The Three Marks of Existence, Dependent Arising, and Emptiness

Anatta, the Three Marks of Existence, Dependent Arising, and Emptiness

The Buddha listed impermanence (anicca) as the first of his three marks of existence—characteristics that apply to everything in the natural order—the other two being suffering (dukkha) and the absence of independent existence (anatta). Nothing in nature is identical with what it was the moment before; in this the Buddha was close to modern science, which has discovered that the relatively stable objects of the macro world derive from particles that are so ephemeral that they barely exist. To underscore life’s fleetingness the Buddha called the components of the human self skandhas—skeins that hang together as loosely as yarn—and the body a “heap,”

its elements no more solidly assembled than grains in a sandpile. But why did the Buddha belabor a point that may seem obvious? Because, he believed, we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow. Followers of the Buddha know well his advice:

Regard this phantom world

As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp—a phantom and a dream.⁸

Given this sense of the radical impermanence of all things finite, we might expect the Buddha’s answer to the question “Do human beings survive bodily death?” to be a flat no, but actually his answer was equivocal. Ordinary people, when they die, leave strands of finite desire that can only be realized in other incarnations; in this sense at least these persons live on.⁹ But what about the arhat,¹⁰ the holy one who has extinguished all such desires; does such a one continue to exist? When a wandering ascetic put this question, the Buddha said:

“The word ‘reborn’ does not apply to him.”

“Then he is not reborn?”

“The term ‘not-reborn’ does not apply to him.”

“To each and all of my questions, Gautama, you have replied in the negative. I am at a loss and bewildered.”

“You ought to be at a loss and bewildered, Vaccha. For this doctrine is profound, recondite, hard to comprehend, rare, excellent, beyond dialectic, subtle, only to be understood by the wise. Let me therefore question you. If there were a fire blazing in front of you, would you know it?”

give an answer?”

“The question is not rightly put, Gautama.”¹¹

Whereupon Buddha brought the discussion to a close by pointing out that “in just the same way” the ascetic had not rightly put his question. “Feelings, perceptions, dispositional tendencies, consciousness—everything by which the arhat might be denoted has passed away for him. Profound, measureless, unfathomable is the arhat, even as the mighty ocean; ‘reborn’ does not apply to him nor ‘not-reborn,’ nor any combination of such terms.”¹²

It contributes to the understanding of this conversation to know that the Indians of that day thought that expiring flames do not really go out, but return to the pure, invisible condition of fire they shared before they visibly appeared. But the real force of the dialogue lies elsewhere. In asking where the fire, conceded to have gone out, had gone, the Buddha was calling attention to the fact that some problems are posed so clumsily by our language as to preclude solution by their very formulation. The question of the illumined person’s existence after death is one such case. If the Buddha had said, “Yes, she does live on,” his listeners would have assumed the persistence of our present mode of experiencing, which the Buddha did not intend. On the other hand, if he had said, “The enlightened one ceases to exist,” his hearers would have assumed that he was consigning such a one to total extinction, which, too, he did not intend.

If we try to form a more detailed picture of the state of nirvana, we shall have to proceed without the Buddha’s help, not only because he realized almost to despair how far the condition transcends the power of words, but also because he refused to wheedle his hearers with previews of coming attractions.

Even so, it is possible to form some notion of the  goal toward which his Path logically points. We have seen that the Buddha regarded the world as one of lawful order in which events are governed by the pervading law of cause and effect he called dependent arising (pratitya samutpada).¹³ Human actions vectored by ignorant desire tend to yield only more of the same. If the trend is unchecked, the wheel of dependent arising only tightens our bondage. Conversely, however, actions vectored by the intention to win spiritual freedom yield their kin. If this trend is cultivated, the wheel of dependent arising starts turning in the other direction, uncoiling our bonds. This is the life of awakening. The life of the arhat, then, is one of increasing freedom. The arhat grows in autonomy as her former unskillful habits of mind and body unravel and fall away. In this sense the arhat is increasingly free not only from the passions and worries of the world, but also from its happenings in general. With every growth of inwardness, peace and freedom replace the whirling blades of a Waring blender that the lives of those who are prey to circumstance resemble.

“For a disciple thus freed, in whose heart dwells peace, there is nothing more to do. Steadfast is the mind, gained is deliverance. Ah happy indeed, the arhats! In them no craving is found. The ‘I am’ conceit is rooted out; confusion’s net is burst. Translucent is their mind!”¹⁴

As long as the arhat remains embodied, her freedom from the particular, the temporal, and the changing cannot be complete. But sever this connection with the arhat’s final death, and freedom from the finite will be complete. We cannot say with certainty what the state would be like, but we can venture something. The ultimate end of the Path is a condition in which all identification with the historical experience of the finite self disappears, while experience as such not only remains, but is heightened beyond recognition. As an inconsequential dream vanishes completely on awakening, as the stars go out in deference to the morning sun, so individual awareness is eclipsed in the limitless light of total awareness. Some say, “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.” Others prefer to think of the dewdrop as opening to receive the sea itself.

A thousand questions remain, but the Buddha is silent.

Others abide our questions. Thou are free.

We ask and ask; thou smilest and art still.¹⁵

What can certainly be said is that spiritual freedom brings largeness of life. The Buddha’s disciples sensed that he embodied immeasurably more of reality—and in that sense was more real—than anyone else they knew; and they testified from their own experience that advance along his Path enlarged their lives as well. Their worlds seemed to expand, and with each step they felt themselves more alive than they had been before.

The preceding reflection on the arhat’s postmortem state arose out of our definition of anatta as no-soul. That definition is correct, but incomplete, and rounding it out will be the last thing we do in this chapter. For the Buddha also used anatta to characterize things no one ever would have claimed had a soul in the first place. “Sabbe dhamma anatta,” the Buddha said. “All things (not only persons) are without-a-self.” What does this mean?

The crux of the Buddha’s Awakening was the discovery of dependent arising: every thing and every process arises in dependence upon countless other things and processes. This is the physicists’ field theory incarnate. Nothing exists on its own. Buddhists often convey this insight with the image of Indra’s Net, a cosmic web laced with jewels at every intersection. Each jewel reflects the others, together with all the reflections in the others. In the deepest analysis, each “jewel” is but the reflection of other reflections. Likewise, every thing and every person in the world, like every jewel in Indra’s Net, because dependently arisen, is empty-of-own-being (lacking in self-existence). Empty-of-own-being is the wider meaning of anatta, applicable to the animate and inanimate world alike and less confusing than saying that “things” lack “selves.” Dependent arising, anatta, and emptiness-of-own-being are thus three ways of expressing the same insight into the interdependence of all things. This is especially notable since emptiness is one of the key concepts of the Mahayana form of Buddhism.

Huston Smith, Buddhism (2009 Harper- Collins)