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Fundamentals of Buddhism

THE THREE UNIVERSAL
CHARACTERISTICS
The subject today is the three universal
characteristics of existence. This is an important part of
the teachings of the Buddha. Like the Four Noble
Truths, karma, the teaching of dependent origination
and the five aggregates, the teaching of the three
characteristics is part of what we might call the doctrinal
contents of wisdom. In other words, when we talk about
the knowledge and the understanding that is implied by
wisdom, we have this teaching in mind.
Before we examine the characteristics individually,
let us come to an understanding of what they mean and
in what way they are useful. First of all, what is a
characteristic and what is not? A characteristic is some-
thing which is necessarily connected with something
else. Because the characteristic is necessarily connected
with something, it can tell us about the nature of that
thing. Let us take an example. Heat for instance is a
characteristic of fire but not a characteristic of water.
Heat is the characteristic of fire because the heat of the
fire is always and invariably connected with fire. On the
other hand, the heat of water depends on external factors
— an electric stove, the heat of the sun and so forth. But
the heat of fire is natural to fire. It is in this sense that
the Buddha uses the term “characteristic” to refer to facts
about the nature of existence, that are always connected
with existence and that are always found in existence.
The characteristic heat is always connected with fire. So
we can understand something about the nature of fire
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