The Three Marks of Existence

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According to the Buddhist tradition, all phenomena other than Nirvana are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma seals: impermanence, suffering, and no-self. Here is an overview of these characteristics.  A most fascinating glimpse into the an overview of the Buddhist’s view of human existence.

According to tradition, after much meditation, the Buddha concluded that everything in the physical world (and everything in the phenomenology of psychology) is marked by these three characteristics:

Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or “impermanence”. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things (sankhara) eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)


Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or “unsatisfactoriness” (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 “no-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 permanent self.  Also 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.

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