Mainstream Buddhism is not a school of Buddhism but rather a term used by Eric Cheetham to describe the important elements of the Buddha’s teachings. This diverse religion contains the School of Elders, the Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism. These schools contain their own teachings and practices; however, they are all founded on a shared core of Dharma which we call Mainstream Buddhism.
One of the cores we will be exploring is the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and no self or no ‘I’. These are the nature of the world in which we live in. If we do not clearly understand these, we begin expecting things and not understanding why it is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching.
The Three Marks of Existence are the nature of the world we live in. The Buddha said, “Whether perfect ones do not appear in the world, it still remains a firm condition and an immutable fact and a fixed law that all formations are impermanent, subject to suffering and are without self.” Lets start by exploring the topic of impermanence within the Three Marks of Existence.
Everything in life is impermanent. Our relationships, ideas and opinions, jobs/careers, roads, and yes, even you. As humans, we know this idea but we still tend to cling onto things as if they weren’t. We tend to cling onto this idea because we find comfort knowing this ‘thing’ will be with us during our lifetime. But as many of us have experienced, we may have a promising job one day, and the next the company is going bankrupt and we are laid off. That is just part of the impermanence of life in the view of the Buddha. If we were to truly grasp this idea, then the less we would hold onto outcomes and expectations. For example, I may be in a healthy, loyal relationship today but if I put in my mind that this may not last till the end of my lifetime, if there was a break up, I would more easily deal with it rather than become easily upset because it was suppose to be a ‘happily ever after’ situation. There are things in life we should enjoy in the moment and when the time comes to end, we should not be broken by it. That is impermanence and truly accepting the idea.
Impermanence is the first and only one of the three marks of existence that is inherent in the natural world. We do not like it because we always want to feel safe and secure, and the idea of unpredictability or change is discomforting to many. There are five things over which we have no control over and that is growing old, falling sick, dying, the decaying of our perishable body and the passing away of what is liable to pass. Now, this may be common sense to many and easily accepted when we read about plagues in other countries but when we have an aunt dying of cancer, for example, do we think “oh the Buddha was surely right”? No, we are more likely to think “why her? how could this be happening to us?” It is just easier accept this idea when it is far away and not personal rather than when we are up close and involved with the problem. There is a story about a monk who was a friend of Venerable Myokyo-ni that became ill. He went to his teacher puzzled because he had devoted his life to follow the Buddha and still became ill so he argued that this shouldn’t be happening to him. His teacher responded, “If it shouldn’t, it wouldn’t.” And that is how one should accept impermanence in their lives. The second mark of existence is suffering or dissatisfaction. Impermanence and suffering go hand in hand. We suffer and/or find things unsatisfactory because we do not accept the first sign of impermanence. We all want things to run perfect and smooth but unfortunately, things do not always go as planned. And so because we exist, we also suffer. Often times, we push away the idea or suffering instead of looking at it closely and truly examining it. And so when the moment comes, we are truly broken and question why we must suffer? Why do things not go as planned?
Buddhism wants you to look at suffering as something normal that both you and those around you will experience in your lifetime. If you start exploring it, and truly seeing it for what it is, it lessens. For example, after the passing of a loved one, we may try to push away those upsetting feelings that make us want to cry abruptly or question why this happened to a loved one. Instead, if we truly comprehend that nothing in this world is permanent, that death is unavoidable, and suffering comes with it, we can start the healing process and come to the realization that this was inevitable and all we can do is grow and move on from the experience.
Then there are the people who push away the feeling to a point where it hits you ten times harder and they do not know how to react or move on from it. This too comes with accepting that we exist therefore we suffer. Whether it is the loss of a pet, not being accepted into your dream school, or losing your first love. These are things that every single human being experiences in their lifetime and sometimes thinking of it that way can bring a sort of comfort. But, as humans, we tend to feel invincible or “that won’t ever happen to me”; false! It will happen to us all and if we study these ideas and better understand them, when that moment comes, we will better handle our emotions and situations because we have already accepted this is a part of existing as a human being. Do not avoid suffering; explore it.
The third mark of existence is ‘not self’. This Buddhist teaching asks you to explore the reality of objects and ourselves in depth. Nothing exists alone; everything is dependent of something. In other words, humans, for example, are made up of trillions of cells that are constantly changing and evolving through time. We are different processes not a static object in time. This is important because we constantly label and/or stereotype people/things. We create an unrealistic expectation of people/things. Once you start realizing that, once again, we are impermanent and constantly evolving, we become more responsive rather than reactive.
When you start exploring this idea, you begin to accept that change is normal rather than an unexpected surprise and the impermanence of others becomes more of a reality to you. You soon realize that everything is dependent of something along with the processes at work. This does not necessarily mean that you do not have a ‘self.’ What Buddha is trying to teach you is that your body, emotions, and thoughts are not your ‘self’ because they are constantly evolving and changing with time. You may have been known to be one way during high school: quiet or timid, but then your senior year of high school you are SGA President standing in front of large crowds giving speeches. That’s what the Buddha wants to prove to you: you are constant change.
The first two signs are straightforward and self-evident while the ‘not self’ can be confusing and overwhelming. As one learns more about Buddhism, you begin to realize that the Buddha does not want you to develop into a better or kinder “I”. Instead it wants you to let go of the idea of “I” altogether. Once you follow the practice and let go of the idea of “I”, you are suppose to find joy in life and you are not fearful of what might go wrong. Instead you will fully enjoy life for what it is which is what the heart yearns for anyway. The “I” is the only thing that seeks fame or being well liked; for the heart does not care for either of those things. That is why we have a hard time truly applying this into our lives. Now a days with social media, people want the most ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ but the reality is, that does not fulfill you in anyway, no matter how much the ‘I’ wants you to believe it does.
In a scientific perspective, neuroscience proves that the brain does not have a central driver. In other words, there isn’t a ‘you’ in the brain looking out into the world. Rather, the brain gives rise to thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions, etc. that create the feeling of a self. Once you realize how this process works, you no longer hold onto an idea of yourself and realize it is just an image we have that is also subject to change and impermanence.
The Three Marks of Existence are important in Buddhism because it reveals the true self. We see that nothing is permanent, suffering comes with existing, and nothing exists without dependencies. If you further study and observes these thoughts, you open your mind to a new way of living and accepting things in life that may be more difficult for others who are not familiar with these thoughts. The impermanence of things will teach you that everything in life is constantly evolving and changing. Whether it is a relationship, a job, a country, or yourself. This will help you accept things for what they are and accept that nothing is permanent in this life.
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