Understanding the Three Marks of Existence and How These Affect Your Life

Have you ever asked existential questions like: “why is this occurring to me?” Or “how did this problem start?” Or even, “when will this bad episode in my life end?” 

Trying to find the answers to these questions can stress you out. You’ll go through numerous emotions. You might not enjoy a peaceful life. 

But understanding Buddhist concepts can help provide solace for your overburdened self. The three marks of existence, in particular, can help you better appreciate the things happening in your life.


Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism

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The three marks of existence are an important doctrine on the nature of experience. This basic teaching by Buddha covers all ideas, sensations, and experiences in life. These are also commonly referred to as the Dharma Seals.

The story goes that Buddha meditated for a long time. After his meditation, he concluded that everything in our world is marked by the following three characteristics:  


Impermanence (Annica)

This comes from the Pali word, which loosely translates to changing or shifting. It underscores that our world is constantly changing. This is something that we should always be mindful of.  

Everything in our physical world is impermanent. Material things don’t last forever. Over time, these things will fade away. 

Clothes will wear out. Vehicles break down. We throw away old gadgets and appliances. We get rid of things that are no longer of use. 

Yes, some things last longer, like bridges and roads. But it doesn’t mean that these edifices will remain standing for the rest of the time. Eventually, these structures are demolished for new ones. 

Ideas and emotions are bound to change over time. Your worst fear today may not be a concern at all next year. Two decades ago, the idea of socially connecting people online seemed outlandish. But the founders of Facebook proved otherwise. Today, everyone is on social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

The same goes for your opinion about someone. You may not like a person today. But he or she may change ways, causing you to have a different view. 

It’s common knowledge that people change, too. This not only pertains to their physical attributes but also their attitudes and emotions. You’re certainly not the same person from what you were, say, 10 years ago. 

Your shy college friend may be outgoing today. Your spouse may have been quiet when you first met. But now she’s talking from day to night. 

What does Annica teach us? We must realize that all things, whether good or bad, will come to an end. Grasping the impermanence of things enables us to become less attached to them. In the long run, this will spare us from negative emotions such as dejection.

For example, it’s easier to let go of a friend when you understand that he or she has changed. Perhaps your old pal has simply outgrown you. Or you have developed into conflicting personalities that can cause the end of the friendship.

Suffering (dukkha)

This is the Pali term for unsatisfactory. It’s also used to describe suffering. It can also mean stress and disease. It is one of the four noble truths which describe the nature of reality.  

Generally speaking, dukkha pertains to the discomfort we experience in life. This covers a wide range of emotions, such as anxiety, anger, regret, and melancholy, among others. It can also pertain to physical suffering such as discomfort, stiffness, and pain.

According to Buddhism, anyone may temporarily get whatever he or she wants in life. However, suffering in life—whether it is emotional, mental, or physical– is inevitable. 

There are three types of dukkha or suffering in life. The first is dukkha-dukkha or the body’s response to suffering. This covers the physical and emotional pain that we experience in our lives.

For instance, you will experience pain and discomfort when you twist your ankle. Unpleasant mental feelings such as sorrow occur when you lose something close to you. This may be a friend or a family member.

The second type of dukkha is viparinama-dukkha or the suffering of change. This pertains to discomfort or stress from one’s inability to accept a transformation.

This is best exemplified when an episode in your life that’s pleasurable passes or ends. You’d feel depressed when a relationship ends. Or you’d feel down after being fired.

The last type is the sankhara-dukkha or the suffering due to a conditioned state. It primarily involves the formation of anxiety-filled thoughts. Those emotions usually arise from an unpleasant mental or physical experience.

For instance, you may ask: “what happens if I can’t get a job?” Or you may insist: “it’s unfair for my partner to leave me.” These thoughts all add up to your mental anguish.

In short, understanding dukkha is important if you are to live a less stressful life. Since dukkha is the constant displeasure or dissatisfaction in life, you should learn how to deal with it. Learning how to let go of it will be key to living a peaceful, less stressful life.


Egolessness/Non-self (Anatta)

The last mark of existence is often translated as “non-self” or the absence of a self or soul.

As a doctrine, Anatta gives Buddhism something that sets it apart from other religions. Unlike other religions that preach an eternal soul, Buddhism does not believe in such phenomena.

Buddhists believe that an individual is not an integral and autonomous entity. Instead, a person is a product of the five skandhas or elements. Those elements are discussed further later in this article. 

According to Buddhism, those elements make a person constantly changing. The combination of these skandhas forms an individual. 

In short, a person like you is not a static object. You are a dynamic entity that’s bound to transform or change over time. 

Subscribing to the doctrine of AnattaAnatta allows you to embrace a more fluid and dynamic ‘you.’ This way, you will realize that you should not attach yourself to anything. Doing so will only lead you to experience disappointments and suffering in life. 


