Three marks of existence
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The Three marks of existence, within Buddhism, are three characteristics (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: trilakṣaṇa) shared by all sentient beings, namely: impermanence (anicca); suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha); non-self (Anatta).
According to Buddhist tradition, a full understanding of these three can bring an end to suffering (dukkha nirodha, 苦滅). The Buddha taught that all beings conditioned by causes (saṅkhāra) are impermanent (anicca) and suffering (dukkhā) while he said not-self (anattā) characterises all dhammas meaning there is no "I" or "mine" in the conditioned as well as the unconditioned (i.e. Nibbāna). The central figure of Buddhism, Siddhartha is believed to have achieved Nirvana and awakening after much meditation, thus becoming the Buddha Shakyamuni. With the faculty of wisdom the Buddha directly perceived that all sentient beings (everything in the phenomenology of psychology) are marked by these three characteristics:
- Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) "inconstancy" or "impermanence". This refers to the fact that all conditioned things (sankhara) are in a constant state of flux. In reality there is no thing that ultimately ceases to exist; only the appearance of a thing ceases as it changes from one form to another. Imagine a leaf that falls to the ground and decomposes. While the appearance and relative existence of the leaf ceases, the components that formed the leaf become particulate material that may go on to form new plants. Buddhism teaches a middle way, avoiding the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism.
- Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or dissatisfaction (or "dis-ease"; also often translated "suffering", though this is somewhat misleading). Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.
- Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) or "non-Self" is used in the suttas both as a noun and as a predicative adjective to denote that phenomena are not, or are without, a self; to describe any and all composite, consubstantial, phenomenal and temporal things, from the macrocosmic to microcosmic, be it matter pertaining to the physical body or the cosmos at large, as well as any and all mental machinations, which are impermanent.
There is often a fourth Dharma Seal mentioned:
- Nirvana is peace. Nirvana is the "other shore" from samsara.
Together the three characteristics of existence are called ti-lakkhana in Pali or tri-laksana in Sanskrit.
By bringing the three (or four) seals into moment-to-moment experience through concentrated awareness, we are said to achieve wisdom—the third of the three higher trainings—the way out of samsara. Thus the method for leaving samsara involves a deep-rooted change in world view.
||It has been suggested that this article be merged with Anicca. (Discuss) Proposed since December 2013.|
[Pronounced Anitcha/Anitya] All compounded phenomena (things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything we can experience through our senses is made up of parts, and its existence is dependent on external conditions. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself is constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
The important point here is that phenomena arise and cease according to (complex) conditions. In Mahayana Buddhism, a caveat is added: one should indeed always meditate on the impermanence and transitory nature of compound structures and phenomena, but one must guard against extending this to the realm of Nirvana, where impermanence holds no sway. In this view, the ultimate nature of reality is free from the stains of dualistic thought, and should therefore not be labeled as 'one' or the 'other' (i.e. 'permanent' or 'impermanent').
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche states that in the four seals of the Mahayana, Nirvana should be viewed as "beyond extremes". Furthermore, he says "In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as 'beyond extremes.' We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring."
||It has been suggested that this article be merged with Dukkha. (Discuss) Proposed since December 2013.|
Whatever is impermanent is subject to change. Grasping the impermanent subjects one to suffering.—The Buddha
Dukkha is the stress, dissatisfaction and suffering that is experienced by all sentient beings who are not fully enlightened, i.e. freedom from samsara.
||It has been suggested that this article be merged with Anatta. (Discuss) Proposed since December 2013.|
Anatta is the teaching that nothing can ever belong to a self, have a self in it, or otherwise be the self. It is unique among the three marks of existence because it is given a much wider designation than the other two; while anicca and dukkha are described as applying to "all conditioned phenomenon", anatta is described as applying to "all phenomenon" without qualification. The full meaning and implication of this is controversial among different forms of Buddhism, and most likely sparked later movements in Buddhism, such as the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras.
