Tilakkhana - the 3 marks of what, exactly?

Indeed, an interesting aspect of our ever changing circumstances:

By watching the video above nevertheless you learn that some specific parts are present from the first splits of the fecunded egg to the day of our funeral (e.g. the eyes lens, neurons).


By definition every cell must burn carbohydrates and release CO2 and water. This means atoms come and go, though the structure remains.

It’s unlikely that anyone can actually accurately account for ever cell so these studies would have their limits.

With metta

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Sure. I got the idea and appreciate the concept. But the reality of things is never that simple. Things like C14 of our enamel apparently stick around from formation until very much beyond death, etc. I suggest checking the link:

There is link to a paper which cites other studies reporting that there is no turnover of neuronal DNA and eye lens crystaline proteins.

But again, I got your idea and am very glad that while taints may persist in the mind a huge proportion of the stuff (99% of it apparently) we take as us in the material side of experience leaves us completely every now and then…

And, of course, do not think I am trying to say there is a self or atman in the proteins that stick around from womb days!


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I have tended to think of the body (as well as beliefs, feelings, memories, etc - which are not seen as solid) not as self but as mine (my body, my idea) or a state I am in (I am angry/sad/happy and so on). Perhaps this represents our different view points - If you have seen yourself as being this body and then see this is not so vs in my experience of seeing these phenomena as mine but realizing I have no lasting or reliable control over them.

The approach that I see in SN 22.59 is that Buddha is saying that the body for example should be regarded or considered as not self but does not address 1) the nature of what this self would be (aside from its ability to control what belongs to it) and 2) If such a self exists.

As a bit of a tangent, Arahats are said to be able to control their thoughts…

With the possible exception of the awareness that experiences it. The awareness that experiences and recognizes stream entry is the same awareness that we have right now. It never changes, has no qualities, yet is known. It is present outside the world of things - so what can you say about it. Clearly, there is no enduring self or agent within the world of things - but mind here in this instance transcends that. Is it a Self? Who knows. It would depend on how you want to define the term self.

I imagine you are referring here to the break-up of seemingly solid phenomena - bodily pain for example or the sense of an arm or leg into energy/vibrations/particles - there are different ways of expressing this phenomenon. Vipassana is good at pointing this out as is Chi Gong which has many tools for investigating this. It may also be experienced in jhana. Or I may have misunderstood and you are referring to something else. But assuming this is what you are talking about, yes, I agree this experience undermines the solidity of our sense of self with regard to the body. In a similar way, our hold on thoughts are weakened as we come to see how they form.

Certainly there is panna - but the deep panna that is necessary to ultimately let go does not arise from ones views or beliefs - rather it comes from direct seeing - I think you would agree with me on this. And what sets the stage for that direct seeing is the development of sila and samadhi.

I see two key areas where the not-self teaching is important. First, in everyday life it helps us let go some of the stress and worry we have over things we simply can’t exercise complete control over even though we really want to. Fame, fortune, health, whether my soul mate agrees with me that we are soul mates, and so on. When things go the way we want - we’re great and got it all together and when things go wrong - the world is coming to an end. So not-self can reduce the amount of agitation in our life. On the practice level, I think it is important not to think of subtle phenomena encountered in the practice as being ‘this is my Self’ - and I think this is probably what the not-self teaching of SN 22.59 is addressing to the 5 ascetics (with little dust in their eyes).

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Ok, but if there is these phenoemna are not my Self, how can there be any such thing as mine?

It says that anything which is not permanent, devoid of our absolute control and unpleasant is not fit to be considered as a Self. While the sutta doesnt say it directly, this means that a Self should be the opposite of those qualities ie. permanent (ideally, ever lasting) and not changing from moment to moment. It should be fully within my control; not falling into states which I find that I dislike (disease, old age, death, embarrassment, defilements, etc) and not repulsive- we cannot stand the excreta, corpses etc and would never consider that as my Self. However we routinely consider as this as Self without any further thought in daily life. Equally we cannot even bear to think about our negative mental kilesa or defilements.

Also I might add, everything in our minds are generated by a previous thought, or sense impression. Which means if we think something, it didn’t come from a unitary thing called a mind, but it is a creation that is happening moment by moment, ‘on the fly’. Its like a waterfall where the water is replaced every second by second. At a distance it looks like a specific solid object located at a point in space- but upon closer inspection, it clearly isn’t. Its a flowing, and not a still object like a pond. This means that there isnt a permanent fixed ‘mind’, and if someone considers the mind as a Self, it is an illusion. Also as every thought is generated by causes which came immediately before it, it has no basis of existing on its own. A Self, if it is in the mind, should have a solid base, a solid foundation. It shouldn’t depend on something else which came before it to create it. Thoughts are fleeting, changing moment to moment and are causally arisen. Therefore it is not fit to be considered as Self.

Even the illusion of ‘controlling’ thoughts by arahanths are mere causes and effects. Intention arises due to a previous thought which is its cause AND its conditioner. The body of the thought (forgetting the content of the thought for the moment) arises due to the body of the previous thought or sense experience. The causal object passes away and is replaced by the thought, as its effect (idapaccayata). There is transmission of information, which is imperfect, between cause and effect. The eye sees and that is what the subsequent thought is about, though embellished.

I’m sorry, but they wouldn’t be stream entrer’s then. As seen in the SN22.59 there is no consciousness that is not known to be Self or impermanent. Consciousness arises due to the causes of the sense base and the object of that sense based giving rise to it. It doesnt have a stability on its own.

with metta

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Hi Mat,
All I can say is, I choose not to go down that road (of having to make a choice of is there or is there not a self). I am happy seeing phenomena as not self - I don’t feel the need to reach some conclusion beyond that. I don’t see how a pure subject (self) could ever be seen as an object - because what then would be seeing it? It just goes round and round. Sorry, I am at a loss to explain this clearly. So for me the issue remains one of those ‘unknown unknowns’.

