THICH HUYEN VI
THE THREE UNIVERSAL TRUTHS OF BUDDHISM
We have assembled this evening to celebrate the full moon day of 2515. This day, especially of Vaisakha, is a hallmark in the history of Buddhism. It was on this day told Buddha was born. It was on this day he got enlightenment sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree at Uruwela in Bodhgaya, and it was this day the Master passed away at Kusinara after preaching the Dharma continuously for forty-five years.
On this suspicious occasion I want to speak to you about the three Universal Truths propounded by Lord Buddha. These three truths are also known as the three characteristic marks of worldly things, and in Pali they are collectively known as Tilakkana. These three characteristic marks, or universal truths, are set forth in the Angostura Nikaya as follows: “Whether Buddha’s arise, O Priests, or whether Buddha’s do not arise, it remains a fact, and the fixed and necessary constitution of being that (a) all its constituents are misery; (c) all its elements are lacking in a permanent ego. It was Lord Buddha who discovered this fact, understood it well, and mastered it. Then he declared, in clarion voice, that all the constituents of being are transitory, all are misery, and all are lacking in an enduring ago.
Under these three universals- Anicca or impermanence, dukkha of misery, and anatta or absence of an ego, is comprehended as everything that is in existence, whether of mind or matter. Anything outside these three universals is a mere designation. Therefore, the term ‘soul’ is but a mere designation and not a reality.
These truths are regarded as the very foundation of the doctrine that Lord Buddha established. And the man who is competent to understand them well is intellectually fit to follow in the footsteps of the Master and is expected to have full mastery, sooner or later, over all the doctrines of this profound system of religious belief.
Now let us try to understand these three universals one by one. The idea involved in Anicca, or impermanence, is that no ‘thing’ remains the same at two consecutive moments. Everything is in a state of constant flux just like the stream of a flowing river.
But then the change is so subtle that it is difficult to mark it without keen and continued observation. Let us take a practical example to make this point clear. Suppose that a man is sitting on the bank of a river and is looking at the surface of the water. What he find from his simple observation is that the stream is steady. But actually speaking, the case is otherwise. That is, the stream is renewing itself at every moment. This fact is rendered apparent as soon as the man throws a piece of straw on the surface of the water and finds that it is being swept away by the stream. The same case applies to everything worldly. Thus, it transpires on scrutiny that there is no finality or rest within this universe. What one actually find is only a creaseless becoming and a change without stopping. Shelley has rightly said, “Naught may endure but Mutability”. The law of Anicca or impermanence is a natural cyclic process like all other natural processes. It is a wheel possessed of four spokes…Birth, Growth, Decay, and Death and is rolling without any stop. Every form that comes into existence passes through each stage in turn and nothing can stay the hand of time. The law of impermanence applies to everything that is compounded, whether it be man-made objects, ideas, or institutions. All things rise to their apex and ultimately decay towards the inevitable end. Behind every blossoming forth there is a fading away, behind every gain is a loss, behind every life there is death. And this is what is known as the law of Anicca or impermanence according to the Buddhist philosophy:
The cloud-caped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
The above remark is equally applicable to man himself, as is clear from the following - We are such stuff. As dream are made on and out, little life is rounded with a sleep (The Tempest, Act. IV, scenes).
In the Dhammapada, Lord Buddha also says that:
“Sable sankkara aniccati, yada pannaya passati, atha nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiya”.
It means: “All conditioned things are transient”…When one comprehends this Truth by one’s wisdom, the4n does one get appalled at this Misery (i.e. the Body and Mind). This is the Path to Purity.
Now turning towards the second universal truth, that is, all is suffering. In the words of the Master himself—Sabbe Sankkara dukkha…all compounded things are dukkha. Once, Lord Buddha said, “One thing I teach, dukkha and the ending of dukkha”. For, as he pointed out, “idam Khopana bhikkave, dukkham ariyasaccam. Jati pi dukkha, jara pi dukkha, Vyadhi pi dukkho, maranam I dukkham, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yam piccham Na labhati tam pi duhhkam. Sankhittena, pancupadanakkhandha dukkha”, that is birth is suffering, decay is suffering, disease is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasing is suffering, separation from the pleasing is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering. In short, the sum total of the five aggregates is suffering. The Palo word dukkha includes all that we understand as pain-both physical and metal. The root cause of all suffering is desire, especially the desire for continuance of existence. Thus dukkha is omnipresent. Its omnipresence has been well illustrated by Lord Buddha in the story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed. Once a mentally perplexed mother approached the all Compassionate one with her dead baby in her lap and entreated him to restore it to life. The Lord give her a patient hearing. Then he asked her to go and bring a grain of mustard seed from a house where nobody had died. She made a continuous search for long, but to no avail. Ultimately she came disappointed to the Buddha and told him of her failure.
