The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence

Week 11, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define karma.
  2. Explain Buddhism’s Three Marks of Existence.

As we mentioned previously, the Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras were the first sutras to be translated into Chinese. The Prajñaparamita (“perfect wisdom”) sutras represent the earliest layer of Mahayana sutra literature. The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra belong to a period of Buddhist scholastic development (300–500 CE) in which the basic ideas of the much longer Prajñaparamita canon is condensed into shorter and versified summaries.

The perfect wisdom being articulated in these sutras is the cultivation of the practitioner’s insight into shunyata, the fundamental emptiness of all things and the purely relative existence of all dharmas. From this can then come the realization that all things in the world interrelated and share a nexus of causal conditions. Each thing is particularly-so, that is, they have their individuality, but reification (insisting on their independence from all other things) is an imposition that arises from attachment to our linguistic and conceptual categories. This objectification and reification is a product of our own ignorance (avidya), and obliterating our ignorance is what these sutras aim to accomplish.

In order to obliterate our ignorance it is necessary that we practice compassion (karuna) for all other beings in the cosmos. But, as Mu Seong points out, this raises a paradox in the Buddhist tradition: how can we develop compassion for all other beings in the cosmos if all other beings are insubstantial and fundamentally empty? Where do we direct our compassion then?

“This paradox has been one of the creative impulses in the Buddhist philosophical and practice traditions. For the practitioner, the understanding of wisdom and compassion—and the inherent tension between the two—is not to be resolved on a theoretical level, but to be experienced in one’s own mind and body. In this way one finds emptiness and compassion to be mutually supportive rather than mutually contradictory.” (The Diamond Sutra, 30)

Since wisdom and compassion are not simply theoretical problems that one can overcome through mental efforts alone, there is the need to identify the skillful means (upaya) by which we can liberate ourselves and others from the tangled web of self-deception and self-depredation. Among the practices one can undertake on this path to liberation is the bodhisattva vow.

“The bodhisattva vow provides the context and inspiration to motivate the individual to gain insight into shunyata (emptiness), the essential nature of all phenomena, which leads to an experience of tathata (of suchness), of things as they are in their essential nature, of the mutual identity of phenomenal and transcendent reality. At the same time they cultivate karuna (compassion) for all those still caught in delusions, and help them through upaya (skillful means) so that they too may become free and attain buddhahood.” (The Diamond Sutra, 34)

The Buddha’s Dharma (teaching) was very simple and based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. All this is duhkha (“troubled” or “suffering”)
  2. There is a pattern to how duhkha arises.
  3. There is a pattern to how duhkha is resolved.
  4. There is an Eightfold Path for turning duhkha toward meaningful resolution.
    (This formulation of the Four Noble Truths is from Peter Hershock’s Chan Buddhism, 13)
Occupy Wall Street Sign
The First Noble Truth illustrated: sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

The first noble truth is not an abstract concept. Rather, we are encouraged to recognize that, as Peter Hershock puts it, “right now, from some present perspective, things are not going well.” (Chan Buddhism, 14) We can open ourselves to the reality that somewhere, someone has stubbed their toe, or someone is going through a divorce, or someone is burying their lifelong companion, or there is an animal being processed into food for us. This is likely not an abstract concept for each of us.

The second noble truth helps us to recognize that the suffering in the world is a result of overlapping mutual concerns. Typically there is not only one singular cause for our sufferings. Even in the example of our stubbed toe: we might say, “that person stubbed their toe because they were careless,” and perhaps that is true but if we pursue why it is that the person was preoccupied and did not take greater care before stubbing their toe why might see a tangled web of anxieties and fears clouding the person’s mind.

An individual’s pain may seem to be contained only in that person’s body (although perhaps the parents reading this might concede that when their small child is hurt, a part of the parent is hurt as well). Fortunately, in the main, the pain we experience in our bodies are temporary. But there are other modes of suffering we experience that are not so well-contained. For example the suffering of poverty, or the suffering one experiences when they feel trapped in their job. Or the suffering we feel as a result of our social relations. Consider this clip from the 1992 film Baraka:

As Peter Hershock states:

“Suffering arises, in other words, through a complex set of conditions that include easily observed ‘facts’ but also broadly shared cultural values, personal histories, and individual beliefs about what things can and cannot mean [….] Dealing with suffering requires understanding exactly what kind of cultural and personal impasse has been reached, what ‘normal’ expectations have been violated, and which parts of the situation are taken to be negotiable and which are not.” (Chan Buddhism, 15)

“At the core of all our troubled and troubling situations are our beliefs about who we are and who we are not. Underlying these are more or less conscious senses of what should and should not happen, our particular wants or desires, and the limits of these project for what we are responsible for and what we are not. In summarizing all this, the Buddha often remarked that the root of all our suffering is the conceit that ‘I am’—the arrogance of thinking that we are essentially independent beings and not intimately connected with and a part of all things.” (Chan Buddhism, 16)

Hershock characterizes our existence as wounded, a wound that results from our assumption that we are independent from all other things. But this is a false belief and one that we can do something to rectify. The third noble truth reminds us that we are always in a position to heal this wounded existence.

