What are the Three Marks of Existence?

| April 17, 2013 | 11 Comments

womanmeditatingThe Three Marks of Existence is important in Buddhism, because it means we start to see things, situations as they really are. Everything is impermanent, suffering is a part of existence (for living things anyway), and nothing exists in and of itself, without dependencies. The three marks of existence is not an idea or theory you have to believe in. Rather it is a way to explore yourself and everything around you.


Everything is impermanent. Everything! Everything from micro organisms to the universe itself. Relationships are impermanent. Ideas and opinions are impermanent, cities and roads, the ideal job or career, and yes, even you. When most people here this, they say, well I know all that! The problem is we do know it, yet we cling to things as though they are permanent, because we want them to last, at least during our lifetime. Some things are longer lasting than other things. But if we truly grasp impermanence, then the less we cling to outcomes and expectations. We are then not as horrified when a relationship ends, a job is lost, or when people die. That is not to say those situations are suddenly easy, but our recovery from suffering can go more smoothly when we see everything as it really is, than if we cling to it because we want it to last forever. Impermanence is the first and only one of the three marks of existence that is inherent in the natural world.

Start exploring impermanence.  Find the areas you cling to because you expect a situation, relationship, or thing to last. Explore how your view of impermanence in certain areas affect how to cling to desired outcomes or expectations. What happens if you recognize that everything is impermanent?


Not Self

Some also call this egolessness, but there is actually more to it than ego. The Buddhist teachings of not self ask us to explore the reality of objects and ourselves in depth like no other teaching. Nothing that exists, including you, exists in and of itself, without dependencies, and as a single, permanent thing. Everything is actually a collection that we have labeled as a certain thing, and you may tend to think of yourself as “this is who I am.” The problem with that is that it’s not true. Again, this is not a theory, not a belief. Explore it!

Everything about you is in constant change from the trillions of cells that make up your body, to the multitude of processes that create thoughts, emotions, reactions, opinions, and beliefs. You aren’t a static object, but a work in progress, full of processes. Even rocks are made up millions of granules of different types of minerals that go through changes through weathering, heat, pressure, and end up eventually a completely different kind of rock.

Why does any of this matter? Because it’s important that you investigate how everything changes, how we apply stereotypes to ourselves and people that are not only inaccurate, but cause us to create unrealistic expectations of people and things. When you start to see how you aren’t a solid, unchanging self, but a impermanent, dynamic person, you also loosen your clinging to thoughts, ideas, emotions, and the idea of a “real you”. Your interaction in the world becomes more fluid, dynamic, and responsive rather than reactive, clinging to static idea.

Again this is not a concept to be believed. It’s to be explored, during meditation, throughout your daily life. It’s a challenging area of practice in the beginning, but as you start to see these processes at work in yourself, you also realize others are like this. Change becomes the norm, rather than an unpleasant surprise, and the impermanence of everything becomes even more obvious. This is not a magical state of seeing, but simply observing the dependencies everything has along with the multitude of processes at work.

Buddha never said you don’t have a self. What he said was your body is not self, your emotions are not self, your thoughts are not self, and on and on. Why? Because all of these are in constant change, coming and going throughout the day.

Neuroscience also notes that the brain does not have a central driver, that there isn’t a You in the brain looking out at the world. Instead, the brain gives rise to thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions, etc. that go into the creation of a feeling of self. This feeling of self rises off and on throughout the day. When you start observing how this process works, it’s amazing and freeing. You no longer need to cling to an image of yourself, because it becomes obvious that is just a mental picture that is also subject to change and impermanence.

Not self can be confusing and overwhelming. In the beginning if you feel put off or disturbed by it, focus on the first two marks of existence instead. Not self rolls out of this practice over time. You don’t need to twist your brain into a pretzel trying to understand it. And most importantly, again, it’s not a magical state of being. It’s not a higher state of consciousness. It’s simply observable when you really start paying attention.

It’s the misconception of  self  as something permanent, a thing we cling to, that ends up leading us to suffering in a multitude of ways.


Because we exist, we also suffer. Many of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid suffering, trying to push it away and not experience it. We don’t want to suffer and we don’t want others to suffer. So, instead of studying suffering closely, understanding that it is a part of life, we try to avoid it, to push it away. In doing that, we actually create more suffering for ourselves.

In Buddhism, we are asked to take pause, notice suffering when it arises in ourselves, when we observe it others. Stop running. Understand that others, like you, also suffer. When we start exploring what suffering is from physical pain to disappointment, from anger to boredom, from depression to grief, we also see the many ways we worsen our suffering mentally, how aversion to it is actually a form of clinging to suffering, and just seeing it for what it is lessens it.

