Category Archives: three characteristics

What keeps us from awakening?


At the very center of the graphic chart of all the Buddhist teachings are the Three Marks of Existence:

anicca, the impermanence of all life; anatta, no separate self; and dhukka, suffering that comes from our ongoing argument against the truth of the first two Marks. Hmm, they must be super important to be at the very center, right? They are! When we deeply understand these, then we awaken to a sense of aliveness and joy that lets us celebrate with gratitude this very moment, just as it is.
But most of us just can’t seem to embrace these Marks as true. We either don’t know about them because they’re not talked about in our culture, or we can’t make sense of them. They seem obscure. So, we suffer.
For example, if we get depressed or upset when we see wrinkles or we lose some abilities, we suffer, don’t we? We are not suffering because we are aging, but because we don’t see impermanence as a natural part of life.

The poet Mary Oliver died this week. Her ability to celebrate the natural world and bring meaning into our own lives was a powerful gift. May she be at peace. If anyone knew the nature of impermanence, it was she; for she observed it intimately every morning on her walks in the woods and marshes. That’s the kind of understanding of the nature of things that is not some cerebral notion, but a deep awareness. I am so grateful that she was able to share that wisdom in a way that resonated with so many. (In a 2015 interview, she said, “Lucretius says everything’s a little energy. You go back and you’re these little bits of energy and pretty soon you’re something else.“)
We also suffer when we believe that we are separate isolated entities encased in skin sacks, and that our main job is to polish and promote this separate self we call ‘me’ to obtain respect, power, love, admiration, etc. When our underlying reason to do things is to build up a separate-seeming self, then we feel lost and out of balance, dependent on the approval of others to be okay, and so we suffer.
We are not suffering because we are unlovable or because other people don’t understand us. We are suffering because we believe ourselves to be impermeable solid objects interacting with other solid objects in a stressful game we might win or lose.
If we look more closely at the nature of our existence, how every breath we inhale and exhale reminds us that we are intrinsically connected to all life, then we begin to open to the possibility that we are not alone. Further investigation shows us that skin is not an impermeable barrier that defines the boundary of our being, but is porous and very much engaged in life. And, if we take our investigation to a molecular level, we can see that all life is made up of the same stuff creatively arranged in constantly shifting formations, in a mind-boggling complexity of patterns, systems and networks that, once understood, release any sense of being isolated that we might have. We are all stardust. Not separate at all. And releasing our attachment to the idea of being separate frees us from a great deal of suffering.
Now notice how on the same chart of Buddhist teachings, encircling the Three Marks of Existence at the center are the ‘Three Poisons’: Greed, Aversion and Delusion.
Why, we might wonder, of all the Buddha’s teachings, would these two sets of three be so intimately entwined? Let’s investigate.
Might we say that the Three Poisons keep us from understanding and embracing the Three Marks of Existence? If so, how?
If we see impermanence as something to fight against, then we activate greed to shore up a sense of permanence: ‘If I just had that job, that house, that perfect body, that relationship, etc., then my life would be perfect forevermore.
We activate aversion to go into battle with the idea of impermanence. ‘I refuse to get old and I’ll do everything I can to look younger.’
And, to support the greed and aversion, delusion blinds us to the true nature of existence and creates a smoke screen that tells us that greed is good and we must protect ourselves from all that is ‘other’. Delusion tells us that if we can just get and do all the right things then permanent perfection is possible. Maybe even guaranteed.
If we feel isolated, then we activate greed to build up our fortress of self, believing that the more stuff we have, the more experiences we have, the more respected and desirable this separate self will be.
Aversion is activated at the scary notion of a separate seeming self, something that is learned when we are very young children. We feel we need to always defend this separate self against the ‘enemies’ that we perceive through our lens of fear.
Delusion delights in all this drama, creating mythologies, beliefs and a disorienting fog that together reinforce our belief in a separate self. Think of all the collective cultural myths that support the idea, for example, that life is a competition, that people who look different are dangerous, etc. It’s so easy for people in power to play on these delusions, and then we all suffer.
So the Three Poisons encircle the Three Characteristic of Marks as a hyper-vigilant barrier to deep understanding and awakening. Can we notice these Poisons arising in our experience, prompting our thoughts to play out all kinds of dramas? And instead of condemning what arises, can we just see them for what they are and hold them with a sense of compassion?
When we can do that, when we can perceive the patterns of the threads of thoughts, how they arise and fall away, impermanent and not us, then we can find the heart of the Buddha’s teachings coming alive in our awareness. That’s awakening!

What does Wise View do for you?

In our review of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we come to Wise View.

You might fairly ask, ‘What is this ‘wise’ view and what makes it wise? Am I expected to be lock-step in line with some prefabricated view of things?’

Not at all. Wise View arises out of our own experience when we practice being present and compassionate as we go about our lives. The insight that arises quite naturally is just what we need at the time and is framed in just the way that really speaks to us, because it draws from the pantry of our own life experiences.

Of course, we can have a moment of recognition and clarity while reading or listening to a teacher or a poet. Their words may spark awareness and allow us to more ably identify the nature of the wisdom that is already within us, waiting to be noticed. But in a matter of minutes, hours or days we will most likely forget what the teacher or writer said.

When you have your own insights on a retreat, they stay with you. At the end of the retreat, you might want to take the time to write down the exact wording that can at some point in the future help you in a moment of confusion. But you will be very unlikely to ever forget the experience itself. These moments are like shining jewels, rare, unexpected and treasured.

Insights arise when we give ourselves time to quiet down, center in, preferably in a supportive environment where everyone shares the same intention or out in nature. But even though the insights are shaped in the way we best understand them, offered up from our own still voice within at exactly the time we need it, they unfailing fall into one of three universal understandings. Here’s a typical insight most meditators have on retreat:

Observing the mind at work, we see how thoughts, emotions and sensations pass through our experience, arising and falling away, often the same ones recurring again and again. We see that they are impermanent. Pleasant or unpleasant, misery or euphoria, this too shall pass. Aha!

Observing the impermanent and unreliable nature of these thoughts, emotions and sensations, we begin to understand that they are not us, that they are just what happens at the conflux of chemistry and conditions to the human mind. Just as water passes through river beds and ocean floors and clouds, so too do these mental formations and physical sensations arise and fall away. (Of course the river beds, ocean floors and clouds are also ‘just passing through’.) Aha!

Observing how we relate to our thoughts, emotions and sensations, how we cling to them or push them away, we see how we make ourselves unhappy, disappointed, miserable. Aha!

Can you see the three universal truths within those three insights? In the first we learned about the nature of impermanence, anicca. In the second we got a glimpse of the nature of no separate self, anatta. And in the third we came face to face with dukkha, how we cause suffering. As we have insights, it can be useful to recognize how they fall into these three truths. It provides a comforting confirmation that our practice is indeed fruitful, helping us to maintain wise effort.

So this is why we meditate, why we attend classes and retreats, why we create sangha, that wonderful community of practitioners and others who support us in our practice of meditation. We are not striving for better health or any of the things that turn out to be proven benefits of the practice, though we appreciate them. We give ourselves the gift of being present with compassion, so that we can see more clearly and have the vantage point of what the Buddha called Wise View.