The Three Marks of Existence: Buddhism 101

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What are the three marks of existence in Buddhism? How do you Buddhists see the world?

Buddhists believe that there are three fundamental features that characterize worldly existence. Collectively, they are referred to as the “three marks of existence” or “three universal truths.” They are anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anatta (selflessness).

Keep reading to learn about the three marks of existence.

The Three Marks of Existence

In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are the inherent traits that all worldly phenomena share: impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and selflessness (anatta).

Impermanence (Anicca)

  • The world is forever changing. Molecules within your computer, your body, your home are shifting and slowly dissolving.
  • One day you look at yourself and you’ve aged. Aghast, you pine for lost youth. Where does this pain come from? Your own inattention – you failed to look closely at life. You assumed mistakenly that things would last forever.
  • With meditation, you perceive life as ever-flowing movement. All things are inherently transitory.

Unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha)

  • Every worldly thing is in the end unsatisfying. There is no peace in clinging onto things – material possessions, sensations, emotions, health.
  • Many experiences themselves simply cause suffering – pain, sorrow, grief.
  • Even when you have pleasant experiences, they inevitably end, and you pine for more. You grasp onto the best memories, chasing them endlessly.

Selflessness (Anatta)

  • You have a deeply ingrained notion of self that is “me.” You view “me” as a thing separate from all other things. You pinch off “me” from the rest of the universe, then grieve over how lonely you feel. Doesn’t this seem self-defeating?
  • WIth meditation, you chip away at the concept of “me” to see your place in human society. In this way, you become tied to everyone else.

Meditation and the Three Universal Truths

In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are cognized through the practice of mindfulness meditation. The three factors of meditation are morality, concentration, and wisdom. These influence the other. 

  • Understanding things deeply requires a high-level objective view, giving equal weight to everyone’s concerns. This requires freedom from greed, envy, and other selfish psychic irritants.
  • When you have wisdom to truly understand a situation, compassion toward all parties involved is automatic, and thus you automatically behave morally as you restrain yourself from any thought or deed that may harm others.
  • When you don’t understand things deeply, then you create problems. You don’t see the consequences of your actions.
The Three Marks of Existence: Buddhism 101

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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