In his book Breath by Breath, Larry Rosenberg says that being mindful of the breath, as in the Anapanasati Sutta, is a complete practice and can lead to complete liberation. Following on from that I would think it should be possible to experience all three marks of existence in the breath.

From my own practice I can feel both the impermanence and no-self aspects of the breath. They seem fairly evident even with access or just momentary levels of concentration. However I don't see the other mark of conditioned existence i.e. suffering. How can one see suffering in the breath? How does this come about? Are there any traditional or contemporary writings on the subject?

Many thanks for any all help

  • 4
    Maybe important to note that dukkha is also translated as unsatisfactoriness. Thus the breath, like all dhammas, carries the sign of "not enough".
    – user382
    Feb 15, 2015 at 23:04
  • 1
    Please hold your breath until you can't hold on anymore - didn't you just suffer? I like ChrisW's answer, it's goes into this in more detail. Besides, your desire to know, that led you to post here is suffering in itself. :-)
    – Buddho
    Feb 17, 2015 at 16:40

11 Answers 11


I believe both @Bakmoon and @santa100 have touched on it in their answers; @santa100 gives some traditional writings on the subject.

Very briefly, all three of these marks of existence are intertwined in their meaning, understanding, and relation (they're "three sides of the same coin" to completely mess up an idiom!)...

Let's start with impermanence: The idea that nothing just is, that it's instead always changing. Pretty simple fact of physics, mainly. Next, consider Anatta or non-self, which is a way of saying that even what we might call a 'self' isn't permanent, it too is impermanent; meaning, there isn't one (a 'self'), because that would be something! Finally, Dukkha or suffering: That 'suffering' or 'unsatisfactoriness' arises because our mind's habit is to imagine that some things actually are permanent, or that we have selves.

Really, that's it.

So when meditating on the breath, if you 'get' impermanence, then you also automatically get non-self (as you've said) and suffering (because suffering is just the illusion that things are permanent in any way, shape, or form).

Finally, the way I would answer this most simply, is to say that in whatever way to feel you understand impermanence, that would be very closely related to how you understand suffering; suffering is just the 'auto pilot' or 'habit of mind' that arises from not understanding impermanence, at every moment, of every day.

When you're following your breath, you likely have some (slight) expectation that it will continue to go out, or change from out to in, come flowing back in, or finally change from in to out. That expectation has in it the seed of dissatisfaction. At some point, on some breath you take, it will do none of those things; it will stop. Just that slight expectation is an illusion. (Not to mention all the times your mind might wander and 'expect' or want different things from your past or future.)

I (and others, including scholars) feel that 'suffering' is an unfortunate translation and choice of word, particularly in the West, although it is a literal translation of the term used in Pali, Sanskrit, or Tibetan. In the Wikipedia article you link to, the linked article to suffering (Dukkha), includes this gloss, re: neither pessimistic nor optimistic which I find helpful to understand a more nuanced definition of 'suffering' as Buddhists define it. (The above link has changed substantially--so I've edited the link so it now links to the older version as it existed when I wrote this answer. Here is the current page on Dukkha, as it is now.)


The three characteristics are very deep and profound subjects, and often our understanding of them is very superficial. For example, people often think that they understand impermanence because they understand it to mean that all conditioned things will eventually end, when in fact impermanence means much more than that.

In order to see the three characteristics through anapanasati it is nessisary to make sure that one is practicing it in a way that is specifically developing insight, and to do this it is necessary to meditate just on the bare experiences of breathing rather than on the breath itself. For example, one could use the feelings of air moving against the inside of the nose and the subtle feelings of heat and cold, or on the throat, or the expansion and contraction of the body during breathing.

After one is able to meditate like this then one will be able to start to see the three characteristics in a deeper way than before. One will be able to see how all experience is made up of parts that arise and cease, and gradually a person will be able to understand impermanence through direct perception in meditation instead of the conceptual way that most people are used to, and as this direct understanding of impermanence ripens the meditator will be able to directly perceive the characteristics of dukkha and nonself.


How can one see suffering in the breath?

