Untitled Essay, Research Paper
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 entirely- 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 principles.
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
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.
BIBLIOGRAPHYDeSilva, J. The Spectrum of Buddhism: The
Writings of Piyadassi.
Society: New York, 1991.Fadiman, J. Personality and Personal Growth.
Frager, R. Publishers: United States, 1994.Suzuki, D.T. Manual of Zen Buddhism. Rider:
London, New York, 1956.