THREE MARKS OF EXISTENCE

I do not see any possession that is permanent, everlasting,

not subject to change that might endure as long as eternity MLD 22.22.

Having dismissed the belief in God, personal or impersonal, the Buddha’s encouraged meditation and reflection on three marks or characteristics of existence namely impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. Dedicated Dharma practitioners receive teachings on these marks and meditate on them to understand them deeply. Although the three characteristics rarely come together in the suttas, they certainly deserve repeated reflection:

Impermanence (anicca)

The marks of constant change apply to everything, inwardly and outwardly, here and there, mind and body. Change occurs from the most distant galaxy to a single thought. Everything, actual or imagined, arises, persists and fades away, very slowly or at the speed of light. It is hard to give a metaphor to show the slowest change or the rapid speed of change. Change also reveals progress and regress, evolution and degeneration, starting and finishing, birth and death, coming and going.

Time reveals change and change reveals time. Past, present and future confirm modification, adaptation and non-adaptation. What is, what was and what will be confirm impermanence. Whatever is now becomes different. Nothing remains absolutely the same, nor becomes absolutely different. Everything affects everything else.

This principle applies to you, to me, to everything. Life offers no protection, outside of liberation, from the world of unpredictable circumstances. Impermanence confirms the vulnerable condition of human existence affecting us from within and from without. The practitioner cannot go to the here and now for refuge. A person finds himself or herself projecting desire and aversion onto aspects of the present moment.

The Buddha emphasised meditation and reflection on impermanence. Mindfulness of change, of fluctuations in circumstances, big and small, reminds us that the impermanent cannot offer fulfilment. The self deludes itself in the pursuit of the changeable in order to find fulfilment. The madness of the human condition reveals itself in the desire and grasping onto after the impermanent. Some pin their faith in the optimism of a better future. Based on pleasant feelings, optimism or pessimism, based on unpleasant feelings or neutral feelings bear no relationship to the reality of the future.

 No thing whatsoever has any essence. Causes and conditions make up whatever we focus upon. If anything had an essence to it, that essence would remain forever. That is clearly not the case. If anything were permanent, causes and conditions would not have any influence at all and the permanent thing would stand outside the unfolding process. Every object of interest finds itself modified in the myriad presentations of circumstances. The perception of the marks of impermanence reminds us that nothing is worth holding onto. Clear comprehension, insight and understanding of impermanence make an immense contribution to living with peace of mind.

Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)

The Pali word for unsatisfactoriness is dukkha. Dukkha covers a full range of meanings from minor frustration to the greatest suffering imaginable. The composition of whatever arises within or without depends upon numerous conditions. As these conditions change, then so does the composition formed out of these changes. This is unsatisfactory; it is simply not possible to keep or preserve anything or anyone in a totally desirable way. A person may make sincere choices to succeed in specific tasks but their very choice brings entails/brings about/comes with a consequence. That consequence and the view of it changes, sooner or later. Knowledge, skill and effort can produce a satisfactory result, yet nothing ensures the a permanence of a continued relationship with to that result. The individual moves on. Life moves on. The unsatisfactory factor in a satisfactory result reveals itself in its temporary nature.

The dynamics of intentions, actions and results give shape to human life, yet it is not possible to sustain intentions, actions and results in the short or long term. There are no events free from many influences. This is hard to acknowledge and to understand since it reveals how little real control humans have over situations including meditative experiences, relationships, career or the future. The Buddha reminded listeners of living in this vortex of change with nothing in the world being absolutely stable and reliable. Mindfulness of the object, awareness of the supportive conditions and meditation support the clarity to attend to these manifestations of daily life. Impermanence and unsatisfactoriness appear as marks or characteristics of direct perceptions not obscured with projections.

Practice offers the power to face up to these marks of existence. Expressions of dukkha of body and mind manifest in countless ways. Dukkha intensifies through resistance to change due to clinging to its impact upon feelings, mind and body. People often experience vulnerability around unwelcome change and fluctuating circumstances. Dharma practice focuses on coming to terms with these marks of existence rather than living in denial. This mark of unsatisfactoriness influences our choices pushing us into one direction or another.

The condition of the ‘chooser’ reveals an unsatisfactory condition because many factors from the past shape the chooser. The chooser makes specific choices often imagining that these choices will make him or her happy or at least happier. But nothing is guaranteed and this is unsatisfactory. We imagine we can make choices freely and independently of inner and outer circumstances. This is a myth.

The acknowledgement of unsatisfactoriness as a characteristic of existence contributes to clarity. Why choose to go after that which is ultimately unfulfilling as one extreme position, or simply stay stuck with the present as another unsatisfactory condition? Choice depends, for its arising, on conditions outside of the choice as much the conditions that the chooser knows about already.

