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What are the three marks of existence and where are they found in the canon? Is there any fundamental differences in interpretation among the different traditions?

  • This is an odd sort of question; I wonder what is your reason for asking, since you ask where they are found in "the canon", then ask whether they are different in different traditions (with different canons, presumably). Can you elaborate on and maybe focus in on what you are really trying to learn? – yuttadhammo Jul 3 '14 at 1:17
  • @yuttadhammo I did not want to bother with the tradition question but my question was not long enough to be accepted by the system; so I just made up another question. – user70 Jul 3 '14 at 1:36
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    Such short questions like this might not be a good fit for an expert exchange site... you risk getting a LMGTFY reply. – yuttadhammo Jul 3 '14 at 1:44
  • @yuttadhammo Good point. I understand that it could be considered too novice or simple for this exchange. I had the community wiki in mind when I asked the question. – user70 Jul 3 '14 at 1:59
  • Although it is a novice question, it still deserves an answer that can be referred to (it probably won't be the first time this comes up). Such questions can also be asked of 'experts' - even a novice to one can be an expert to another. Suggesting for the community wiki, would be glad to see elaborate 'expert' responses to questions like this. :-) – FullPeace.org Jul 3 '14 at 13:40
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The Three characteristics of existence are part of the core teaching of the Buddha and found throughout his teachings. In essence every single compound (i.e. made of the 5 aggregates and/or the four elements) thing has these characteristics inherent in their very existence.

When one realizes with their own experiential knowledge that all things we have attachments and aversions to have at their core these three characteristics, then there is nothing to cling to, nothing to run from, there is just peace.

We understand that everything, from the universe itself down to ourselves and our loved ones are subject to change and decay(impermanence). We understand that every compound thing is subject to and can be part of the cause of Dukkha(unsatisfactoriness/suffering). Because of our attachments and aversions, nothing created can bring lasting happiness. And Thirdly we understand that there can be found nothing that we can truly identify as "self". What we take to be self is not-self. There is no inherent permanent self/identity in anything created, the "self" we take to be us is merely a coming together of the 5 aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness), processes that come into being, and eventually decay.

As far as I know( and I'd love to be proven wrong on this if anyone can link it) there is no one grand sutta solely on this specific topic, but it is inherently at the core of all of the teachings and therefore pervades the whole cannon. I agree with what Catpnosis said about there being no fundamental differences, but differences in interpretation and usage as part of the various paths.

Here are a few Suttas regarding the three characteristics:

Dhamma-niyama Sutta: The Discourse on the Orderliness of the Dhamma

"Monks, whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All processes are inconstant.

"Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All processes are stressful.

"Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this steadfastness of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma: All phenomena are not-self.

And from the Dhammapada:

Maggavagga: The Path

  1. "All conditioned things are impermanent" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

  2. "All conditioned things are unsatisfactory" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

  3. "All things are not-self" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

I think this passage from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta speaks volumes about understanding impermanence:

  1. Then, when the Blessed One had passed away, some bhikkhus, not yet freed from passion, lifted up their arms and wept; and some, flinging themselves on the ground, rolled from side to side and wept, lamenting: "Too soon has the Blessed One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Happy One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from sight!"

But the bhikkhus who were freed from passion, mindful and clearly comprehending, reflected in this way: "Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?"

Of course Dukkha is all over the teachings.. heck it's the first noble truth:

"Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

And about not-self:

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

"Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.' And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'

"Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self...

"Bhikkhus, perception is not-self...

"Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self...

"Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: 'Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.' And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: 'Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.'

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According to one hypothesis, the Three Marks of Existence are Buddha's sarcastic response to Hinduism's Sat-Cit-Ananda, the three characteristics of Brahman experienced by an awakened yogi:

  • Sat -- true and timeless, not subject to change.
  • Chit -- self-aware.
  • Ananda -- blissful or happy.

Supposedly, when yogi becomes one with Brahman, he perceives Himself as infinite and timeless self-aware Universe. From this moment on, all of yogi's experiences are marked with perpetual bliss.

When Buddha awakened to the way things are, he realized that the above description was rather misleading, because it made the practitioner seek permanent bliss, something impossible in principle. Out of compassion for future seekers, he offered a more realistic description of the same Universal vision:

  • Whatever is compound (consists of multiple pieces coming together), will fall apart. Same way, whatever is conditional (depends on multiple factors coinciding together), is impermanent.

  • Nothing is solid, everything is made of pieces or depends on conditions. This includes "I" which cannot possibly be a solid/independent entity. Since "I" is really just a compound phenomena, it is not independent and too is subject to conditions. What we call "consciousness" is too an interplay of conditions and not a substance or entity.

  • Because of the above, there is no (and there can't be!) such thing as permanent Sukha ("ease", "comfort"). Dukkha ("wrongness", "trouble") is an inevitable part of existence at large. ("At large" is the key word here. As to personal liberation from suffering, Buddha addressed this question in his Four Truths of The Nobles.)

