Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists.
In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, “God is dead,” while contemplating the question.
Of course, he wasn’t claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist.
In Nietzsche’s view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world.
The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity’s conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referred to as The Three Marks of Existence in Buddhist literature.
As these experiences are shared universally by all living things, one could argue that they represent the universal truth that Nietzsche claims doesn’t exist. Furthermore, since they represent a shared experience, the Three Marks of Existence create a common ground between people, encouraging them to live in unity.
Based on this universal truth, Buddha built a philosophy in the 4 Noble Truths and the 8-Fold path which allows individuals to both understand the source of their suffering and successfully work to end it.
However, to truly grasp this philosophy one must first understand the The Three Marks of Existence. They are as follows:
To put it simply, the first mark of existence states that everything changes. On the surface, this may seem incredibly obvious; but is it? Do we live our lives like everything changes? Or do we quietly believe that while everything else in the world changes, the things we enjoy should remain the same?
In the end, stars explode, rivers run dry, and mountains crumble to dust. Everything in the universe changes, and the teaching of impermanence reminds us that human life is no exception.
Buddha witnessed this for himself when he left his father’s palace, and saw aging, sickness, and death for the first time. In fact, he was so shocked by the experience that he renounced the life of a house-holder, and spent the rest of his days as a wandering monastic.
Of course, we don’t have to live as renunciants to fully appreciate this teaching. But we must understand that change is an irrevocable part of our lives. To think otherwise is to invite unnecessary suffering.
The second mark of existence is probably the most misleading. It states that there is no permanent, unchanging self. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. Rather, Buddha is telling us that the “I” that we think of as the self is only a very small part of a much larger, constantly changing whole.
To demonstrate, I’ll use myself as an example. My name is Alex and I have a physical body. However, both my name and my body came from my parents. I have a job and earn income, but ideas like ‘job’ and ‘income’ fall squarely into the realm of limited human concepts that we discussed earlier. Their useful tools, but they aren’t real in the same way a rock is real when it trips you on the side walk. So it would be a mistake to say those things are me.
Furthermore, I’m writing this article in a language that was created by other people before I was born, and I’m practicing a religion that is also not of my own making. In short, my name, body, faith, language, and job (e.g. the things that people usually associate with the self) aren’t truly mine.
In truth, it would be more accurate to call them gifts that I’ve received from the universe. I’ll hold them for a time, but they’ll eventually fade away like everything does.
Again, this doesn’t mean that I don’t exist. It simply means that my life is the result of an infinite number of karmic inputs from the world around me, most of which I’ll never understand or appreciate. It’s impossible to figure out where “I” stop and the rest of the world begins. The line is incredibly blurred; thus the teaching of non-self.
The third mark of existence is the most straight-forward. It states that the world is filled with suffering. This sounds very pessimistic on the surface, so it’s important to put the remark into context. Buddha stated, “The world is filled with suffering,” in the same way that we might say, “It’s raining outside today.”
It’s not a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply a fact of life. Our goal as practitioners is to accept this fact, and then find a skillful way to deal with it.
This is important because one major cause of suffering is believing that it shouldn’t exist (e.g. we shouldn’t get sick, relatives should never be inconsiderate, traffic jams shouldn’t occur, etc.)
The paradox of suffering is that the more we accept is as a natural part of life, the more peaceful our lives become.
It should also be noted that the word suffering is used in a very broad context in Buddhism. The death of a loved one is a form of suffering, but so is the neighborhood kid who knocks over your trash can. Thus the teaching is not meant to imply that existence is a long torture-fest.
Rather, it reminds us that life is filled with experiences, both large and small, that don’t meet with our expectations. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that we’re doing something wrong, That’s just how the system works.
But there’s still hope. Because if we have a clear understanding of Buddha’s core teachings: The Three Marks of Existence, The 4 Noble Truths, and The 8-Fold Path, then we can liberate both ourselves and other from suffering.
In Buddhism, the teachings of impermanence, non-self, and suffering provide a universal road map that anyone can follow. They speak to experiences that all living beings share, and provide a pathway for us to live happier, more peaceful lives.
We don’t need to search for universal truth. We live it everyday.