Three marks of existence
The three marks of existence (Skt. trilakṣaṇa; P. tilakkhaṇa; T. phyag rgya gsum; C. sanxiang) or the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena are, in brief:
In the Theravada tradition, these three marks are used to distinguish between Buddhist beliefs and non-Buddhist belielfs. According to the Theravadan Visuddhimagga, realization of the truth of the these three marks constitutes enlightenment.
Full expression in Pali texts
The complete statement of the three marks, from the Pali texts, is:
- "All saṅkhāras (compounded things) are impermanent": Sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā
- "All saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory": Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā
- "All dhammas (all things including the unconditioned) are without self": Sabbe dhammā anattā
Impermanence (Sanskrit: anitya; Pali anicca) refers to the fact that all conditioned things (saṅkhāra) are impermanent, constantly changing, in a constant state of flux. Piyadassi Thera writes:
It is this single and simple word Impermanence (anicca) which is the very core of the Buddha's teaching, being also the basis for the other two characteristics of existence, Suffering and No-self. The fact of Impermanence means that reality is never static but is dynamic throughout, and this the modern scientists are realizing to be the basic nature of the world without any exception. In his teaching of dynamic reality, the Buddha gave us the master key to open any door we wish. The modern world is using the same master key, but only for material achievements, and is opening door after door with amazing success.
Change or impermanence is the essential characteristic of all phenomenal existence. We cannot say of anything, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, "this is lasting"; for even while we are saying this, it would be undergoing change. All is fleeting; the beauty of flowers, the bird's melody, the bee's hum, and a sunset's glory...
All component things — that is, all things which arise as the effect of causes, and which in turn give rise to effects — can be crystallized in the single word anicca, impermanence. All tones, therefore, are just variations struck on the chord which is made up of impermanence, suffering (unsatisfactoriness), and no-self nor soul — anicca, dukkha, and anattaa.
Camouflaged, these three characteristics of life prevail in this world until a supremely Enlightened One reveals their true nature. It is to proclaim these three characteristics — and how through complete realization of them, one attains to deliverance of mind — that a Buddha appears. This is the quintessence, the sum total of the Buddha's teaching.
Smith and Novak write:
Nothing in nature is identical with what it was the moment before; in this the Buddha was close to modern science, which has discovered that the relatively stable objects of the macro world derive from particles that are so ephemeral that they barely exist. To underscore life’s fleetingness the Buddha called the components of the human self skandhas—skeins that hang together as loosely as yarn—and the body a “heap,” its elements no more solidly assembled than grains in a sandpile. But why did the Buddha belabor a point that may seem obvious? Because, he believed, we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow.
Because all conditioned things are impermanent, and because we fail to recognize this and instead cling to things as if they are permanent, there is suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, frustration, and so on. This is dukkha.
Dukkha is the stress, dissatisfaction, suffering, and so on, that is experienced by all sentient beings who are not fully enlightened.
Upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas) of an individual, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a self.
According to Buddhist tradition, a full understanding or realization of the three marks of existence can bring an end to suffering (dukkha nirodha). In other words, realization of the truth of the these three marks constitutes enlightenment.
Within Vipassana meditation
Sayagyi U Ba Khin writes:
For progress in Vipassana Meditation, a student must keep knowing Anicca as continuously as possible. The Buddha's advice to monks is that they should try to maintain the awareness of Anicca, Dukkha or Anatta in all postures, whether sitting, standing, walking or lying down. Continuous awareness of Anicca and so of Dukkha and Anatta, is the secret of success. The last words of the Buddha just before He breathed His last and passed away into Maha-parinibbana were: "Decay (or Anicca) is inherent in all component things. Work out your own salvation with diligence." This is in fact the essence of all His teachings during the forty-five years of His ministry. If you will keep up the awareness of the Anicca that is inherent in all component things, you are sure to reach the goal in the course of time.
The formulation of the basic tenets, or dharma seals, is expressed differently in other traditions.
In the East Asian Buddhist tradition, the three dharma seals are:
Core beliefs of Buddhism
These three marks, or one of the variations used in the Mahayana traditions, are generally accepted as core beliefs of Buddhism by all Buddhist traditions.
Carol Anderson writes:
- In the 26 centuries since the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhism has developed into a diverse religion rich with culture, beliefs and practices that can vary between the different traditions. As Buddhism spread into new regions, it became enmeshed in the regional religious beliefs. New religions sprang up that were Buddhist in appearance but which retained little of the Buddha's teachings. As well, new schools of Buddhism arose that approached the original teachings in fresh new ways. With these changes, questions arose as to the true nature of Buddhism. Regardless of the title, the Three Dharma Seals, the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Seals of the Dharma and the Three Universal Characteristics refer to the same concepts. All schools of Buddhism based on Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings accept these concepts as the core of their beliefs thus distinguishing true Buddhism from other religions that might look like Buddhism. It follows then that any teaching that contradicts theses concepts is not a true Buddhist teaching.
The trilakshana (three marks) of existence appear in Pali texts as, "sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta", which Szczurek translates as, "all conditioned things are impermanent, all conditioned things are painful, all dhammas are without Self".
Alternate translations for this concept in English are:
- Three Marks of Existence
- Three characteristics of conditioned phenomena
- Three Dharma seals
- Three universal characteristics
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. trilaksana
- Walsh 1995, p. 30.
- The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence, Access to Insight
- Smith & Novak 2009, p. 57.
- Dukkha, Access to Insight
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. trilaksana
- The Essentials of Buddha Dhamma in Meditative Practice, Access to Insight
- Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 972-984.
- Anderson, Carol (2013), Basic Buddhism: A Beginner's Guide: Volume 1 - Origins, Concepts and Beliefs, Self-published by author (Kindle format)
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2003), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, ISBN 978-0-86171-331-8
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Kindle ed.), HarperOne
- Walsh, Maurice (1995), The Long Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, Wisdom Publications
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