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 aniccā (impermanence), dukkha lit. "suffering," here "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 suffering, is a central theme in the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path.


The three marks are:[9][4][10]

  • sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā — all saṅkhāras (conditioned things) are impermanent
  • sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā — all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory, imperfect, unstable
  • sabbe dhammā anattā — all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are without a lasting essence

In the Mahayana Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra however, four characteristics are described instead of three:[11]

  • impermanence (anityākāra)
  • suffering (duḥkhākāra)
  • emptiness (*śūnyākāra)
  • selflessness (anātmākāra)

In the sutra "The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara" Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā[12] these four marks are defined as:

  • all compounded phenomena are impermanent (anitya)
  • all contaminated phenomena are suffering (duḥkha)
  • all phenomena are without self (anātman)
  • nirvāṇa is peaceful/peace (śānta/śānti)

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:[13]

  • nirvana - "The joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts, rather than suffering, is one of the Three Dharma Seals."



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.[14] 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.[15][16] This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.[17]


Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) means [note 2] "unsatisfactory," previously also translated as "suffering, pain."[18][19][20] Mahasi Sayadaw calls it 'unmanagable, uncontrollable.'

As the First Noble Truth, dukkha is explicated as the physical and mental suffering of birth, aging, illness, dying; getting what one wishes to avoid or not getting the desired; and "in short, the five aggregates of grasping" (skandha).[18][21][22]. 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). Translating dukkha as unmanageable makes for a good fit:

  • That which is unlasting is unmanageable (i.e. it cannot be made lasting) . That which is unmanageable is not personal (i.e. it is not under personal control).


Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) refers to there is no abiding essence in anything or phenomena, including living beings.[23][24]

While anicca and dukkha apply to "all conditioned phenomena" (saṅkhārā), anattā has a wider scope because it applies to all dhammās without "conditioned, unconditioned" qualification.[25] Thus, nirvana too is a state of "without Self" or anatta.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27][28] Some Buddhist traditions and scholars, however, interpret the anatta doctrine to be strictly in regard to the five aggregates rather than a universal truth.[29][30][31] Religious studies scholar Alexander Wynne calls anattā a "not-self" teaching rather than a "no-self" teaching.[32]


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).[33][34] The teaching of three marks of existence in the Pali Canon is credited to the Buddha.[25][35][36]

Correspondence with Pyrrhonism[edit]

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."[37]

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.[38]

See also[edit]


  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]


  1. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1899, p. 483, entry note: .
  2. ^ a b Analayo (2013).
  3. ^ a b Beckwith (2015), p. 30.
  4. ^ a b c Alexander (2019), p. 36.
  5. ^ Steven Collins (1998). Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge University Press. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-521-57054-1.
  6. ^ Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravada Buddhism. Routledge. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-134-90352-8. All phenomenal existence [in Buddhism] is said to have three interlocking characteristics: impermanence, suffering and lack of soul or essence.
  7. ^ Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. pp. 42–43, 47, 581. ISBN 978-1-4008-4805-8.
  8. ^ Carl Olson (2005). The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction. Rutgers University Press. pp. 63–4. ISBN 978-0-8135-3778-8.
  9. ^ Walsh 1995, p. 30.
  10. ^ Hahn, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. New York: Broadway books. 1999, p. 22.
  11. ^ Ulrich Timme Kragh (editor), The Foundation for Yoga Practitioners: The Buddhist Yogācārabhūmi Treatise and Its Adaptation in India, East Asia, and Tibet, Volume 1 Harvard University, Department of South Asian studies, 2013, p. 144.
  12. ^ "The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (3) | 84000 Reading Room".
  13. ^ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
  14. ^ Anicca Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013)
  15. ^ Damien Keown (2013). Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 32–8. ISBN 978-0-19-966383-5.
  16. ^ Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 32–33, 38–39, 46–49. ISBN 978-0-521-85942-4.
  17. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-EnC. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 355, Article on Nicca. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
  18. ^ a b Peter Harvey (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 26–31. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  19. ^ Carol Anderson (2013). Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon. Routledge. pp. 1, 22 with note 4. ISBN 978-1-136-81332-0. (...) the three characteristics of samsara/sankhara (the realm of rebirth): anicca (impermance), dukkha (pain) and anatta (no-self).
  20. ^ Malcolm Huxter (2016). Healing the Heart and Mind with Mindfulness: Ancient Path, Present Moment. Routledge. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-317-50540-2. dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering) (....) In the Introduction I wrote that dukkha is probably best understood as unsatisfactoriness.
  21. ^ Malcolm Huxter (2016). Healing the Heart and Mind with Mindfulness: Ancient Path, Present Moment. Routledge. pp. 1–10, Introduction. ISBN 978-1-317-50540-2.
  22. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Simon and Schuster. pp. 67–8. ISBN 978-0-86171-491-9.
  23. ^ Anatta Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013)
  24. ^ [a] Christmas Humphreys (2012). Exploring Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 42–3. ISBN 978-1-136-22877-3.
    [b] Brian Morris (2006). Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-521-85241-8. (...) anatta is the doctrine of non-self, and is an extreme empiricist doctrine that holds that the notion of an unchanging permanent self is a fiction and has no reality. According to Buddhist doctrine, the individual person consists of five skandhas or heaps - the body, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. The belief in a self or soul, over these five skandhas, is illusory and the cause of suffering.
    [c] Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravada Buddhism. Routledge. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-134-90352-8. (...) Buddha's teaching that beings have no soul, no abiding essence. This 'no-soul doctrine' (anatta-vada) he expounded in his second sermon.
  25. ^ a b c Richard Francis Gombrich; Cristina Anna Scherrer-Schaub (2008). Buddhist Studies. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209, for context see pp. 195–223. ISBN 978-81-208-3248-0.
  26. ^ Joaquín Pérez Remón (1980). Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 218–222, 234. ISBN 978-90-279-7987-2.
  27. ^ Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 57–62. ISBN 978-0-521-85942-4.
  28. ^ Peter Harvey (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 34–37. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  29. ^ "Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, Archived 2013-02-04 at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. "There is no self". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Archived from the original on 2018-08-19. Retrieved 2018-08-19.
  31. ^ Thepyanmongkol, Phra (2009). The Heart of Dhammakaya Meditation. Wat Luang Phor Sodh. p. 12. ISBN 9789748097534.
  32. ^ Wynne, Alexander (2009). "Early Evidence for the 'no self' doctrine?" (PDF). Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies: 63–64. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-06-02. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  33. ^ Nārada, The Dhammapada (1978), pp. 224.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ Dhammapada Verses 277, 278 and 279
  36. ^ Joaquín Pérez Remón (1980). Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 210–225. ISBN 978-90-279-7987-2.
  37. ^ Beckwith 2015, pp. 22–23.
  38. ^ Beckwith 2015, pp. 22–59.