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!