Tilakkhana – EBT concept?

Thanissaro B. mentioned, in a recorded dhamma talk, that the Buddha teaching “The Three Characteristics”, per se, isn’t to be found in the Sutta-s. He also mentioned (citing his mentor, Ajaan Fuang) that they are not characteristics inherent in “the world out there”, but are aspects of perception, of experience, problems the mind creates for itself by expecting (craving?) constancy, satisfaction, and a comfortable sense of enduring identity in worldly life.

The tilakkhana are broadly considered basic Buddhist teaching, but, as far as I can
find, don’t appear named as such in the Sutta-s. Anicca, dukkha and anatta are separately discussed frequently, and all three together in that famous passage in the DhammaPada (277-279 – “Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā… Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā… Sabbe dhammā anattā”). And there, they are in quotes, as what is seen with discernment (i.e. perceptual attainments). A similar formulation is found also at AN Book of Threes, IV.4 (aka 136, B. Bodhi trans pp.363-4). This is found through in index entry for “Characteristics (lakkhana)”.

Searching further the indexes of DN, MN, AN, and SN otherwise doesn’t find tilakkhana or much more, other than also in AN under “Markless (animitta) concentration”, also under “Threes”, VIII, 183-352 (p. 376) – “Emptiness, markless, and wishless concentration”. B. Bodhi points out (in endnote 617, pp. 1676-7), that the same list occurs in DN III, 219 (#33 Sangiti Sutta, p. 486 in B.Bodhi-Walshe), and that the DN commentary correlates that set of three with anatta, anicca, and dukkha, respectively. Somewhere in there B. Bodhi remarked that this sutta, which reads like a sort of mini-Anguttara (or abhidhamma matika), is considered relatively late. He also points out that Buddhaghosa (Vism XXI, 66-73 in Nanamoli) elaborates on that correspondence – “signless” and anicca, “desireless” and dukkha, “voidness” and anatta – calling them “The Triple Gateway to Liberation” and extensively citing the Patissambhida.

Nowadays, teachers regularly talk about “the Three Characteristics” as fundamental in the Buddha’s teaching, and I recall a teacher once giving a talk about them as the “Gateways to Liberation”.

Others may well correct me, but it would seem that tilakkhana / the “Three Characteristics” weren’t labeled as such by the Buddha (i.e. in the EBT). Discussion of anicca, dukkha and anatta, separately, are certainly to be abundantly found, and, as above, a couple of references grouping them. Perhaps this phenomenon exemplifies a way in which later renditions, commentaries, tended to create labels, abstractions to represent aspects of what the Buddha literally taught in more informal ways.

Anyone know where, when the term ‘tilakkhana’ ‘first appears in the Canon?

(Or has this topic been already covered somewhere on this forum?)

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Can’t recall seeing the ‘tilakkhana’ form in the SN. The three concepts occur together a lot there though. The following is an example (from SN35.32) of what seems the predominant form:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the way that is suitable for uprooting all conceivings? What do you think, bhikkhus, is the eye permanent or impermanent?” - “Impermanent, venerable sir.” - “Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?” - [25] “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."

“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards the eye …

Or in a lot of the interchangeable SN repetition forms, it’s very common to have three variations of the same basic sutta side-by-side with merely the words “non-self”, “suffering” or “impermanence” cut-and-pasted in each time. Seemed to have been a well-established triplet of concepts by whoever organized the SN anyway.


Thanks for sharing this, indeed tilakkhaṇa is not to be found in the four Nikayas.

The only entry I find is in the KN Apadana (https://suttacentral.net/pi/tha-ap410):

Ajjhāyako mantadharo, tiṇṇaṃ vedāna pāragū;
Tilakkhaṇena sampanno, bāvarī nāma brāhmaṇo

The first line actually appears a few times in the suttas: “He is a reciter and preserver of the hymns, a master of the three Vedas” (AN 3.58, AN 5.192, DN 3-5).

Just the second line is unknown “The Brahmin named Bavari, endowed with the three marks”?

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The Bodhipakkhiyādhammā list is the same sort of thing. Individual EBT chunks put in a larger list.

A couple? There are some rather important discourses where they are intertwinded, such as the Second Sermon:

“What do you think, bhikkhus, is form 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.”


Yes. Thank you.

I should have made explicit there my focus on the labeling as “characteristics” or “marks” (lakkhana), which is less common.

Where I’m going with this is trying to tease-out analysis of how interpretation, commentary, just talking about the Buddha’s teachings adds layers of concept, of terminology; notably the idea itself of “EBT”.

The layer upon layer of such accretion to , about the original texts gives us this long and deep tradition of viewpoints developed by different people/groups in different historical, cultural contexts. And this increasingly complex web of viewpoints occasions critiques, debates countering each other’s perspectives.

Not to be overlooked is how we, today, largely from Western cultural standpoints, engage in the same activity. Asserting any primacy to our modern perspective should be recognized as a subtle, if perhaps unavoidable, form of conceit (in the original sense of mana). I believe modern critiques of other phases of tradition would do well to keep this in mind. The mind is a trickster, and this needs to be heedfully observed.


The second Sermon is named Anatta Lakkhana Sutta.

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Thank you. And who named it so? and when?

For me Lakkhana does not mean characteristics.
It means “signs” or "how to identify "to me.

Not me!

It is an EBT concept, as per @mikenz66’s response. It’s mainly the label used to name and group them that was probably not used by the Buddha.

Doing this is very common in the Abhidhamma and the Commentaries. The same way that we now call the Tipiṭaka the EBT, or how we call followers of the Buddha’s teachings Buddhists. It’s not that they aren’t valid Canonical concepts, it’s just that we need words to describe things. :wink:

Sadly, this is usually used as a way to discredit the Abhidhamma or the Commentaries—although not being a valid argument at all.

Related, it seems there are some published works that also argue that the Four Noble Truths did not had that label originally. As far as I recall, they used some syntactic observations to show that, in some passages, the respective pali terms were likely added later.

This is mentioned in “Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon”: