Three Marks of Existence and Four Dharma Seals

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Buddhism for All

One theme that consistently comes up in Buddhism is seeing things as they really are.[1]  Buddhism is about total liberation from all suffering, and the way to do that is to fully understand cause and effect relating to suffering, and that begins with seeing things as they really are.

One discourse where this came up was when the Buddha compared the five hindrances to looking at one’s own reflection in a bowl of water under non-ideal circumstances.[2]  Sensual desire is compared to a bowl of water mixed with dye.  Ill will is compared to a bowl of boiling water heated over a fire.  Sloth-and-torpor is compared to a bowl of water covered over with water plants and algae.  Restlessness-and-remorse is compared to a bowl of water stirred by the wind, rippling, swirling, churned into wavelets.  Doubt is compared to a bowl of water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark.  In each case, if a man was to examine his own facial reflection in the water, he would not see his reflection as it really is. 

In the same way, with a mind obstructed by any of the hindrances, one cannot see phenomena as they really are.  One will then not understand what is “really for one’s own good, and the good of others.”[3]  Hence, only with the absence of the five hindrances can we begin to develop true insight and wisdom.  That is why in a separate discourse, the Buddha says that the five hindrances are “nutriment for ignorance”.[4]

Another discourse where this came up was when the Buddha talked about seeing, as it really is, the arising and cessation of the five aggregates.  To be able to do that is knowledge, and not being able to do that is ignorance.[5]

So, what do you discover when you see things as they really are?  You will recognize the three marks of existence:

  1. Impermanence: All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.
  2. Dukkha: All conditioned phenomena are dukkha (unsatisfactory, suffering, or causes of suffering).
  3. Non-self: All phenomena, whether conditioned or unconditioned, are non-self.[6]

All phenomena are conditioned, with a single exception: nirvana.  Nirvana is the one and only unconditioned phenomenon.  Hence, all phenomena with the exception of nirvana are impermanent and dukkha.  All phenomena including nirvana are non-self.

These three marks are so important they can almost be said to define Buddhism.  As Buddhism evolved, there arose an idea called the Dharma seals.  See, some large number of years after the Buddha passed, Buddhism spread widely and there were many schools and sub-schools of Buddhism, some of which also absorbed local customs, practices and beliefs.  So, how do we know which is “true” Dharma and which is not?  The standard, which appears to enjoy consensus among all schools of Buddhism, is to measure against the four Dharma seals, the first three of which are the three marks of existence, and the fourth is nirvana.[7]  If a school of Buddhism brings forth insight into the three marks of existence, and also leads to nirvana, then it can be said to be true Dharma.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela: The three marks of existence and four Dharma seals are a good way to start to examine truths expounded by the Buddha. Look around you, investigate and examine the marks of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. Do you agree that they are the marks or nature of all conditioned phenomena? What implications does this finding have on your life? How can you apply it?


[1] In Pali: yathābhūta.  Also relevant is the Pali word ñāṇadassana, which means “knowledge and insight.”

[2] Saṃyutta Nikāya 46.55.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.61.

[5] Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.126.  Also see: Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.17.

[6] Dhammapada 277 – 279.

[7] One place this can be found is in Scroll 46 of《瑜伽师地论》(Sanskrit: Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra), mentioned as 四种法嗢拖南 (four Dharma Udānas).  In Chinese, they are: 一切诸行皆是无常, 一切诸行皆悉是苦, 一切诸法皆无有我, 涅槃寂静.

Featured image by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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