Anatta is discussed in the Questions of King Milinda, composed during the period of the Hellenistic Indo-Greek kingdom of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. In this text, the monk Nagasena demonstrates the concept of absolute "non-Self" by likening human beings to a chariot and challenges the Greek king "Milinda" (Menander) to find the essence of the chariot. Nagasena states that just as a chariot is made up of a number of things, none of which are the essence of the chariot in isolation, without the other pieces, similarly no one part of a person is a permanent entity; we can be broken up into five constituents – body, sensations, ideation, mental formations and consciousness – the consciousness being closest to the permanent idea of "Self", but is ever-changing with each new thought according to this viewpoint.
According to some thinkers both in the East and the West, the doctrine of "non-Self", may imply that Buddhism is a form of nihilism or something similar. However, as thinkers like Nagarjuna have clearly pointed out, Buddhism is not simply a rejection of the concept of existence or meaning, but of the hard and fast distinction between existence and non-existence, or rather between being and no-thingness. Phenomena are not independent from causes and conditions and do not exist as isolated things as we perceive them to be. The lack of a permanent, unchanging, substantial Self in beings and things does not mean that they do not experience growth and decay on the relative level. But on the ultimate level of analysis, one cannot distinguish an object from its causes and conditions or even distinguish between object and subject (an idea appearing relatively recently in Western science). Buddhism thus has much more in common with Western empiricism, pragmatism, anti-foundationalism, and even poststructuralism than with nihilism.
Interpretations by various schools
Some Buddhist traditions assert that Anatta pervades everything, and is not limited to personality, or soul. These traditions assert that Nirvana also has the quality of Anatta, but that Nirvana (by definition) is the cessation of Dukkha and Anicca.
In his Mulamadhyamakakarika (XXV:19), Nagarjuna says:
This verse points us to an interesting stress between dukkha and nirvana, through an argument based in anatta. This specific stress can be seen to be the key to (and possibly source for the development of) the deity yogas of vajrayana.
The sutra path enjoins us to identify the entire world (internally and externally) as samsara – a continual churning of suffering that nobody wants to be part of. Our practice is that of leaving the shores of samsara.
On the other hand, we are told that unconditioned, enlightened activity is not actually different from samsara.
Whereas the deity yoga of vajrayana enjoins us to identify the entire world as nirvana – a continual play of enlightening activity that everyone wishes to be a part of. Our practice here is that of arriving at the shores of nirvana.
At this level, the distinction between Sutra and Vajrayana remain that of view (departing vs. arriving), but basically the practitioner remains involved in undergoing a transformative development to his or her Weltanschauung, and in this context, these practices remain rooted in psychological change, grounded in the development of Samatha, or training in concentration.
However, there are certain practices in Tantra which are not solely concerned with psychological change; these revolve around the basic idea that it is possible to induce deep levels of concentration through psycho-physical methods as a result of special exercises. The purpose remains the same (to achieve liberating view), but the method involves a 'short cut' for the training in Samatha.
- Nārada, The Dhammapada (1978), pp. 224.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2003). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. p. 1457. ISBN 978-0-86171-331-8.
- The Buddhist Publication Society. "The Three Basic Facts of Existence". Retrieved 2009-07-14. "(ref.1) Change or impermanence is the essential characteristic of all phenomenal existence. We cannot say of anything, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, "this is lasting"; for even while we are saying this, it would be undergoing change. All is fleeting; the beauty of flowers, the bird's melody, the bee's hum, and a sunset's glory. (ref.2) There are three types of teachers, the first one teaches that the ego or the self is real now as well as in the future (here and hereafter); the second one teaches that the ego is real only in this life, not in the future; the third one teaches that the concept of an ego is an illusion: it is not real either in this life or in the hereafter. The first one is the eternalist (sassatavaadi); the second one is the annihilationist (ucchedavaadi); the third one is the Buddha who teaches the middle way of avoiding the extremes of eternalism and annihilationism."
- Molloy, Michael (2010). Experiencing the World's Religions.
- See the Pali: sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha, sabbe dhammā anattā
- SN 22.90, AN 3.136 [AN 3.134], Dhp 20. 277-279