The Three Marks of Existence

“[The Three Marks of Existence] is an analysis of the First Noble Truth, the doctrine of dukkha. The three characteristics simply provide a more detailed explanation of what is meant by dukkha, and in what sense our unenlightened experience of the world is one of suffering, frustration, or unsatisfactoriness.”

All things in the human realm bear the three marks of existence, which are impermanence, suffering or disappointment (as we discussed before), and not-self. This merits some explanation. Impermanence should remind us of our previous discussion of our favorite event, and knowing it has to end. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. If you eat the cake, it will be gone. With the cake of life, you don’t really have any choice. Time passes constantly whether you like it or not, and each new moment brings the possibility of new things and new experiences, some of which you will enjoy, some of which you’ll hate, and some of which you’ll hardly notice. If you’re happy, this may make you sad, knowing your happiness will end, but if you’re depressed, this may cheer you up, knowing your depression will end. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve a steady state of joy that does not depend on external circumstances. This is possible.

It is helpful to recall that some things change faster than others. Your breath changes constantly. If you are alive, you are always either inhaling new air, or exhaling used air. The Grand Canyon has been pretty much the same for several hundred years, as long as we have records of its existence, although it must have changed somewhat, just not enough to stop being the Grand Canyon.

And, as we have seen, impermanence is the cause of disappointment. If you want your cake to last forever, you’ll be disappointed either in not being able to eat it in order to preserve it (which won’t work anyway because it will eventually go stale — your cake changes even if you choose not to eat it), or in having it disappear as you eat it. Impermanence and disappointment are very closely intertwined. The good news about this is that we have a great deal of control over the disappointment component. Simply by accepting the impermanence of all things, we can dramatically reduce our disappointment.

Disappointment is relative to expectation. That you cannot have your cake and eat it, too, is only disappointing insofar as the thought that you could do so occurs to you and you take it seriously. One way of understanding Buddhism is as a wise uncle or grandmother or whatever works for you telling you, hey, kid, this is how the world works, don’t waste time and effort worrying about it or trying to change it. You can’t. Or, making a slightly different, but closely related point, one Buddhist teacher explained that it helped her a lot, when she suffered some significant illness in midlife to say every morning, this isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I have. Some things you just can’t change, and being constantly upset by that is a waste of time.

But likely the most perplexing element of this list is not-self. The Buddha was very clear that nothing and no one really has any identity to call her/his own. Everything is made up of component parts that can and will come apart to get recombined into some future object. This is what the Buddha called the law of conditioned arising. In this realm, everything exists because of causes and conditions. I like to use cars to illustrate this point. Your Chevy Malibu exists as such because suppliers delivered the necessary components and materials, themselves constructed or fabricated out of other components, to the GM factory where employees assembled all of the parts in a particular order and the result was a car. You will drive it into the dirt, then either sell it to someone else who will drive it further into the dirt, or sell it for salvage. Regardless of who does so, it will eventually end up in a salvage yard somewhere, and there other people can scab parts off of it, and even if they don’t, it will gradually disintegrate into the various elements that originally went into making the steel, plastic, rubber, and whatever other materials went into making it, ultimately down to the chemical elements, and depending on causes and conditions, as the Buddha would say, potentially down to the atomic components of the chemical elements.

Note that this applies with equal force to humans. This is where the notion of not-self comes in fully. Again, modern brain research confirms that there is actually no you anywhere in you, if by “you” one means the seat of individual identity. It just doesn’t exist. One thing some Buddhist teachers will do is tell you to go find it. You have a core to your identity, fine: find it and tell us where it is. We don’t think you’ll have much luck. Since our identity is a thought, and we associate thoughts with the brain, we may be tempted to locate our identity in the brain, but which part of the brain? Again, brain researchers cannot find any particular part of the brain that houses your identity. It turns out that your brain is constantly fabricating your identity out of passing bits of consciousness. Recall that, in discussing Right Intention/Thought, we claimed that the vast majority, over 98%, of what you think on a daily basis is just mindless chatter that has the effect of reminding you who you are (boy, I really loved fishing on that creek when I was growing up/ my Uncle Ernie is such an annoying drunk, sure glad I don’t have to see much of him/ if that person in the next cubicle keeps talking to loudly on the phone, I’m gonna kill, etc.) and reassuring you that you are you. Except that “you” is just the aggregation of all those random thoughts, not any independent originator or owner of them.

So it turns out that we’re all sort of real-world, walking, talking holograms. Interestingly, people who are Asian or who have spent a lot of time in Asia like to point out that, if you ask an Asian where her/his seat of consciousness resides, s/he will likely point to her/his heart, not her/his head. It’s a choice, and there is no obvious basis for asserting that one choice is right and the other wrong.

