The Three Marks of Existence

Cactus PlantThe Buddha has explained the Three Marks (Characteristics) of Existence in the following way:

“Whether an enlightened Tathagata [another name for a Buddha or enlightened one] were to appear in this world or not, this principle would still prevail as an enduring aspect of the natural order:

  1. All compounded things (sankhara) are impermanent . . .
  2. All compounded things are [subject to] dukkha . . .
  3. All dhamma are without essence or self (anatta) . . .

“A Tathagata, having achieved enlightenment, understands this principle. He declares it, teaches it, and sets it down as a model to reveal, explain, and facilitate an understanding that ‘All sankhara are impermanent . . . all sankhara are dukkha . . . and all dhammas are without essence or self (anatta) . . .” (Anguttara Nikaya I.286) 

The Three Characteristics of Existence are also referred to as the “Universal Characteristics”, or, in other words, common to all things. To put this more simply, The Three Characteristics of Existence may be stated very briefly:

(1) Aniccata means impermanence, instability, and uncertainty; a condition, which having already arisen, gradually breaks down and fades away.

(2) Dukkhata is a state of suffering, a condition of pressure that arises and passes away, a condition of resistance and conflict, due to the fact that something that was created or fashioned in one way changes to become something else, making it impossible for it to exist in that incomplete or deficient condition, not allowing for complete fulfillment of desires or cravings and causing dukkha for the person who desires things with attachment.

(3) Anattata means that all phenomena are not the self, and that there is no real essence, soul, or self (anatta).

All things that exist, exist within this flow or current, which is comprised of various related and interdependent causes arising and passing away in a constant and unending series.

Arising and passing away with uncertainty, things exist according to dependent causal factors, experience pressures and conflicts, and exhibit their own deficiencies. With all things proceeding along in this flow, they are really nothing in and of themselves and they are unable to maintain any kind of personal self or essence.

Living things are distinguished by being composed of merely the Five Aggregates of Existence; there is nothing else besides the Five Aggregates of Existence – and this settles the problem of the existence of an independent self.

If you consider each of these Aggregates independently, you will see that each element is impermanent. Being impermanent, they are subject to dukkha. Therefore, anyone who clings to these Aggregates exists in a state of pressure.

Conflict or dukkha is not the self; we can say that dukkha is not the self because each of these Aggregates arises depending on causal factors that also have no self or essence, and these Aggregates and factors are not subject to the power nor the ownership of living beings. (If a person were the real owner of the Five Aggregates, then he could exercise control over these elements as he willed and not allow them to veer from a desired course or an ideal form that he would like them to maintain, such as desiring not to grow old nor to ever become ill.)

Source: Phra Prayudh, Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life, trans. Grant A. Olson (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), 62-63.