Tilakkhana - the 3 marks of what, exactly?


I’m sure you’re all familiar with the the 3 marks or characteristic ( tilakkhaṇa ), namely impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and not-self (anattā).

But the 3 marks of what, exactly? The 3 marks of ( human ) existence? Or the 3 marks of unenlightened experience?

In the suttas it appears that insight into the 3 marks leads to the cessation of dukkha, and yet dukkha is itself one of those 3 marks.

Your thoughts?


Samsara, phenomena, fabrications, experience with samadhi directed at seeing aggregates, sense bases, elements: anicca, dukkha, anatta
Nibbana: no arising and passing away discerned, highest ‘bliss’, not-self

Dukkha here is the Truth of suffering (dukkha sacca) seen in the suffering visible in fabrications (sankhara dukkha), not emotional suffering (domanassa) or even unpleasant feelings (dukkha vedana).

Sad emotions are overcome upon enlightenment- ‘sad’ existence is overcome upon death of the arahanth as is pain.

with metta


They apply to all forms of conditioned existence. So practically to everything that is not nibbāna, With dukkha being specific to everything that feels.


Apart from sensible interpretations, do we have actual sutta references for what the tilakkhana refer to?


@Gabriel strangely there’s little about tilakkhana as such in the suttas. But the little that we have shows that they are applicable to all conditioned phenomena, since this is how the Buddha consistently presented them (as characteristics of that which is conditioned); along with the connotations of the expression “lakkhana” itself.


There is an article about “sabbe dhamma anatta” by Bhante @sujato here:


That’s right, and as always it’s interesting to do some digging. I should mention that I consider the following general order for the age of the Nikayas: SN, AN, MN, DN

E.g. in SN 12.66 we find

Bhikkhus, whatever ascetics and brahmins in the past regarded that in the world with a pleasant and agreeable nature as impermanent, as suffering, as nonself, as a disease, as fearful: they abandoned craving.

Here we have the lakkhana in the context of some asubha-practice. And also we have five of them, not three.

Then we have more detailed list, again of basically asubha saññā practices like “Anicce dukkhasaññā”, “Dukkhe anattasaññā”, “Pahānasaññā” in SN 46.67-76.

Which is repeated in a way in SN 55.3:

dwell contemplating impermanence in all formations, perceiving suffering in what is impermanent, perceiving nonself in what is suffering, perceiving abandonment, perceiving fading away, perceiving cessation.

So the SN at least doesn’t have three lakkhana at all afaics. It continues with AN 1.465-474, again ten perceptions, not three. And as before AN 4.49 puts them in an asubha context:

Perceiving permanence in the impermanent, perceiving pleasure in what is suffering,
perceiving a self in what is non-self, and perceiving attractiveness in what is unattractive,
beings resort to wrong views, their minds deranged, their perception twisted.

AN 5.72, AN 5.305 has (no surprise) five perceptions:

The perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in the impermanent, the perception of non-self in what is suffering, the perception of abandoning, the perception of dispassion.

AN 6.35, AN 6.142 add nirodha. AN 7.58 has these seven items:

The perception of unattractiveness, the perception of death, the perception of the repulsiveness of food, the perception of nondelight in the entire world, the perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in the impermanent, and the perception of non-self in what is suffering.

Etc. etc. you see where this is going, the lakkhanas appear in the context of specific advanced asubha, or more generally dispassion practice. As so often we don’t find an ontological, philosophical description of “existence” but a pragmatic approach to overcome any clinging to whatever appears to be desirable or attractive.


I think this phrase is coming from Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. However, it describes slightly differently the same.

Anicca = impermanent
Dukkha = painful
Anatta = ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

Lakkhana means the characteristics or marks. So this Sutta is about the 3 marks of Anatta.
Why Anatta is included in explaining Anatta.
It is a clever way to explain a thing that is not explainable in words. Anatta should be realized so you become a Sotapanna.
For instance, how do you explain the Devil to someone who has never seen or associate a devil?
Black, ugly, fearful, a devil
Because all black, ugly, fearful are not devil.


3 basic marks of conditioned existence.


What about unconditioned Nibbana?


