Three marks of existence

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In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics (Pali: tilakkhaa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण, trilakaa) of all existence and beings, namely impermanence ( aniccā ), non-self ( anattā ) and unsatisfactoriness or suffering ( duḥkha ). [1] [2] [3] [4] These three characteristics are mentioned in verses 277, 278 and 279 of the Dhammapada . [5] 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 suffering, is a central theme in the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path.


According to Thich Nhat Hanh, [6] the three seals are impermanence, non-self and nirvana. He says in "The heart of the Buddha's Teaching" that "In several sutras the Buddha taught that nirvana, the joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts, rather than suffering, is one of the Three Dharma Seals."


The three marks are: [7]

In the Mahayana Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra however, four characteristics are described instead of three: [9]

In the sutra "The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara" Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā [10] these four marks are defined as:

In the Samyukta Agama a different formulation is made, in which the Buddha taught impermanence, nonself, and nirvana as the Three Dharma Seals. Here nirvana replaces dukkha as the Third Dharma Seal: [11]



Impermanence (Pali anicca, Sanskrit anitya) means that all conditioned things (saṅkhāra) are in a constant state of flux. Buddhism states that all physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. [12] 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. [13] [14] This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is nicca, or knows no change, decay or death. [15]


Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) means "unsatisfactoriness, suffering, pain". [16] [17] [18] The dukkha includes the physical and mental sufferings that follows each rebirth, aging, illness, dying; dissatisfaction from getting what a being wishes to avoid or not getting the desired, and no satisfaction from Sankhara dukkha, in which everything is conditioned and conditioning, or because all things are not experienced as impermanent and without any essence. [16] [19] [20]


Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) refers to the doctrine of "non-self", that there is no unchanging, permanent Self or soul in living beings and no abiding essence in anything or phenomena. [21] [22]

While anicca and dukkha apply to "all conditioned phenomena" (saṅkhārā), anattā has a wider scope because it applies to all dhammā without "conditioned, unconditioned" qualification. [23] Thus, nirvana too is a state of "without Self" or anatta. [23] The phrase "sabbe dhamma anatta" includes within its scope each skandha (aggregate, heap) that compose any being, and the belief "I am" is a mark of conceit which must be destroyed to end all Dukkha. [24] The Anattā doctrine of Buddhism denies that there is anything called a 'Self' in any person or anything else, and that a belief in 'Self' is a source of Dukkha. [25] [26] Some Buddhist traditions and scholars, however, interpret the anatta doctrine to be strictly in regard to the five aggregates rather than a universal truth. [27] [28] [29] Religious studies scholar Alexander Wynne calls anattā a "not-self" teaching rather than a "no-self" teaching. [30]


In Buddhism, ignorance of (avidyā, or moha; i.e. a failure to grasp directly) 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 suffering. 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 suffering (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). [31] [32] The teaching of three marks of existence in the Pali Canon is credited to the Buddha. [23] [33] [34]

Correspondence with Pyrrhonism

The Greek philosopher Pyrrho traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army, spending approximately 18 months there learning Indian philosophy from the Indian gymnosophists. Upon returning to Greece Pyrrho founded one of the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, which he based on what appears to have been his interpretation of the Three marks of existence. Pyrrho summarized his philosophy as follows:

"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not. [35]

Philologist Christopher Beckwith has identified the three terms used here by Pyrrho - adiaphora, astathmēta, and anepikrita - to be nearly direct translations of anatta, dukkha, and anicca into ancient Greek. [36]

See also

Related Research Articles

Duḥkha is an important concept in Hinduism and Buddhism, commonly translated as "suffering", "unhappiness", "pain", "unsatisfactoriness" or "stress". It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of mundane life. It is the first of the Four Noble Truths and it is one of the three marks of existence. The term also appears in scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Upanishads, in discussions of moksha.

Four Noble Truths Basic framework of Buddhist thought

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni;, "The four Arya satyas") are "the truths of the Noble Ones", the truths or realities for the "spiritually worthy ones". The truths are:

Nirvana Liberation from repeated rebirth in saṃsāra

Nirvāṇa is commonly associated with Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism and represents its ultimate state of soteriological release, the liberation from repeated rebirth in saṃsāra.

In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of "non-essenceful-self" — refusing both the ideologies that there is or there is not an unchanging, permanent self, soul in phenomena. It is one of the seven beneficial perceptions in Buddhism and one of the three marks of existence along with dukkha (suffering) and anicca (vexation).


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 best known 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 called becoming.

Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine of Buddhist philosophy, which 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".

Taṇhā is a Pāli word, which originates from the Vedic Sanskrit word tṛ́ṣṇā, which means "thirst, craving, desire", from Proto-Indo-Iranian *tŕ̥šnas. It 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).

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

Buddhism World religion founded by the Buddha

Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. It originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravāda and Mahāyāna.

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 constituting as it does a method by which people can come out of their condition of suffering (dukkha) involves 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.

Saṃsāra in Buddhism 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.

Nirvana (Buddhism) Release from rebirths in saṃsāra

Nirvana is the goal of the Buddhist path. The literal meaning of the term is "blowing out" or "quenching". Nirvana is the ultimate spiritual goal in Buddhism and marks the soteriological release from rebirths in saṃsāra. Nirvana is part of the Third Truth on "cessation of dukkha" in the Four Noble Truths, and the summum bonum destination of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Skandhas (Sanskrit) or khandhas (Pāḷi) means "heaps, aggregates, collections, groupings". In Buddhism, it refers to the five aggregates of clinging (Pañcupādānakkhandhā), the five material and mental factors that take part in the rise of craving and clinging. They are also explained as the five factors that constitute and explain a sentient being’s person and personality, but this is a later interpretation in response to sarvastivadin essentialism.

Outline of Buddhism Overview of and topical guide to Buddhism

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".

Anātman in Sanskrit means that "which is different from atman" or "non-self". In Hinduism, the former definition is found in some texts, while in Buddhism, anātman or anattā means non-self.

Four Dharma Seals are the four characteristics which reflect some Buddhist teaching. It is said that if a teaching contains the Four Dharma Seals then it can be considered Buddha Dharma. although the Dharma Seals were all introduced after Gautama Buddha died.

Dharmamudrā is a Buddhist term translated as "the seal of the dharma" or "the distinguishing mark of the dharma". It can be construed as the objective qualities of all phenomena, but is generally interpreted as the "seal" or "mark" that distinguish the Buddhist teachings from non-Buddhist ones. Dharmamudrā also provides doctrinal insight that distinguishes the definitive teachings of Buddhism from the provisional teachings.


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  33. Dhammapada Verses 277, 278 and 279
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