advance the good.

Com­pared with the Buddha’s spir­i­tu­al teach­ings, the prac­ti­cal teach­ings are few­er and of less detail; they are found scat­tered through­out the scrip­tures and tend to be con­cise. The rea­son for this is that human activ­i­ties vary great­ly accord­ing to time and place; they can­not be described with any uni­for­mi­ty. There­fore, the Bud­dha mere­ly pre­sent­ed prin­ci­ples or exam­ples. In con­trast, the trans­for­ma­tion of the heart per­tains to all human beings: the nature of the human mind is iden­ti­cal for all. Fur­ther­more, this trans­for­ma­tion is pro­found and dif­fi­cult to real­ize, and is the unique aspect of the Buddha’s teach­ing. He thus explained it thoroughly.

3. Correlation Between the Practice of Liberation and the Practice of Heedfulness

The spir­i­tu­al prac­tice for lib­er­a­tion sup­ports the prac­tice of heed­ful­ness by pro­mot­ing a puri­ty of action. Lib­er­at­ed per­sons act with a pure heart, not dri­ven by defile­ment. The prac­tice for lib­er­a­tion also fos­ters a sense of joy in a person’s activ­i­ties. It releas­es peo­ple from the stress, agi­ta­tion and wor­ry that results from action stem­ming from unwhole­some mind states, for exam­ple action done out of fear or com­pet­i­tive­ness. Instead, peo­ple act with seren­i­ty and joy. In addi­tion, when peo­ple see the val­ue of deliv­er­ance and men­tal well-being, they per­form exter­nal activ­i­ties to pro­mote a just and peace­ful life. In brief, mate­r­i­al progress goes hand in hand with spir­i­tu­al development.

Heed­ful­ness sim­i­lar­ly com­ple­ments the prac­tice for lib­er­a­tion. Gen­er­al­ly, when peo­ple are at ease they become heed­less, by becom­ing idle and slack in their effort. Peo­ple who prof­it mate­ri­al­ly or who solve exter­nal prob­lems are not the only ones who become care­less when they are pros­per­ous and com­fort­able. Those who have rec­on­ciled them­selves to imper­ma­nence, dukkha and non­self, whose hearts are at ease, also tend to become attached to hap­pi­ness and cease mak­ing effort. They no longer attend to unre­solved mat­ters, and do not urge them­selves to improve either per­son­al or social cir­cum­stances. The active val­ue of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics based on heed­ful­ness pre­vents this stag­na­tion and moti­vates these indi­vid­u­als to persevere.

In short, these two prac­tices must be unit­ed for Dham­ma prac­tice to be cor­rect. Spir­i­tu­al progress then inspires vir­tu­ous and joy­ful action, while people’s deeds nur­ture fur­ther spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment. Prop­er prac­tice is free from act­ing with a trou­bled mind and free from com­pla­cen­cy. Peo­ple act with ease and this ease does not become an obsta­cle for sub­se­quent effort. Spir­i­tu­al real­iza­tion then safe­guards action and action enhances spir­i­tu­al real­iza­tion. In uni­son, per­fec­tion is reached.

Spir­i­tu­al and active, heed­ful qual­i­ties both depend on wis­dom, which dis­cerns the three char­ac­ter­is­tics, leads to non-attach­ment, sur­ren­der, relin­quish­ment and lib­er­a­tion. The deep­er the under­stand­ing, the greater is the free­dom and high­er the real­iza­tion. For exam­ple, by access­ing jhā­na or gain­ing an insight, a per­son is able to per­ceive the imper­ma­nence, dukkha, and non­self in the bliss of these con­di­tions, and they nei­ther cling to the bliss nor to the attainments.

In prac­ti­cal affairs, wis­dom rous­es peo­ple to act with dili­gence and to make the most of each oppor­tu­ni­ty. An under­stand­ing of the law of causal­i­ty prompts a per­son to inves­ti­gate caus­es to solve prob­lems at their root and to act in har­mo­ny with this law. This knowl­edge includes ana­lyz­ing caus­es of past events so that one learns from them, and rec­og­niz­ing the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for pre­vent­ing harm and pro­mot­ing well-being.

