Our existence in itself manifests the conditions of suffering. This does not mean that non-existence is the only way to transcend suffering. The very first noble truth propounded by Buddha confirms that suffering exists. In his other discourses on this path, he also figured out for us the ways to end this vicious cycle of suffering.
Remember, our suffering is mainly stemmed from our rat race inured with mental formations, feelings, senses, perceptions, observations and cravings. Our ways of clinging, like a monkey waving from tree to other tree, makes us ignorant enough to imbibe our style of living with extreme belief in permanence, self-ness and pursuit of satisfaction. With an intent to supersede this vociferous ignorance of our existence, an equation has been precisely elaborated in Buddha’s theory of ‘three marks of existence’ (impermanence, non-self, and suffering; unsatisfactoriness) aka ‘Tilakkhaṇa’ (in Pali language).
This lengthy research paper authored by me, as part of my academic assignment, concretely examines the substance on the said subject; and, like a raft, guides us to “see things as they’re” with infusion of mindful understanding of humans’ delusions and the ways through which human can cultivate to imbibe the maxims of ‘three marks of existence’.
That humans are subjected to suffering is evident in the focus of Buddha’s four noble truth and eightfold path. These two facets are universal axioms that can be decoded, when primarily ‘three marks of existence’ are deciphered. It is of no doubt that Buddha circumvented speculative questions, when asked. He hinted to seek the answers by yourself.
As noted in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta and other discourses, Buddha would discourage the status of metaphysical issues or questions on Universe, God, Heaven or Hell, etc. but on the other realm, he customised his explanation to different individuals and especially on ‘three marks of existence’, he endeavoured his ‘eightfold noble path’ (correctly reading ‘right view’) to detect the three basic characteristics of existence. And it is only when we directly experience and accordingly (appropriately) understand these three marks, possibility of ‘nirvana’ becomes inevitable.
The first mark of existence — — -
Sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā
“All saṅkhāras (compounded things) are impermanent”
Change is inevitable. All things that are conditional are not bound to stay static. Everything is subjected to change; decay. Everything is changing, in this constant of flux, and thus everything is temporary, too.
We suffer more than we think we can, because we do not — conceptually and also on experiential strata — grasp that ‘everything is impermanent’. The tendencies are such that humans diligently cling to the things or moments and do not intend to release them. Thanks to [the] unwise socialization processes.
To add fuel to the fire, we think that everything will remain the same and also eternal. Be it our attachment, material health or social position. And we selectively appropriate our happiness, with an intent to relieve off only unpleasant factors. Thus, mindlessness owns our mindfulness. The combined effect of all this beget suffering, nevertheless.
Piyadassi Thera (1918–1998), a Theravada Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, writes:
“It is this single and simple word Impermanence (anicca) which is the very core of the Buddha’s teaching, being also the basis for the other two characteristics of existence, Suffering and No-self. The fact of Impermanence means that reality is never static but is dynamic throughout, and that modern scientists are realizing the basic nature of the world without any exception. In his teaching of dynamic reality, the Buddha gave us the master key to open any door we wish. The modern world is using the same master key, but only for material achievements, and is opening door after door with amazing success.”
“Change or impermanence is the essential characteristic of all phenomenal existence. We cannot say of anything, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, “this is lasting”; for even while we are saying this, it would be undergoing change. All is fleeting; the beauty of flowers, the bird’s melody, the bee’s hum, and a sunset’s glory… All component things — that is, all things which arise as the effect of causes, and which in turn give rise to effects — can be crystallized in the single word anicca, impermanence.”
To make it more precise, take the example of our body. Isn’t it constantly changing? Almost every cell in this body regenerates after an epoch of time and it’s not going to be the same after some years from today. Your feelings, your social status or bank balance or the people who like or dislike today are not going to be permanent. Everything inherently has an expiry date. However, this may also not mean that pain may necessarily fade away. What changes is the intricacies of experiences too. But if we mindfully incorporate wholesome paths shelled out by Buddha’s eight noble ways, we can bring about nirvanic changes in the way we think, we live and act.
