The Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism

The Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism

In previous articles I’ve mentioned the teaching of the Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism, but didn’t go into much detail so here I’ll go into more detail about what those are.

The three marks of existence in buddhism

The Three Marks of Existence

So what are the Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism?

In short, they are Impermanence (Anicca in Pali; Anitya in Sanskrit), Suffering (dukkha), and Non-Self (Anatta in Pali; Anatman in Sanskrit) and they describe the essential nature of conditioned existence.

The Buddha taught:

“Bhikkhus, whether Tathāgatas arise or not, there persists that law, that stableness of the Dhamma, that fixed course of the Dhamma. ‘All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.’ … ‘All conditioned phenomena are suffering.’ … ‘All phenomena are non-self.’” (Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.136).

Impermanence (Anicca/Anitya)

the three marks of existence in buddhism

Impermanence (Anicca)

“All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.”

– Dhammapada verse 277

Anicca or Anitya means “impermanence” or “inconstancy”.  This means that all conditioned things are in a constant state of change or flux.  When something passes away it is simply changing from one form into another.

 

Dissatisfaction/Suffering (Dukkha)

the three marks of existence in buddhism

Suffering (Dukkha)

“All conditioned phenomena are suffering.
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.”

– Dhammapada verse 278

As I’ve already discussed in previous articles, dukkha is commonly translated as “suffering” but it’s more accurate to translate it as “dissatisfaction”.  It is simply the dissatisfactory experience that all beings experience before enlightenment, before we are free of samsara.

Since all things are in fact impermanent as we’ve seen from the First Mark of Existence, it follows that nothing in this world not even our minds can bring us lasting happiness.

 Non-Self (Anatta/Anatman)

the three marks of existence in buddhism

Not-Self (Anatta)

“All phenomena are non-self.
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.”

– Dhammapada verse 279

Anatta or Anatman can be translated as “not self” or “no self” and it simply says that the sense of ego or our permanent sense of self is empty of intrinsic self-existence.  This is the concept of emptiness (shunyata) applied to all phenomena.

This means that our sense of self and all things are dependent on causes and conditions, which are the five skandhas.  Our sense of ego-self arises when the five skandhas are present.

The Buddha taught that the five skandhas are empty of inherent existence, as can be seen in the Heart Sutra:

“Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and Buddha of Great Compassion
When practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita
Perceived that all five skandhas are empty
And was saved from all suffering and distress.”

So our self can only exist in relation to everything else and when we see that our sense of self is a source of suffering, we can’t help but wish for everyone else to be free of suffering as well.  The Bodhisattva is the enlightened being who descends back into the world of Samsara to preach the Dharma to all sentient beings.

Summary

Contemplating the meanings of the Three Marks of Existence is what the Buddhist path is all about.  Impermanence, Dissatisfaction, and Non-Self can be said to summarize the teachings of the Buddha.

Thanks for reading this article on the Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism and feel free to leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below.


Tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism

  1. Riaz Shah says:

    Hey Ian,
    Buddhism is a wonderful thing and although I’m of another religion, I still love meditating with the monks here in Malaysia.

    Sometimes you find peace a unexpected places and its important to have an open mind. I love your website and article, definitely sharing this to my friends, do keep updating more ! Cheers

    • Ian H says:

      Meditating with the monks must be a very profound experience. And I definitely agree that we should have an open mind of tolerance when it comes to religion.

  2. Derek Marshall says:

    Hi There,

    Brilliant. Applauded. I must ask where did you learn about Buddhism? and for how long?

    You do seem to know an aweful lot. What do you think of Buddhist Bootcamp book?

    What I like about this site is how you simplify it, make it very easy to understand.

    Thanks for sharing with us another fantastic article

    • Ian H says:

      I learned about Buddhism on my own and have been studying and meditating on and off for 10 years. Especially Tibetan Buddhism, which I am particularly drawn to. There are a lot of technical terms in Buddhist philosophy that can get pretty confusing so I’m glad that my simplification is clear enough to understand.

      I haven’t read the Buddhist Boot camp book, but this is one on my “must read” list and I’ll definitely do a review once I’m done. Have you read it?:

  3. Taking A Leap Of Faith says:

    I understand when it says everything is in a constant state of flux. The only two things you can count on once you’re born is that you will eventually die, and things are always changing, even when we don’t make any decisions, life goes on without us evolving and changing and making choices for us. I also understand that happiness doesn’t just come to us, we have to do what we can to bring happiness in our lives, but we won’t always be happy, that’s just not how life is.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with you. Happiness is to be found within and should not be confused with mere pleasurable experience of temporary happiness which is also subject to impermanence, arising and passing away.

  4. Xaric says:

    Loved this article.
    It offers a great, alternate perspective on life.

    I have embedded into my life the first Mark of Existence.
    Everything changes. Nothing is permanent, but change. Which is ironic.

    It is amazing when you think that those people, 3000 years ago has in the palms of their hands such knowledge.!

    Thank you again for a great article.

    Till the next time!

    Harry!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *