Tilakkhana: Three proofs of a Hinayana sutra

Update: 12/10/2021
When Buddha was still alive in Sangha, Ananda was the senior bonze's attendant. He memorized very well, all the lectures Buddha had delivered were fully borne in his mind. When Buddha went to Nirvana, he was the reliable disciple to record the sutras. Therefore, 'The Six Germ-Natures of Achievement' were found. This was the one to clarify whether a sutra was delivered by Buddha or not. A sutra which met 'The Six Germ-Natures of Achievement' was the one Buddha said.

Tilakkhana: Three proofs of a Hinayana sutra


The Six Germ-Natures of Achievement' consisted of: Literature Achievement (I heard: the listener told Ananda); Belief Achievement (like this); Time Achievement (one day: the time when Buddha delivered that sutra); Subject Achievement (Buddha: the subject delivered the sutra); Position Achievement (the place in which the sutra was delivered); Mass Achievement (the mass listening the sutra). Therefore, a sutra usually began with a sentence: “As being told, when Buddha was still alive... at…in…the monks” which means that: “I heard that, the time Buddha was at…among the monks…”. For a while, it was seen that the Six Germ-Natures of Achievement were reliable to clarify the sutra Buddha had delivered. However, there were some sutras which were added lately, even other religions pretended to be Buddha and stated them but those sutras loomed people to bad viewpoints, misunderstanding true Dharma, and practicing wrongly. Gradually, the Six Germ-Natures of Achievement was not reliable anymore and it was highly needed a new factor to clarify.
This is Three proofs of a Hinayana sutra: Permanence, Suffering and Non – Ego. If any sutra consists of three elements or helps people realize three elements, it will be Buddha’s sutra. In contrast, if the sutra is not about the three elements, although it consists of: “It was written that…” or: “Buddha taught…”, it will not be Buddha’s sutra. Especially, there are some sutras which are lately added and Buddha did not teach, but if it consists of three elements, it will be the sutra Buddhism’s ones. It could be mentioned: The sutra of the Platform from The sixth Patriarch Hue Nang’s sutra; Eight Great Powers of Enlightened Persons from the great monk An The Cao; The Litany from the great monk Chi Cong; Milanda Questionnaire,… Thus, the role of the three proofs of a Hinayana sutra is so essential
In feudalism, the King would like to promulgate an order, he wrote a royal decree and put a seal on it. The decree was on behalf of the King’s words, the seal was on behalf of his signature. If someone received the royal decree, he or she had to respectfully kneel down and the decree was like the King’s appearance. Like Buddhism, Buddha is the King of Dharma, Buddha’s words are the Dharma treasure, the three proofs of the sutra are the seal. Nowadays, Buddha is not alive, his Dharma is still here. Therefore, any sutras which consist of three proofs could be Dharma treasure – one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Thanks to three proofs of a sutras, when people nowadays research sutras, they could not misunderstand with other wrong religions.
1. Impermanence:
The first Dharma proof is Impermanence. IM means “no”. – PERMANENCE means everlasting , forever existence. Impermanence means that nothing lasts forever, and changes always happen, therefore all Dharma always changes and transforms. Impermanence can be considered in three factors.
Firstly, the body is Firstly, the body is impermanent. The body keeps changing from birth to old-age. The body is changing and older from birth to 10 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old. It is a person when he was born, opened his eyes and started to cry for the first time. It is different from when he breathes at last. A person when he is healthy, standing steadily and strongly is different from when he is sick, weak and the body is exhausted. We notice that impermanence happens in every single second and minute, and does not last hundreds of years. A number of germs die in our body and new ones appear every second. If we understand this clearly, we can see the impermanence of the body.

The second is an impermanent mind. Our mind is changing so fast. She just feels happy then she could feel sad. Today she feels blissful but if tomorrow she comes across unluckiness, she will feel depressed. The patriarchs said: “The mind is as a restless monkey” which means that the mind is irresolute. The mind is like the monkey climbing from one branch to another so rapidly that it cannot be caught. The mind is also like a team of horses that no one can prevent them from running away.
The third one is an impermanent situation which means that the environment around us continuously changes. Vietnamese people have an idiom 'the sea changes for mulberry fields'. It implies this time the sea waves go up covering the sands, the other the sea waves go down and the land appears for people to harvest the mulberries for silkworms. The changing settings also affect people. Sometimes they live in big houses, sometimes they have to sell all things, even houses and become beggars. Sometimes they are like bosses and travel by car, sometimes they are so lonely that no one cares. Sometimes they are rewarded and praised, sometimes they are scolded, or reproached. Thus, it is said that:

“When in top time, you ride a horse and do archery,

When in the bottom, you ride a monkey and shoot the flies with rubber bands”.

This proverb is simple and cheerful but it can generalize the impermanence of life.

