Ati Marga header
Books Online
Reading List
Senge Bio
Contact Us

An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight
The Development of Insight

Section 1: The Three Characteristics

The astute observer may ask the question: Is not the realization of the inseparability of form and emptiness, insight? The answer is, yes, it is insight but it is limited to an absorption or meditation experience. In the following methods of developing insight we will cultivate contemplation rather than absorption. It is only in this way that our religious life can come to fruition and be freed from the limitations of meditation. On the other hand it should be noted that the Buddha praised Sariputta, the master of insight, for having successively completed all of the jhanic absorptions in a three-month period. He said that Sariputta was truly a son of his teaching because of this. There are some schools of thought that do not advocate the development of jhana and focus exclusively on insight as the path. Although they are not going against the teachings of the Buddha they are certainly selecting a small segment of it. Technically it is not possible to practice insight on its own. Insight arises spontaneously when there is a state of calm question present in the mind of the practitioner. Very often in the ancient texts, we will find descriptions of those who have attained the Paths and their fruit; in these descriptions, this occurred upon emerging from a jhanic absorption. The mind (being in a clear washed state from the absorption) adverts to insight into one of the three characteristics: impermanence, suffering, or not-self. With the mind adverting to the previously posed question the first veils or hindrances forever drop away, and we enter upon the first attainment of Holiness and can develop from here all of the higher attainments.

When we develop insight as a contemplation we focus on one of the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, suffering or the non existence of selfhood. It should be understood that different individuals would cultivate one of the characteristics more easily than the others. A skillful teacher will instruct a student as to which is most suitable to their temperament. It should also be understood that when we penetrate to one of these characteristics the other two are apparent. When we have direct knowledge of the changing nature of all things and realize that no object, state or process has a self or inherent nature, then we are also freed of the second characteristic of suffering.
{ back to top }

24) Impermanence
When we take up the contemplation of impermanence we should notice when we are perceiving permanence and at that moment focus the mind and review the object's impermanent nature. For instance, a table may appear to be permanent because it seems to last for an extended period of time. If we leave the room and then return, the table is still there. If we leave the country and return, (if there hasn’t been a fire or someone has not stolen the table) it is most likely there where we left it. However, if we review its origin, its duration and its cessation then the true nature of the table’s impermanence will become clear. In this case we would contemplate where the wood that the table was made of came from - it might be teak or mahogany. The tree came from a seed as its parent tree did. The tree was cut down and milled into lumber that the cabinetmaker further refined to build the table. The table has hardness, durability and can withstand many pressures, but these are all limited. For instance if a very heavy weight were placed on the table it would collapse and cease to be functional as a table. If the table were in the tropics where insects such as termites can consume that type of wood it might have a very short duration indeed. On the other hand, if it is put in a hermetically sealed case, it may last for thousands of years. We should reason through some of the alternatives, but within a fairly short space of time it will become clear that the table is certainly impermanent. If we have cultivated the jhanic process and are able to enter the absorption of neither perception nor non-perception we will be able to perceive directly the table’s momentary arising.

So to abandon the perception of permanence through the contemplation of impermanence is virtuous. Through abstaining from the perception of permanence we realize impermanence and this is virtuous. To arouse the energy of our effort to know the true nature of phenomena is virtuous. To use patient mindfulness to restrain our mind from the perception of permanence is virtuous. The wisdom of non-transgression is virtue because we hold in mind the perception of impermanence and don't fall back into habitual and automatic states.

Even if we have reasoned through all the arguments in our mind and come to the conclusion that impermanence is the reality of life we will still perceive the table as permanent. Because of previous karma and habitual tendencies of the mind we create the illusion of permanence. However, when this contemplation is brought to the attainment of one of the paths, then there is freedom from these habitual tendencies that create endless and blind becoming.
{ back to top }

25) Suffering
The next contemplation upsets most North Americans, and for that matter, most people. In this reflection whenever we experience a pleasurable state we contemplate pain and suffering. This will only be understood as a positive contemplation when seen from the point of view of awakening. It is only when we reflect on the totality of existence that we see the pleasures of this world are very momentary, that when compared to the horrendous process of birth, old age and death these pleasures are truly phantasms. Still, some may ask what is so terrible about the process of birth, old age and death? In our affluent society we treat this whole process in a very sanitized manner, thinking that somehow, we are immune to this suffering. And to some extent this is true, due to the fact that we do our best to disguise death and the dying. Many of our supposed good works, such as taking care of the elderly or institutionalizing the mentally ill and physically handicapped, come from a deep aversion to seeing and living with them on a day-to-day basis. One corrective for this condition that some Dharma teachers use, is to hold up as a carrot the greater bliss of jhana. In other words, by encouraging us to attain jhana it gives us a contrast to our current state. The bliss of jhanic absorption is far superior to any mundane pleasure and when it is lost, because it cannot be maintained indefinitely, there is an acute sense of the suffering of life even when lived in idyllic circumstances such as ours.

