What are the three marks of existence?

ruins, symbolizing emptiness

Concrete ruins near Siem Reap Cambodia illustrate impermanence, one of the Three Marks of Existence. | Source: Unsplash.

The Buddha taught that all phenomena, including thoughts, emotions, and experiences, are marked by three characteristics, or “three marks of existence”: impermanence (anicca), suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). These three marks apply to all conditioned things—that is, everything except for nirvana. According to the Buddha, fully understanding and appreciating the three marks of existence is essential to realizing enlightenment. (It is a schema that is accepted in both Theravada and Mahayana schools, but more emphasized in the former.)

Everything changes, the Buddha taught. This may seem obvious, but much of the time we relate to things as if their existence were permanent. So when we lose things we think we can’t live without or receive bad news we think will ruin our lives, we experience a great deal of stress. Nothing is permanent, including our lives.

Dukkha, suffering or dissatisfaction, is among the most misunderstood ideas in Buddhism. Life is dukkha, the Buddha said, but he didn’t mean that it is all unhappiness and disappointment. Rather, he meant that ultimately it cannot satisfy. Even when things do satisfy―a pleasant time with friends, a wonderful meal, a new car―the satisfaction doesn’t last because all things are impermanent.

Anatta—not-self, non-essentiality, or egolessness—is even more difficult to grasp. The Buddha taught that there is no unchanging, permanently existing self that inhabits our bodies. In other words, we do not have a fixed, absolute identity. The experience of “I” continuing through life as a separate, singular being is an illusion, he said. What we call the “self” is a construct of physical, mental, and sensory processes that are interdependent and constantly in flux.

It is the illusion of a separate, permanent self that chains us to suffering and dissatisfaction, the Buddha said. We put most of our energy into protecting the self, trying to gratify it and clinging to impermanent things we think will enhance it. But belief in a separate, permanent self leads to the craving that, according to the four noble truths, is the source of our suffering.

The Buddha’s teachings, especially the practice of the eightfold path, provide the medicine to cure our illusions so that we become less self-centered and less attached to impermanent things. As we investigate the truth of the three marks of existence, we develop factors of enlightenment such as equanimity—the ability not to be jerked around by our likes and dislikes—and serenity.


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