Introduction to the Three Signs


 Heed­ful­ness is the path to the death­less, care­less­ness is the path to death.

The heed­ful do not die; the care­less are as if already dead.



The pri­ma­ry Bud­dhist tenet that all things can be sep­a­rat­ed into com­po­nent parts is not intend­ed to sug­gest a sta­t­ic world of com­pos­ite objects. Rather, all things are seen to exist in the form of a stream. Each con­stituent ele­ment of that stream comes into being in depen­dence on oth­er ele­ments in an unbro­ken flow of appear­ance and decline. No sin­gle ele­ment has an inde­pen­dent fixed iden­ti­ty; they are all imper­ma­nent and unsta­ble. Indeed, the flu­id nature of phe­nom­e­na is pos­si­ble owing to the inter­de­pen­dence and insub­stan­tial­i­ty of their components.

This stream of con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na is con­stant (dham­ma-dhā­tu) and cer­tain (dham­maṭṭhi­ti), and it is a part of a nat­ur­al order (dham­ma-niyā­ma).1 It does not rely for its exis­tence on a god, reli­gion or prophet. In Bud­dha-Dham­ma the role of a Teacher is that of dis­cov­er­ing and explain­ing this truth to others.

The Bud­dha pre­sent­ed the teach­ing of the Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics (tilakkhaṇa) to describe this nat­ur­al law of flux.2 The teach­ing is out­lined in this way:

Whether Bud­dhas appear or not, this truth (dhā­tu) is con­stant and sta­ble … that is:

All con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na (saṅkhāra) are impermanent….

All con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na are dukkha….3

All things (dham­ma) are nonself….

Hav­ing ful­ly awak­ened to and pen­e­trat­ed to this truth, a Tathā­ga­ta announces it, teach­es it, clar­i­fies it, for­mu­lates it, reveals it, and ana­lyzes it: that all con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na are imper­ma­nent, all con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na are dukkha, and all things are non­self. 4

Def­i­n­i­tions of the three char­ac­ter­is­tics are as follows:

Anic­catā: imper­ma­nence, insta­bil­i­ty, and incon­stan­cy; the con­di­tion of aris­ing, dete­ri­o­rat­ing, and disintegrating.

Dukkhatā: state of dukkha; the con­di­tion of oppres­sion by birth and decay; the inher­ent stress, resis­tance and con­flict with­in an object due to alter­ation of its deter­mi­nant fac­tors, pre­vent­ing it from remain­ing as it is; the inter­nal imper­fec­tion of things, which pre­vents true sat­is­fac­tion for some­one whose desires are influ­enced by crav­ing (taṇhā), and caus­es suf­fer­ing for a per­son who clings (upādā­na).

Anat­tatā: the con­di­tion of anat­tā—non­self; the con­di­tion of things being void of a real abid­ing self that owns or con­trols phenomena.5

The Pali adjec­ti­val terms for these char­ac­ter­is­tics are anic­ca, dukkha, and anat­tā, respec­tive­ly. The abstract noun forms are anic­catā, dukkhatā, and anat­tatā. As char­ac­ter­is­tics they are known as anic­ca-lakkhaṇa, dukkha-lakkhaṇa, and anat­ta-lakkhaṇa. The com­men­taries occa­sion­al­ly refer to the three char­ac­ter­is­tics as ‘uni­ver­sal char­ac­ter­is­tics’ (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa).

All con­di­tioned things exist in a state of flux, made up of inter­de­pen­dent con­di­tion­ing fac­tors, which arise and pass away in unbro­ken suc­ces­sion: things are imper­ma­nent. Because of their insta­bil­i­ty and causal depen­dence, con­di­tioned things are sub­ject to stress and fric­tion, reveal­ing an inher­ent imper­fec­tion. And all things, both con­di­tioned things and the Uncon­di­tioned, exist accord­ing to their nature; they pos­sess no self that acts as own­er or gov­er­nor of phenomena.