In this contemplation we see starkly the purpose of our spiritual endeavor, we wish to attain freedom from being subject to birth, old age and death. It is because of this that whenever we experience a momentary pleasure, impermanent and illusive as it is, we reflect upon the overall suffering and unsatisfactory nature of existence. This is not denying that these momentary experiences of pleasure are not real because they are. Nevertheless, however pleasurable the experiences are, in the phenomenal world it becomes unpleasurable or suffering when we realize they are only momentary. The impermanent nature of pleasure makes it a source of suffering.

Now we take up the contemplation by abstaining from the perception of pleasure in the sense that we do not give way to it and forget the suffering of this existence. We martial our efforts to be mindful so that we can break down the barriers and penetrate into the direct knowledge of what is. By patiently restraining the mind again and again from indulgence in the pleasure of the momentary occurrence we arrive at the wisdom of non-transgression and the fulfillment of this practice. This contemplation results in a person who is not deluded by the pleasures of existence, a person who knows deep down in the core of their being that birth, old age, death and decay have been perpetually arising from beginningless time. When the contemplation is brought to the fruition of one of the Paths there is freedom from this endless and blind becoming.
{ back to top }

26) Not-Self
With the next contemplation whenever we perceive a "self" we replace this perception with awareness of suchness and not-self. In the realm of conventional truth it is obvious there is a person, an individual and a self that is living and acting in the world, but this is a conceptual truth. While teaching, the Buddha often referred to himself as an individual and referred to others as persons with distinct and individual characteristics. However, when looked at from the point of view of ultimate truth, there are only formations and patterns of consciousness that have become habitual. Over time this produces the illusion of a separate self. In order to dispel this illusion we use the contemplation of not-self. When certain states of mind arise that we associate with a self we should contemplate "This is not I, this is not self, this is not mine.” This process can also be pursued by analysis and if we are persistent and genuine in our approach the illusion of a self will be dispelled. For instance if we look at the body, we see how it functions by the laws of nature and biology and that we do not have control over these laws. The body functions as a phenomenon of nature and previous karma. This self or ego consciousness did not create the body nor will it determine when it passes away. Analyzing in this way we dispel the illusion that the body is self. Also if we analyze mental formations that are habitual and repetitive we will see that they too have arisen due to causes. The conditions and events that cause habitual states are things that we have no control over, and because of this, they are not determined by a self. These mental formations will have a beginning, duration and an end; as such they do not constitute a lasting entity or self. Analyzing in this way we come to abandon the perception of a self whenever it is present. We abstain from the perception of a self when others project a self onto us. And we exercise our effort to not be caught in or deluded by the perception of a self. Patiently restraining our mind in this way leads to great freedom. If we do not have a self to defend, to build or to make better, then we can devote our mindfulness to what is actually occurring. The result is the wisdom of non-transgression, which leads to the attainment of path. When the contemplation is brought to fruition of one of the paths there is freedom from endless and blind becoming.

The last three contemplations of impermanence, suffering and not-self, when practiced correctly, will result in insight that destroys the defilements caused by clinging. As we have said before, depending on the proclivity of the individual practitioner, one of these contemplations will be chosen. However, it should be understood that when insight occurs due to the success of one of these contemplations the other two become apparent. These three states of change, suffering and no inherent self, are completely interwoven. For example, due to the perception of a self we try to make things or events permanent. Owing to the inability to see impermanence and change we cling to the view that there is a self. All compounded phenomena are subject to change and entropy, which results in, distress (a state of dis-ease, which we could call a kind of angst). As a consequence of this there is a desire for stasis, to make life endure, to find something in life that is a constant which we can hold on to. Because of this we have an unsatisfactory experience and suffer. The inability to perceive impermanence and the selfless nature of the universe produces this suffering. Because all phenomena is causally interdependent, no thing or individual can be said to be separate, independent or possess a self that is not subject to change. When we fully realize the impermanent and selfless nature of existence this struggle or suffering ceases. When we free ourselves from the deep-seated, karmically driven impulse to cling to and grasp at existence there is no longer enslavement to a blind becoming.
{ back to top }
Terms of use: You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.