Importance of the
Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks of Existence serve as the core basis for the view of Buddhists in the physical world. These doctrines show that the world we live in is static and conditioned. It is dependent on many variables. And it causes suffering.

Appreciating the three marks of existence would enable you to understand how the world works. Use this knowledge to better understand yourself and everything around you. More importantly, this knowledge can free you from pain, stress, and suffering.


Different Interpretations of the
Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks of Existence have been subjected to various interpretations over the years. One assertion is that AnattaAnatta is not only limited to a person but also to other material things. 

There is also the belief that AnattaAnatta is the same as Nirvana or the definitive spiritual goal in Buddhism. Some Buddhist texts describe the realization of AnattaAnatta as Nirvana. However, this remains a hotly-debated topic among scholars and monks.


Role of the Five Skandhas

As mentioned earlier, the skandhas are elements that make a person dynamic or changing. Skandhas come from the Sanskrit word, which translates to heaps or groupings.

Skandhas are not only responsible for the personality of an individual, but also for the craving and clinginess of a person. 

The following are the five skandhas:

  • Matter (Rupa) – this pertains to anything that can be sensed. It can refer to any material that can be seen, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled.
  • Sensation (Vedana) – this refers to any physical or mental sensation such as pain and pleasure. The sensation may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
  • Perception (Sanna) – this pertains to the perception of sense objects. It comes from the Pali word, which means ‘knowledge that was put together.’ In short, it allows us to recognize things through association. For instance, you recognize shoes because you associate it with the previous experience of wearing them.
  • Mental Foundation (Sankhara) – this covers all concepts and thoughts formed in your mind, whether good or bad. Sankhara may include, among others, hopes, fears, anger, attitudes, envy, and joy
  • Consciousness (Vinnana) – this pertains to your consciousness or awareness of the four other skandhas.

Frequently Asked Questions:
The Short Answers

Why are the three marks of existence important?

The Three Marks of Existence are important because it teaches us to better understand ourselves. It also gives us a better appreciation of the world we live in.

Knowledge and appreciation of these marks can enable you to better understand your state. It can free you from pain, stress, and suffering.

The Three Marks of Existence reveal our true self. These core teachings of Buddhism underscore three important things about our universe. 

First, nothing is static. Everything in our world is changing. Understanding this truth prepares us for the inevitability of suffering. As humans, we are prone to getting sick. We age. And we will die. 

The realization of Annica or impermanence mentally prepares us for other unfortunate occurrences. Knowing that a relationship won’t last forever, for example, means you will be prepared for a breakup. This would help lessen the pain and suffering you will go through. 

Speaking of suffering, dukkha teaches us that unsatisfactoriness is part of existing. We’ll go through trials and tribulations in the same way that we experience ups. 


Which of the three marks is more important?

Many Buddhists believe that Anicca or impermanence is the most important of the three marks. This mark reminds us that our life is constantly changing. It’s something that we can’t control, which also happens to be a primary principle of Buddhists.

Annica applies to everything in the universe. Everything in space is on the move. The same goes for human life. It permeates all aspects of our lives, including inanimate objects. 

In short, Annica reminds us that man is powerless. This core principle also drives Buddhists to further their quality of life and, in the process, achieve enlightenment. 


What are the three types of suffering?

Buddhism regularly discusses the concept of suffering. This is not surprising because it is a problem that religion or philosophy addresses. In Buddhism, recognition of suffering and its three types are essential towards its resolution. 

The first type of suffering is called the suffering of suffering. This covers the suffering that Buddha saw during his time. These are old age, sickness, and death.

The second type of suffering is caused by change. According to Buddha, people suffer when they become attached to things and situations.

It’s also the suffering that you go through when you can’t hold on to something you have. You may have a successful career or business. You may be a billionaire. But you will lose those things eventually. It is just a matter of time before you do so. 

The third type is the truth of suffering or people not being enlightened. Buddhism considers the third type as the most dangerous of the three. It’s also the type of suffering people don’t recognize. It is subtle yet dangerous. 

The truth of suffering breeds anxiety and insecurity. It can linger in the background even during the happiest episodes of your life. Deep down, you question your very own existence.

However, Buddhists say that these doubts are reasonable. They even implore us to better understand why there are doubts in our minds. They believe that doing so offers glimpses of wisdom. 


 Is the fourth mark, Nirvana?

Nirvana is considered the fourth mark of existence in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. 

It is often referred to as a trandescent state. According to Buddhism, one can achieve Nirvana when he or she has completely understood the three marks of existence.  

In Nirvana, there is neither suffering nor a sense of unsatisfactoriness. This is also more popularly known as the end goal of Buddhism. 

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