The two ways of prac­tice reveal the supreme impor­tance of the teach­ing on the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. The first way of prac­tice high­lights wis­dom, which pen­e­trates real­i­ty by com­pre­hend­ing the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. The sec­ond way of prac­tice points to dili­gent action, which springs from an under­stand­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. Wisdom’s task is to real­ize the truth of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics; with this real­iza­tion the heart is freed. At the same time, the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics moti­vate a per­son who has some lev­el of insight to take heed, to make fur­ther effort, and to avoid transgression.

An under­stand­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics is the source of just action, from begin­ning stages of Dham­ma prac­tice to the end. Aware­ness of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics is the moti­va­tion for heed­ful­ness, inge­nu­ity, absten­tion from evil, and good con­duct on all lev­els. Ulti­mate­ly, a com­plete under­stand­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics enables per­fect men­tal free­dom, which is the high­est human achievement.

The world­ly and the tran­scen­dent con­verge at the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics. Lib­er­a­tion of the heart is a tran­scen­dent qual­i­ty; heed­ful­ness is mun­dane. The mutu­al­ly sup­port­ive nature of these two prin­ci­ples demon­strates that in an hon­ourable life the world­ly and the tran­scen­dent abide in uni­son. One sees the evi­dence of this clear­ly in the Bud­dha and the ara­hants. Per­fect­ly free they rep­re­sent the human ide­al and they attain this free­dom by way of heed­ful­ness. Ara­hants alone are described as ‘those who have per­fect­ed heedfulness’;11 they are per­sons who have fin­ished their busi­ness by way of care­ful atten­tion. Hav­ing attained ara­hantship they con­tin­ue to per­se­vere for the wel­fare of the monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty (saṅgha) and of all beings. One should fol­low the exam­ple of these awak­ened ones, by real­iz­ing men­tal free­dom and act­ing with care.12

The val­ues dis­closed by the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics ensure per­fect moral con­duct, with def­i­nite con­se­quences. There are two things which guar­an­tee infal­li­ble moral conduct:

  • A desire­less mind, which does not expe­ri­ence cling­ing, crav­ing, lust for mate­r­i­al objects, or per­verse thoughts; free­dom from defile­ment; an end of selfishness.
  • Sub­lime hap­pi­ness, which is inde­pen­dent of mate­ri­al­i­ty and is acces­si­ble with­out moral infringement.

Indeed the first qual­i­ty is enough to guar­an­tee moral impec­ca­bil­i­ty. The sec­ond is mere­ly addi­tion­al confirmation.

Lib­er­a­tion grants these two moral guar­an­tees. A thor­ough under­stand­ing of the world and an insight into the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics leads to free­dom of the heart. Cov­et­ing and loathing, both grounds for wrong­do­ing, cease. In oth­er words, moral con­duct aris­es auto­mat­i­cal­ly since no impulse exists to act immoral­ly. Fur­ther­more, lib­er­a­tion gen­er­ates a pro­found hap­pi­ness. Awak­ened beings expe­ri­ence expan­sive­ness and joy and some of them expe­ri­ence exalt­ed states of bliss in jhāna.13 Expe­ri­enc­ing such bliss, it is nat­ur­al that they are of no mind to act dis­hon­ourably for anoth­er sort of hap­pi­ness. In any case, one must under­stand that the sec­ond guar­an­tee of refined hap­pi­ness alone is not yet ful­ly depend­able if it is a mun­dane form of hap­pi­ness, for exam­ple that of jhā­na, since a per­son who access­es these mun­dane states can still revert to indul­gence in gross forms of hap­pi­ness. To be tru­ly secure, a per­son must obtain the first guar­an­tee of non-crav­ing; oth­er­wise, the hap­pi­ness must be tran­scen­dent, which auto­mat­i­cal­ly aris­es with the first guarantee.

