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Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks or The Three Basic Facts of Existence

In Buddhism, the Three Marks of Existence are three characteristics shared by all sentient beings, namely impermanence (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and non-self (anatta).

AnnicaImpermanence – Nothing ever stays the same, and change is often painful in some way. You fall in love with your young lover who promises their love is forever. They then grow old with you. Then they die. As they grew older, they changed, becoming slower, in more pain, and perhaps with difficulty thinking straight. Once they die, they change physically; one way or another they decompose, returning to the environment and becoming part of something new. Remember hearing about the “Cycle of Life?” A cycle is a series of changes.

DukkhaSuffering – We’ve talked about this a lot here in the past. This isn’t simple physical pain that we’re talking about, although that’s certainly a part of it. Some of the dukka results from our desire to fight impermanence. You want to hold on to the things that are changing. No one wants to grow old and die, and sometimes it’s a real fight. Dukka isn’t always this dramatic though- sometimes it’s a simpler desire- like the desire to smack that guy in the restaurant who won’t get off his cell phone, or the need for a new car. What all these various types of suffering have in common is desire, the root of all suffering.

AnnataNon-Self – (Also called Anatman) This is the hardest to grasp for most of us. I mentioned a decomposing body above; aren’t you really the same body right now? Isn’t part of you made up of people that came before, both physically (raw materials) and genetically? Are you the same person you were when you were five years old? Are you even the same person you were yesterday? Which part of your body is really you? You can’t pick a single point? You can sense many parts of your body, but can’t you also sense what’s going on around you in the room? Are you a part of the room? Yes. Is the room a part of you? That’s one to meditate on.

Impermanence – Not Even the Mountains?

Impermanence – Not Even the Mountains?

A reader wrote:

I’m a big fan of your Daily Buddhism blog and thought that you’d be interested in seeing this 8-minute film that I recently made about impermanence, “Mountains Made of Chalk, Fall into the Sea, Eventually.”

The synergy of creative collaboration can result in magic beyond our imagining.  Witnessing Genna Panzarella paint this 8×10′ mural of Mt. Tamalpais as it was when it was whole, literally inside of what used to be the mountaintop, is akin to stealing a peek through the kimono of mystery… the misty mystery of impermanence.

The project bears a great resemblance to the process of making a Sand Painting.

You are welcome to link to it in your blog if you feel that it would be a worthy addition to it.

Mountains Made of Chalk, Fall into the Sea, Eventually. from Gary Yost on Vimeo.

My Response:

Well, there it is, up there in the link. Take a minute (or eight) to watch the movie. As you point out, it is similar in many ways to the monks who do sand mandalas [Link to 2009 Mandala Post].

The reasons (mostly Tibetan) monks spend hours or days creating intricate mandalas made of sand seems to be an exercise in patience and concentration. It’s another form of concentration/meditation. When they are finished, they sweep up all that sand and destroy the beautiful work of art they have been working on, one grain of sand at a time, for days. Why? In many ways, the destruction of the mandala is the most important part of the process.

This erasing of the art demonstrates and exemplifies the Buddhist idea of impermanence. The Pali word for this kind of impermanence is anicca. This lack of permanence extends to everything. Your mood today. Your job. The personal problem you are dealing with this week. Your life. The mountain the artist in the movie is on. The planet Earth itself. None of these things are permanent; some will go away quickly, some take decades, some may take millions of years, but nothing is forever. The knowledge that nothing lasts and that change is the only thing that is inevitable is a big part of the Buddhist’s conception of suffering (dukkha).

How do we get past this idea that everything is temporary? As the mandala-making monks and the chalk artist in the movie above have learned, the best way to deal with it is to embrace change.

Does anyone have an experience or story they’d like to share that demonstrates something you have learned about impermanence? Post in the comments!


Raising Buddhist Children

A reader recently wrote:

Hi Brian,

Glad to see the blog posts are back up. I’m eagerly awaiting new podcasts. Wished your book was an audio book.

