A World of Impermanence: the Three Marks

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The three marks of existence (anicca, dukkha, anatta, or impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self) have always played a central role in Buddhist dhamma. They outline its basic metaphysics, the ground which characterizes lived reality. The Buddha viewed these characteristics as everlastingly true of the world:

“Bhikkhus, whether Tathāgatas arise or not, there persists that law, that stableness of the Dhamma, that fixed course of the Dhamma. ‘All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.’ … ‘All conditioned phenomena are suffering.’ … ‘All phenomena are non-self.’” (Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.136).

Further, liberating wisdom essentially involves the knowledge of these three characteristics:

“All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.

“All conditioned phenomena are suffering.”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.

“All phenomena are non-self.”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity. (Dhammapada 277-79, adapted from Gil Fronsdal).

Many of us, of course, express assent to the claim that “all things are anicca, dukkha, anatta”; since we are not thereby enlightened, more must be involved. The problem is that although we may agree to such claims, this assent is little more than skin deep: it occurs at the level of an assent to a proposition, or to a set of concepts. It has not yet been fully taken onboard.

The distinction between assenting to a correct proposition and wisdom is sometimes lost in contemporary philosophy, where the focus is more on “knowledge”, glossed as a sort of true belief, than on “wisdom” per se. It may be the creedal focus of Christianity that is at fault here, but often the focus in the West is on finding true beliefs to which we can assent, the thought being that if we would only assent to enough true beliefs, or perhaps to the right true beliefs, we would be living the good life.

Indeed, assent to true beliefs is a good thing: it helps, for example, to know that the world is growing warmer due to human impacts on the environment, since having such a true belief can motivate us to act to rectify the situation. Not having such a belief, or having its opposite, may on the other hand contribute to pain and sorrow in the future.

So all told, true beliefs are a good thing. And in some contemporary forms of secular spirituality, or a classically inspired search for the good life (eudaimonia), it seems as though the reasoned search to amass true beliefs is near the center of the picture.

The problem however is that although we may assent to the claim that all things are impermanent, we often reveal in our behavior a tendency to assume that things are more permanent than they actually are. We are continually surprised when bad things happen to spoil a good time, and when we are in the midst of pain we find ourselves overwhelmed by the feeling that it will never end, that the sun will never rise again.

Although we may know intellectually that all common things are ultimately unsatisfactory, nevertheless we find ourselves overtaken by the emotion that this next purchase will somehow bring our lives into balance. And we are continually disillusioned when it does not.

I can recall leaving on a trip, the lightness of mind reflecting upon the pleasures that lay in store. But then the luggage is misplaced, the room looks out on a mountainous air conditioning unit, the food is overpriced or underwhelming, and the whole experience, though perhaps pleasurable, reveals itself as not so different from ordinary life, in its way just as unsatisfactory as what was left behind.

Selflessness we know intellectually: there is no permanent, Cartesian soul, no homunculus in our skulls pulling the levers. We are continually constructed out of neural firings and causal interactions with the world, our perceptions, ideas, volitions continually forming and falling apart.

Yet we commonly think of ourselves as somehow permanent, or at least lasting a great number of years. Many believe in eternal souls, but even those of us who do not will strive to produce things that outlast us, in a vain attempt at life extension. Moment to moment we identify with things in our environment, conjuring ourselves into awareness through likes and dislikes. The Buddha’s essential insight that the self is constructed through clinging is terribly difficult to take onboard. It’s not that the process is difficult to see, it’s that it’s so basic, so automatic, that it happens whether we see it or not. Mere conceptual awareness is not nearly sufficient to see through it, nor to see it through.

The claim is that seeing through these three characteristics, understanding them not merely on a conceptual or intellectual level, but really understanding them in their depth and profundity, leads to nibbāṇa. It does this by loosening us up from continually clinging to things in the world, and from reacting to our likes and dislikes through our constructed self-identities.

