Three marks of existence

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In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण trilakṣaṇa) of all existence and beings, namely anicca (impermanence), dukkha (commonly translated as "suffering", "unsatisfactory," "unease"), [note 1] and anattā (without a lasting essence). [5] [6] [7] [8] That humans are subject to delusion about the three marks, that this delusion results in suffering, and that removal of that delusion results in the end of dukkha, is a central theme in the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path.



There are different lists of the "marks of existence" found in the canons of the early Buddhist schools. [9]

Three marks

In the Pali tradition of the Theravada school, the three marks are: [10] [4] [11] [9]

The northern Buddhist Sarvāstivāda tradition meanwhile has the following in their Samyukta Agama : [9] [12]

Four marks

In the Ekottarika-āgama and in Mahayana sources like the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra and The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara(Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā) however, four characteristics or “four seals of the Dharma” (Sanskrit: dharmoddāna-catuṣṭayaṃ or catvāri dharmapadāni , Chinese: 四法印) are described instead of three: [13] [9] [14]



Impermanence (Pali anicca, Sanskrit anitya) means that all things (saṅkhāra) are in a constant state of flux. Buddhism states that all physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. [15] Human life embodies this flux in the aging process and the cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara); nothing lasts, and everything decays. This is applicable to all beings and their environs, including beings who are reborn in deva (god) and naraka (hell) realms. [16] [17] This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is nicca, or knows no change, decay or death. [18]


Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) means [note 2] "unsatisfactory," commonly translated as "suffering, pain." [19] [20] [21] Mahasi Sayadaw calls it 'unmanagable, uncontrollable.'

As the First Noble Truth, dukkha is explicated as the physical and mental dissatisfaction of birth, aging, illness, dying; getting what one wishes to avoid or not getting what one wants; and "in short, the five aggregates of grasping" (skandha). [19] [22] [23] . This, however, is a different context, not the Three Marks of Existence, and therefore 'suffering' may not be the best word for it.

The relationship between the three characteristics is explained in the Pali Canon as follows: What is anicca is dukkha. What is dukkha is anatta (Samyutta Nikaya.Vol4.Page1).


Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) refers to there being no permanent essence in any thing or phenomena, including living beings. [24] [25]

While anicca and dukkha apply to "all conditioned phenomena" (saṅkhārā), anattā has a wider scope because it applies to all dhammās without the "conditioned, unconditioned" qualification. [26] Thus, nirvana too is a state of without Self or anatta. [26] The phrase "sabbe dhamma anatta" includes within its scope each skandha (group of aggregates, heaps) that compose any being, and the belief "I am" is a conceit which must be realized to be impermanent and without substance, to end all dukkha. [27]

The Anattā doctrine of Buddhism denies that there is anything permanent in any person to call one's Self, and that a belief in a Self is a source of Dukkha. [28] [29] Some Buddhist traditions and scholars, however, interpret the anatta doctrine to be strictly in regard to the five aggregates rather than a universal truth, despite the Buddha affirming so in his first sermon. [30] [31] [32] Religious studies scholar Alexander Wynne calls anattā a "not-self" teaching rather than a "no-self" teaching. [33]


In Buddhism, ignorance (avidyā, or moha; i.e. a failure to grasp directly) of the three marks of existence is regarded as the first link in the overall process of saṃsāra whereby a being is subject to repeated existences in an endless cycle of dukkha. As a consequence, dissolving that ignorance through direct insight into the three marks is said to bring an end to saṃsāra and, as a result, to that dukkha (dukkha nirodha or nirodha sacca, as described in the third of the Four Noble Truths).

