The Three Marks of Existence
Buddhism has been described as a very pragmatic religion. It does not
indulge in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is no theology,
no worship of a diety or deification of the Buddha. Buddhism takes a very
straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based on wishful
thinking, at all. Everything that the Buddha taught was based on his own observation
of the way things are. Everything that he taught can be verified by our own
observation of the way things are.
If we look at our life, very simply, in a straightforward way, we see that
it is marked with frustration and pain. This is because we attempt to secure
our relationship with the "world out there", by solidifying our
experiences in some concrete way. For example, we might have dinner with
someone we admire very much, everything goes just right, and when we get home
later we begin to fantasize about all the things we can do with our new-found
friend, places we can go etc. We are going through the process of trying to
cement our relationship. Perhaps, the next time we see our friend, she/he has a
headache and is curt with us; we feel snubbed, hurt, all our plans go out the
window. The problem is that the "world out there" is constantly
changing, everything is impermanent and it is impossible to make a permanent
relationship with anything, at all.
If we examine the notion of impermanence closely and honestly, we see that
it is all-pervading, everything is marked by impermanence. We might posit an
eternal consciousness principle, or higher self, but if we examine our
consciousness closely we see that it is made up of temporary mental processes
and events. We see that our "higher self" is speculative at best and
imaginary to begin with. We have invented the idea to secure ourselves, to
cement our relationship, once again. Because of this we feel uneasy and
anxious, even at the best of times. It is only when we completely abandon
clinging that we feel any relief from our queasyness.
These three things: pain, impermanence and egolessness are known as the
three marks of existence.
The Four Noble Truths
The first sermon that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment was about
the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is frustrating and
painful. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, there are times when it is
downright miserable. Things may be fine with us, at the moment, but, if we look
around, we see other people in the most appalling condition, children starving,
terrorism, hatred, wars, intolerance, people being tortured and we get a sort
of queasy feeling whenever we think about the world situation in even the most
casual way. We, ourselves, will someday grow old, get sick and eventually die.
No matter how we try to avoid it, someday we are going to die. Even though we
try to avoid thinking about it, there are constant reminders that it is true.
The second noble truth is that suffering has a cause. We suffer because we
are constantly struggling to survive. We are constantly trying to prove our
existence. We may be extremely humble and self-deprecating, but even that is an
attempt to define ourselves. We are defined by our humility. The harder we
struggle to establish ourselves and our relationships, the more painful our
The third noble truth is that the cause of suffering can be ended. Our
struggle to survive, our effort to prove ourselves and solidify our
relationships is unnecessary. We, and the world, can get along quite
comfortably without all our unnecessary posturing. We could just be a simple,
direct and straight-forward person. We could form a simple relationship with
our world, our coffee, spouse and friend. We do this by abandoning our
expectations about how we think things should be.
This is the fourth noble truth: the way, or path to end the cause of
suffering. The central theme of this way is meditation. Meditation, here, means
the practice of mindfulness/awareness, shamata/vipashyana in scanscrit. We
practice being mindful of all the things that we use to torture ourselves with.
We become mindful by abandoning our expectations about the way we think things
should be and, out of our mindfulness, we begin to develop awareness about the
way things really are. We begin to develop the insight that things are really
quite simple, that we can handle ourselves, and our relationships, very well as
soon as we stop being so manipulative and complex.
The Five Skandhas
The Buddhist doctrine of egolessness seems to be a bit confusing to
westerners. I think this is because there is some confusion as to what is meant
by ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different from the Freudian ego.
The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental events classified into five
categories, called skandhas, loosely translated as bundles, or heaps.
If we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that "in the
beginning" things were going along quite well. At some point, however,
there was a loss of confidence in the way things were going. There was a kind
of primordial panic which produced confusion about what was happening. Rather
than acknowledging this loss of confidence, there was an identification with
the panic and confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first skandha,
the skandha of form.
After the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it feels
about the formation of this experience. If we like the experience, we try to
draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it away, or destroy it. If we feel
neutral about it, we just ignore it. The way we feel about the experience is
called the skandha of form; what we try to do about it is known as the skandha
The next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we can put
it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we would have a whole bag
of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha of concept.
The final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of consciousness.
Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions around and around. This makes ego
feel solid and real. The churning around and around is called samsara --
literally, to whirl about. The way ego feels about its situatuation (skandha of
feeling) determines which of the six realms of existence it creates for itself.
The Six Realms
If ego decides it likes the situation, it begins to churn up all sorts of
ways to possess it. A craving to consume the situation arises and we long to
satisfy that craving. Once we do, a ghost of that craving carries over and we
look around for something else to consume. We get into the habitual pattern of
becoming consumer oriented. Perhaps we order a piece of software for our
computer. We play with it for awhile, until the novelty wears out, and then we
look around for the next piece of software that has the magic glow of not being
possessed yet. Soon we haven't even got the shrink wrap off the current package
when we start looking for the next one. Owning the software and using it
doesn't seem to be as important as wanting it, looking forward to its arrival.
This is known as the hungry ghost realm where we have made an occupation out of
craving. We can never find satisfaction, it is like drinking salt water to quench
Another realm is the animal realm, or having the mind like that of an
animal. Here we find security by making certain that everything is totally
predictable. We only buy blue chip stock, never take a chance and never look at
new possibilities. The thought of new possibilities frightens us and we look
with scorn at anyone who suggests anything innovative. This realm is
characterized by ignorance. We put on blinders and only look straight ahead,
never to the right or left.