2. Suffering:
Because people do not realize and clearly understand the impermanence of body, mind and settings, they attain suffering. Suffering means bitterness, being stuck, discomforts, etc. Suffering in life includes a lot. There are 8 of the most well – known sufferings. The first one is that birth is suffering. A newborn baby has just cried. But why? As he can feel the suffering of the beginning of life. Indeed, the mom and the baby also are suffering. In pregnancy, the mom has to carry a baby heavily in 8 months, she hardly does everything. And the baby is covered in darkness. The cold or the hot food she eats affects the baby. When giving birth, she hurts like her organs are being cut. The baby suffers when it is out, too. This is the suffering of sacrifice.
Similar to birth and aging, illness and death also bring suffering to people. When people become aging, they cannot see clearly and hear well, they will have black – white hair, their teeth are falling out, the legs and arms are flagging, and they can hardly walk. Aging results in illness, which makes the body painful, disordered, insipid, insomnia, and anxious. Someone is terribly bedridden invalid but no one cares, he has to go pee and poop right at the bed. At that time, life is so terrible like tortures, he really wants to die to end the bitterness but he cannot. At last, death is coming, that moment is really painful. In the sutra, people’s death is described like the turtle that is taken off his shell. The hurt turtles suffer when it is taken off the shell like the hurt people die. Some people are happy. But some have just been born, not aging and illness, but dying young. Some people had just had illness very young and died. Some are drowned, being burned, or die by traffic accidents, surprised work accidents, dying in a situation that no one knows is so unlucky. These are the unluckiness of aging, illness and death.
The next one is the suffering of being separated from those whom one loves and the suffering of meeting someone in hatred. For example, the woman who sees her man going with the other girl is upset. Or beloved family members no longer live with you, you would feel sad, too. Otherwise, you hate someone but you have to live together and meet everyday is also unlucky. Whenever you meet them, there are arguments, which is suffering. The seventh suffering is not to get what you desire. You wish to have great wealth but no one gives you. The last suffering is from the full – orbed activities of the five skandhas. The five skandhas are the elements to build the appearance, mentality of people. Appearance is considered as the material of people’s body. The feeling group, the perception group, the mental formation group and the consciousness group belong to the mentality which builds our consciousness. Whatever the body wants, you will satisfy it, no matter how it is right or wrong. These are the five skandhas that control us and lead us to bitterness and suffering. These are eight kinds of suffering in life.
(In addition, there are 3 more kinds of pain. The first one is pains, difficulties and hurts which are over and over. The human body is painful, but there are more emotions and feelings which control our life and make us disordered: sad, happy, angry, excited, loving and hatred, etc. The pains accumulate over and over. The second kind of pain is the impermanence of Dharma which causes anxiety, or the impermanence of a human's appearance, or the impermanence of people’s feelings. The third kind of pain is something which you satisfy or you like but it is lost, which is also painful. Losing wealth or positions or ending this life is the most painful thing. Those are three kinds of pain.

3. Non-Egoism:
Thanks to impermanence, we can realize that life is so painful that all things are non-egoism, no certain appearance. Everything is made and dissolved by cause - effect. Good causes can result in things, with no causes can result in dissolution. Human beings borrow father’s sperm and mother’s eggs and four great elements to form this body. Skin and flesh are from the land element, blood is from the water element, warmth is from the fire element, air circulation is from the wind element. If the four great elements are mildly integrated, the body is good. In contrast, the body will worsen. One day, the great four elements will be dissolved, skin and flesh returns back to the land, blood returns back to water, etc. The body is dissolved, too.
According to Pragnahridaya sutra, people are created by the five pancaskandha, but the five pancaskandha do not have their certain appearance: “the five pancaskandha are nothing”. Therefore, egoism in human beings is clearly realized. If human beings are non-ego, human beings’ belongings or the whole world and the whole nature which exist in human beings’ awareness are non-ego, too. However, human beings cannot realize the union-egoism, so they are stuck in those, and think that those belong to them and those are theirs, which leads to suffering. If you are the boss of the body, you can control it. But can you do it? You command the body that: “You have to be young, not old. You have to be well, not sick. You have to live forever, not dying”. Does it follow your orders? It is older, sick and turns to death. So you are not the boss of the body. From this body, we can conclude that all things are the same. All things are non-egoism, too.
In the sutra: “Eight Great Enlightenments”, there is a paragraph: “This world is impermanent, without security, four elements for nature, the five substances are non-egoism” which can generalize the core of Tilakkhana. It is an important tenet in Buddhism. If the practitioners can perfectly understand those things: life is impermanent, suffering and non-ego, they will not rely on temporary values in this life. They will keep straight on the way of enlightenment and escape from being reborn.

Tâm Thiện

Translated into English by Nguyen Hoang Thoai

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