Their Interrelations I: Anicca and Dukkha

It would appear that these three characteristics are not entirely distinct. How then do they interrelate? Let us begin with anicca and dukkha.

The Buddha gives a thumbnail sketch of the relation between the characteristics in a typical passage:

Bhikkhus, form [feeling, perception, volition, consciousness] is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by nonclinging. (SN 22.45).

The Buddha typically begins with anicca: things are impermanent. This is something we are aware of immediately through experience. Indeed, even Plato believed that the world known to us through the senses was in constant change.

The typical person when exposed to Buddhism will often ask why it is that all things are said to be “dukkha” or “unsatisfactory”. There is so much apparent goodness and happiness in the world, so much that is pleasurable, how can the world be unsatisfactory? The reason is impermanence itself: “whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha”. For all its enjoyments, pleasure is impermanent: it is not a “secure refuge” (Dhp. 188-192); to search out pleasure will not be for one’s “good and happiness for a long time” (Udāna 1.10).

The problem is that in seeing pleasure, we typically grasp at permanence:

Whatever in the world has a pleasant and agreeable nature: it is here that this craving arises when it arises; it is here that it settles down when it settles down.

Bhikkhus, whatever ascetics and brahmins in the past regarded that in the world with a pleasant and agreeable nature as permanent, as happiness, as self, as healthy, as secure: they nurtured craving. In nurturing craving they nurtured acquisition. In nurturing acquisition they nurtured suffering (SN 12.66).

Impermanence causes suffering. It is not simply that there are these two marks of existence, anicca and dukkha, but rather that anicca brings about dukkha when the world is regarded with ignorance, or to say it differently in the absence of wisdom.

This is not the ignorance of conceptual or propositional understanding. Again, we may know the facts and we may be able to mouth the appropriate sentences. Yet we fall into the same patterns nonetheless.

Their Interrelations II: Dukkha and Anatta

As we have seen, the Buddha says, “whatever is dukkha, that is without attā (self)”. The problem with this claim, however, is that it is not obvious why. We may understand that all things are unsatisfactory: they fail to provide secure refuge from the vicissitudes of life. Pleasures fade. Fortifications decay. Conditions change. We often do not get what we want, or get what we do not want. We are necessarily exposed to sickness and death.

But what does any of this have to do with non-self? One might hold onto some notion of a permanent or semi-permanent self and agree with the Buddha’s diagnosis of dukkha, as indeed to an extent did philosophers like the Stoics of classical Greece.

This obscurity is highlighted in Buddhaghosa’s treatment of the issue in the Visuddhimagga, his magisterial codification and systematization of the Buddha dhamma. Buddhaghosa treats the issue in this manner:

[The] five aggregates are not-self because of the words, ‘What is dukkha is not-self’ (SN 22.15). Why? Because there is no exercising of power over them. The mode of insusceptibility to the exercise of power is the characteristic of not-self (XXI.8).

The claim is cryptic, since it introduces a new term into the discussion, the “exercise of power”. How does this illuminate the relation between dukkha and anatta?

One assumes Buddhaghosa was referring to passages such as this from the Nikāyas:

Bhikkhus, form [and the other four aggregates] is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of the form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is nonself, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of the form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus’ (SN 22.59).

In his notes, Bhikkhu Bodhi glosses the passage in this manner:

If anything is to count as our “self” it must be subject to our volitional control; since, however, we cannot bend the five aggregates to our will, they are all subject to affliction and therefore cannot be our self (SN n. 91, pp. 1066-67).

This is the same argument I discussed in a previous blog post, “On Self and Self-Control”. It requires a notion of self as locus of perfect control, the goal of early Indian religious salvation, rather than as a pragmatic, everyday self. If we take our self to be that thing or bundle of things over which we exercise perfect control, then given any supposed such bundle, we can see that the persistence of dukkha in the face of our desire for it to go away is an argument for these things not to be our self. We can will no thing nor bundle of things so as to cause dukkha to cease.