Well, the first two are marks of saṅkhārā, the last one is a mark of dhammā.

Venerable Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda renders them simply as “the Three Signata”, which is more or less equivalent to calling them “the Three Marks” without any further qualification.

Given that they don’t all apply neatly to one single thing I think this is ideal.


As it is unconditioned, it cannot be termed as existence.
The opposite would apply: Permanent…Non Suffering…no arising…no birth and death…the unborn…Ud8.3:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.


Sankhara is phenomena, is experiencing ie. everything other than Nibbana.
Dhamma is everything plus Nibbana. Therefore:
Sankhara or Samsara is tilakkhana
Nibbana is clearly anatta (as none of the five aggregates are seen in it or part of it).
Nibbana cannot be said to be permanent as it would need to be subject to time, for it to be permanent, and it isn’t. It’s not dukkha as all types of dukkha has ceased in it.

With metta


Another, related, recent discussion:


What has helped me is SN 22.059 where the argument for these three is developed in a step by step fashion. They are derived from a lack of control over the aggregates. So in a sense there is only one characteristic ‘a lack of control’.

"Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction,

There is an underlying assumption here that if something was self/soul we would have control over it. I would guess this was a view held by his audience (the 5 ascetics in this case).

Impermanence is not in and of itself a bad thing. The problem only occurs if we have no control over the impermanence and we expect or desire it.


Everything arises due to causes. Among these causes, a ‘self’ is not seen, ie. there is no one making decisions - the decisions or intentions arise due to previous causes and not because a ‘self’ or ‘being’ intervened and made such decisions.

sound (door bell) --> intention to open door --> opening of door
Note that there was no self required, in this sequence, though we might naturally think it was the self that was doing the intending. The intending can be seen to happen automatically while we are just watching the process mindfully.

So it goes without saying that there is no one having control either. In terms of the Path its merely Right view giving rise to Right intention or determination which leads to nibbana, while there is a mere illusion of control in place, and we can discuss it in those terms, conventionally speaking. In terms of aggregates etc however there is no controller. It is ‘specific conditionality’ that determines what outcomes arise from their specific/particular causes, at this level of insight.

with metta


Yes, I am aware of this view. I don’t find it helpful - if it works for you - great! In my view it can lead to a sense of fatalism among Buddhists when in fact many perhaps the majority of suttas imply that we are free agents capable of making choices. I think this teaching actually misses the point and can lead down any number of unhelpful mental meanderings.

I am not aware that Buddha ever defines what is meant by the term self. If something is not defined then we can’t talk about whether it exists or not. If I say my car is missing a tire - you can judge for yourself. If I say it is missing a stipleganger - you have to figure out what it is before you can say there is or isn’t one. It is the same with notions of self.

Mat: Among these causes, a ‘self’ is not seen .
Is a self (subject) seeable as an object? I don’t know - we have no definition to work from - why would it? Isn’t this an assumption?

Mat: there is no one making decisions - the decisions or intentions arise due to previous causes and not because a 'self or being intervened and made such decisions.

And yet sutta after sutta tells us to make skillful choices. It is these kinds of statements that lead to fatalism.

Mat: sound (door bell) --> intention to open door --> opening of door
Note that there was no self required

Such a view, carried out to its conclusion, implies that reality is nothing more than some great Newtonian clockwork grinding out Buddhas, Gods, humans, rocks and all else throughout time. I don’t see that this is what the EBT’s are teaching.

Mat: So it goes without saying that there is no one having control either.
Take it up with the Buddha - I just referenced the sutta - which actually doesn’t say that there is or is not someone in control. If you infer from that sutta something about whether there is or is not a self then I think you miss the point it is trying to make.

In my view, the issue of whether we have or do not have a self in some ultimate sense is not relevant to the teachings and the practice.


Let me try from a different angle- your body is made up of billions of atoms- you cant control how they spin (nor can you stop it from aging and dying). Yet you say you this self.

To try a simile - imgine you always thought the people on a TV screen were real people- but one day you got really close and saw they were made up of pixels (‘aggregates’). The illusion of a self of blown to pieces- literally.

