I suppose that there is (are) differences between the tilakkhana (anicca; dukkha and anatta) and the so-called three dhamma-seals (anicca; anatta and nibbana). Can anyone help me?

3 Answers 3


This article, Four Dharma Seals, says:

As suffering is not an inherent aspect of existence sometimes the second seal is omitted to make Three Dharma Seals.

From that I get the impression that,

  • The tilakkhaṇa is the earliest doctrine (in the Pali canon)
  • Later someone added nirvana to that list (making the four Dharma seals)
  • Then, someone decided that if nirvana is in that list, then dukkha isn't permanent/inevitable, and so they removed dukkha from the list.

The Three Dharma Seals in an error of interpretation by Thích Nhất Hạnh based on an error of interpretation by the majority of Buddhist commentators and translators. It is an example of when an error is made based on accepting an existing error rather than refuting an existing error.

Thích Nhất Hạnh has correctly stated that "suffering" is not an inherent aspect of reality however the word 'dukkha' as one of the tilakkhaṇa does not mean 'suffering' but means 'unsatisfactoriness'.

It is an error to translate the second tilakkhaṇa as 'suffering' or 'stress' thus it is another error, as Thích Nhất Hạnh has done, to accept the wrong translation as valid and then dismiss it because this also dismisses what the Buddha taught and, more importantly, dismisses what is actually real.

Thus, as properly translated from Dhammapada 278 by Acharya Buddharakkhita:

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

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

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

The Four Dharma Seals should be (according to reality) as follows:

  • All compounded things are impermanent

  • All compounded things are unsatisfactory (cannot bring lasting happiness)

  • All phenomena [including Nibbana] are not-self/empty

  • Nirvana is uncompounded, the supreme & true lasting happiness (end of suffering).

  • Could you discuss "unsatisfactorily" in the context of "feelings" please? TNH's criticism about suffering seems to be easy to extend to "unsatisfactorily". Sorry it seems I am bombarding you with questions tonight.... take it as a compliment :)
    – pandita
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 12:29
  • I doubt TNH's criticism seems to be easy to extend to "unsatisfactory". Unsatisfactory is not the same as suffering. I do not take drugs because drugs are unsatisfactory. However, this not taking drugs is not suffering. Unsatisfactory means something cannot bring you lasting happiness. Unsatisfactory does not mean something will make you suffer. For example, drinking water does not make me suffer. However, drinking water will not make me permanently happy. Therefore, water is unsatisfactory but water is not suffering. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 6:40

The Four Dharma seals are wrong, because Dukkha is a part of the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha cannot be a Dharma seal because suffering can be transcended with enlightenment. But the Three Dharma Seals are the actual Truth that will always be:

  1. All Samskara are impermanent
  2. All dharma are without a substantial self
  3. Nirvana is perfect peace

All three are inherent truth, not something that can be changed with enlightenment.

  • What's the definition of a "dharma seal", by the way? The version I know of is that "all saṅkhāras are dukkha" (and nirvana is not a sankhara). The Wikipedia article implies that "dharma seal" is a characteristic of doctrine.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:05
  • So I suppose you're saying it's possible to teach Buddhism without teaching about dukkha. I suppose that's true, e.g. in this topic I mentioned that I found it difficult to begin with the "first noble truth".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:20

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