Buddhism: Three Marks of Existence

Impermanence, Suffering, and Egolessness

Happy Buddha
A smiling stone Buddha in the forest outside of Chaya, Thailand. Marianne Williams / Getty Images

The Buddha taught that everything in the physical world, including mental activity and psychological experience, is marked with three characteristics -- impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. Thorough examination and awareness of these marks help us abandon the grasping and clinging that bind us.

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Suffering (Dukkha)

The Pali word dukkha is most often translated as "suffering," but it also means "unsatisfactory" or "imperfect." Everything material and mental that begins and ends, is composed of the five skandhas, and has not been liberated to Nirvana, is dukkha. Thus, even beautiful things and pleasant experiences are dukkha.

Buddha taught that there are three main categories of dukkha. The first is suffering or pain, dukkha-dukkha. It includes physical, emotional and mental pain. Then there is viparinama-dukka, which is impermanence or change. Everything is transitory, including happiness, and so we should enjoy it while it is there and not cling to it. The third is samkhara-dukka, conditioned states, meaning we are affected by and dependent on something else.

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Impermanence (Anicca)

Impermanence is the fundamental property of everything that is conditioned. All conditioned things are impermanent and are in a constant state of flux. Because all conditioned things are constantly in flux, liberation is possible.

We go through life attaching ourselves to things, ideas, emotional states. We become angry, envious, and sad when things change, die, or cannot be replicated. We see ourselves as permanent things and other things and people as likewise permanent. We cling to them without deeply understanding that all things, including ourselves, are impermanent.

By renunciation, you can be liberated from clinging to things you desire and the negative effects of those things changing. Because of impermanence, we ourselves can change. You can let go of fears, disappointments, and regrets. You can be liberated from them and enlightenment is possible.

By nourishing your insight into impermanence each day, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that you will live more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life more. Live in the moment and appreciate the here and now. When you encounter pain and suffering, know that it, too, shall pass.

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Egolessness (Anatta)

Anatta (anatman in Sanskrit) is also translated as non-self or non-essentiality. This is the teaching that "you" are not an integral, autonomous entity. The individual self, or what we might call the ego, is more correctly thought of as a by-product of the skandhas.

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These aggregates or heaps give us the illusion of being a self, separate from all others. But the skandhas are constantly changing and impermanent. You are not the same for two consecutive moments. Realizing this truth can be a long and difficult journey, and some traditions think it is only possible for monks. We cling to who we think we are, but we are never the same from moment to moment.

This concept is one that separates Buddhism from Hinduism, in which there is a belief in an individual soul or self. While many Buddhists believe in the cycle of rebirth, with anatta there is no self or soul. 

Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ on how anatman is understood. The liberated nirvana state in Theravada is a state of anatta, freed from the delusion of ego. In Mahayana, there is no intrinsic self, we are not really separate, autonomous beings.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism: Three Marks of Existence." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-marks-of-existence-449744. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Buddhism: Three Marks of Existence. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/the-marks-of-existence-449744 O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism: Three Marks of Existence." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-marks-of-existence-449744 (accessed May 30, 2023).