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In Buddhism, the three marks of existence are three characteristics (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण, trilakṣaṇa) of all existence and beings, namely impermanence (aniccā), non-self (anattā) and unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha). That humans are subject to delusion about the three marks, that this delusion results in suffering, and that removal of that delusion results in the end of suffering, is a central theme in the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path.
According to Thích Nhất Hạnh, the three seals are impermanence, non-self and nirvana. He says in "The heart of the Buddha's Teaching" that "In several sutras the Buddha taught that nirvana, the joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts, rather than suffering, is one of the Three Dharma Seals."
The three marks are:
In the Mahayana Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra however, four characteristics are described instead of three:
In the sutra "The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara" Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchā these four marks are defined as:
In the Samyukta Agama a different formulation is made, in which the Buddha taught impermanence, nonself, and nirvana as the Three Dharma Seals. Here nirvana replaces dukkha as the Third Dharma Seal:
Main article: Impermanence
Impermanence (Pali anicca, Sanskrit anitya) means that all things (saṅkhāra) are in a constant state of flux. Buddhism states that all physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. Human life embodies this flux in the aging process and the cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara); nothing lasts, and everything decays. This is applicable to all beings and their environs, including beings who are reborn in deva (god) and naraka (hell) realms. This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.
Main article: Dukkha
Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) means "unsatisfactoriness, suffering, pain". The dukkha includes the physical and mental suffering that follows each rebirth, aging, illness, dying; dissatisfaction from getting what a being wishes to avoid or not getting the desired, and no satisfaction from Sankhara dukkha, in which everything is conditioned and conditioning, or because all things are not experienced as impermanent and without any essence.
Main article: Anatta
Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) refers to the doctrine of "non-self", that there is no unchanging, permanent Self or soul in living beings and no abiding essence in anything or phenomena.
While anicca and dukkha apply to "all conditioned phenomena" (saṅkhārā), anattā has a wider scope because it applies to all dhammās without "conditioned, unconditioned" qualification. Thus, nirvana too is a state of "without Self" or anatta. The phrase "sabbe dhamma anatta" includes within its scope each skandha (aggregate, heap) that compose any being, and the belief "I am" is a mark of conceit which must be destroyed to end all dukkha. The Anattā doctrine of Buddhism denies that there is anything called a 'Self' in any person or anything else, and that a belief in 'Self' is a source of Dukkha. Some Buddhist traditions and scholars, however, interpret the anatta doctrine to be strictly in regard to the five aggregates rather than a universal truth. Religious studies scholar Alexander Wynne calls anattā a "not-self" teaching rather than a "no-self" teaching.
In Buddhism, ignorance of (avidyā, or moha; i.e. a failure to grasp directly) the three marks of existence is regarded as the first link in the overall process of saṃsāra whereby a being is subject to repeated existences in an endless cycle of suffering. As a consequence, dissolving that ignorance through direct insight into the three marks is said to bring an end to saṃsāra and, as a result, to that suffering (dukkha nirodha or nirodha sacca, as described in the third of the Four Noble Truths).
Gautama Buddha taught that all beings conditioned by causes (saṅkhāra) are impermanent (anicca) and suffering (dukkha), and that not-self (anattā) characterises all dhammas, meaning there is no "I", "me", or "mine" in either the conditioned or the unconditioned (i.e. nibbāna). The teaching of three marks of existence in the Pali Canon is credited to the Buddha.
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Main article: Similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism
The Greek philosopher Pyrrho traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army, spending approximately 18 months there learning Indian philosophy from the Indian gymnosophists. Upon returning to Greece Pyrrho founded one of the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, which he based on what appears to have been his interpretation of the Three marks of existence. Pyrrho summarized his philosophy as follows:
"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not."
Philologist Christopher Beckwith has identified the three terms used here by Pyrrho - adiaphora, astathmēta, and anepikrita - to be nearly direct translations of anatta, dukkha, and anicca into ancient Greek.
All phenomenal existence [in Buddhism] is said to have three interlocking characteristics: impermanence, suffering and lack of soul or essence.
(...) the three characteristics of samsara/sankhara (the realm of rebirth): anicca (impermance), dukkha (pain) and anatta (no-self).
dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering) (....) In the Introduction I wrote that dukkha is probably best understood as unsatisfactoriness.
(...) anatta is the doctrine of non-self, and is an extreme empiricist doctrine that holds that the notion of an unchanging permanent self is a fiction and has no reality. According to Buddhist doctrine, the individual person consists of five skandhas or heaps - the body, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. The belief in a self or soul, over these five skandhas, is illusory and the cause of suffering.
(...) Buddha's teaching that beings have no soul, no abiding essence. This 'no-soul doctrine' (anatta-vada) he expounded in his second sermon.