Stream-enter­ers (sotā­pan­na) pos­sess these two moral guar­an­tees; they are impec­ca­ble in moral con­duct and are inca­pable of moral trans­gres­sion. The scrip­tures refer to enlight­ened beings (ariya-pug­gala), from stream-enter­ers upwards, as ‘per­fect in moral conduct.’14 There­fore, if we wish for eth­i­cal stan­dards to be firm­ly estab­lished in soci­ety, we must pro­mote the real­iza­tion of stream-entry; we will there­by meet with true success.

If one is unable to estab­lish these two guar­an­tees, one’s chances for a secure eth­i­cal soci­ety will be slim, because mem­bers of the soci­ety will be infect­ed by defile­ment and thus be pre­dis­posed to vio­late bound­aries. In this event, sys­tems of con­trol and coer­cion need to be cre­at­ed, or even exces­sive force be applied, which does not offer true safe­ty or res­o­lu­tion. We see the lack of suc­cess of such mea­sures every­where. For exam­ple, peo­ple in this day and age receive advanced edu­ca­tion, and have learned what is good and bad, what is ben­e­fi­cial and harm­ful. But because they fall prey to greed (lob­ha), hatred (dosa), and delu­sion (moha), they act immoral­ly; they injure them­selves (for exam­ple, by intox­i­ca­tion) and dam­age soci­ety (for exam­ple, by defor­esta­tion). Rea­soned argu­ments and law enforce­ment end up hav­ing min­i­mal effect.

When peo­ple are unable to estab­lish the two afore­men­tioned guar­an­tees, they gen­er­al­ly use the fol­low­ing meth­ods to pro­tect or pro­mote eth­i­cal stan­dards, with vary­ing degrees of success:

Intim­i­da­tion by estab­lish­ing rules, laws and pun­ish­ments. Due to eva­sion of these laws, new sys­tems must be cre­at­ed for rein­force­ment. In addi­tion, the sys­tem itself may be flawed, for exam­ple with cor­rup­tion. As a result, the attempts to main­tain eth­i­cal stan­dards meet with ever dimin­ish­ing success.

Intim­i­da­tion with threats of occult pow­er, for exam­ple of gods and super­nat­ur­al forces. This is suc­cess­ful dur­ing times when peo­ple believe in these forces, but is less effec­tive when peo­ple have the sort of sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing present today. This form of intim­i­da­tion includes instill­ing the fear of going to hell.

Intim­i­da­tion with threats against a person’s hon­our and pop­u­lar­i­ty, for exam­ple apply­ing social pres­sure of blame and dis­re­pute. This works for some but not for oth­ers, and is inde­ci­sive at best.

Cater­ing to desire by using a reward or com­pen­sa­tion, either from peo­ple, gods, or occult pow­ers, includ­ing the promise of heav­en. This method is var­i­ous­ly effec­tive, accord­ing to time and place, and its results are uncertain.

An appeal to virtue and right­eous­ness, by encour­ag­ing a sense of shame, self-respect and mind­ful­ness. Few peo­ple pos­sess these qual­i­ties in strength; peo­ple usu­al­ly sub­mit to desire and there­fore their moral con­duct is incon­sis­tent. The pro­tec­tion bestowed by this moti­va­tion is espe­cial­ly weak in an age abound­ing in temp­ta­tion and base values.

An appeal to faith, by fix­ing the mind with strong con­vic­tion on an ide­al. This is dif­fi­cult to accom­plish, and even when suc­cess­ful it is unre­li­able, because faith is depen­dent on some­thing exter­nal. Faith is not direct knowl­edge and sole reliance on faith is still taint­ed by defile­ment. Occa­sion­al­ly, this defile­ment inten­si­fies and then enshrouds faith, or faith wanes and dis­ap­pears on its own. (This method includes the con­cen­tra­tive pow­er in pre­lim­i­nary stages of mind deliv­er­ance —cetovimut­ti.)

Apply­ing the pow­er of enthu­si­asm (chan­da), by encour­ag­ing an inter­est in the devel­op­ment of virtue. This force is the adver­sary of crav­ing, which is the agent behind immoral behav­iour. If one can­not yet cul­ti­vate the heart’s lib­er­a­tion, one should empha­size the rous­ing of such enthu­si­asm, as it is a whole­some force, is con­joined with wis­dom, and sup­ports lib­er­a­tion more direct­ly than any of the oth­er meth­ods men­tioned above.

