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Buddhism: The three “marks” or characteristics of existence, the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, and logical reasons for doing it this way: I’m not a Buddhist, but it makes some sense to me.


Gandhara Buddha circa 1900 years ago, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Wikipedia: “In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics (Palitilakkhaa; Sanskritत्रिलक्षण, trilakaa) of all existence and beings, namely impermanence (aniccā), unsatisfactoriness or suffering (duḥkha),and non-self (anattā).”

  1. Impermanence: simply, this means that everything changes.  There is nothing which is constant.  We want things to stay the same, but we know that they always change.
  2. Suffering: all that exists is “unsatisfactory” or “incapable of satisfying” or marked by suffering.  We know that when we reach a goal, we find it unsatisfactory; most people set new goals when they discover that the ones they have reached are not satisfying.  Most people do not stand back and realize that all their goals, the ones they have reached and the ones that they set, will not satisfy.  If you were to realize that any goal could not satisfy you, perhaps you would stop making goals and decide to just live with it.  Most people could not tolerate the idea of just living with the suffering; toleration is not in their nature.  Instead, I will decide to tolerate the lack of satisfactoriness and live with suffering.
  3. Non-self: this means that there is no permanent, unchanging soul.  We ourselves feel as if we are always the same person, but we are not.  This is liberating if we can really feel it– if we do not change, we will feel regret for what we have done wrong in the past.

Each of these three “marks of existence” is characterized by change: nothing stays the same, no goal can satisfy you, and you are not a permanent, unchanging person.

Change is difficult to live with.  We want things to stay the same.  If things were always the same, they would be easier to understand and work with.  Instead, we are forced to live with change against our wills.

The Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering is an innate characteristic of the world.
  2. Suffering results from attachment to the world or desire/craving.
  3. Suffering can be ended by renouncing attachment or desire.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to renouncement of desire and the end of suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right view. Our actions have consequences into the next life; death is not the end– there is rebirth (there are three worlds in Buddhism: life, hell/underworld, heaven).
  2. Right resolve.  (Intention/aspiration/motivation)  Here the monastic gives up home and adopts the life of a mendicant.
  3. RIght speech. No lying, no rudeness, no gossip (telling one person what another says about him to cause discord or harm their relationship with one another).
  4. Right conduct. No killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.  Here the monastic gives up sex altogether.
  5. Right livelihood. Gain your livelihood by benefiting others; don’t sell weapons, poisons, or intoxicants.  The monastic lives by begging and accepts only what he/she needs.
  6. Right effort. Try to restrain your senses; generate wholesome states (the seven factors of awakening) and prevent unwholesome states (including the five hindrances).
  7. Right mindfulness. Never be absent-minded; always be conscious of what you are doing.
  8. Right meditation. Concentrate on one point and aim at insight.

These practices are said to lead you to liberation from the painful cycle of death and rebirth.  Working on this makes you a Bodhisattva on the path to Buddhahood (a very, very, very long path).

The seven factors of awakening that lead to enlightenment:

  1. Mindfulness.  Maintain awareness of reality (dharma).
  2. Investigation.  Investigate the nature of reality.
  3. Energy or determination/effort.
  4. Joy or rapture.
  5. Relaxation or tranquility.
  6. Concentration.  A calm, one-pointed state of mind or clear awareness.
  7. Equanimity.  To accept reality as it is without craving or aversion.

Wikipedia: “In the Samyutta Nikaya’s “Fire Discourse,” the Buddha identifies that mindfulness is “always useful” (sabbatthika); while, when one’s mind is sluggish, one should develop the enlightenment factors of investigation, energy and joy; and, when one’s mind is excited, one should develop the enlightenment factors of tranquility, concentration and equanimity.”

The five hindrances:

  1. Sensual pleasure.
  2. Ill-will.
  3. Sloth or torpor.
  4. Restlessness or worry.
  5. Doubt.

The four Virtues, immeasurables or infinite minds:

  1. Loving kindness.
  2. Compassion.
  3. Sympathetic joy.
  4. Equanimity.

There is clearly some overlap here: equanimity is listed as one of the seven factors that lead to enlightenment as well as one of the four Virtues.  I think that there may be two or more senses of the word equanimity.  “Joy or rapture” as one of the seven factors is also listed under “Sympathetic joy” for, I think, similar reasons.

I’m giving these lists as a shorthand way to explain what the Buddhists were trying to convey and what Buddha said; words are never sufficient to convey the concepts that are described.  The path of liberation from the cycle of birth and death is subtle and complex, and mere descriptions are not enough to set you on that path.

There is also room for argument: there is no clear evidence for such a thing as a cycle, no evidence for rebirth, no evidence for heaven or hell.  Our lives lead in a straight line from birth to death, and death appears to be the end of everything for each one of us.  If one is a Buddhist, one accepts on faith that there is a cycle.

There is also logic in rolling everything up this way: otherwise, one would be free to do evil and try to get away with it– and doing good without getting a benefit means there’s no reward.  Adding the cycle into one’s reckoning means that one can never “get away” with anything, and if one’s good deeds are not rewarded now, they will be later.

Those are my thoughts on the subject, briefly.  I’m getting close to my self-imposed one-thousand-word limit, so I’ll have to continue this later.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2020-06-27 7:27 PM

    Really nice article! Hoping to be helpful with this Devanagari transliteration – त्रिलक्षण


    • 2020-06-27 7:28 PM

      Ah, I see that WordPress changed mine too to read like yours. You probably had it right in the first place.


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