Buddhism 101 #1 The Three Marks of Existence

What is a river?

From a basic Buddhist website using rather stiff, traditional language we can find:

“All saṅkhāras (compounded things) are impermanent”: Sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā

“All saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory”: Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā

“All dhammas (all things including the unconditioned) are without self”: Sabbe dhammā anattā[2]


Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a living Tibetan Buddhist master – who happens to make fun films like “The Cup” – translates them thusly:

All compounded things are impermanent

All emotions are painful

All phenomena are without inherent existence


In future, I won’t be going to the traditional languages much in this series but wanted to give the reader a taste to start with since this is often all most people ever read. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the language per se, it’s just rather dry and needs a bit of linguistic prising to open up and reveal itself better.

In any case, let us translate them now as follows:

All outer and inner phenomena are in continuous flux

All sentient experience involves suffering

All phenomena, including any sense of continuous self, are non-existing fictions.

These are three aspects of the same thing viewed from a slightly different angle. We do not need to get complicated. The first one states simply that everything is impermanent because everything that comes together at some point falls apart. But we can get a little more microscopic, or precise: everything is changing all the time and thus has no permanent existence; with a quantum microscope, for example, we can see this on the molecular level. But we don’t need scientific instruments for this: as human beings we can see everything we need on our own level of perception: we know that we are always breathing, our hearts are always pumping and blood is always flowing and thus we are in a constant state of movement, never being exactly the same moment after moment throughout our lives. Further, we all know we begin as infants and end up as wrinkled old senior citizens – if we live that long. At any given moment we are different than any given preceding moment. This we all know to be true. It’s very simple.

Let’s now jump to the last one: any sense of self is false, moreover any sense of anything is false. The classic example made famous by Herman Hesse is that of a river, but again if we have a quantum microscope we can see that even seemingly solid, unmoving objects like large rocks are actually rivers of continuously streaming particles (the infamous ‘quanta’) in constant motion. If you live near a large river then every morning you wake up you know it is there; some days it may be larger or smaller depending on the season and whether or not it rained or snowed last night, but it’s always there. If you go and sit on its bank and contemplate its nature it doesn’t take an Einsteinian IQ to realize that actually ‘river’ is a concept, a label. The actual thing is continuously moving water which is never the same from one moment to the next, not even the same water, nor the exact same currents. And of course this is just as true – in spades – if you are contemplating clouds or the ocean as opposed to a river. And indeed this is true of everything, absolutely everything.

On top of that, we can add in that the sun is always in a different place, the temperature and weather are always different, the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun is never the same twice nor the Sun in relation to our particular galaxy nor our galaxy in relation to others and so on ad infinitum. So this is back to change again, the first one. But that first one implies this third one, namely that nothing that we see or experience that seems to be solid and permanent actually has any solid, permanent or ‘inherent’ existence per se. We can call things ‘rivers’ or ‘trees’ or ‘me’ or ‘you’ or ‘my house’ or ‘my street’ or ‘my country’ but that doesn’t make them solid or permanently real as such.

The second one is what happens every time we try to make things feel solid and real, like ‘me’ or ‘my room’ or ‘my life.’ Because everything is in continuous flux without any inherent existence, trying to make them – including ourselves – feel permanent or solid is a struggle, a fight, an imposition of fiction over reality which automatically causes some sort of stress which we experience as continuous underlying anxiety. This continuous undercurrent of stress, or existential anxiety, is what is most often translated as ‘suffering.’ Basically, it’s going against the flow of reality – which is never the same thing twice – by trying to make things seem permanent, predictable, understandable, solid – aka ‘real.’

In one-word form, these can be called:

Suffering, impermanence and egolessness.

The second two are sort of abstract observations; the first – suffering – is what we feel. It’s the price we pay for being a life form struggling to maintain some sense of continuity and selfhood. We are all like butterflies who, after a long, complex process from egg to larvae to chrysalis to winged marvel live for a very short period of time relatively speaking and then soon vanish forever. It’s all rather splendid and glorious but also evanescent, poignant, painful.

In any case, not long after his Enlightenment experience the Buddha came up with his Four Noble Truths which are similar to the Three Marks in that they cannot be denied or argued away but which focus more on the experiential side of things, the journey of a sentient being through this dreamlike continuum built on the foundation of impermanence and insubstantiality. Or put another way: how to live and not be trapped in existential anxiety, aka ‘suffering.’ For there is a conundrum: if suffering, impermanence and egolessness are inescapable, how can one eliminate suffering, if at all? Answering that question is another topic…

Meanwhile, one final little thought: in many ways the haiku art form is an expression of these three marks: some sort of context is presented and within that context arises a burst of colour, some life, some feeling. And nearly always that feeling, that life, will have an element not just of vivid awareness, but also passion, poignancy, sadness. It’s never too blunt because vivid awareness has an uplifted aspect which can’t be entirely quashed by poignancy, but the combination of brilliance and beauty with impermanence and emptiness is often what makes for the quintessential haiku experience.

(You see, these things do fit together somehow!)

Published by The Baron

Retired non-profit administrator.

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