The hell realm is characterized by acute aggression. We build a wall of
anger between ourselves and our experience. Everything irritates us, even the
most innocuous, and innocent statement drives us mad with anger. The heat of
our anger is reflected back on us and sends us into a frenzy to escape from our
torture, which in turn causes us to fight even harder and get even angrier. The
whole thing builds on itself until we don't even know if we're fighting with
someone else or ourselves. We are so busy fighting that we can't find an
alternative to fighting; the possibility of alternative never even occurs to
These are the three lower realms. One of the three higher realms is called
the jealous god realm. This pattern of existence is characterized by acute
paranoia. We are always concerned with "making it". Everything is
seen from a competetive point of view. We are always trying to score points,
and trying to prevent others from scoring on us. If someone achieves something
special we become determined to out do them. We never trust anyone; we
"know" they're trying to slip one past us. If someone tries to help
us, we try to figure out their angle. If someone doesn't try to help us, they
are being uncooperative, and we make a note to ourselves that we will get even
later. "Don't get mad, get even," that's our motto.
At some point we might hear about spirituality. We might hear about the
possibility of meditation techniques, imported from some eastern religion, or
mystical western one, that will make our minds peaceful and absorb us into a
universal harmony. We begin to meditate and perform certain rituals and we find
ourselves absorbed into infinite space and blissful states of existence.
Everything sparkles with love and light; we become godlike beings. We become
proud of our godlike powers of meditative absorption. We might even dwell in
the realm of infinite space where thoughts seldom arise to bother us. We ignore
everything that doesn't confirm our godhood. We have manufactured the god
realm, the highest of the six realms of existence. The problem is, that we have
manufactured it. We begin to relax and no longer feel the need to maintain our
exalted state. Eventualy a small sliver of doubt occurs. Have we really made
it? At first we are able to smooth over the question, but eventually the doubt
begins to occur more and more frequently and soon we begin to struggle to
regain our supreme confidence. As soon as we begin to struggle, we fall back
into the lower realms and begin the whole process over and over; from god realm
to jealous god realm to animal realm to hungry ghost realm to hell realm. At
some point we begin to wonder if there isn't some sort of alternative to our
habitual way of dealing with the world. This is the human realm.
The human realm is the only one in which liberation from the six states of
existence is possible. The human realm is characterized by doubt and
inquistiveness and the longing for something better. We are not as absorbed by
the all consuming preoccupations of the other states of being. We begin to wonder
whether it is possible to relate to the world as simple, dignified human
The Eightfold Path
The path to liberation from these miserable states of being, as taught by
the Buddha, has eight points and is known as the eightfold path. The first
point is called right view -- the right way to view the world. Wrong view
occurs when we impose our expectations onto things; expectations about how we
hope things will be, or about how we are afraid things might be. Right view
occurs when we see things simply, as they are. It is an open and accomodating
attitude. We abandon hope and fear and take joy in a simple straight-forward
approach to life.
The second point of the path is called right intention. It proceeds from
right view. If we are able to abandon our expectations, our hopes and fears, we
no longer need to be manipulative. We don't have to try to con situations into
our preconceived notions of how they should be. We work with what is. Our
intentions are pure.
The third aspect of the path is right speech. Once our intentions are pure,
we no longer have to be embarresed about our speech. Since we aren't trying to
manipulate people, we don't have to be hesitant about what we say, nor do we
need to try bluff our way through a conversation with any sort of phony
confidence. We say what needs to be said, very simply in a genuine way.
The fourth point on the path, right discipline, involves a kind of
renunciation. We need to give up our tendency to complicate issues. We practice
simplicity. We have a simple straight-forward relationship with our dinner, our
job, our house and our family. We give up all the unnecessary and frivolous
complications that we usually try to cloud our relationships with.
Right livelihood is the fifth step on the path. It is only natural and right
that we should earn our living. Often, many of us don't particularly enjoy our
jobs. We can't wait to get home from work and begrudge the amount of time that
our job takes away from our enjoyment of the good life. Perhaps, we might wish
we had a more glamorous job. We don't feel that our job in a factory or office
is in keeping with the image we want to project. The truth is, that we should
be glad of our job, whatever it is. We should form a simple relationship with
it. We need to perform it properly, with attention to detail.
The sixth aspect of the path is right effort. Wrong effort is struggle. We
often approach a spiritual discipline as though we need to conquer our evil
side and promote our good side. We are locked in combat with ourselves and try
to obliterate the tiniest negative tendency. Right effort doesn't involve
struggle at all. When we see things as they are, we can work with them, gently
and without any kind of aggression whatsoever.
Right mindfulness, the seventh step, involves precision and clarity. We are
mindful of the tiniest details of our experience. We are mindful of the way we
talk, the way we perform our jobs, our posture, our attitude toward our friends
and family, every detail.
Right concentration, or absorption is the eighth point of the path. Usually
we are absorbed in absentmindedness. Our minds are comletely captivated by all
sorts of entertainment and speculations. Right absorption means that we are
completely absorbed in nowness, in things as they are. This can only happen if
we have some sort of discipline, such as sitting meditation. We might even say
that without the discipline of sitting meditation, we can't walk the eightfold
path at all. Sitting meditation cuts through our absentmindedness. It provides
a space or gap in our preocuppation with ourselves.
Most people have heard of nirvana. It has become equated with a sort of
eastern version of heaven. Actually, nirvana simply means cessation. It is the
cessation of passion, aggression and ignorance; the cessation of the struggle
to prove our existence to the world, to survive. We don't have to struggle to
survive after all. We have already survived. We survive now; the struggle was
just an extra complication that we added to our lives because we had lost our
confidence in the way things are. We no longer need to manipulate things as
they are into things as we would like them to be.