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The Wikipedia page for "the 3 marks of existence" differentiates between "conditioned things" and "unconditioned things" like so:

The three marks are:

  1. sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā — "all saṅkhāras (conditioned things) are impermanent"
  2. sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā — "all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory"
  3. sabbe dhammā anattā — "all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are not self"

The Buddha said "I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering."

Within that context:

  1. What is the difference between a "conditioned thing" and an "unconditioned thing"?
  2. How does that difference give meaning to the 3 marks?
  3. How does this meaning point towards "the end of suffering"?
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    This topic -- Can anyone explain Sanskara / Sankara indepth? is about "sankhara". And this topic -- What is the meaning of the word Dhamma? -- tries to explain why one of the marks refers to dhammas instead. So I think what's new in this question (not a duplicate, already addressed in previous questions) might be only the third part -- i.e. "How does this meaning point towards the end of suffering?" – ChrisW Mar 16 at 20:13
  • "Conditioned thing" in Buddhism is also famously called "co-dependent arising"(buddhistinquiry.org/article/dependent-arising), almost every phenomenon u experienced belong to this category. "unconditioned thing" has very few, such as nihilistic space. By the very nature of all things in these two categories, one inevitably arrives at suffering of different types as manifested in the 3 marks. Once we totally understand such unavoidable nature, we can have a chance to end all the sufferings via stringent practice. Of course it's much easier said than done... – Double Knot Mar 17 at 0:39
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    "The Buddha said "I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering." This is not accurate, he is said to have said ~ 'Both formerly and now i teach only suffering AND the cessation of suffering'. Cessation principle is a standalone principle which persists without change whereas dukkha changes as it persists and is conditioned, the cessation principle isn't conditioned. Dependent origination is the origination of the conditioned. – Letsbuddhism Mar 17 at 21:06
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All compounded and/ or conditioned things are impermanent or changing. This applies to the five aggregates, physical objects, matter, energy, physical space, time, most mental concepts and ideas etc.

All matter can be broken down to energy. Energy can be converted to matter. That we know from Einstein's E=mc2. Matter can convert into different forms and so can energy.

Physical space and time can be warped by matter. This we know from Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

Conditioned things are impermanent and a source of suffering.

Nibbana is not impermanent. It is not conditioned or compounded. It does not depend on anything else. From this answer, we read:

So, Nibbana is not a thought of the mind, not a concept of the mind, not a state of the mind, not a state of consciousness and also not a feeling. However, when the mind experiences this Nibbana, which is not conditioned, not compounded, not suffering, not impermanent, not arising, not ceasing and not changing, it experiences bliss. The mind can therefore experience Nibbana, but it cannot feel it or think about it.

However, all things including Nibbana, Buddha's teachings, matter, physical space, time, thoughts, concepts are not self. There is no permanent, standalone, independent thing called self, just as you cannot find a thing called music when you breakdown a musical instrument into its constituent parts. Please also see this answer.

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What is the difference between a "conditioned thing" and an "unconditioned thing"?

A conditioned thing relies on another thing for its existence. All things are conditioned things, except Nibbana. Nibbana is an element of nature, which is the element of perfect peace.

How does that difference give meaning to the 3 marks?

The 3 marks apply to the five aggregates per SN 22.59; but do not apply to Nibbana.

How does this meaning point towards "the end of suffering"?

Realising the 3 marks results in disenchantment & dispassion towards conditioned things; which causes craving to end & Nibbana to be experienced. Refer to the end of SN 22.59.

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I'll give the answer according to the Madhyamaka which is notably different from some of the answers given according to the Theravada above.

What is the difference between a "conditioned thing" and an "unconditioned thing"?

A compounded thing is an object known by an awareness that is produced and functions. An uncompounded thing is something that is not produced and does not function. It does not change from moment to moment. It is not transient.

How does that difference give meaning to the 3 marks?

The person and the aggregates are compounded things. The second mark says that persons - compounded things - are unsatisfactory as they are subject to old age, sickness and death. Something none of us wish for. This is unsatisfactory.

How does this meaning point towards "the end of suffering"?

The third mark is key here. The suffering we endure because we wish not to be subject to old age, sickness and death is based on ignorance. It is this third mark which shows the key to overcoming our ignorance and the suffering it inevitably entails.