Yet when we move away from the TV screen the person is whole again- making all those decisions and saying all those things etc. If we call that whole person the illusion, we can see how it can make all those decisions, despite it being a bunch of pixel, arising and passing away on a screen. Its just different planes of seeing- truths from one plane doesn’t readily applicable to the other. Of course there is the ability to make skillful choices, and a ‘person’, on one level, but not on the other more ‘atomic’ level.

God- all seeing, all powerful, should make all actions of man obsolete- yet it didn’t, did it? Atoms and molecules should make choice and Self unlikely. Yet all scientists believe in those. One of the great things the Buddha did was not just to find a plane of insight but to enable people to live with that insight in the real world, despite all it said. Hardly anything, AFAIK has actually lead to fatalism except in the realms of possibility.

There is the case where you read a sutta now and it doesn’t immediately make sense. However not only the words, but meanings have also been transmitted down the centuries, from monk to monk. This is how it is clearly to nearly everyone else, the the Self and its lack, is highly relevant to the training.

The anattalakkhana sutta for example talks about self control and the Self. The close proximity of Me and Mine to Self, textually and contextually. Consciousness going from life to life being a problem. I’m sure the same meaning of atta can be drawn from other religions as well at the time of the Buddha.

with metta


Hi Mat,
Not sure about your meaning in the last sentence - maybe ‘Yet you say this is your self’? If so, I am not saying there is a self or there is a controller or that there aren’t such - I am saying that it isn’t relevant to the teaching and I think Buddha intentionally avoided the issue - specifically because it cannot be determined.

The illusion of some sort of objective self composed of a solid body is shattered - I agree. To infer from this about the ultimate reality of is there a self or not - especially when you have no definition of what this self is - is a step too far IMHO.

To offer a similar simile: Let’s say you have an avatar in an online computer game. Employing your reasoning, seeing that the avatar is simply made of pixels you would conclude there is no one playing the game - now I suppose you might agree with that because you don’t experience a self but I am speaking here in conventional terms for purpose of the simile. There is a player - it simply exists outside the domain of the game. An avatar in the game is not equipped with any sort of ability to see what is outside of its world but that doesn’t mean that it should infer there is nothing there rather it is more useful to simply say “I don’t know”

It says nothing about the Self. It states that the aggregates should be regarded as not self because regarding them as self leads to affliction. But it says nothing about whether there is one or not or what it would be.

Let me ask you this: Why is it important to know there is no self? How does it impact your jhana practice? Where would that fall apart? How would it impact your practice of sila? Remember that my viewpoint is not that there is a self - just that the question cannot be answered nor needs to be for the purpose of the practice.


I assert that knowingly or unknowingly what people generally consider to be a Self has certain characteristics. No one considers something that isnt located fairly solidly in one place as a self- for example flowing water or air wont be considered self. Our bodily excrement in water or air form will be considered as being emanating from the solid body which is self, rather than thinking we are loosing a portion of our self, ie we do not consider urine and gasses as self. Excrement is interesting in that it is on its way out from this body, but importantly it is also unpleasant. According to the Buddha we are reluctant to consider unpleasant things as Me. The rest of the body is unpleasant too - anybody has seen the anatomy inside will know it- yet it doesn’t enter our minds. Therefore we are able to consider this body as my self. The other factor is the apparent continuity of this body (and mind). When we clip our nails or shave we don’t think we are losing bits of our Self. We have come to expect that our nails and hair wont be with us continuously and their loss doesn’t affect our sense of self (yet it seems all the atoms in our bodies get replaced every decade or so- in any case at death, if considering rebirth).

A stream enterer sees that there is nothing which is permanent, not subjected to causality moment by moment. An important point is that our sense of self is about something in our field of experience, or imagination. If it is experienced, it doesn’t upon closer inspection doesn’t hold up to the qualities of those things that which would be characterised in a Self (permanence, pleasant etc). When I saw closer inspection I do mean vipassana or practice that generates insight, and not samatha samadhi. An arahanth I suppose is aware of this continuously… or their insight maybe so evident in their daily thinking. The path to nibbana is sila, samadhi and Panna. Without wisdom we will be unable to truly let go as long as we consider there to be a self- nibbana will be suicide.

with metta