I’m emailing today to ask: how do you raise my 5 year old buddhist? I think he’ll benefit tremendously from meditation and his mind hasn’t been packed with my family’s Catholic tradition. When do you get a kid started? How do I start him?

Thanks again for all your work on the website.

My Response:

First, I should point out that The Five-Minute Buddhist’s Buddhism Quick Start Guide is available as an audio book, as well as paperback or eBook for all major platforms. The big books may be coming someday, but there’s no schedule for that yet.

Now on to your real question. I don’t have any children, but have taken a bit of time to think through this. Hopefully, we’ll get some advice from someone with experience in the comments below the post.

I don’t know if there is an especially good time to “start” a child on Buddhism other than right now, as soon as you decide that you want your child to learn about it. The best way to “get into” any religion is to simply live with it from day to day. Let your child see you meditate, and hopefully, they’ll want to join in if they see mommy or daddy doing it.

I remember at that age, my grandparents gave me at least one big book of Bible stories, and I know I really enjoyed that book, not realizing that I was being indoctrinated as well. It’s not subtle, but storybooks not only help teach your child to read, but also instill whatever values and lessons are inside those stories. After a quick search on Amazon, here are a few that I found that look promising:

All four of those are very highly rated, but there are dozens of similar titles available.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you want to indoctrinate (that’s an ugly word) your child into Buddhism, or allow them to make their own choices like you did. I don’t know what your path to choosing/accepting Buddhism was, but if you’re like most Westerners, you came here from some other religious background. You may want to simply live your life as a Buddhist and be a good example for your children without pushing them either way. That’s up to you, but it’s a point to be considered.

There are a lot of opinions on this. The topic has come up before here {LINK} in relation to discipline, but the comments after the post are definitely worth reading.

If you have an opinion or advice on children and Buddhist parenting, please post it in the comments or email me.


Reality TV and the Fifth Precept

A reader wrote in:

I just got through reading about the five precepts. Whew. There are some tough ideas in there to try to put into practice. If the idea of not watching my favorite reality television show causes me great suffering, shouldn’t I watch it? I say this half-joking. I don’t think that there is anything redeeming about reality television. It’s negative and preys on people’s misfortune. I guess that I am drawn by the outrageous suffering – an ugly human trait. I find that it makes me feel better about my own problems. I view it like junk food for your brain. I figure a bag once a week isn’t so bad. But, maybe I should reconsider. 

Have a great week!

My response:

The original question, I suspect, is referencing my quote of Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Fifth Precept.

About the only “reality show” I watch is “Life Below Zero,” about several groups of people living in northern Alaska. Each week, they have some kind of real, non-manufactured challenge to work around. They usually master the situation, but sometimes, nature gets the upper hand. This is a show about people overcoming hardships and making a life where people really aren’t meant to be. Granted, there is always a cameraman there, so the “danger” of some of the situations may be exaggerated a little, but the overall tone of the show is uplifting. I’d recommend it. 

I’m not here to push my favorite shows on you, but there is a big difference between something like Life below Zero and the Kardashians

I’m not about to slam TV in general; I watch plenty of shows. But the ones that are purely negative, and you know which ones I mean if you watch them, are bad for you. Right mindfulness, Right concentration, several other steps of the Path could apply to this situation. You think about the strife and discord on those shows, and before long, you start worrying and dwelling on that stuff, and it spills over into your own life. As Thich Nhat Hanh said in that original post, it’s a kind of toxin.

Why does negative TV, like the shows you describe, make you feel better by seeing that other people have worse lives than you do? We all have issues and problems in our day-to-day lives, and there’s no way around that for any of us, celebrities and the wealthy included. In many ways it’s the same thing as watching a train wreck or a traffic accident on the side of the road— it’s hard to not watch sometimes.

To put a positive spin on the issue, seeing other people’s suffering gives us a sense of community and togetherness; it reinforces the idea that we’re all in this together. Also, we tend not to appreciate what we really have unless we have some frame of reference for comparison, and both positive and negative frames are needed. It’s not psychologically or spiritually healthy to actually take joy in their suffering, but in a way it feels good to know that our lives aren’t any worse than those people on TV.

As you point out in your note, you know that’s not good. And from the Buddhist point of view, it’s definitely wrong. The goal for any Buddhist should be to eliminate suffering wherever possible, not be entertained by it. You probably can’t really do anything to help those people on TV (and their problems were most likely recorded months ago anyway), but there’s plenty of other more wholesome, more healthy activities you could be doing instead of TV— or even more positive shows to watchif TV is important to you.

It’s hard to avoid experiencing negativity in the modern world, but there’s no reason you should make a conscious effort to invite it into your life. Work to make your own life, and the lives of those around you, better.

What do you think? Post your comments on the site below. Got any GOOD and POSITIVE shows to recommend?

Eat Your Vegetables!

Dear Brian, 

I am thinking about converting into Buddhism. To me it just feels right. Although after listening to your introduction about the 5 Precepts, I find it hard to follow the 1st and the 5th. 

I have been to Iraq and fortunately I wasn’t put in a position to take another person’s life. I don’t think that I could live with myself, although many others didn’t have a choice… Since then I don’t feel comfortable harming a life, great or small. My problem lies in my being a vegetarian. My wife has hard enough of a time getting me to eat my vegetables now. I know that the mass suffering and the mass murder is very wrong, and I also know that by choosing to eat meat that I condone the chaos. At the same time right now I can’t imagine being a vegetarian. 

For the 5th Precept, I do drink an occasional beer and have a coffee almost daily, but neither excessively. I usually find myself the designated driver. My question is, can I call myself a Buddhist when I have problems with the fundamental elements if Buddhism? Perhaps later in my life I will correct these problems, but for now I am at a loss for what to do. 

I appreciate what you are doing, and look forward to your thoughts about the matter.    
My Response:
The short answer is that Buddha didn’t say anything about being a vegetarian.  Actually, according to legend, he died from eating spoiled pork. Then again, back in those days, they didn’t have factory-farms, and animals lived a much more “natural” life than they do now.

Here are what I consider the important factors to consider when deciding about vegetarianism:

The food chain and the chain of life are intertwined. No matter what you eat, something dies. There’s no way to avoid that. When judging what kinds of things we eat, it usually boils down to how “sentient” the creature is.

We don’t eat other people. Yes, it’s illegal, but it’s primarily because we can empathize with other people. We recognize that they are sentient and intelligent, and they react just like we would in most circumstances. We wouldn’t want to be eaten, so we don’t eat others of our own kind.

Chickens, cows, pigs, and other food animals are less intelligent than humans, and are generally eaten by most people. On the other hand, how many Americans would eat a dog or cat? Dogs and cats are, in our society, often seen as part of the household, part of the family, and possibly even as surrogate children in some cases. We would never eat one, yet in other countries, where cats and dogs are held in less regard, they often become meals. Are American dogs more evolved or more sentient than in other parts of the world? Of course not– it’s just a matter of perception.

Plants are (we must assume) less intelligent than animals, but they are undoubtedly alive– and we eat them all the time. We have to eat something and plants are the fursthest thing down the list that is edible.

A huge number of people in Asia identify as Buddhist… Do you suppose they are all vegetarians? Definitely not!  Still, keep in mind, many monks and very devout Buddhists choose to be vegetarians, mostly due to the reasons you have mentioned. It seems that the more thought and focus you put into the subject, the more likely you are to choose vegetarianism. Again, that’s a choice, but it’s not a choice that most Buddhists make.

Personally, I’ve always thought that being a vegetarian would be the best thing for me, but I fully admit, I don’t have that kind of willpower. I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for being in the same situation. Do I feel guilty for eating cheeseburgers? Yes, but feeling guilt is a post for another time.

Thanks a lot for the email!