Yes, we make an apparent choice to get the desirable, but we may find out that once we have secured the desirable, it is not what we really wanted. The wish to keep what was secured may continue, but what was achieved or accomplished or gained may disappear due to conditions outside of one’s control. For example, you may lose the ‘perfect’ job that you chose as a career path or a wonderful partner. The impermanence and unsatisfactoriness confirms the unstable nature of every situation.

Choices and Imagination

No lasting satisfaction exists in being passive and doing nothing. No lasting satisfaction exists in always being active and doing much. No lasting satisfaction exists in moving backwards and forwards between the two. Some may say that since everything is so unsatisfactory, we may as well choose to do nothing. This choice to do nothing can lead to a myopic condition, heaviness of heart, if not depression, with its underlying rage against life for not fulfilling our dreams and hopes.

The other choice of doing, doing, doing, feeds stress, intensity and burnout. The ‘American dream,’ or any other fantasy about a glorious future, has the capacity to become a nightmare or, at best, temporary experiences of pleasure through getting hold of the desirable. Is happiness primarily about getting one’s hands on the desirable only for the pleasure to fade in time?

Gratitude also arises in time of change, including the thrill that something has finally come to an end: a debt, a painful relationship, a spell in hospital. One chapter finishes making way for a new chapter. It is not always clear what comes next. Living with the unknown is not easy. It makes some people feel shaky, unsteady and insecure. The desire for change, to know what to do, can exert pressure upon ourselves and others. The force of such desire generates disagreements. A distorted mind imagines something that lies ahead will release a long-lasting happiness. The inner life can change from happiness to unhappiness and from dissatisfaction to satisfaction and back to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. States of mind influence the desire and the desire influences the state of mind. Despair imagines a dark future. The mind easily engages into projections onto an object or event, past, present or future, which distorts the perception of the object. 

A man who went to Nasruddin, the eccentric mullah. In his pocket, the visitor had an egg.

He asked Nasruddin: “What do I have in my pocket?”

 Nasruddin said “Give me a clue.”

The visitor replied: “It is shaped like an egg. You will find yellow and white inside. It looks like an egg.”

“Some sort of cake” replied Nasruddin.

The practice of experiencing inner peace comes about through mindfulness/meditation and clarity in the depth of our being about the nature of change and developing the capacity to let go of grasping onto the changeable as lasting. It is important to remember that unsatisfactoriness and suffering characterize existence but that does not make the dynamic and uncontrollable features of existence the ultimate truth of existence. Wisdom and liberation reveal the truth of things unbound to such perceptions.

Non-self (anatta).

Causes and conditions meet to form a composition. Whatever appears depends upon the makeup and interaction of these cause and conditions which, in turn, spring from other causes and conditions. Nothing has any self-existent in any of these compositions. That means nothing possesses any independent self-existence, any inherent existence. If you take apart a car apart, you will see the car has no self to it. The wheels are not the car. The engine is not the car. The steering wheel is not the car. If the car gets damaged, the owner may get upset and angry. Changes in the condition of the car cannot make a human being upset or angry. Upset and anger rests with the condition of the mind, not with the condition of the car. The assumption of the car’s continuity of an undamaged condition stimulates the reaction. The ‘owner’ sees permanence (or continuity) in the impermanent, satisfaction in the unsatisfactory and self in the non-self of the car.

A distorted perception does not see the car for what it is: a composition of causes and condition before and after the car got damaged and after. The dent or the write off of the ‘car’ has no real power to make us angry – it is our own relationship to the “car” that triggers the reactivity. Causes and conditions make up our relationship to our ‘mind’ and to the ‘car’

All things are empty of self existence because of their reliance on causality. The yogi meditates on non-self, (the emptiness of self-existence), as an important feature of their practice for liberation. A ’self’ tends to be seen in every aspect of what makes up a human being in the world, both inwardly and outwardly, such as:

  • body/form

  • feelings

  • perceptions

  • thoughts

  • consciousness

The Buddha regularly referred to these five aspects of life as the five aggregates (or five compositions) of a person in the world. With regard to the five compositions, a person might say:

  • “I am sitting here.”

  • “I am feeling happy.”

  • “I perceive (see, hear, etc. through the senses)”

  • “I am thinking (choosing, remembering, planning, daydreaming, reasoning).”

  • “I am experiencing consciousness (mindfulness, awareness, attention).”

Switches in perception from “I” to “my” occur. The ‘self’ makes a  claim on the aggregates as a possession. Each aggregate then belongs to “me.” Here are some examples:

  • “This is my body.”

  • “These are my feelings.”

  • “This is my perception of the situation.”

