Religious Beliefs

How does the Buddhist tradition describe existence in general?

Buddhist teaching focuses on three fundamental qualities of all things—known as the “three marks of existence.” Two are fairly obvious to anyone who cares to look, and are at the heart of the experience of enlightenment. The first is hardship or suffering (Pali dukkha, Sanskrit duhka), the second impermanence (anicca/anitya). Nobody is immune to sadness and disappointment. No one has a lock on success and genuine contentment. And everything comes to an end. Everything. The third quality is far from obvious even to the most careful observer, but an awareness of it does follow from the realities of suffering and impermanence. That is the notion that there is no permanent, indestructible core or “soul” at the center of any being (anatta/anatman). Hindu tradition taught Siddhartha Gautama that at the center of each individual being was a “self” or atman that survived physical death to be reincarnated in another life, assuming the person died still enslaved by the effects of self-centered choices. The Buddha’s reinterpretation of Hindu tradition on this point was so radical that it cuts right to the psychological bone. Take away the “soul” and what remains?

Nothing, apparently. But the Buddha was not attempting to empty life of its meaning. He wanted people to change their minds about what matters most. Look hard at what motivates you, what can make you nearly desperate to achieve this good or avoid that evil. Look carefully, the Buddha argued, and you will see that the qualities that attract or repel you are deceptions. Probe deeply into your choices and you will see that what you are really looking for you cannot get from this possession or that person. Each being is simply what it is and it is a serious mistake to treat your world as though it existed for you, as if what you value in each thing is its value. In a sense, the Buddha argued, all things are “empty,” in that they simply do not possess the “soul” that a grasping, craving person invests them with. Pile all your expectations onto some person or object as though you truly hope it will deliver what you want, and you are making the fundamental mistake. The notion of nonsoul (anatta) is difficult to understand, but it is one of the Buddha’s most provocative teachings.


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