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The Three Marks of Existence – Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – The Characteristics of Reality as Understood in Buddhism

The three marks of existence (Pāḷi: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: trilakṣaṇa) or three seals are a major cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings. In Buddhism, they represent the Buddha’s enlightened understanding of experiential reality, a reality that is not just theorized about but actually experienced, meaning it can be confirmed and verified through one’s own experience as well. Thus, these three characteristics of reality practically define the Buddhist path of wisdom.

Repeated all throughout the Pāḷi Canon (the earliest written record of the Buddha’s teachings) and accepted by all Buddhist traditions is the fundamental refrain spoken by the Buddha:

sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā

सब्बे संखारा अनिच्चा

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā

सब्बे संखारा दुक्खा

sabbe dhammā anattā

सब्बे धम्मा अनत्ता

Comprising the core of Buddhism, these universal phrases essentially point toward the truth as understood in Buddhism, namely:

All that is conditioned is characterized by momentariness.

All that is conditioned is characterized by dissatisfaction.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are characterized by selflessness.

Most modern translations typically follow the more common rendering of aniccā as impermanence, dukkhā as suffering, and anattā as not-self. The meaning is preserved, with the same three characteristics upheld:

All that is conditioned is subject to impermanence.

All that is conditioned is subject to suffering.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are not-self.

An additional way of examining these phrases is with the following alternative translation in mind, again with the meaning preserved:

All that is conditioned is transitory.

All that is conditioned is stressful.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are without substance/substratum.

In all these translations, the key terms are the three marks themselves. Our experiences can be summarized in terms of their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selfless nature.

aniccā = अनिच्चा = impermanence

dukkhā = दुक्खा = suffering

anattā = अनत्ता = not-self

These phrases appear time and time again in the Buddhist teachings, reinforcing their centrality to Buddhism. For instance, see the following discourses as a mere handful out of thousands of instances in which this formula occurs in the Sutta Piṭaka:

“What do you think, monks: is corporeality permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, Lord.” — “What is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” — “Certainly not, Lord.” — “What do you think, monks: Is feeling… is perception… are mental formations… is consciousness… permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self?” — “Certainly not, Lord.”

Alagaddupama Sutta: The Snake Simile (MN 22)

“What do you think, Aggivessana? Is form constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, Master Gotama.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

“…Is feeling constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“…Is perception constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“…Are fabrications constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“What do you think, Aggivessana? Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, Master Gotama.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

Cula-Saccaka Sutta: The Shorter Discourse to Saccaka (MN 35)

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “What do you think, Rahula — is the eye constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

“What do you think — are forms constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

Cula-Rahulovada Sutta: The Shorter Exposition to Rahula (MN 147)

Whether to his own son the venerable Rahula, his chief attendant the venerable Ananda, the five ascetics with whom he first practiced who were to become the first five bhikkhus (monks) of the sangha (community), or others who sought his teachings, the Buddha carefully explained the three seals as interconnected characteristics of worldly existence. That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory and that which is unsatisfactory is not self.

It should be made clear that not everything is impermanent and not everything is subject to suffering, although the not-self characteristic is universally applicable. Only those experiences that are conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion are impermanent and subject to suffering. There is, however, an Unconditioned (that which is not conditioned by greed, hatred, or delusion) – liberation, freedom.

The first two of the three seals (aniccā, dukkhā) apply to all conditioned things (saṅkhārā) and thus are transcended by the unconditioned release from suffering and the rounds of rebirth (Pāli: nibbāna; Sanskrit: nirvāṇa). The third seal (anattā) on the other hand applies to all phenomena (dhammā), conditioned and unconditioned alike.

In comparison to saṅkhārā, the Pāli term dhammā carries a much broader, inclusive connotation that leaves nothing out. Hence the centrality of the self-less characteristic, which defines the Buddhist path and makes the existence of a God with any immortal or ultimate selfhood utterly incompatible with Buddhism.

Ultimately, the three marks / three seals / three characteristics are a summary of the Buddhist understanding of reality, for the purpose of clarity of wisdom and liberation from all ills.

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