Gautama Buddha taught that all beings conditioned by causes (saṅkhāra) are impermanent (anicca) and suffering (dukkha), and that not-self (anattā) characterises all dhammas, meaning there is no "I", "me", or "mine" in either the conditioned or the unconditioned (i.e. nibbāna). [34] [35] The teaching of three marks of existence in the Pali Canon is credited to the Buddha. [26] [36] [37]

See also


  1. The term is probably derived from duh-stha, "standing unstable" [1] [2] [3] [4]
  2. It is derived from duh-stha, "standing unstable." [1] [2] [3] [4]

Related Research Articles

Duḥkha, 'unease', "standing unstable," commonly translated as "suffering", "pain", or "unhappiness", is an important concept in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Its meaning depends on the context, and may refer more specifically to the "unsatisfactoriness" or "unease" of mundane life, not being at ease when driven by craving/grasping and ignorance.

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Nirvāṇa is a concept in Indian religions that represents the ultimate state of soteriological release, the liberation from duḥkha, suffering, and saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and rebirth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Noble Eightfold Path</span> Buddhist practices leading to liberation from saṃsāra

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Impermanence</span> Philosophical concept

Impermanence, also known as the philosophical problem of change, is a philosophical concept addressed in a variety of religions and philosophies. In Eastern philosophy it is notable for its role in the Buddhist three marks of existence. It is also an element of Hinduism. In Western philosophy it is most famously known through its first appearance in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and in his doctrine of panta rhei. In Western philosophy the concept is also referred to as becoming.

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Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine in Buddhism shared by all schools of Buddhism. It states that all dharmas (phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas: "if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist". The basic principle is that all things arise in dependence upon other things.

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Taṇhā is an important concept in Buddhism, referring to "thirst, desire, longing, greed", either physical or mental. It is typically translated as craving, and is of three types: kāma-taṇhā, bhava-taṇhā, and vibhava-taṇhā.

Ātman, attā or attan in Buddhism is the concept of self, and is found in Buddhist literature's discussion of the concept of non-self (Anatta). Most Buddhist traditions and texts reject the premise of a permanent, unchanging atman.

Upādāna is a Sanskrit and Pali word that means "fuel, material cause, substrate that is the source and means for keeping an active process energized". It is also an important Buddhist concept referring to "attachment, clinging, grasping". It is considered to be the result of taṇhā (craving), and is part of the dukkha doctrine in Buddhism.

Saṅkhāra is a term figuring prominently in Buddhism. The word means 'formations' or 'that which has been put together' and 'that which puts together'.

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Reality in Buddhism is called dharma (Sanskrit) or dhamma (Pali). This word, which is foundational to the conceptual frameworks of the Indian religions, refers in Buddhism to the system of natural laws which constitute the natural order of things. Dharma is therefore reality as-it-is (yatha-bhuta). The teaching of Gautama Buddha constitutes a method by which people can come out of their condition of suffering through developing an awareness of reality. Buddhism thus seeks to address any disparity between a person's view of reality and the actual state of things. This is called developing Right or Correct View. Seeing reality as-it-is is thus an essential prerequisite to mental health and well-being according to Buddha's teaching.

The Basic Points Unifying the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna is an important Buddhist ecumenical statement created in 1967 during the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC), where its founder Secretary-General, the late Venerable Pandita Pimbure Sorata Thera, requested the Ven. Walpola Rahula to present a concise formula for the unification of all the different Buddhist traditions. This text was then unanimously approved by the council.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saṃsāra (Buddhism)</span> Cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and dying again

Saṃsāra in Buddhism and Hinduism is the beginningless cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and dying again. Samsara is considered to be dukkha, suffering, and in general unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and avidya (ignorance), and the resulting karma.

Avidyā in Buddhist literature is commonly translated as "ignorance". The concept refers to ignorance or misconceptions about the nature of metaphysical reality, in particular about the impermanence and anatta doctrines about reality. It is the root cause of Dukkha, and asserted as the first link, in Buddhist phenomenology, of a process that leads to repeated birth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nirvana (Buddhism)</span> Release from rebirths in saṃsāra in Buddhism

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Skandhas (Sanskrit) or khandhas (Pāḷi) means "heaps, aggregates, collections, groupings". In Buddhism, it refers to the five aggregates of clinging, the five material and mental factors that take part in the rise of craving and clinging.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of Buddhism</span> Indian religion or philosophy based on the Buddhas teachings

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, "the awakened one".


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