Is a personal opinion/answer OK?

There are different types of dukkha and I think you can see aspects of any/all of these in breathing.

  • Birth: baby's first breath, associated with life (and crying and a whole unsatisfactory life ahead)
  • Sickness, old age, death: you're dying, and you die when you can't breathe
  • Getting what you don't want: you can't stop yourself from breathing ... even if you're underwater; and even when you do breathe as well as you can, you're still subject/vulnerable to CO2 and fatigue poisons (which is why, for example, you cannot sprint indefinitely)
  • Not being able to hold onto what is desirable: after inhaling, you must exhale, etc.; similarly, after eating you must eat again, etc.; and your body is temporary
  • Not getting what you do want: you're never free from the need to breathe; also any anxiety is (I find) palpable as a tightness or an uneasiness in breathing; and breathing is necessary but not sufficient.
  • All-pervasive suffering: I would kind of rather not be conscious of my breathing

Many thanks for any all help

I find it strange that trying to tell someone how to see dukkha might be viewed as "helpful", but... <sigh>.

FWIW some of my most enjoyable experiences of breathing are;

  • On a bicycle, after about the first 20 minutes and I have 'warmed up': then my breathing is deeper and more satisfying.
  • When I was a child there were a few occasions when I was asleep and dreaming and still conscious of (feeling) my body's breathing: and in my dream I could run or even swim/stay/breathe under water and my breathing would remain unaffected. Because in reality I was physically asleep my breathing was relaxed, and sufficient.
  • I could mention a Tai Chi form as well: e.g. I learned the Chen-style 'first form' in a way that's compatible with breathing, i.e. each movement of the form is associated with an inhale or exhale

I guess that if you experience dukkha you can also sometimes experience the cessation or absence of dukkha.

  • 1
    +1 for "Any anxiety is (I find) palpable as a tightness or an uneasiness in breathing" - and are we ever completely free from fundamental anxiety about life?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 16, 2015 at 1:31

Beside the regular suffering, there're 2 deeper levels of suffering as taught in SN 38.14:

"Friend Sāriputta, it is said, ‘suffering, suffering.’ What now is suffering?”

“There are, friend, these three kinds of suffering: the suffering due to pain, the suffering due to formations, the suffering due to change. These are the three kinds of suffering.”

“But, friend, is there a path, is there a way for the full understanding of these three kinds of suffering?”

“There is a path, friend, there is a way ... this Noble Eightfold Path….”

And Ven. Bodhi's note in his book "Connected Discourses":

The three types are explained at Vism 499,14–21 (Ppn 16:34–35). Briefly, suffering due to pain (dukkhadukkhatā ) is painful bodily and mental feeling; suffering due to the formations (saṅkhāradukkhatā) is all conditioned phenomena of the three planes, because they are oppressed by rise and fall; and suffering due to change (viparināmadukkhtā̄) is pleasant feeling, which brings suffering when it comes to an end.


The way I understand observing dukkha in the breath:

  • Dukkha-dukkha: eg. observing the pain in the body caused by in-out breaths.

  • Vipariṇāma-dukkha: eg. a observing a pleasant breath becoming not-so-pleasant or painful, and vice-versa.

  • Saṃkhāra-dukkha: eg. observing the breath as insufficient; something that does not carry what one looks for, the ultimate goal; something unable to truly, deeply and permanently satisfy.


Crab bucket, if only you have taken the "impermanence" and "anatta" aspects a bit further into your meditation, you would have arrived at the "Suffering" aspect of it. Let me explain this to you...

Being fully concentrated on anapanasati, he now dwells ardent, with full awareness, and clear comprehension of impermanence. With the base of this awareness, established in anicca (impermanence), he develops an understanding of his own life, the impermanent nature of others who breathe and live, and the impermanent nature of material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness (the five aggregates of clinging).