Clearly we have quite different views on this topic and I don’t see that we have enough common ground or agreed upon vocabulary to work from. But it has been an interesting conversation so thank you.


So insight into anicca leads to the cessation of dukkha? But the suttas seem to say that what is impermanent is inherently unsatisfactory, for example in SN22.45: “What is impermanent is suffering”…

Again it seems to come back to our understanding of dukkha - whether it is just mental anguish, or whether it includes bodily pain and so on.

Sure, but aren’t the aggregates all sankhara? The aggregates represent our personal experience, so then dukkha is an inherent characteristic of our personal experience? But if dukkha is an inherent characteristic of our experience ( the aggregates ), then how could it cease?

So everything we experience is marked by dukkha, with the exception of Nibbana? It’s not like experience in general ceases with Nibbana, rather it’s that the nature of our experience changes with the cessation of the taints?

I think that insight (as a quality of mind) combined with tranquillity does. The suttas say that impermanence is inherently unsatisfactory when there is clinging. If you look at the context of that statement in SN22.45 that you quote you find that following it it says What is suffering is nonself Why is that? This is where you have to go to SN 22.59 to see what reasoning underlies that statement: What is suffering is non-self because if it was self we could have it be how ever we want and it would not give rise to affliction. It is the clinging to phenomena that we have no control over that gives rise to dukkha. Phenomena are changing all the time around us and within us and not causing any suffering for us - because much of the time we don’t care. It is only when we want something to be a certain way and we can’t make that happen that suffering arises - which is the clinging aspect.

I don’t consider bodily pain do be dukkha in general although I think there is an aspect of bodily pain that is. There is raw pain and then there is on top of that in a sense an aversion response - a kind of pushing away and cutting off the area of pain that is in response to pain but is driven by aversion and I would consider that dukkha.

Edit: I just want to add that there are many impermanent phenomena that are quite beautiful and give us joy and happiness. If this were not the case, our ancestors would have beaten their heads against the cave walls bringing about early species extinction long ago. It is only when clinging is present that problems arise. And even then we can alleviate much suffering simply by treating ourselves and others in skillful ways.

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That’s a good observation! What I don’t understand is how you draw the conclusion that “clinging gives rise to dukkha”.

Let’s take the passage seriously:

For if, bhikkhus, form were attā, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’

Let’s assume for the moment that this would be really the case! I could morph and change my form according to my will. There is no ‘self’ spoken of here in any sense. What would be the case is that a form - an object that belongs to me - bends to my will.

At another place I quoted from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad where death creates at least two atmans for himself according to his will. There obviously atman must mean ‘embodiment’ or ‘representation’.

Inserting this into SN 22.59 we would get:

Bhikkhus, appearance (rupa) is not an embodiment according to my will (attā). For if, bhikkhus, appearance were an embodiment according to my will, this appearance would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of appearance: ‘Let my appearance be thus; let my appearance not be thus.’ But because appearance is not an embodiment according to my will…

Isn’t this a much better reading than the convoluted ‘self’?

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That is the wanting. If we were content with how things are then there would be no stress. If there is no stress then there is no problem - no need for a Buddha. This clinging of course is something very deeply embedded.

Clever - yes, I think it makes it much clearer. And thanks for pointing to the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. I had not heard of it before. As a result I started reading through the wikipedia entry on it. Very interesting. Is there a version of it on-line that you recommend? A while back I was reading a summary of the Chandogya Upanisad and was surprised how helpful it was as background for understanding the suttas.

The standard translation nowadays is by Olivelle, but is officially not online. Other versions are available, and probably not too bad either:

In order to see where atman appears you have to look into the original sanskrit though: http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/1_veda/4_upa/brup___u.htm

Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya are the most important most probably pre-Buddhist Upanisads. Of which the BU shows in general the broader linguistic connections with the EBT.

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Fair enough, and this does seem consistent with the second and third Noble Truths, and the theme that the aggregates should not be clung to.

I still struggle with the way the 3 marks are presented in the suttas ( it feels rather convoluted ), but I have found this discussion useful, so thanks to everyone who has contributed.

It seems to me that the problem lies in calling them “characteristics” rather than perceptions. As soon as you say there is a characteristic, there has to be a something that it’s a characteristic of. All of the lakkhanas are all called perceptions, mirages. Verbs, not nouns.

I think you’re right. They are usually not qualified as lakkhanas but are often mentioned as a practice, as a -sañña. I tried to refer to that in post #7

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Perceptions rather than characteristics? This isn’t an interpretation I’m familiar with, could you suggest some relevant sutta passages?

The Vipallasa Sutta is the only one I can think of, though I’m not sure it actually supports this interpretation:

Look at all of the sutta passages in Gabriel’s post above (post #7). All of them refer to perceiving and perceptions.

Perception doesn’t have the same connotation of arbitrariness in the Pali word for it (sanna). The perception of impermanence is an actual feature of the phenomena being observed. It’s not like some individual’s opinion. It is possible to get differing but nevertheless accurate perceptions of the same phenomena. So if someone is listening to sounds they can either be focused on their impermanency or who or what is making the sounds. The former perception leads to Nibbana; the other to be further enmeshed.

With metta


I have, but I read them as encouraging the accurate perception of the way things really are, as per the Vipallasa Sutta. In order to develop insight and stop grasping at the aggregates.