Start observing the many ways you suffer. Realize that others suffer as well, and instead of trying to avoid it or escape from it, see how compassion can arise for yourself and others. Suffering is not just something to observe, but something to explore. Sit with your sadness or your anger, observe how the feeling moves around in the body or settles in one place. Observe yourself and how you react to various forms of suffering, how you respond to other people when they suffering.

If you want to explore the above, I encourage you to do the Weekly Practice exercises. Give each lesson as many weeks as you need though.

This article is part of the New to Secular Buddhism section of SBA.


Category: Articles

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (11)

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  1. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Just as an add on to what Dana has here, impermanence is the first and only one that is inherent in the natural world. We see that things don’t last, and even the universe itself will end.

    Next is this idea of Not Self — that isn’t NO self, but NOT self. This is a misperception about us and really any ossified conceptualization (not an inherent quality of the natural world, but our misperceiving of it). So, conventionally there’s a you and me, and other things with which we interact and ideas we understand, but those aren’t permanent and we should question our perception for accuracy.

    Finally, the third quality is the potential — potential — for dissatisfaction (a.k.a. “suffering”) because of that misperception. We cling to ideas, even ideas about us being anything more that process, and that can lead to our wanting things to be other than they are.

    Bear in mind, that’s a very thumbnail secular approach to the three marks, there is a great deal of depth to each of these and interpretations of them have been going on for thousands of years.

  2. ruedade says:

    How would you characterize impermanence, i.e. as proposition, theory law etc. ? If characterized as a law, would it also be impermanent? Thanks

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    ruedade, as with all of Gotama’s teachings about our existential condition, “impermanence” is a perceived characteristic of phenomena. It is not a natural law, because it seeks only to describe human experience. So to answer your question, since we know that at some point there will be no sentient beings, at least not on this planet, the Mark of Impermanence is indeed itself impermanent.

    Having said that, I’m not aware of anything in the universe that’s permanent, are you?

    • Linda Linda says:

      Do we know that impermanence (and dukkha, and impermanence’s part in dukkha) only affects sentient beings on this planet? I would think that wherever sentient life arises and evolves, this same problem is quite likely to arise, too. It may well be the nature of the sentient beast.

  4. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Impermanence affects all of the universe. Even the universe itself is not expected to last. It’ll be many trillions of years old, but it’s going to die into a cold state so that nothing, not even atoms move within. Everything in the universe is also impermanent. So it’s not just sentient and insentient beings, but everything down to subatomic particles and virtual particles. Nothing that we know of is permanent.

  5. ruedade says:

    “Neuroscience notes that the brain doesn’t have a central driver…”
    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say neuroscience speculates or theorizes about the issue of a central driver? Thanks

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      I think that the original one is still completely accurate — neuroscience has not found a central driver. Do you have some published paper that has a testable hypothesis about a central driver? My impression of the neuroscience literature is quite the opposite, that it does *not* make any such speculation.

      • ruedade says:

        I’m always in awe of “complete accuracy” (just joking).
        Alas, no published paper, not even an unpublished one, just a vague uneasiness about certainty when the human brain is involved. Thanks

  6. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Neuroscience posits a “feeling” of self that is created through a multitude of processes. Emotions, feelings, and thoughts go into creating a feeling of self, but it’s only a feeling, not an actual central driver. There isn’t a central processor or self in the brain. The brain creates our feeling of self in a variety of ways, society influences our feelings of self and independence, and our reaction to the world either makes that feeling stronger through clinging, or allows it to pass naturally through letting go.

    • ruedade says:

      Thanks for your reply. I was unsure of whether there was widespread agreement among scientists on the issue of a central driver but your response clarified the matter.

  7. Gregory Clement says:

    I struggle with the teaching on anatta.

    The argument runs that each of the ingredients is not the self (body, emotions, sensations etc) so there is no self. Why not say that the self is just the sum of these things?

    Another angle is that each of these things is constantly changing so they can’t be the basis of a permanent self. Why not just say that the self is changing, an example of impermanence?

    Part of my difficulty is that I can’t see the purpose of the anatta teaching. ‘There is no permanent, uncompounded self.’ Well who would have thought that there was? Isn’t this all covered in the teaching on impermanence? The difficulty gets greater when people start to distinguish not-self from no self. What exactly does this mean?

    Excuse my simple questions. Can anyone give me a simple answer?

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