Regard­less of which impe­tus one uses, Dham­ma prac­tice must rely on self-restraint (sañña­ma) to achieve moral rec­ti­tude. There­fore, to fos­ter eth­i­cal con­duct peo­ple should be trained in strict self-dis­ci­pline. The qual­i­ty of suc­cess depends also upon the impe­tus. Of all the moti­va­tions list­ed above, the sum­mon­ing of vir­tu­ous qual­i­ties, faith, and enthu­si­asm are best, but one must remem­ber that these forces are unable to pro­vide def­i­nite results. A tru­ly sta­ble eth­i­cal soci­ety only exists when peo­ple estab­lish the two moral guar­an­tees: A free heart and sub­lime hap­pi­ness, which gen­er­ate moral integri­ty automatically.

One can use heed­ful­ness as a mea­sur­ing stick for Dham­ma prac­tice by com­par­ing one­self to the ara­hants, who com­bine con­sum­mate lib­er­a­tion with per­fect dili­gence. They inte­grate knowl­edge of the truth with pure con­duct, non-attach­ment with earnest effort, and tran­scen­dent real­iza­tion with respon­si­ble action in the world. They reveal how two appar­ent­ly dis­cor­dant ele­ments can exist in har­mo­ny and be mutu­al­ly sup­port­ive. Heed­ful­ness is the core of all right­eous con­duct and is the incen­tive behind all vir­tu­ous acts from begin­ning to end. As the Bud­dha said, heed­ful­ness is like an elephant’s foot­print, which cov­ers the foot­prints of all oth­er ani­mals; it dic­tates the func­tion of all oth­er virtues. All virtues depend on heed­ful­ness; regard­less of all the virtues described in the scrip­tures, care­less­ness alone sup­press­es and inval­i­dates them as if they did not exist. Virtues are tru­ly effec­tive when heed­ful­ness is estab­lished. For ordi­nary peo­ple, how­ev­er, dili­gence tends to be weak­ened or inter­rupt­ed due to their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with allur­ing sense objects. Crav­ing caus­es lazi­ness, wor­ry and pro­cras­ti­na­tion. People’s con­duct is thus con­tin­u­al­ly want­i­ng or fruit­less. Con­verse­ly, the greater the heart’s lib­er­a­tion, the less a per­son indulges in delu­so­ry sense objects, and the more assid­u­ous that per­son is, unim­paired by defile­ment. Free­dom and earnest effort sup­port one anoth­er in this way.

In addi­tion, the prin­ci­ple of heed­ful­ness is a reminder that all per­sons, includ­ing noble ones (ariya) in ini­tial stages of awak­en­ing, are still vul­ner­a­ble as long as they have not real­ized ara­hantship. They may become heed­less by grasp­ing the ease and con­tent­ment stem­ming from their attain­ments: their virtues induce them to err. There­fore, we must con­stant­ly remind our­selves to take care, and to pro­mote a sense of urgency (saṁve­ga).

In any com­mu­ni­ty there are peo­ple who suc­cumb to heed­less­ness. Offer­ing friend­ship and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to be pru­dent is one duty of a dili­gent per­son. The pres­ence of a ‘beau­ti­ful friend’ (kalyā­na-mit­ta) is a key fac­tor which is paired with cau­tion as an anti­dote when all oth­er virtues are defunct dur­ing a peri­od of fool­har­di­ness, and as an answer to the ques­tion: Hav­ing been care­less, what are the alter­na­tives to sim­ply wait­ing to incur the painful consequences?

To sum up, peo­ple should take care and make earnest effort for their own and other’s ben­e­fit and devel­op­ment. For example:

Lead­ers of a coun­try should make effort to estab­lish peace and wel­fare, pro­mote a healthy just envi­ron­ment, and nur­ture people’s spir­i­tu­al qualities.

Reli­gious elders should prop­a­gate the Dham­ma for the wel­fare of the many, act in con­sid­er­a­tion of lat­er gen­er­a­tions, and do every­thing in their abil­i­ty to pre­serve the true teach­ing (sad­dham­ma) for all beings everywhere.