The method for achieving this resolution of duhkha is the Noble Eightfold Path, by cultivating and developing, through our sincere commitment to practicing the:

  1. right understanding,
  2. right thinking and feeling,
  3. right speech,
  4. right action,
  5. right livelihood,
  6. right effort,
  7. right mindfulness,
  8. and right concentration.

The Buddha’s dharma is not a description of how the world is, but rather a prescription for overcoming how the world actually is. He taught that our existence is marked by three things

  1. Impermanence,
  2. Absence of self, and
  3. Duhkha.


It is often the case that, when folks first here the Four Noble Truths they are shocked to hear how pessimistic this view appears to them. But it’s important to recognize that the first Noble Truth (that “all of this” is suffering) is not a condemnation: by seeing that we are suffering we are brought to an awareness that there is something that can be done.

And, as we all know, there is nothing that is permanently fixed in its place or its operations. Everything will and does change. This means that there is no problem that is intractable and so we are in a position to ask ourselves in which direction we wish to move with those changes and how energetically we will decide to participate in that movement.

Having No Self

Regard that clip from Baraka above once again. It’s true, there is a flurry of activity and yet we see that there is a pattern to that dizzying activity. Those bodies moving through those channels are doing so precisely because someone built those channels for them to pass through. There was an intention in building those situations, not only on the part of the individuals commuting, but also the city planners, the transit authorities, the mechanical and civil engineers, the policy makers who regulate the conditions of the workers, and so on. Those of you who are inclined toward economic thinking may note that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that establishes equilibrium across markets is the effect of the myriad actors supplying and demanding; those are intentional actions.

There arises from this swarm of discrete actions and dispositions a general tendency in the world. Who we are throughout our lives is often a matter of responding to these general tendencies and atmospheres into which we find ourselves thrown. When Buddhists discuss anatman (literally ‘no self’) what is being pointed to here is not that we don’t physically exist, but rather that who we are is empty of any permanence. Physically “who we are” is a matter of constant transactions with the world around us: our bodies are in a constant cycle of energy exchange, our cells die off and are replaced by new ones, our thoughts are in a constant state of flux and never ceasing. The Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunya) is there to invite us to recognize that the world arises interdependently and in a state of mutual influence.

We are emptied of our illusions about who we are and in that emptiness we are met with the fullness of our unceasing interconnectedness. Peter Hershock clarifies:

“By appreciating the emptiness of all things, we become aware that the world we live in did not arise randomly, according to inherently fixed principles, or according to the purely objective operation of natural laws. Rather, it has taken shape in conformity with our likes and dislikes, according to our values, through our intentions, to meet our needs and desires.” (Chan Buddhism, 19)


Recognizing that suffering of the world is attributable to our habitual misidentification of our interrelatedness means that we are always in a position to realize our mutual presence. To realize our mutual presence is to make real and efficacious our actions for one another. We all make a difference to one another. “Fundamentally, this means becoming aware that, in some way, we all make a difference to one another. We thus begin seeing that we have a responsibility for asking what kind of difference. In this way, seeing all things as troubled or troubling establishes the foundation or roots for cultivating the felt partnership of true compassion.” (Hershock, 18)


Karma is a matter of weighted moral action. Karma is a technique for helping us understand that the way our world presents to us is a matter of correspondence between our values and habitual ways of acting in the world. There are some who might experience some unfortunate event and announce, “dag, I guess that’s my karma,” implying that karma is a matter of exchange: we do good things and good things come to us, we do bad things and bad things come to us. This naive thinking of karma does have the virtue of getting us to recognize that how we act does impact how the world around us happens. As we go more deeply into our understanding of karma we can see that we share a responsibility to act in a way that can change our situation.

Let’s again consider Hershock’s considered thoughts on the matter:

“Seeing the world karmically is to see our world as irreducibly dramatic. It is a world in which all things are not only factually but also meaningfully interdependent. Intentions and values not only matter, they are an irreducible part of how things come about [….] In all Buddhist contexts, the teaching of karma is embedded in a cosmology that denies the simple finality of death. The term for a life of chronic trouble and suffering—’samsara’—literally refers to an unending compulsive cycle of birth and death [….] Seeing all things as having no self is to see that there is literally nothing to be reborn or to receive a new body. Nor is there anything that could carry karma forward from one life to the next.” (Chan Buddhism, 22–23)

“[A]lthough there is continuity in the dramatic pattern of lived experience from life to life, no soul or bodily substance crosses over the barrier of death [….] What connects a prior life to a present or future life are just patterns of meaningful relationship [….] Our life stories are part of a continuum of ‘performances’ in which shared and developing dramatic themes and values are embodied.” (Chan Buddhism, 24)

In this way we can see that the Buddha’s teaching encourages us to practice a critical evaluation not only of our actions and dispositions, but in order for this to be effective we must also recognize that our critical evaluations are also necessarily directed at our cultures as well.