Buddha criticized simple naive non-dualism of Brahmins, as returning to the same limiting concept of "I" they supposedly wanted to escape. He compared "I" to a stick their mind was tied to, going around but never completely departing. This said, Buddha still held "the state of Brahma" (experience of non-dual unity with the world) as a useful intermediate realization (AN 4.190).

In an interesting twist, my present teacher, who comes from a Taoism-influenced non-sectarian tradition, speaks of Three Gates To Enlightenment, the experiential realizations one must go through on one's way to Completion:

  • Pain or Suffering. One must realize that life is painful and accept pain as necessary condition for one's growth. This involves dropping resistance that comes from seeing pain as important factor of one's decisions.
  • Impermanence or Transience. One must fully accept that nothing is permanent in one's life, and admit the inevitability of death. This involves dropping attachments to what one holds as dear.
  • Nothingness or Voidness. One must go through the realization that life is pointless and has no meaning in the absolute sense. This involves dropping fundamental preconceptions or imperatives about the purpose of one's life.
  • Very interesting correlations with the Three Marks. I'd be grateful for some references for them -- sat-cit-ananda and Three Gates to Enlightenment -- as I could not find anything by searching. This re sat-cit-ananda is along the same lines, but not complete or as explicit re the three marks. Thanks! – David Lewis Jan 1 '17 at 21:56
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They are the general characteristics of (or elaborations on) the Truth of Suffering (dukkha-sacca), and consists of: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anatta). They are found in many places in the canon as this is one of central concepts of the Dhamma. For example, see AN 3.134 for them together, or SN 22.59 for just one of them.

Probably, there is no fundamental differences between traditions, but there is differences: elaborations, different scholastic interpretations, and other details.

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The Three marks of existence (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: trilakṣaṇa), are these three characteristics

  • Impermanence (Anicca)
  • Suffering or unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha)
  • Non-self or not-self (Anatta)

This is a central teaching in Buddhism - completely understanding these three leads to the liberation of Nirvana/Nibbana. All sentient beings experience these marks of existence.

Anicca refers to the impermanence, uncertainty or inconstancy of existence in this conditioned realm. Conditioned meaning dependent on conditions - all conditions are in a state of change, not constant, unsteady. All parts of experience - all things and experiences - are dependent on causes and conditions, coming into being, ceasing to be. Nothing is everlasting. More on Anicca

Dukkha is often translated as suffering or unsatisfactoryness (dissatisfaction), or stress. Here meaning that nothing (physical nor mental phenomena) can ever bring lasting happiness (or a deeper satisfaction). Holding on to (or craving for, clinging to) impermanent conditions as if they were permanent is a frequent cause for dukkha. See dukkha

Anatta refers to the 'self', often translated at not-self or non-self. Often misunderstood as "non-existence" or "no-soul", this teaching refers to that no phenomena are 'self', in a 'self' nor owned by a 'self'. See The Discourse on Non-Self and Anatta

There is a lot of material on these topics, much too much to cover here.

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I would add the following

Anicca = Impermanence. Everything changes. Nothing can be maintained in a stable position.

Dukkha = Unsatisfactoriness. Nothing is truly satisfying and will bring you everlasting happiness.

Anatta = Not-Self. Body and mind are processes. There is no "I" or "Self" to be found in these processes. The processes have their own lives so to speak and run based on different conditions.

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Old thread. I would first answer that the phrase: "the 3 marks of existence" is inaccurate. The term "existence" implies "being" or "bhava", which requires mind. This "existence" is phenomenological or experiential.

Whereas the Buddha used the phrase: "the 3 characteristics of conditioned things". As explained in the Dhamma-niyama Sutta (quoted above), the 3 characteristics are the nature of compounded things, regardless of whether any human being realises or experiences this reality.

A rock or cloud does not possess mind. A rock or cloud does not experience life. A rock or cloud has no sense of 'existence'. Yet a rock or cloud possess the 3 characteristics, in that a rock or cloud are impermanent, cannot bring lasting happiness; are unsatisfactory (due to their impermanence); and are not-self, neither being a 'self' or able to be possessed by a 'self'.

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They are:

  1. Anicca - Everything ends in one day or in a moment.

  2. Dukkha - When things end (property, loved ones, life, etc.) all beings sense it as sad.

  3. Anatta - The ending of things cannot be controlled by ourselves or others.

  • Dumindu, where did the text in the yellow boxes come from? Are you quoting something? – tkp Jul 2 '14 at 23:49
  • I am doing meditation. It is up to my sense. – user359 Jul 2 '14 at 23:52
  • OK, so they're your own words then? They're just unfamiliar explanations to me, and I wanted to check maybe you were quoting them from some sutta or other. – tkp Jul 2 '14 at 23:54
  • This doesn't really answer the question in its entirety... – yuttadhammo Jul 3 '14 at 1:15

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