And much like the Chevy Malibu, after you’ve lived out your life, your body will end up somewhere, and regardless of how much money you spend, eventually, your body will break down into the chemical elements that make it up. Your body is an aggregation of chemical compounds with just the right zap of electricity to make the whole thing run. Similarly, your thoughts are just more refined electrical zaps that have the peculiar side effect of making you think you have a singular, coherent, persistent identity when you don’t.

The concept of not-self, or no-self, presents a particular problem for modern Americans. We live in a culture that values a strong ego. We see our world as constantly at least somewhat hostile, or certainly highly competitive and think that a strong ego is necessary to compete effectively. It is not unusual to hear from Buddhist teachers stories about psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists who are interested in incorporating Buddhist ideas into their work helping people with their psychological issues (which I think is a fantastic idea, by the way), but have trouble figuring out how no-self would fit when they see a lot of their work lies in helping their clients to develop healthy egos. As one Buddhist teacher pointed out by way of addressing this point, by all accounts, the Buddha himself had a very healthy ego. He was quite clear about and confident of this novel set of ideas he unleashed on the world during his lifetime — it has been said that he went beyond doubt — and although he was not given to being argumentative, he was not shy about disagreeing with people he thought were wrong and/or were misrepresenting his position. If nothing else, it is hard to imagine a shy or self-effacing person propagating a set of ideas that would continue to influence people 2,600 years after his death.

It turns out that no-self is quite consistent with having a healthy ego. If one looks closely at the account of the ego that most modern psychologists have agreed on, it is actually more a process than it is a thing. Psychologists refer to “executive function,” which is only necessary in certain circumstances, and falls dormant when you don’t need it. If you’re sitting alone reading a book, you don’t much need executive function. If you’re at the grocery store checking out, you need lots of executive function to know how to interact successfully with the clerk, how to pay for your groceries, how to find the car you came in, how to move the groceries out of the cart and into the car, how to get into the car, start it, and drive away. To say nothing of the executive function you need to choose between Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes. On the way home, executive function might well drop into subconscious mind and allow you to drive all the way home without really noticing that you are doing so. So it turns out our healthy egos are not fixed, constant entities either.

This is consistent with the Buddhist account, according to which we are all just manifestations of natural processes, both physically and mentally — our bodies are just accumulations of chemicals mixed in just the right way and zapped with a bit of electricity, subject to the natural laws of gravity and karma, and our mental processes are similarly highly particularized, regularized electrical impulses that happen to have as an odd side effect the creation of a sense of personal identity. But this claim offends our sense of ourselves as humans, who fancy ourselves to be superior to all other animals. It can be very disturbing to learn that you are just a manifestation of impersonal natural phenomena that don’t really care about you as an individual at all.

But from the global perspective of morality and politics, it turns out that this is a potentially highly beneficial observation, as it allows us to see the ways in which all individuals as humans and dogs and cats and horses and three-toed tree sloths and ants and mosquitoes and wasps and puffer fish — all sentient beings — are all interconnected by dint of being made of the same chemicals and having only different levels of refinement in our mental wiring. This observation leads ineluctably to the conclusion that the Buddha came to, that the highest human motivation and accomplishment is compassion, empathetic understanding of and care for all other sentient beings. It has been said that, once you hear that there is nothing you can cling to as me or mine, you have heard all of the teachings of the Buddha. With respect to your possessions, think about the reality, which no sane person disputes, that you can’t, as the old saying goes, take it with you. No one puts a luggage rack on a hearse. Anything and everything that you claim to “own,” you’re really only serving as custodian of until you sell it, give it away, or you die. Or it falls apart.

One necessary implication of all of this is that one, from the Buddhist perspective, should never, ever take anything personally. At the macro level, the universe doesn’t care about you as an individual, except insofar as it keeps track of your karma, which again is a natural force like gravity. When gravity causes you to fall, you don’t take it personally. Similarly, don’t take karma personally. It’s not that anyone or anything is hostile to you as a person, you’re just getting what you deserve. At the micro level, you never have any control over what other people do, and even if they are trying to insult you, just recognize their ignorance in the Buddhist sense and respond with all the equanimity and compassion you can muster. Remember that, no matter how much you may think the other person deserves a more, um, pointed response, you accumulate bad karma insofar as you react with hostility. The Buddha said that acting in anger is like picking up a hot rock to throw at someone — the only person you’re likely to burn is yourself.

Again, these claims have potentially vast moral implications that I won’t delve into much here, since moral implications tend to invoke political debates, which tend to divide people. Instead, I’ll just trust to the effects of the practice and led you follow your own path in the knowledge that, the more you adopt a Buddhist worldview, the more persuaded you will become that all is impermanence, suffering/disappointment, and not-self.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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