This argument highlights however that the relation between dukkha and anatta is not, as it would appear from the Buddha’s above statement (SN 22.45), that the aggregates’ unsatisfactoriness makes them be non-self, but rather the reverse. It’s our lack of perfect control over the aggregates that makes them unsatisfactory (dukkha). That lack of perfect control constitutes their selflessness. Hence in a way it may really be selflessness which brings about dukkha rather than the reverse.

Their Interrelations III: Anicca and Anatta

Having looked at the relations between the first two pairs in the triad, it is time to look at the last. What is the relation between impermanence and non-self? Here the Buddha gives a straightforward answer:

“Bhikkhus, what do you think: Is feeling … perceptions … formations … consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“No, venerable sir.” (MN 109.15; SN 22.59).

The furniture of the world is impermanent, and what is impermanent (along with being dukkha) cannot be the self. The Buddha gives a longer and more detailed argument to this effect in the Mahānidāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 15.27-31): the only things one can identify within experience are the five aggregates, but no matter which of those one picks as ‘self’, it is always changing, coming into being, passing away.

Clearly, once again the Buddha is attacking a notion of self which is permanent and therefore special, the same self which was the locus of perfect control that we saw above, the goal of early Indian religious salvation. His argument has no purchase against a pragmatic self which is impermanent and constructed.

The fact is that universal impermanence (anicca) is incompatible with the notion of a permanent self.

Their Interrelations IV: the Priority of Anicca

So we see that for the Buddha, although there are three stated marks or characteristics of existence, anicca, dukkha, and anatta, when looked at carefully they appear to reduce more or less to a single, key characteristic: that of impermanence or anicca. The other two derive from that basic feature of reality, when wisdom is absent.

Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) arises due to a combination of impermanence and our deep, abiding ignorance about the way things work. This ignorance is not a lack of book-learning, but a feature of our lack of proper training, largely meditative training, which involves coming to terms with impermanence and its far-reaching effects. The fact that there is no locus of perfect control simply means that as untrained beings, we are powerless to alter dukkha by a simple act of will.

Anatta (non-self) is, in a sense, a simple corollary of impermanence, at least insofar as the self is understood to be some sort of permanent refuge. The Buddha’s claim is that no such refuge is to be found; all we are left with is impermanence. Further, impermanence is epistemically prior to non-self. It is through seeing impermanence in the world that we learn that every part of experience is non-self.

In a sense the entirety of Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics can be seen as a lengthy coming to terms with the truth of impermanence. This isn’t surprising, since if we think about it impermanence is the only of the three characteristics that is mind-independent, that would be present in the universe were there no conscious beings. Without conscious beings there would be no dukkha, and there would be no locus around which a notion of self could coalesce. There would only be the impermanence of physical form.

While this is a modern way to look at the issue, since Buddhist cosmology did not lend the material world any primacy over the mental, nevertheless I think it is indicative of an outlook grounded in everyday reality.


We have taken a look at the three marks of existence in the early tradition, and tried to tease apart their interrelations. This led us to a realization that anicca (impermanence), holds the key, since the other two characteristics of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-self) are brought about by impermanence, when in the presence of ignorance. Impermanence, we might say, is both metaphysically and epistemologically prior, because it determines the other two, and because our awareness of dukkha and anatta come through an awareness of impermanence. To take one example, we can be aware of dukkha even in pleasurable circumstances through an awareness that they are impermanent.

We have not taken any detailed look at the role of ignorance in all of this. Of course, ignorance is key to the arising of both dukkha and any idea of a self as permanent or as a locus of perfect control. One might wonder whether ignorance should be considered a kind of ‘fourth mark of existence’ given its centrality to the human condition.

We see that impermanence taken in the context of human ignorance is the root issue for early Buddhism. In my next piece I take a more speculative look at the way the later tradition may have changed this perspective.