Monks should per­form their duties and inspire peo­ple with care; they should cre­ate a feel­ing of peace and safe­ty by not under­tak­ing prac­tices of self-mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, and by teach­ing the way to a vir­tu­ous life.

All per­sons should strive for per­son­al well-being by devel­op­ing self-reliance, and for oth­ers’ well-being by help­ing them gain self-reliance. One should cul­ti­vate wis­dom to reach the high­est ben­e­fit, which leads to deliv­er­ance and a life of integrity.

Because human beings who are momen­tar­i­ly untrou­bled, live in com­fort, or have rec­on­ciled them­selves to an aspect of the truth ordi­nar­i­ly become care­less, skilled teach­ers cus­tom­ar­i­ly offer friend­ly admon­ish­ment. They con­stant­ly seek means to encour­age their fol­low­ers by advis­ing, inspir­ing and even frus­trat­ing, to estab­lish peo­ple in heedfulness.

4. The Value of Liberation

Although the val­ue of lib­er­a­tion is a com­po­nent of the spir­i­tu­al path it has sev­er­al dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. The scrip­tures define the spir­i­tu­al path and its com­pan­ion prac­ti­cal teach­ings by refer­ring to imper­ma­nence, since imper­ma­nence is eas­i­ly noticed. Even begin­ning Dham­ma prac­ti­tion­ers ben­e­fit from the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics by inte­grat­ing the spir­i­tu­al and prac­ti­cal teach­ings, as befits their lev­el of under­stand­ing. The val­ue of lib­er­a­tion, how­ev­er, accom­pa­nies the med­i­ta­tion on non­self (anat­tā).15

A per­son sees any kind of mate­r­i­al form … feel­ing … per­cep­tion … voli­tion­al for­ma­tions … and con­scious­ness, whether past, present or future … as it actu­al­ly is with prop­er wis­dom thus: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When a per­son knows and sees in this way, there exists no ‘I’-making (ahaṅkāra), ‘my’-making (mamaṅkāra), or under­ly­ing ten­den­cy to con­ceit (mānānusaya) regard­ing this body with its con­scious­ness and all exter­nal signs.16

The defile­ments of ahaṅkāra, mamaṅkāra and mānānusaya are also called diṭṭhi, taṇhā and māna respec­tive­ly. As a group they are usu­al­ly arranged as taṇhā, māna and diṭṭhi. This quote’s sig­nif­i­cance is that a per­son who clear­ly sees the nature of non­self elim­i­nates the three defile­ments that are tied up in a sense of self or that cre­ate ego­cen­tric­i­ty, namely:

  • Taṇhā: Self­ish­ness; the search for self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion and per­son­al gain.
  • Māna: Con­ceit, pride and self-judge­ment; the desire for promi­nence and con­trol over oth­ers; the pur­suit of power.
  • Diṭṭhi: Attach­ment to per­son­al opin­ions; rigid con­vic­tion, creduli­ty, and infat­u­a­tion con­cern­ing the­o­ries, creeds and ideals.

These three defile­ments are col­lec­tive­ly called papañ­ca or papañ­ca-dham­ma, which can be trans­lat­ed as ‘encum­brances.’ Anoth­er trans­la­tion is ‘agi­ta­tors’: papañ­ca pro­duce men­tal pro­lif­er­a­tion and tur­moil. They cause men­tal dis­qui­et, excess, delay and con­fu­sion. They lead a per­son to devi­ate from sim­ple obvi­ous truth. They breed new prob­lems and inter­fere in the rea­soned solu­tion to exis­tent prob­lems; instead, they gen­er­ate more com­pli­ca­tion and dis­or­der. They dic­tate human behav­iour, induc­ing unrest, dis­agree­ment, con­quest and war. Such vices are not the only fruits; even if a per­son acts vir­tu­ous­ly, a hid­den catch ham­pers behav­iour when these defile­ments act as the cat­a­lyst, lead­ing peo­ple astray.