The second mark of existence — — -
Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkha
“All saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory”
Since humans fail to realise the real lies with their real eyes, the racket of suffering is generated and stays certain. We are prone to suffering, when we disbelieve that conditioned things are permanent. As long as cling, dukkha exists. Dukkha is an amalgamation of pain, sorrow, anxiety, affliction, discomfort, anguish, misery and etc. It’s the root cause of our stress, as these factors do not establish ultimate state of freedom, and thus we’re blocked to attain enlightenment.
Dukkha is not a manifestation of existence. But the product of who we are, ratiocinated with a fake understanding of ‘self’ and verily a lack of understanding of the functions of impermanence. Like impermanence (anicca) or not-self (anatta), dukkha is a pervasive factor of human experiences in many dimensions. Specially, when we’re on autopilot lifestyle — founded on reactivity and craving — and deluding ourselves, we certainly experience and behold dukkha.
Within the literary frame of Buddhism, dukkha is further classified into:
Dukkha-dukkha, The suffering of suffering — This enlists the physical and mental/cognitive sufferings of birth, aging, illness, dying; distress from what is not desirable.
Viparinama-dukkha, The suffering of change — This is the duḥkha of pleasant or happy experiences changing to unpleasant when the causes and conditions that produced the pleasant experiences cease.
Sankhara-dukkha, All-pervasive suffering — the duḥkha of conditioned experience. This includes a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence, all forms of life, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. In this dimension, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
In addition to this, those Five skandhas (pañca khandha) or five heaps or five aggregates, are five psycho-physical aggregates, which according to Buddhist philosophy are the basis for self-grasping. They are:
rupa-skandha — aggregate of form
vedana-skandha — aggregate of sensations
saṃjñā-skandha — aggregate of recognition, labels or ideas
saṃskāra-skandha — aggregate of volitional formations (desires, wishes and tendencies)
vijñāna-skandha — aggregate of consciousness
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1949 — present), an American Buddhist monk, explains “clinging to skandhas leads to suffering” — -
The [discourses] depict the Buddha as saying that he taught only two topics: suffering and the end of suffering. A survey of the Pali discourses shows him using the concept of the skhandhas to answer the primary questions related to those topics: What is suffering? How is it caused? What can be done to bring those causes to an end? In the Buddhist view, by contemplating on the characteristics of the skandhas, and coming to understand that the skandhas, and thus all of our life experiences, are constantly changing and dependent on multiple causes and conditions, we can overcome our attachment to our concept of self. In the Buddhist view, it is this attachment to self that is the root cause of suffering. Therefore, by letting go of this attachment, we can liberate ourselves from suffering. Through mindfulness contemplation, one sees an “aggregate as an aggregate” — sees it arising and dissipating. Such clear seeing creates a space between the aggregate and clinging, a space that will prevent or enervate the arising and propagation of clinging, thereby diminishing future suffering. As clinging disappears, so too notions of a separate “self.”
The third mark of existence — — -
sabbe dhammā anatta
“all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are not self”
The comprehension of the ‘anatta’ school of thought, which is purely and also exclusively Buddhist, is essential in the understanding of the four noble truths and the other maxims of Buddhism. The idea of ‘self’ is simply an ‘ego’. Humans are the products of multiple evolutionary factors and there’s no single, solid or separate self. Non-self is verily the actual core.
As skandhas change, we are not the same for the next consecutive moments. The very idea of “I” or “I am” is the root cause of suffering. While anicca and dukkha apply to “all conditioned phenomena” (saṅkhārā), anattā has a wider scope because it applies to all dhammā without “conditioned, unconditioned” qualification.
