The Three Marks of Existence
The Buddha taught that all things in life have three inescapable factors underlying them. To understand each of them at an experiential level is to come to a true knowledge of reality. These three marks’ or characteristics’ are impermanence (or anicca), suffering (or dukkha) and not-self (or anatta). We shall now look at each of these in turn.
One of the key aspects of the way Buddhism looks at the world is the recognition that all things are impermanent. Our own physical makeup, the world around us and in fact the whole universe is constantly changing nothing is static. We are born, we grow old and we die. From moment to moment our mental and physical processes are in constant movement. This may seem an obvious point but what the Buddha taught was that we tend to try to ignore this fact. We don’t want to face the truth that we are subject to change that we grow old, that we die. What many of us do at a subtle level is to cling to some notion of permanency. It is the clinging to this notion of permanency that in fact contributes to our dissatisfaction and suffering in life.
For example, two people who are happily married see this marriage as permanent. But eventually, one partner will die leading the other bereft. What we tend to do is not think about it, almost smooth over such a discomforting prospect by putting it to one side. The Buddha’s teaching urges us to wake up to reality, that life is ever-changing, unpredictable and uncertain. It is not a stable place however much we would like it to be.
The Buddha taught that if we look at the world around us as it really is we will see that there is a great deal of suffering and dissatisfaction. Even people who are wealthy and privileged just as he was in his childhood and early manhood are not completely happy. When we look at suffering and impermanence together we can see that any happiness that we have in life is prone to change it is the nature of things. We could be very happy for most of our lifetime but in the end, we have to face the inevitability of physical decay and ultimately death. This suffering comes from craving for pleasure and a wish to avoid pain. It also comes from attempting to cling to things that are impermanent.
The first two marks of existence are relatively straightforward. The Buddha’s teaching on not-self (or anatta) is much more challenging and requires us to look at who we are as individuals in a radically new way. Unlike other religions, Buddhism states that there is no such thing as a permanent self or soul. Instead, each individual is made up of five factors that are subject to change. He referred to thee as the five heaps’ (or khandhas). These are:
material form (the body and its constituents)
feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral)
perception (the operation of the senses)
mental formations (thoughts but also decision-making)
consciousness (our sense of being alive)
These factors interact with each other and make up what we are as individuals. In no way, says the Buddha, should we think of these as constituting a permanent self. In training his disciples, the Buddha explained to them that a skilled and disciplined follower regards material form thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ He regards feeling thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ He regards perception thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ He regards mental formations thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ He regards consciousness thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’
He encourages them not to think that they will exist after death as permanent, everlasting, eternal. On the other hand, the Buddha did not teach that death is the end of things, as the doctrine of rebirth clearly shows.
The Buddha taught that when we die we are reborn in a new form but he doesn’t want us to see this as an essential or self, moving from one vehicle (the body) to another. In one Buddhist scripture, it is described in the following way:
‘the first act of consciousness in the new existence is neither the same as the last act of consciousness in the previous existence nor is it another. Milk once milking is done, turns after some time into curds; from curds, it turns into fresh butter, and from fresh butter into ghee. Would it now be correct to say that the milk is the same thing as the curds, or the fresh butter, or the ghee?’
What happens from life to life is a constant evolving for better or worse, (depending on our actions). Just as we are not the same person as an adult that we were as a child, so we change from life to life, the quality of our circumstances determined by our previous actions. Note, however, that part of mental formations is volition or will. Within each personality, there is the ability to make decisions that are like a rudder directing the course of our lives. The decisions we make can be good or bad, but we have that freedom.