Category Archives: three marks

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.

THREE MARKS or CHARACTERISTICS

  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that you call ‘I’ and ‘me’?

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self-defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer ‘me’ when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)



What keeps us from awakening?

3marks-3poisons500

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.

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.

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.


He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.


So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.


As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.


Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)


Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)


What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.


So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!


Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.


We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.


We can send metta.


Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.


Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?


Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.


Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.


We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.


Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.


Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness to all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be at peace.


* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from Catholiceducation.org: ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.