Three Marks or Characteristics

Over the past many months of exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we have looked at the nature of impermanence. We’ve looked at physical form, the world around us and our own bodies, and we’ve seen that the only constant is change.

We’ve also come to understand that there is no separate self, that every time we think we can say ‘I am this’, when we investigate we see that we are not that. So there is no isolated fortress of self that we need to defend.

We have learned Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self). These are two of the three Marks or Characteristics that are key to understanding the nature of things. The third mark or characteristic is Dukkha, the quality of unsatisfactoriness that is part of this experience of being alive. Understanding that there is dukkha is the First Noble Truth.

Let’s look more closely at what the word actually means. It’s tricky because there is no perfect English translation. The word dukkha, when broken down into root parts literally means an ill-fitting axle hole. Now that would be very uncomfortable wouldn’t it, to be on a journey and at every turn of the wheel there’s a jolt from the wheel not being properly fitted?


Staying with that image, we can all think of at least a time in our lives when this was certainly how it felt. And if we look closely at the nature of things, we might recognize that quality of ongoing friction or the wheels of our lives being slightly out of balance. This is the quality of suffering the Buddha asks us to acknowledge.

For many of us when we hear the word ‘suffering’ we don’t think of ourselves. We look around at all we have, where we live, all our good fortune, and we feel we would be ungrateful to see suffering in our lives. We put suffering outside ourselves in those who are victims of all the natural and man-made disasters in the news, and certainly there is pain in the world and our compassion is called upon to acknowledge it and perhaps act on that acknowledgement with generosity of spirit, time and resources.

But the kind of suffering we are talking about here is a chronic human condition that most of us ignore. When we tie suffering only to a particular cause or condition, then as long as the conditions of our life are fine, then we are not suffering. If we and our loved ones are healthy and none of them has died recently, then we are fine. We are blind to the chronic suffering of ourselves and others, because we just look at the nice house, the shiny car, the successful career, the healthy body, etc. and conclude that we or they must be happy. But if we are really paying attention, we might notice that even when everything is fine we hope these conditions will continue and fear illness, turns of fortune, aging and death for ourselves and our loved ones. This wanting things to stay the same or wanting things to be different is dukkha, and it’s universal.


We may feel we have no right to such feelings, given all these favorable conditions, so we hide our fear, subsume our feelings in self-destructive behavior, and/or focus on the ‘positive.’ We may ignore the truth that gnaws inside us and we create a false persona. Constantly trying to sustain that false persona is one bumpy ride where we never feel completely at ease, isn’t it?

So the Buddha asks us to look at dukkha, that ill-fitting axle hole of life experience, and acknowledge it. That is the First Noble Truth.

Fortunately there are three more Noble Truths that disprove the rumor that Buddhism is a gloom and doom tradition. In fact, there is infinite joy in the Buddha’s teachings. But the joy is not conditioned on external causes. As we explored in the Awakening Factors in the previous post, this joy is a pervading quality that arises out of the practice of being fully present and compassionate with ourselves when we haven’t been present. We can experience a quiet balanced sense of joy and gratitude regardless of what we are going through in our lives, regardless of the bad news we’ve just received. This is not a training to be insensitive or uncaring. It’s a training in being spacious enough to hold all that comes in loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.

If you’ve been following along in our investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you might notice that this quality of dukkha pretty much sums up what it’s like to live with the Hindrances and Aggregates we studied earlier. The Five Hindrances are: lust/craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, restlessness & worry, and doubt. The Five Aggregates — our body, our preferences, our knowledge or understanding of the world, our urges and intentions, and our consciousness —  get us into trouble when we believe them to be permanent, separate and under our control.

Not understanding annata (impermanence) and annica (no self) leaves us with the experience of dukkha (suffering). Conversely, as we come to understand the nature of annata and annica, then we develop the ability to be soften and even dissolve patterns of dukkha.

So we can see why the Buddha developed the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: Through them we can see for ourselves the truth of impermanence and no self, and we are given the tools to release suffering that we create in our lives.

This is an ongoing practice, so do not despair if you feel you haven’t ‘got it’. Just keep practicing the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with yourself when you discover you haven’t been present at all. Remind yourself that in this moment of recognition you are present! That is cause for celebration not harsh judgment.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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