“My sister, thou has found, the Master said,
Searching for what none finds-that bitter balm
I had to give thee. He loved slept
Dead on they bosom yesterday. Today thou knows the whole
Wide word weeps with thy woe.
The grief which all hearts share grows less for one”.
(The light of Asia)
Thus, we see that dukkha is a fact and it is omnipresent. The Master taught the right way leading the3 deliverance from dukkha. As we know, the main cause of any kind of suffering is desire. Therefore, the Master taught that the extinction of desire would lead to the extinction of suffering.
The third of the three universal truths is anatta. This truth lends countenance to the fact that which is in existence has nothing like a soul or imperishable entity within it. This doctrine is cardinal to Buddhism, and is opposite of the doctrine of Atman or Atta as generally understood by the Brahmana’s of the Buddha’s day. The doctrine of anatta is to be experienced rather than described. There is the teaching of the Master that what is known as man is not a living entity or individual, but a being made up of the five Khandwa’s of groups of the constituents of being, such as rupa, vedana, sanna, Samkhara, and vinnana. The extinction or death of a being means the separation of all these five aggregates from one another. Therefore, there is nothing like soul or individuality in man. This doctrine has been graphically and vividly summarized in the Visuddhimagga as follows:
“Dukkhamameva hi, Na koci dukkho karado Na Kiriya VA vijjati atthim nibbuti Na nibbuto puma maggamatthigamako Na vijjati”
The English rendering of this verse is as below:
“Misery only doth exist none miserable,
No doer is their; naught but the deed is found
Nirvana is, but not the man who seeks it,
The path exists, but not the traveler on it”.
The following is a very terse account of the discussion held between the Greek King Menander and Nagasena on the soul, from T.W. Rhys David’s translation, pp. 40-45, in sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXXV. This passage gives a very strong impression of Nagasena belief in the absolute negation of a soul in man.
And Melinda began by asking, “What sir, is your name?” “I am known as Nagasena, O King! But although parents gave such a name as Nagasena, it is only a generally understood term, a designation in common use. For there is no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter!”
Then Melinda said to those present on the occasion. “This Nagasena says there is no permanent individuality (no soul) implied in his name. Is it now even possible to approve him in that?” And turning to Nagasena again, he said, “If, most reverend Nagasena, there be no permanent individuality (no soul) in the matter, who is it who lives a life of righteousness? Who is it who devotes himself to meditation? Who attains to the Nirvana of Arhantship? If that be so, there is neither merit nor demerit; there is neither doer nor causer of good or evil deeds; there is neither fruit nor result of good or evil Karma. If, most reverend Nagasena, we are to think that were a man to kill you, there would be no murder, then it follows that there are no real masters or teachers of your Order, and that your ordinations are void? The King said, “These three Nagasena-perception, reason, and the soul in a being-are they all different, both in letter and in essence, or the same in essence differing only in letter”.
“Recognition, O King! Is the mark of perception and discrimination of reason, and there is no such thing as a soul in beings. But, if there be no such thing as a soul, what is it then which sees forms with the eye, and hears sounds with the ear, and smells odors with the nose, and tastes taste with the tongue, and feels touch with the body or perceives qualities with the mind?” The elder replied: “If there be a soul (distinct from the body) which does all this, then if the eye were plucked out could it stretch out its head, as it were, through the larger aperture and see forms much more clearly than before? Could one hear sounds better if the ears were torn away, or smell better if the nose were cut off, or taste better if the tongue were pulled out, or feel better if the body were destroyed? Certainly not, sir”. “Then there can be no soul inside the body”.
Thus, we see that how Buddhism denies the existence of soul. It is the doctrine of non-soul which distinguished Buddhism from other systems of philosophy.
In the Dhammapada, Lord Buddha says that: “Sabbe dharma anatta ti, yada pannaya passati, Atta nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiya”.
That means, “All Dharma (conditioned and unconditioned states) are soulless, when one comprehends this Truth by one’s own Wisdom, then does one get appalled at this Misery, i.e. Body and Mind). This is the Path to Purity”.
I would like to conclude with the following quotation:
“Sabba papassa akaranam”
“The Enlightened One taught that one should commit good deeds and avoid evil ones, and one should have full control over his mind”.
Thank you in the name of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.