Existence consists of three characteristics: suffering, impermanence, and the concept of no-self. Ideas of these three characteristics make up much of the Buddhist religion. The three characteristics of existence constitute much of the Buddhist world view, from views toward pain to ideas about rebirth.
Suffering, or dukkha, is a central focus in the Dhammapada. Suffering can be caused by physical pain, from pleasure changing to pain, or from the perpetual state of change that all things exist in. The Buddha contends that suffering is inescapable for the living and is caused largely from attachment. While suffering is a fact of life, it is eliminated if an individual achieves nirvana, a state beyond the cycle of rebirth and free of suffering .
Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent; impermanence means that all things that come into existence eventually fade from existence. While this applies to the physical attributes of the human body, it also applies to mental states that are constantly changing. This constant state of change is also one of the sources of suffering in the world. No-self means that there is no enduring, unchanging self (or soul). Personalities and character traits are determined by the environment around a person, rather than something innate in people. This extends to the process of rebirth– although Buddhists believe in the cycle of samsara, individuals are not reincarnated exactly as themselves because no such soul exists to be passed from one life to the next. Suffering is a fact of life on Earth for every single individual. At its core, suffering is caused by attachment to desire; thus, the Buddha teaches that suffering can be mitigated by extinguishing desires. The Buddha urges a life of moderation to limit this suffering. Says the Dhammapada: “Unchecked craving strangles the careless man…[while] sorrow leaves the man who overcomes this toxic craving” (pg. 91). Individuals who live modestly are still subject to suffering, however, as the cycle of samsara is suffering. The only way to completely eliminate this pain is by achieving the state of nirvana, which brings “the total cessation of suffering” (ET pg. 198). Nirvana is described as a state beyond suffering. Nirvana is achieved by following the Eightfold Path, which consists of eight behaviors one must exhibit to reach enlightenment. The concept of samsara is related to concept of impermanence; even the soul of an individual is impermanent. The last words of the Buddha reference this. Says the Buddha: “Everything that arises also passes away” (ET pg. 201). As material goods fade away, so too do emotions and mental states. Because nothing is permanent, it is foolish to develop attachments to impermanent things. Says the Buddha: “Do not cling to the pleasant. Let it pass, so that the separation will not diminish you” (59). Recognizing that everything is impermanent brings understanding to individuals and helps alleviate suffering. Individuals grow attached to seemingly permanent people and objects that eventually disappear. Understanding how temporary everything is lessens the pain this cycle provokes. Practicing restraint is urged by the Buddha so that one does not fall into the trap of attachment. Restraining one’s desires limits attachment: “The wise ones…ever restrained in body, word, and mind, come to the place of peace, where they will sorrow no more” (DP pg. 64). Limiting desires, attachments, and extreme emotional states prevent suffering.
The concept of no-self in Buddhism states that there is no soul in individuals that determines who they are and that can be passed from one life to the next. Humans are analogous to a car; each part of the whole is distinctly not a car, yet together they create an automobile. Similarly, humans are not the bones, skin, or hair that creates them, yet the sum of those parts creates a person.
Because there is no self, there is no perpetual soul that is transmigrated from one life to the next during rebirth. Even so, the karmic energy from one life will allow for a rebirth. This is analogous to a flame being transferring from one candle to a seperate one. As the flame on the first candle begins to die out, it will transfer to the second wick. No substance was transferred from one candle to the next, but the second candle’s flame was caused by the first flame. Similarly, no soul is transferred from one body to the next during rebirth, even though the new body is caused by the death of the old body.