Human beings too are com­prised of con­stituent ele­ments. The ‘build­ing-blocks’ for human beings are the five aggre­gates (khand­ha); noth­ing else exists besides the five aggre­gates. When we exam­ine the five aggre­gates in turn, we see that each one is imper­ma­nent. Being imper­ma­nent, they are dukkha; they are dis­tress­ing for one who grasps them. Being dukkha, they are self­less. They are self­less because each aggre­gate aris­es from caus­es; they are not inde­pen­dent enti­ties. Fur­ther­more, they are not tru­ly sub­ject to a person’s con­trol or own­er­ship. If one were to tru­ly own the five aggre­gates, one would be able to con­trol them accord­ing to one’s will and pro­hib­it them from change, for exam­ple from debil­i­ty or disease.

Many schol­ars have tried to prove that the Bud­dha acknowl­edged a self exist­ing apart from the five aggre­gates. They claim that he only repu­di­at­ed a self with­in con­di­tioned phe­nom­e­na and that he affirmed an ulti­mate self. More­over, they explain that Nib­bā­na is the same as ātman/attā: Nib­bā­na is the Self. I will elab­o­rate on this mat­ter in Part IV of Bud­dhad­ham­ma, on Nibbāna.

Most peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who have grown up in a cul­ture espous­ing a soul, tend to seek out and seize some con­cept of a fixed iden­ti­ty. Act­ing in this way sat­is­fies a hid­den, uncon­scious need. When their self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as one or more of the five aggre­gates becomes unten­able, they cre­ate a new con­cept of self in which to believe. But the aim of Bud­dha-Dham­ma is not to release one thing so as to grasp anoth­er, or to be freed from one thing only to then be enslaved by some­thing else. As men­tioned ear­li­er, things exist accord­ing to their own nature. Their nature of exis­tence is deter­mined by self­less­ness; if things were to pos­sess a self then by def­i­n­i­tion they could not exist as they do.


1 The Abhid­ham­ma com­men­taries divide niyā­ma, nat­ur­al laws, into five kinds:

Utu-niyā­ma (phys­i­cal laws): laws con­cern­ing human beings’ exter­nal envi­ron­ment, e.g., laws gov­ern­ing tem­per­a­ture, weath­er and seasons.

Bīja-niyā­ma (genet­ic laws): laws con­cern­ing repro­duc­tion, includ­ing heredity.

Cit­ta-niyā­ma (psy­chic laws): laws con­cern­ing men­tal activities.

Kam­ma-niyā­ma (karmic laws): laws con­cern­ing inten­tion and human behav­iour, i.e., the law of actions (kam­ma) and their results.

Dham­ma-niyā­ma: gen­er­al laws of nature, espe­cial­ly those of cause and effect; laws con­cern­ing the inter­re­la­tion­ship of all things.

(DA. II. 432; DhsA. 272)

2 Anoth­er key teach­ing by the Bud­dha is on Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion (paṭic­casamup­pā­da). This teach­ing describes the law of flux from a dif­fer­ent angle and illus­trates the same truth. The Three Char­ac­ter­is­tics shows the prop­er­ties of all things, prop­er­ties that com­ply with the rela­tion­ship out­lined in Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion. Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion describes the con­di­tioned flow of phe­nom­e­na, reveal­ing the three characteristics.

3 [The word dukkha is noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to trans­late. The most com­mon trans­la­tions include: Suf­fer­ing, unsat­is­fac­tori­ness, stress, pain and mis­ery. Many mis­un­der­stand­ings have arisen by trans­lat­ing the sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic as: ‘Every­thing is suf­fer­ing’ or ‘Life is suf­fer­ing.’ For the dif­fer­ent con­texts in which the term dukkha is used see below. Please note that when I use the terms ‘stress­ful’ and ‘under stress’ I am refer­ring to the pres­sure and ten­sion inher­ent in all things.]

4 A. I. 286.

5 [Note that I have trans­lat­ed anat­tā as ‘non­self,’ ‘not-self,’ or ‘self­less,’ accord­ing to the con­text. The Pali attā (San­skrit ātman) is most often trans­lat­ed as ‘self’ or ‘soul’; I have used both, again accord­ing to the con­text. The words ‘self­less’ and ‘self­less­ness’ here should not be con­fused with the stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of being altruistic.]