Non-self is a particularly important teaching in relation to liberation and is part of a common formula in the suttas that leads to enlightenment. By analyzing the characteristic of not-self as pervading all conditioned phenomena, one is said to become detached and then liberated. One example of this formula can be seen when Rādha asks about the meaning of anatta:
At Savatthi. Sitting to one side, the Venerable Rādha said to Buddha:
“Venerable sir, it is said, ‘nonself, nonself.’ What now, venerable sir, is nonself?”
“Form, Rādha, is nonself, feeling is nonself, perception is nonself, volitional formations are nonself, consciousness is nonself. Seeing thus, Rādha, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”
Rādha is later found asking the Buddha how he should know that I-making, mine-making, and the root of conceit (literally: “I am”) have all been abandoned. The same formula is applied elsewhere in the suttas, with the question itself being asked a number of different times, and a number of different bhikkhus latter attaining enlightenment.
At Savatthi. Then the Venerable Rādha approached the Buddha, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him:
“Venerable sir, how should one know, how should one see so that, in regard to this body with consciousness and in regard to all external signs, I-making, mine-making, and the underlying tendency to conceit no longer occur within?”
“Any kind of form whatsoever … Any kind of feeling whatsoever … Any kind of perception whatsoever … Any kind of volitional formations whatsoever … Any kind of consciousness whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near — one sees all consciousness as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not ‘my self.’ Then the Venerable Rādha … by realizing it for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life … became one of the arahants.
Nagarjuna asserted that the notion of a self is associated with the notion of one’s own identity and corollary ideas of pride, selfishness and a sense of psychophysical personality. This is all false, and leads to bondage in his Madhyamaka thought. There can be no pride nor possessiveness, in someone who accepts Anattā and denies “self” which is the sense of personal identity of oneself, others or anything, states Nagarjuna.
In its soteriological themes, Buddhism has defined nirvana as that blissful state when a person, amongst other things, realizes that he or she has “no self, no soul”
The three marks of existence marks very indelibly the core of Buddhist reasoning of existence. It is neither extreme nor nihilist. Basically, it is the basic ingredient established to astonish our cognition and other aggregates in a manner that helps us ‘cultivate’ the ‘way’ of Nirvana. Nirvana, as a concept alone, has experienced many interpretations and contradictions but it is nonetheless a product of emptiness; the bliss on self-realisation of non-self, that comes from the acknowledgement of three marks of existence.
It is of no doubt that these factors, concepts or facets are multitude in origination, interaction and annihilation at the same time but little do we grasp that three marks of existence forms the very base of understanding the existence and non-existence?
The Three Marks of Existence are an essential Buddhist teaching regarding the nature of experience. A basic teaching of Buddhism, the Three Marks of Existence are three characteristics that all conditioned phenomena share. This means that every sensation, thought, and experience we have is subject to these three marks (anicca, dukkha, and anattā, or impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self.).
The four truths appear in many grammatical forms in the ancient Buddhist texts, and they have both a symbolic and a propositional function. Symbolically, they represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, and of the potential for his followers to reach the same religious experience as him.
The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’).
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The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence (Anicca). (2006). Piyadassi Thera. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel186.html
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Richard Francis Gombrich; Cristina Anna Scherrer-Schaub (2008). Buddhist Studies. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209, for context see pp. 195–223. ISBN 978–81–208–3248–0
Rādhasamyutta”. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya. Wisdom Publications. 2000. p. 987
Khandhasamyutta”. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya. Wisdom Publications. 2000. pp. 909–910.
Nagarjuna, the second century Indian Buddhist philosopher, used shunyata (emptiness) not to characterize the true nature of reality but to deny that anything has any self-existence or reality of its own.
David Loy (2009). Awareness Bound and Unbound: Buddhist Essays. State University of New York Press. pp. 105–106.
Nāgārjuna; David J. Kalupahana (Translator) (1996). Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 56–59.
David Loy (1982), Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?, International Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 23, Issue 1, pages 65–74