Three Marks of Existence

Dharma SealsAfter much meditation, the Buddha concluded that everything in the physical world (plus everything in the phenomenology of psychology) is marked by three characteristics, known as the three characteristics of existence, three signs of being or Dharma Seals.

These three characteristics are inherent in all phenomena of being.

Together the three characteristics of existence are called ti-lakkhana, in Pali; or tri-laksana, in Sanskrit.

  • Dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.
  • Anicca or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (A convenient way to visualize this would be to recall that the atoms constituting your body are constantly being replaced.)
  • Anatta or impersonality. The human personality or “soul” is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.

There is often a fourth Dharma Seal mentioned:

  • Nirvana is peace. Nirvana is the ‘other shore’ from Samsara.

By bringing the three (or four) seals into moment-to-moment experience through concentrated awareness, we are said to achieve Wisdom – the third of the three higher trainings – the way out of Samsara. In this way we can identify that, according to Sutra, the recipe (or formula) for leaving Samsara is achieved by a deep-rooted change to our Weltanschauung.

Interpretations of the three marks by various schools

Some Buddhist traditions assert that Anatta pervades everything, and is not limited to personality, or soul. These traditions assert that Nirvana also has the quality of Anatta, but that Nirvana (by definition) is the cessation of Dukkha and Anicca.

In Nagarjuna’s MMK XXV:19, he says

There is not the slightest difference
Between Samsara and Nirvana

This verse points us to an interesting stress between dukkha and nirvana, through an argument based in anatta. This specific stress can be seen to be the key to (and possibly source for the development of) the deity yogas of vajrayana.

The sutra path enjoins us to identify the entire world (internally and externally) as samsara — a continual churning of suffering that nobody wants to be part of. Our practice is that of leaving the shores of samsara.

On the other hand, we are told that unconditioned, enlightened activity is not actually different from samsara.

Whereas the deity yoga of vajrayana enjoins us to identify the entire world as nirvana — a continual play of enlightening activity that everyone wishes to be a part of. Our practice here is that of arriving at the shores of nirvana.

At this level, the distinction between Sutra and Vajrayana remain that of view (departing vs. arriving), but basically the practitioner remains involved in undergoing a transformative development to his or her Weltanschauung, and in this context, these practices remain rooted in psychological change, grounded in the development of Samatha, or training in concentration.

However, there are certain practices in Tantra which are not solely concerned with psychological change; these revolve around the basic idea that it is possible to induce deep levels of concentration through psycho-physical methods as a result of special exercises. The purpose remains the same (to achieve liberating view), but the method involves a ‘short cut’ for the training in Samatha.

See also

buddha monk

buddha monk