  • “My thoughts tell me.”

  • “My mindfulness is developing”.

At times, the identification with … covers all or aspects of the formation of a ‘person.’ The ‘I’ language means a total identification with the five compositions of the ‘person.’ The use of ‘my’ refers to making a possession of all aspects of a human being.

Unsatisfactoriness is a characteristic of the language of ‘I’ and ’my.’ The application of ‘I’ refutes the ‘my’ and vice-versa. We cannot be all or one of the five aggregates in one moment and then make them a possession in the next. The notion of ‘my’ also extends beyond the individual - ‘my’ family, partner, job, country and so on.

The building up in the mind of ‘I’ and ‘my’ contributes to three poisons of the mind – greed, blame and delusion. All problematic states of mind indicate an infection of ‘I and ‘my’ or shows in the collective of identity of ‘us’ and ‘them. “No truth or reality belongs to ‘I’ or ‘my.’ At best, ‘I’ and ‘my’ serve as a convenient form of language. Clarity and wisdom remain free from possessiveness, clinging and belief in ‘I’ and ‘my’ as the true reality. What we own one day, we give away the next. What is ‘mine’ today is not ‘mine’ tomorrow. The truth reveals itself outside the narrow confinement of ‘I’ and ‘my.’

 Form, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness show no inherent mark of ‘I’ or ‘my’ no matter how frequently ‘I’ and ‘my’ lands in these compositions. It is important to appreciate that the composition applies to everything, everywhere, without exception. Non- self, non ‘I’ and ‘my’ reveal a genuine characteristic of existence. A doorway to liberation opens itself through knowing and understanding non-self.

Meditation and daily life experiences can confirm the emptiness of ‘I’ nor ‘my’ through freeing up the constructions of self landing on any of the five compositions. The experience of the body as body, feelings as feelings, perceptions as perceptions, thoughts as thoughts and consciousness as consciousness can stand out in a clear and obvious way. As the body commented on the mind/body process: ‘This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.’ The absence as well of the ‘I’ notion such as ‘I’ am witnessing all this can occur. The clarity reveals an unfolding process without any distortion through an infected ‘I’ and ’my.’ A revelation of liberation depends neither on presence or absence of the language of the self.

First hand experiences therefore include the experience of ‘I’ and ‘my.’ The experience of non-I reveals a genuine experience, such as the presence of ‘thinking’ rather than “I am thinking.” The experience of ‘non-my’ such as ‘the arm’ rather than ‘my arm.’ It would be foolish to grasp onto one of experiences of Í’ and ‘my’ or ‘non-I’ and ‘non-my’ and deny the other experiences. No specific experience here is ultimately true. That does not mean to say that every time the language of ‘I’ and ‘my’ around the five compositions of a human indicates a delusion or projection.

The Dharma shows the way to see things allowing the conventional use of language of ‘I’ and ‘my’ while, deep down, knowing that these five compositions remain free from any sign or mark of ‘I’ and ‘my.’ Conventional use says: “I am writing this chapter. ”In reality, the ‘I’ does not write. This process takes place enabling words in the mind to find expression on the computer screen.

 Practice includes meditating on the direct experience that nothing in the body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts or consciousness show that these composites belong to a self. The conditioning of the mind takes this view with all its problematic consequences. Insights into non-self make obvious a seeing free from ‘I’ and ‘my.’ There is a body (organic life, elements, human form) sitting (an ‘I’ cannot sit). There are feelings. There are perceptions. There are mental formations coming together such as thoughts. There is consciousness of the other four compositions with all five categories relying on each other and the conditions of the world for their condition.

The practice consists of seeing the bare actuality as contingent on other contingent factors. Interest in seeing every event as belonging to the self within or without begins to fade. The five compositions, the car and every ‘thing’ else share the same non-self characteristic.

“If self were body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts or consciousness, then they would not lead to any affliction,” said the Buddha SN 22.59, since the self would not choose suffering. A true self would never wish for suffering and unhappiness generated by pain in the body, tormented feelings, terrifying perceptions, destructive thoughts with a consciousness bound up in it all.

  • Form is like foam

  • Feeling is like bubbles of water

  • Perception is like a mirage

  • Formations and thoughts are like banana tree (with no core)

  • Consciousness is illusory. (SN 22.95)

The Buddha pointed out the empty nature of the aggregates. “The world is empty of a self or of anything belonging to a self,” he reiterated. He reminded listeners that the afflictions among the aggregates truly confirm the non-self of it all: Changeable, unsatisfactory and non-self summarise the marks or characteristics of existence, no more, no less. Such a proper perspective shows the way to a seeing of a different order.

  May all beings live with insight and wisdom 

 Christopher Titmuss's

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