Along with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, one of the core beliefs of Buddhists is the notion that there are three basic characteristics or “marks” of existence – dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self).
In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta and other discourses the Buddha avoided entering into a debate over many ontological or metaphysical issues, such as whether the Universe is infinite or finite, believing that such disputes do not help us end suffering. Yet, the Buddha apparently did not have the same stance toward the proposition that dukkha, anicca, and anatta are three basic characteristics of existence or reality. In his view, the correct understanding of these three marks of existence is an essential aspect of “right view”; and it is only when we directly experience and appropriately conceptualize these three marks, that we can be truly liberated from suffering and attain a happiness not disturbed by unpleasant conditions.
The notion that dukkha, anicca, and anatta are three basic characteristics of reality is thus, for all Buddhists – both secular and traditional – accepted as both a true statement about reality and an essential prescription to end suffering.
I will argue in this blog post that dukkha, anicca, and anatta are more fruitfully understood not as three marks of existence but rather as three pervasive factors of human experience in its existential-psychological dimension. These factors arise in our experience because of the mutual interaction of who we are as human beings (including our unique capacities and tendencies), social conditions, and natural processes.
In my view, dukkha, anicca, and anatta do not describe the way the world “really” or ultimately is below or behind the world of forms and appearances. To understand these factors of human experience in this way is to mistakenly “ontologize” them, to elevate them to primary or basic attributes of existence. In this respect, while Buddhism is non-theistic, the notion of three marks of existence results in the same split between the phenomena of the day to day world and some “really real” or ultimate dimension of life which is an essential feature of all religions. In my view, a consistent and thoroughgoing secular Buddhism should avoid the mistake of transforming these three vital factors of human experience into something foundational or primary.
In what follows I discuss each of the factors, and then briefly indicate the implications of the approach I’m taking for our meditative practice. To be clear: my focus here is not to explore what is the most appropriate interpretation of the Buddha’s position on these factors, but to offer, in contrast to the prevailing view among contemporary Buddhist teachers of various lineages, an alternative perspective on anicca, anatta, and dukkha for practitioners.
The notion of impermanence (anicca) is perhaps the most central concept of Buddhism. We, as Buddhists, “get” impermanence; we recognize that impermanence is a ubiquitous aspect of life.
The Buddha understood that we suffer more than we need to because we don’t grasp – conceptually and on an experiential level – that everything is impermanent. We have a human tendency to want to hold on to the things and processes that are pleasant to us, but because things are changing all the time, we cannot hold on to or fix in place what we experience as pleasant. Conversely, that which is unpleasant to us and which we want to push away, will not remain forever; all phenomena, being impermanent, will “pass away.” Thus, the combined impact of our failure to grasp the ubiquity of impermanence and our tendency to crave (to want to hold on to the pleasant and push away the unpleasant) creates unnecessary suffering.
While reflection and reading on impermanence are crucial, meditative practice is essential for grasping the role of impermanence. In meditation we can observe how things and processes are changing all the time. The pain in the back that seems constant is actually a shifting array of sensations and feelings. A troubling thought emerges and then passes away. The pleasant sensation of a cool breeze becomes a chill. When we can relax into our experiences with the understanding that change is ever-present, we are less likely to suffer.
This is a tremendously valuable insight about how impermanence is a factor in human beings’ experience of suffering. Yet, to move from this insight to the view that impermanence is a fundamental characteristic of existence is unwarranted. Why is impermanence any more fundamental or basic than permanence as an ontological attribute? One could say that the fact that things change all the time is itself a permanent aspect of existence. It is also a permanent feature of human beings that we tend to crave. Or, that if we don’t breathe, we don’t live. Permanence is thus just as significant a factor in our experience as is impermanence.
