The Three Marks of Existence are the backbone of Vipassana meditation, and they’re one of the tenets that set Buddhism apart from Jainism and Hinduism.
The Three Marks are suffering, impermanence, and not-self. Cheery, right?
Basically, life is marked by suffering because everything that appears disappears (impermanence). If we’re not privy to this disappearing act, then we relate to things as if they’re permanent until life kicks us in the groin through some catastrophic loss or another.
Not only are things impermanent, they’re dependently arisen. “If there’s this, then there’s that. If this arises, that arises. If this ceases, that also ceases.” Basically, nothing comes to or ceases to be on its own. Each being, planet, galaxy, cell, atom, and thought depends on countless causes and conditions to come and go. Things change because the things they depends on change.
Not-self means that, what we take to be an independent, essential body and mind, is really a dependently arisen concept arising from ignorance, contact, form, sensation, perception, habit formations, and discriminating consciousness. There’s no self apart from those parts, and as those parts change, we change. So what we take to be solid and independent, really isn’t solid and independent at all. What we take to be stable really flows like a raging river.
The Abhidamma takes it a step further than the Suttas and maps out all of the parts that those parts depend on, basically creating a psychophysical flowchart of moment-to-moment human existence.
Vipassana is designed to show us all of this in real-time so that we can see through our distorted views about ourselves and the world. Once we have insight into the Three Marks, we can lessen clinging and craving and alleviate suffering.
Sounds reasonable, right? Too bad it’s wrong.
Well, it’s not wrong, it’s just incomplete. “But, JOHN, this is straight Theravada Buddhism. I’d think that, ya know, Sri Lankan monks would know what they’re talking about.”
Well, Harvey, before Westerners flocked to India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc. to get their fix of spiritual wisdom, Theravada Buddhism had fallen into decay. For hundreds of years, actually. Monks mostly just lived together like any hippie commune, and they bowed and chanted at relics. They didn’t meditate, and didn’t study. Then the West came knocking on their door, asking for fulfillment.
So the monks upped their game and rebooted Theravada. They started studying and practicing again. But this reboot was tailor-fitted for what a Western audience could digest. Obviously they had to downplay the tedious Abhidhamma basket and the strict Vinaya. Choice selections from the Sutta Pitaka became the industry standard. They essentially passed on, “Buddha’s Greatest Hits” to the West. And since they were also sort of rediscovering their own roots, it became their standard as well.
Vipassana is a co-creation of East and West. You won’t find it nowhere in the Suttas, Abhidhamma, or Vinaya, but there are hints of it scattered around commentaries. That’s okay, I’m not a purist. I’m a, “Whateverworksist,” and Vipassana works.
However, it neglects nibbana. It filters out all of the more “mystical” aspects of Theravada and gives us a novel not-self-help guide.
The Three Marks weren’t meant to be the end all of practice. They’re the fuel for practice. When we study the Suttas and see how forceful Buddha was when he mentioned things like the Unborn, Uncreated, and Undying, it’s clear that he had something more in mind.
The Three Marks are a means for us to become disillusioned with samsara. Insights into them are what give us the strength and courage, not to make samsara better, but to turn away from it and enter nibbana which is not suffering, not impermanent, and not not-self.
Thinking that the Three Marks are it is what Zennists would call being stuck in illusion-city. It’s a nice place; a place to catch a few Zzz. But it’s not Bodhi.
Nibbana is compared to blowing out a candle. The Three Marks helps us blow it out, sure. But ancient Indians had a different conception of fire than we do. They saw fire as an ever-present, formless element much like air or space. When the conditions were right, that formless fire would take shape trapped by wood or wick.
The trapped fire is compared desire and samsara. The formless fire, the untrapped flame, is nibbana. So Theravada wasn’t about understanding the flame and calling it a day, and it wasn’t about blowing it out and getting lost in a void. It was about understanding it, blowing it out, and then seeing that all the world’s aglow.
In recent decades, many Asian Theravadins have dug back into these teachings, especially Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and much of the Thai Forest Tradition. I think it’s important to just be aware that Theravada isn’t a negative or nihilistic school. It doesn’t just rip the world out from under us and leave it at that. It asks us to turn around and see another aspect of the world. A view that sees the unconditional and unchanging.
Buddhism is a religion, folks. That argument has been going on for decades now. Sure, it doesn’t have to be a religion if we censor all of the myths (which is fine, I think) and soteriological elements of it. But if we make it into a non-religion by removing salvation from the equation, I think it loses half its usefulness. Sorta like only using a lightsaber to make toast.
Beyond all the gods and gimmicks, salvation is what makes a religion a religion.
Would Christianity be a religion without heaven and the forgiveness of sin? No, it’d be a humanistic philosophy with some miracles thrown in for flavor. Would it still be useful? Sure, there’s a lot of shit in the New Testament that’s valuable, like the commandment for us to all love each other. But without salvation, any antisocial introvert could ask, “Why love each other? People are terrible,” and no one would be able to give a satisfying or motivating answer.
“Social cohesion? Pffft, society is crap, let it burn. It feels good to do good? Ha! A lot of things feel good that don’t involve being kind and patient with assholes.” If you took salvation out of Christianity right now, the Vatican would probably go broke over night.
Without salvation, all the main religions become esoteric versions of humanism. And that’s cool, I think. But it isn’t Buddhism. Buddhism’s view is that no matter how well we treat each other or how much we value life and the world and try to make things better, we’re still going to suffer as long as we’re mired in samsaric thoughts and impulses. In my experience, and in this context, I’d say that’s true.
In fact, running around trying to save the world can actually make that flickering candle of suffering grow even brighter. Theravada was all about escape, turning from this dismal world, entering nibbana, and then turning back toward the world and lending a hand. To get someone out of a deep well, you can’t be in the well with them.
Western Theravada and Secular Buddhism are mostly about decorating that well to make it look less depressing. If you’re into Secular and Theravada teachings and you want something that actually helps you climb out of that well, skip most of the gringo-authored modern books (and pretty much any author who doesn’t have an Ajahn or Bhikkhu in their name), and check out the Suttas and Abhidhamma for yourself.
If you’re not into that sorta thing, that’s fine. In that case, I’d recommend Secular Humanism instead. If you’re not into nibbana, then there’s no need to burden yourself with Buddhism. Humanism and modern psychology are less clunky and would have the same results as practicing a non-nibbanic Buddhism.
But if you’re into the early teachings and don’t wanna jump ship, don’t stop with insight into the Three Marks. That’ll just land in you a ghost town.