Thus, he observes the impermanent characteristic of phenomenal existence, internally and externally. He does not see a difference in him and the outer world. He sees the characteristic of phenomenal existence as subject to cause and effect. Now he is gaining knowledge, and his comprehension is increasing. He sees things as they really are, in whatever material form: whether past, present or future, far or near, external or internal. He sees the impermanence even of the rapture and pleasure that he is experiencing in breathing mindfully. Now, based on the impermanent breath, he understands the impermanent nature of the five aggregates of clinging.

He realizes that whatever is impermanent and subject to change, is suffering (dukkha). And, whatever is impermanent is without self (anatta). It is through this insight that the true nature of the aggregates is clearly seen; in the light of three signs (ti-lakkhana): impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and without self (anatta).

He sees the impermanent, suffering and no-self nature of all conditioned and component things. As a result, he knows there is no “I”, no self, or anything pertaining to a self. When he trains himself to breathe in and out focusing on impermanence, he understands that anything taken as ‘mine’ is impermanent; anything taken as ‘I am’ is impermanent; and anything that is taken as ‘my self’ is impermanent. He realizes that whatever is impermanent, is without self. That which is without self, is not ‘mine’, not ‘I am’, and is not ‘my self’. Thus he sees everything as it really is – with wisdom.


Buddha said, when mind is still, dhamma reveals itself.

When you are at the presence, one dhamma that opens up is all things end as time passes (even just one second ago) and what is the characteristic of things in the past? It has less value to you.

For example, when you had your heart broken the first time. I imagine that it doesn't effect you any more.

So when you see that all things will come to an end even if it's just one second, it won't matter much to you, so you start to let go and stop clinging to it. Buddha compared it to bubbles. We don't cry over burst bubbles because we know they don't last forever.


Mr. Crab Bucket. Stop breathing for a while, just two minutes or so. It should be clear then.

  • Ven Sir, are you trying to explain something akin to the Ven. Sun Lun Sayadaw's method? Perhaps you can try to elaborate this in a bit more detail in line with the question above to to the benefit of many. Dec 28, 2015 at 16:38
  • Not consciously, valued Upasaka Suminda. But maybe Upasaka is able to to give a share of the remembered similarity. The meaning was more, that if one is used to have joy with a certain object, one might not realize it's real characteristic. Now if somebody cuts of this object of pleasure, one, reminding that breath is not sure, would see that one breath causes the birth of the next. Death within every breath. There are certain methods in this regard and as we know even the Buddha made his final investigation, to totally change the way of his practice by stopping the breath.
    – user11235
    Dec 28, 2015 at 16:59
  • I am not very familiar with this tradition myself. I did add an answer but left out any reference to the tradition so I would not inadvertently misrepresent any tenets in it. Dec 28, 2015 at 18:12

Gross level (olārika)

  • Impermanence - each breath has a start and an end
  • Unsatisfactoriness - If you try to control you breath there is pain and suffering
  • Non self - Your breath is not in your control, you cannot stop it indefinitely and you cannot always manipulate it as you want (like prolong the in breath to x days)

Subtle level (sukhuma)

  • Impermanence - if you take the touch of the breath this is arising and passing with great rapidity
  • Unsatisfactoriness - any sensation born from the breathing process can be at times painful when say you have a stuffy nose, in case you experience blize this also passes away, the fact that this process keeps creating conditioned existance for the future itself open your up to further stress and suffering
  • Non self - the feeling and fabrication arising from breathing is not in your control. Say you experience a neutral feeling and you are not aware of the arising and passing of phenomena which is felt with equanimity you are in the process of creating future existance as the process creating new fabrication has not stopped.

The 2nd mark of conditioned phenomena (not 'existence') is 'unsatisfactoriness' rather than 'suffering'. When the mind sees the breath, due to its impermanence, cannot be relied on for true happiness, it sees 'dukkha'. I suppose if the mind also sees due to impermanence, if the mind clings to the breath, this clinging will bring suffering because the clung-to breath will change & disappear, this can also count as seeing 'dukkha' in the breath (I suppose, if we cheat a little).


When you breathe out you can notice a subtle sensation of discomfort just before you breathe in again. You need to be quite concentrated to notice it. It's kind of like the body almost gasping for the next breath.

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