In fact, we cannot even recognize impermanence unless we have the backdrop of something permanent with which to notice impermanence. Consistent with the Buddhist take on impermanence, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus highlighted the constant change or flux of existence when he said that “No man steps in the same river twice,” but we experience the river as flowing because there are “permanent” river banks through which the river flows. Similarly, the clouds that move in the sky (an image often used by Buddhist teachers to represent the evanescent nature of thoughts) are experienced as temporary phenomena because they move through a “permanent” sky.
All of this is not to say that impermanence is not an important factor, but that, as secular Buddhists, we need not adhere to the notion that impermanence represents some universal truth about the world or a “mark of existence.”
Similarly, the Buddhist concept of “not-self” (anatta) captures an important factor in our experience, but does not represent a universal truth.
It is true, as the Buddha asserted, that if we try to find the self – defined as a substantial, independent entity which has complete control over our experience – it is nowhere to be found. When we look for such a self, what we find instead are experiences of discrete types; namely, the five skandhas – form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. But because human beings tend to believe that they have a substantial self over and beyond these five skandhas, they tend to over identify with experiential phenomena. This process of over identification, combined with the human tendency to crave, causes unnecessary suffering. We view as “me” and “mine” phenomena which we don’t have full control over and whose existence is the result of a myriad of interconnected causes; and this inappropriate “selfing” leads to a greater intensification and narrative elaboration of the pleasant or unpleasant experiences which we have.
An example often cited by meditation teachers of this process is the following: someone feels depressed and sad. The feelings and “mental formation” of sadness and depression are then transformed into the notion, “I am a depressed and sad person.” In effect, he/she has come to “own” the depression and sadness; it is seen as a permanent part of them. As a result, the depression and sadness are strengthened and consolidated insofar as the person believes that this reflects who they “are,” their basic “self.”
Loosening the grip of this process by learning how to move away from over identification with phenomena is essential to reducing unnecessary suffering. As with the understanding of impermanence, we cannot just rely on reflection and reading to develop a different sense of self; we need meditative practice to find out that a self-sufficient, substantive self cannot be found and that the very boundary between ourselves and the so-called “external” world is porous, not distinct. Overall, through meditation, we gain a greater ability to view what we experience as “impersonal,” part of the interconnected flow of causes of causes and conditions.
The sense that the self is a self-sufficient, substantive entity seems completely obvious and common sense to us. That such a notion of the self is so pervasive is, I would argue, due to two factors. First, as a conscious, biological organism, the imperative of survival predisposes us to see ourselves as “owning” a distinct self. Second, as a result of social conditioning in a capitalist society and the emphasis placed on individualism, we tend to see “my” self as the center and prime mover of our existence.
Given the obduracy of these factors, the Buddha’s understanding that belief in a self-sufficient, substantive self leads to unnecessary suffering is very difficult to fully realize. Yet, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu has emphasized, the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings on anatta was to offer us a strategy for how to make progress in this very difficult area. The Buddha was trying to show us “how to use perceptions of self and not-self as strategies leading to a happiness that’s reliable and true.” According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, what he was not offering was a particular doctrine of what the self is or isn’t.
The problem is that the notion of anatta has been elaborated into just such an ontological doctrine by all Buddhist lineages. The first step was to transform the contrasting perceptions of self and not-self that the Buddha urged that we cultivate in meditation into a dichotomy between, on the one hand, a false/ontologically non-existent, substantial self and, on the other, a true/ontologically existent, self qua succession of experiences of the five skandhas. The next step was to categorize the former as a phenomenal form which is part of the relative or conventional realm while the latter is a constituent of an absolute or ultimate realm.
Consistent with this approach, when asked whether the self is real, the Dalai Lama replied that the self is real in a conventional or relative sense, but it is not an objective or “really real” entity: “Hence we can only speak of a self conventionally or nominally—in the framework of language and consensual reality. In brief, all phenomena exist merely in dependence upon their name, through the power of worldly convention.”
But this dichotomy is based on a false set of alternatives. It assumes that either one believes in a self-sufficient, substantive self or one believes that the self is simply the succession of experiences of the five skandhas and thus lacks or is “empty” of any substance. In fact, there are many other ways of conceptualizing the self, as is abundantly evident in various philosophical, psychological, and sociological theories.
For example, one can conceive of the self as having an individuality and substantiality based on our existence as conscious, biological organisms, but also being conditioned by and dependent on a whole range of “causes and conditions,” including the natural environment, our family of origin, our society, etc. In short, we can recognize that the “self” is a product both of our reality as an individual, conscious being and the multitude of essential relationships with other aspects or parts of reality. Neither is more primary or fundamental in an ontological sense than the other. There is not the relative notion of self and the absolute notion of self; there is simply the self that is both an individual entity and inherently related to other selves and aspects of Nature.
The goal of loosening the grip of what Tara Brach has called the trance of the “small self” or ego remains a vitally important part of the path of individual and social transformation, but working toward this goal does not require one to accept an ontological perspective which divides reality into relative and absolute dimensions based on opposed conceptions of the self. Instead, we should understand the tendency to have a distorted view of self as rooted in who we are as conscious beings and how we are socially conditioned.
The Buddha taught the First Noble Truth: living as a human being entails dukkha, from the mildest discomfort or stress to the most excruciating anguish or misery. And the Buddha’s primary goal as a teacher was to put an end to suffering: “Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress.” The Buddha offered a set of meditative practices and a way of life which could allow us to end suffering.
Yet, as the Buddha well understood, we have happiness and joy in our life, too. So, why is dukkha, rather than happiness, the First Noble Truth? Why is dukkha a primary characteristic or mark of existence instead of happiness or joy? There seems to be no compelling reason to elevate dukkha to a more basic ontological status than happiness.
However, like his teachings on anicca and anatta, the Buddha’s emphasis on dukkha does make sense as a pedagogical strategy rather than an ontological proposition. The Buddha is highlighting the pervasiveness of stress and suffering in our lives; and he is then proposing a radical shift in our way of life to attain, in his view, a permanent basis for happiness.
From this perspective, dukkha is not a mark of existence but the product of who we are, combined with a false understanding of self and a lack of understanding the role of impermanence. Along with anicca and anatta, it is a crucial and pervasive factor of human experience in the existential-psychological dimension. When our actions are on “autopilot” – based on reactivity and craving – and we have a deluded sense of self and change, we experience suffering which goes beyond the unavoidable suffering which comes with being a human being.
If we see anicca, anatta, and dukkha as three interrelated factors of human experience, then the goal of meditation is not to experience directly the “really” real, the absolute, or the ultimate dimension of existence. Instead, it’s about coming to understand through meditative experience, as well as reflection, how these three factors of our experience mutually interact and lead to suffering:
- So, dukkha occurs when we experience life as if we were an independent self who should have all the good things on a permanent basis.
- So, when we forget that impermanence is an integral part of life, we see and experience our life as one in which an independent self must always suffer.
- So, when we get lost in the trance of the egoic self, we don’t recognize the sense in which we are interconnected and dependent on our families, society, and nature, and we then experience life as a permanently suffering, independent self.
Meditation is a mind/heart training which enables us to weaken our tendency or proclivity as a human being to experience life in these unskillful ways and to move toward a more skillful way of experiencing life, not with the ultimate goal of gaining liberation from these factors of experience, but with the aim of reducing our own suffering and participating in the creation of a society which fosters a more realistic, humane experience of life.
 Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire (Majjhima Nikaya 72) http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html
 Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2011), “Selves and Not-self: the Buddhist Teaching on Anatta.” http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html
 In the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, the (false) self vs. (true) “not-self” dichotomy has been expanded to oppose the whole phenomenal world of forms (relative realm) vs. the world qua interconnected process (absolute or “empty” realm).
 Tara Brach (2012), True Refuge, New York: Bantam, p. 20.
 Anuradha Sutta: To Anuradha (Samyutta Nikaya 22.86) http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.086.than.html