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Imagine you were looking for Nirvana, Enlightenment, Liberation - whatever you want to call it. As a rational man you are, you would think logically:

Regardless of what Nirvana actually is (whatever it is), could it be that once I attain it, it would somehow end or expel me against my will? Could it be taken away from me? If it were that way, it would not be Nirvana. Therefore, Nirvana must be permanent.

Next, whatever Nirvana is, could it be that once I attain Nirvana I would still crave for something else or better than it? Could it be less than absolutely satisfactory? No, that would not be Nirvana. Therefore Nirvana must be absolutely 100% satisfactory.

Now, what does it mean for something to be permanent (to not be impermanent). Why are things impermanent? Things are impermanent because they depend on some causes and conditions for their existence. Once those causes and conditions disband, things fall apart and disappear. Therefore, all conditioned things are impermanent.

Next, what does it mean for something to be 100% satisfactory. It means when you have attained it you don't find it wrong or lacking or too much - even to the infinitely smallest degree. So any state of existence that has even the smallest amount of conflict between IS and SHOULD is not and cannot be Nirvana. Nirvana must be 100% without conflict, without craving for something else. When you have attained Nirvana (whatever it is), your IS does not have a SHOULD, it's perfect AS IS.

Now let's connect these two observations. Since conditioned things, things that depend on conditions, could be taken away from us (=could end), can they be 100% satisfactory? No, because they leave room for SHOULD, they leave room for wishing for more (wishing for the impermanence), because even as we have them we know very well that once they end that good possession or state of being or state of mind is now gone, is over. Therefore, all conditioned things are unsatisfactory.

Therefore, Nirvana must NOT be a conditioned thing. Nirvana must be 100% without craving for something else. Nirvana must be 100% conflictless AS-IS-ness, THUS-ness, SUCH-ness.

Having figured out that Nirvana must be unconditional, conflictless, without craving for something else -- even without knowing what Nirvana actually is -- you can keep on thinking.

If all conditioned things are impermanent and unsatisfactory, say I myself were conditioned on something external to myself, that would mean I myself would be impermanent. That would not be satisfactory, because how could I being impermanent attain something permanent such as Nirvana? That would not be possible. Therefore, the only way I can attain and stay in Nirvana if I myself were impermanent and unconditioned.

Now, let's examine this thing I call "I". Is my body permanent or impermanent, conditioned or unconditioned? My body is impermanent and conditioned. Are my feelings & emotions permanent or impermanent, conditioned or unconditioned? My feelings & emotions are impermanent and conditioned. Are my thoughts? My thoughts are impermanent and conditioned. Is my overall state of mind? It is impermanent and conditioned. Is my awareness? It is too impermanent and conditioned. Is there anything else I can point to and say "this is I"? How about this entire world, could I say I am this world? But this world, too, is impermanent and conditioned.

So if everything that I have or I am or I could be is impermanent and conditioned, and Nirvana is permanent and unconditioned, from that it would follow that Nirvana cannot be permanently and unconditionally attained by the I.

Wait a second! Could it be that Nirvana is attained without I, by dropping the I???

If Nirvana is unconditioned, conflictless, without craving, perpetual, JUST SO - could dropping the I be dropping the conditioned, dropping the conflicts, dropping the craving? When the I with its opinions and attachments is no more, could whatever remains be the craving-less JUST SO?

Could it be that Nirvana is attained by loosening one's hold, by letting go, by detachment, by not grasping, not insisting, not fighting for what is I/me/mine, what's deemed dear and right by the I?

Could it be that Nirvana is simply the unconditional peace of things as they are when the I stops creating the conflict?

But what does that mean, to stop creating the conflict, to stop craving, to stop grasping? How would it feel if it were so?

No internal conflict and no external conflict, what is that like? What is unconditional peace like?

To be at peace with things as they are, what is that like, in action?

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How does this meaning point towards "the end of suffering"?

It implies that something (a dhamma) that is non-self, and which is non-created or not 'fabricated' -- i.e. nibanna -- is neither anicca or dukkha.

See also this topic -- What is the basis? -- where I asked whether for example non-remorse might be permanent. I thought that especially the last paragraph of the answer which I marked as "accepted" was clear: i.e. "So the absence of remorse is conditioned, but not being an existing thing etc."

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