Depend­ing on the extent of wis­dom, an under­stand­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics, espe­cial­ly the qual­i­ty of self­less­ness, weak­ens or destroys these self-obsessed defile­ments. Once these dis­turb­ing, con­fin­ing, and mis­lead­ing agents are absent, the path to vir­tu­ous con­duct is wide open and lim­it­less. A per­son can then whole­heart­ed­ly cul­ti­vate virtues, for exam­ple good­will, com­pas­sion, bene­fac­tion (atthacariyā), and generosity.


1 D. II. 199; S. II. 193; spo­ken by oth­ers at D. II. 157; S. I. 6, 158; Ap. 385. This verse is known as ‘the max­im of the ara­hants’ (S. I. 6). The ‘com­ing to rest’ and equal­ly the ‘bliss’ refers to Nib­bā­na. The verse is com­mon­ly chant­ed at funer­als: Anic­cā vata saṅkhārā….

2 Alter­na­tive sec­ond clause: bring heed­ful­ness to per­fec­tion. This verse is the Buddha’s final utter­ance and is con­sid­ered to be of great import. It is found at D. II. 120, 156; S. I. 157–8; Ven­er­a­bles Reva­ta and Sāriput­ta spoke sim­i­lar vers­es at Thag. 67, 91.

3 S. II. 29; A. IV. 134–5.

4 S. I. 86–87; and see S. I. 89; A. III. 48–49; It. 16–17.

5 A. III. 253; and see D. II. 86; D. III. 236; Ud. 87; in addi­tion, see the begin­ning (not quot­ed) of the pas­sage cit­ed in the pre­vi­ous footnote.

6 A. I. 50.

7 Kusa­lo dham­mo akusalas­sa dham­mas­sa āram­maṇa­pac­cayena pac­cayo (Paṭ. 154); adhipati­pac­ce­na (Paṭ. 158); upanis­saya­pac­ce­na (Paṭ. 166).

8 S. V. 398.

9 [Oth­er com­mon trans­la­tions include: Heed­ful­ness, earnest­ness, per­se­ver­ance, care­ful­ness and vigilance.]

10 Not desir­ing any­thing is good, but one must be very care­ful of indif­fer­ence. Act­ing with­out wish­ing for per­son­al reward is praise­wor­thy as it demon­strates that one is not con­trolled by crav­ing; but indif­fer­ence can eas­i­ly turn into neglect. Neglect is equiv­a­lent to heed­less­ness, mis­judge­ment, and crav­ing, which leads a per­son to indulge in ease and com­fort. At the very least indif­fer­ence indi­cates a lack of whole­some enthu­si­asm (kusala-chan­da), which is the first step to all virtue.

11 The Bud­dha some­times char­ac­ter­ized an ara­hant as ‘inca­pable of neg­li­gence’ (M. II. 478; S. IV. 125). He explained that ara­hants have com­plet­ed all tasks that must be accom­plished through diligence.

12 The Abhid­ham­ma states that ara­hants, those who have attained the ulti­mate tran­scen­dent state, act with ‘an emi­nent oper­a­tive mind’ (mahākiriya-cit­ta), which is mun­dane and belongs to the sense sphere.

13 In con­trast, being con­front­ed with the three char­ac­ter­is­tics but not tru­ly under­stand­ing them is a cause for suf­fer­ing (e.g., S. III. 3, 16, 42–43).

14 E.g., A. IV. 380–81; Pug. 37.

15 The results of inquiries into imper­ma­nence, dukkha, and self­less­ness are linked, so exam­in­ing each of the three char­ac­ter­is­tics aids in lib­er­a­tion. The chief deter­min­ing fac­tor for lib­er­a­tion, how­ev­er, is the under­stand­ing of non­self, as con­firmed by the Buddha’s teach­ing: The per­cep­tion of imper­ma­nence should be cul­ti­vat­ed for the removal of the con­ceit ‘I am’ (asmimā­na). For when one per­ceives imper­ma­nence, Meghiya, the per­cep­tion of non­self is estab­lished. A per­son who per­ceives non­self (in all things) accom­plish­es the erad­i­ca­tion of the con­ceit ‘I am,’ and (real­izes) Nib­bā­na (Ud. 37; and see A. IV. 353, 358).

16 M. III. 18–19.