The Marks of Existence

Photo by Dennis Jarvis,  Flickr C.C.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis,
Flickr C.C.

Understanding of the three marks of existence comes about as a result of our dedicated meditation practice. Through our dharma practice we have begun to develop clarity and insight. In this way, we can come to understand the three marks of existence intuitively, rather than from a book or even from listening to a teacher. There’s nothing really special about the three marks of existence, it’s simple to notice them if we pay attention.

They are: Impermanence, Non Self, and Suffering

Impermanence:

Realizing the nature of impermanence usually beings with valuing something. We value something and want it to stick around. The fact that things aren’t permanent doesn’t mean as much to us until we realize that we wish they would last forever. We come to realize that all kinds of things could arise and get in the way of our practice, like sickness or death. We see that this chance to walk the path could disappear at any time. Once we realize that this world isn’t permanent, that everything changes all the time, we can start to really see things as they really are. We can come to realize that there’s really nothing for us to cling to. It’s like we’ve been thrown into a swiftly flowing stream and we can’t grasp any of the rocks or tree branches as the currents pull us. We can think of existence in a different way. Once we really understand that things are impermanent, the things we think of as solid and real don’t seem to be so strong. In this way, we can come to a sense of emptiness. When there’s nothing to hold on to, there’s also nothing to be afraid of or worry about.

Non-Self

This is our sense of egolessness. The self that we perceive is largely compiled of our memories, habits, and preconceived ideas. This idea of a self gives us something to hold onto, if we continue to believe in it. But, having realized and understood impermanence, we realize that even the self is not something we can cling to. It’s an illusion. we experience the self as us, but it’s a convenient fiction. In our immediate experience we can realize that there is no self to hold on to. Understanding this naturally arises from understanding impermanence. We noticed everything was empty, then we noticed we are empty too.

Suffering

The third mark of existence is suffering. We suffer in our lives because we don’t understand the first two marks of existence. We want things to be permanent. We want to be able to cling to things, and we are unhappy when we can’t. We want the self to be something we can cling to as well. We want the self to have all the best things. Our idea of a self leads to a constant desire to gain more, a wish that can never be fully satisfied. That is why we suffer.

It’s an understanding of these three marks of existence that inspires us on the path more than almost any other factor. The three marks of existence are a helpful way of trying to understand the world and our place in it. This is one of the first things that the Buddha taught and one of the most fundamental teachings of the Buddhist path.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher and Ch'an Adept living in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. Daniel has a BA in English from KU and handles paperwork for a living.

His teaching style has been compared to that of the earliest Mahayana teachers and Ch'an Masters.

Daniel has taken Bodhisattva Vows in both the Nagarjuna and Asanga lineages and was transmitted the Caodong Ch'an lineage of Master Xu Yun.

Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter