Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote:
Almost any book on Buddhism will tell you that the three characteristics — the characteristic of inconstancy, the characteristic of stress or suffering, and the characteristic of not-self — were one of the Buddha's most central teachings. The strange thing, though, is that when you look in the Pali Canon, the word for "three characteristics," ti-lakkhana, doesn't appear
. If you do a search on any computerized version of the Canon and type in, say, the characteristic of inconstancy, anicca-lakkhana, it comes up with nothing. The word's not in the Pali Canon at all. The same with dukkha-lakkhana and anatta-lakkhana: Those compounds don't appear. This is not to say that the concepts of anicca, dukkha, and anatta don't occur in the Canon; just that they're not termed characteristics. They're not compounded with the word "characteristic." The words they are compounded with are perception, sañña — as in the perception of inconstancy
, the perception of stress
, and the perception of not-self
— and the word anupassana, which means to contemplate or to keep track of something as it occurs. For instance, aniccanupassana, to contemplate inconstancy, means to look for inconstancy wherever it happens.
Now, it's true that you'll frequently find in the Canon the statements that all things compounded or fabricated are inconstant, that they're all stressful. And all dhammas — all objects of the mind — are not-self. So if that's the way things are, why not just say that these are characteristic features of these things? Why make a big deal about the language? Because words are like fingers, and you want to make sure they point in the right direction — especially when they're laying blame, the way these three perceptions do
. And in our practice, the direction they point to is important for a number of reasons.
One is that the Buddha's concern is not with trying to give an analysis of the ultimate nature of things outside. He's more interested in seeing how the behavior of things affects our search for happiness. As he once said, all he taught was suffering and the end of suffering. The suffering is essentially an issue of the mind's searching for happiness in the wrong places, in the wrong way. We look for a constant happiness in things that are inconstant. We look for happiness in things that are stressful and we look for "our" happiness in things that are not-self, that lie beyond our control. The three perceptions of inconstancy, stress, and not-self are focused on our psychology, on how we can recognize when we're looking for happiness in the wrong way so that we can learn to look for happiness in the right places, in the right ways. The contemplation of these three themes, the use of these three perceptions, is aimed at finding happiness of a true and lasting sort.
From: Three Perceptions
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu