At the beginning of his mission, the Buddha emphasized what are called the three marks or the three signs of existence, three characteristics of everything within our experience which we habitually and persistently deny. The first sign of existence is dissatisfaction. Life as we normally lead it in our confused and very disturbed manner is not satisfactory. It is dukkha. Dukkha is the opposite of sukha, which means ease, pleasure, everything going nicely. It doesn’t exactly mean happiness; it is more a sense of things going smoothly. And dukkha is the opposite of that. It is dis-ease. It’s when things don’t go the way we want them to go. But of course things unfold as they do whether we like it or not. This underlying dissatisfaction is one of the main qualities of our existence as unenlightened beings.
The second sign of existence is impermanence. The third sign of existence is that nothing in itself has self-existence. In other words, we try to solidify everything. We try to solidify external objects, and we especially try to solidify ourselves. Almost automatically we create a seemingly solid inner core which we call “I” and set everything to revolve around: I think this; I feel this; I am this; this is mine; this is who I am. We usually never ask ourselves, “Who is this I, this spider in the center of the web?”
Impermanence. We try to make things stay the way they are; we cling to the idea of permanence. We are normally very resistant to the idea of change, especially the change in what we value. Of course, we like things to change when it’s something we don’t like, but when it’s something we do like, then we hold on.
There are various levels of change, of course. There is gross change—the weather is constantly changing; the seas are changing all the time; the land is changing. Over time, everything is completely transformed. There is the more subtle change in our everyday life, where things are always happening. Relationships, homes, and possessions come and then we lose them. Our bodies change. We start off as tiny, helpless, vulnerable beings and then we grow up. We mature; we age; we die.
Life is unsatisfactory because it is always changing. It doesn’t have this solid core which we always hope to grasp. We want security, and we believe that our happiness lies in being secure. And so we try to make things permanent. We get houses which seem very permanent and we furnish them. We get ourselves into relationships which we hope will last forever. We have children and hope they may also consolidate this idea of an identity, something which will be constant. But there is no security in this, because security is very insecure. True security only comes from comfort with insecurity. If we are at ease with the flow of things, if we are at ease with being insecure, then that is the greatest security, because nothing can throw us off balance. As long as we try to solidify, to stop the flow of the water, to dam it up, to keep things just the way they are because it makes us feel safe and protected, we’re in trouble. That attitude goes right against the whole flow of life.
It’s so important to understand that our happiness and peace of mind do not come from seeking security in permanence and stability. Our happiness comes rather from finding security in the ever-changing nature of things. If we feel happy and thus able to be buoyant in the current, nothing can ever upset us. But if we build something so rigid that we don’t want it ever to change—a relationship, our job, anything—then when we lose it, we’re completely thrown off balance. Normally, people think that the constant change of things is something frightening. But once we really understand that it’s actually the very nature of things to flow, to change, then we become completely balanced and open and accepting.
Excerpt from Into the Heart of Life, Chapter 1.