Three Characteristics (Tilakkhaṇa)
Buddhist teaching of the three universal characteristics of existence (tilakkhaṇa) is the analysis of the real nature of all phenomena that exist in the world. They are:
1. Anicca - impermanence
2. Dukkha - unsatisfactoriness
3. Anatta - non-self
Buddha’s fundamental teaching of the causality explains that whatever phenomena in the world is the product of the cause and come to exists as a result of it, and it passes away with the cessation of the cause.
Various relevant analysis of the Buddha related to three characteristics can be found in the Tipiṭaka. It says in the Dhammapada as follows:
- Sabbe saṅkhāra anicca - All conditioned things are impermanence
- Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā - All conditioned things are un-satisfactory
- Sabbe dhammā anattā - All conditioned or unconditioned things are without self (soul)
Indian religious thinkers have implemented their religious aspects expecting an essence that is permanent (nicca), happy (sukha), and with a self (atta, in Hinduism and Jainism ātman (sanskrit), which a reference to the essential self or the soul). According to this expectation the perception of an essence must be built on essenceless phenomena. Some considered the bliss of the absorption as the essence. Form and formless absorptions (rūpajhāna and arūpajhāna) are not permanent, eternal bliss and with essence. It is a misconception to build the perception of eternal essence on things that are essenceless.
Buddhism is an exceptional Indian thought that is free from building essential perception on essenceless things and seeing the impermanence, suffering, and essencelessness on essenceless phenomena.
According to the Buddhism the three characteristics are associated with everything that exists in this conditioned world. This concept is not something ascribed by Buddhism but it is the law, the nature of everything conditioned. Everything that exists in this conditioned world is subject to these three characteristics. Anything that is impermanent is not blissful. Everything that is suffering is without eternal self. Everything that is without eternal self is not permanent and blissful. That means every conditioned thing is impermanent, suffering and without self.
All aggregates are impermanent due to being subject to decay (aniccaṃ khayaṭṭhena). They are suffering due to being subject to fear (dukkhaṃ bhayaṭṭhena). They are selfless due to being essenceless (anattā asārakaṭṭhena). These characteristics are inseparable. They are interconnected. Whichever impermanent it is suffering. Whichever suffering is without self. Anything that consists of these characteristics cannot be taken as mine, me or as my-self. Seeing these characteristics in all aggregates, elements, and faculties is called yathābūtañāṇadassana.
Anicca means ‘not stable’, ‘impermanent’, ‘evanescence’, ‘inconstancy’, or ‘impermanence’. Whatever conditional things in the world are having no such stable or permanent existence. They are having the nature of arising and decaying.
Aniccā vata sankhāra uppāda vayadhammino
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.
Impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall, having risen, they’ve destroyed, their passing truest bliss.
During the time of the Buddha, there were some people those who believed a permanent nature of the five aggregates. They have considered as permanent what is really impermanent. The Buddha has presented this type of thinking as ‘distortions of the mind’ (cittavipallāsa). If someone claims five aggregates as permanent, he could be able to maintain it without getting into aging, decaying, or passing away, but in fact there is no such possibility. Having not understanding this impermanence nature of the aggregates, the ordinary people believes as ‘I’ existing’, ‘it’s mine’ and ‘it’s my soul’.
Usually dukkha is translated as ‘suffering’, but a more accurate translation would be ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Dukkha is the universal characteristics of all conditional things. Primary concerning of the Buddhism is to analyze the origin, the cause of origin, the cessation, and the path that leads to the cessation of this unsatisfactoriness. Even the first sermon of the Buddha was to elucidate above concept. In the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta, the Buddha has expounded eight types of factors which manifested unsatisfactoriness. They are; 1. Birth 2. Decay 3. Disease 4. Death 5. To be united with unpleasant 6. To be separated from the pleasant 7. Failure in getting what one wants 8. In brief clinging of the five aggregates.
In the Dukkhasutta of the Samyuttanikāya, Venerable Sāriputta has pointed out three types of dukkha as follows:
1. Dukkhadukkhatā – physical and mental pain.
2. Viparināmadukkhatā – dukkha which origins due to the changing nature of the pleasant experiences.
3. Saṅkhāradukkhatā - dukkha due to the rising and falling nature of the conditional things.
Ātman (Sanskrit) as the ‘soul’, is postulated in the animistic theories held in India in the 6th and 7th cent. B.C.E. It is described in the Upanishads as a small creature, in shape like a man, dwelling in ordinary times in the heart. It escapes from the body in sleep or trance; when it returns to the body life and motion reappear. It escapes from the body at death, then continues to carry on an everlasting life of its own.
Anatta means ‘soul-less’ or ‘no ego’, ‘not a soul’, ‘without a soul’, or ‘non-self’. Believing of a permanent soul was even a pre-Buddhistic practice. Some were trying to realize ‘a permanent soul, which is never, takes birth, and never dies, eternal within this impermanent body’ The idea of such permanent soul was deeply rooted among people in the contemporary to the Buddha’s time. There exists a permanent soul called Eternalism, a phenomenon which is unable to be changed. It represents many classifications. In Brahmajālasutta, we find information about spiritualists of dual views that strongly held the view that the ātman was eternal.
The Buddhist discourses disclose the facts about the eternalistic theories. Although the Truth (reality) about the world was meant for Brahman and the truth about the man was meant for ātman as taught by Upanishads, both of these aspects have been accepted as one whole theory. Accordingly, the world and the soul (ātman) were taken in for one singular aspect. In the same manner, the both of the components were considered to be eternalistic. According to the Buddhist discourses, it is obvious that the ātman and the World have been considered as one eternalistic phenomenon (so loko so attā nicco dhuvo sassato) by Upanishad eternalists themselves. All these viewers hold the philosophy of eternalism. They have accepted the reality of the eternal soul. It is clear that they have made an admittance of a life beyond the death. In this sense, they have fallen in the category of dual eternalistic philosophers.
The view about the reality of annihilation, destruction and extinction of existence is the theory of annihilation (sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ). Accordingly annihilationists, they reject the view that there is no existence after the death. The life beyond death is not accepted. Neither they did accept the view of soul nor did they accept the view of existing of any of the paraphisical phenomenons. All those views have been recognized by the Buddha as mere illusionary or dogmatic views that belong to the both categories of eternalism and nihilism.
According to the Buddhism, the person who is with such acceptance of soul sees the five aggregates as belong to him. He doesn’t accept the changing nature the aggregates. Due to this wrong understanding, such person experiences sorrow, lamentation, suffering, etc.
Once a disciple of Mahavīra named Saccaka having met the Buddha said that he considers aggregates such as form and feelings as Self. “Master Gotama, a person has material form as Self, and based upon material form he produces merit or demerit. A person has feeling as Self, perception as Self, formations as Self, consciousness as Self.” Then the Buddha questioned him that if aggregates are self can you controls your form to be like this or not to be like this? Saccaka could not answer. The Buddha questioned him regarding the feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness in the same manner. The Buddha questioned him further based on three characteristics.
1. What do you think? Aggivessana, is material form permanent or impermanent? Impermanent, Master Gotama (tam kim maññasi aggivessana rūpaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vāti? aniccaṃ bho gotama).
2. Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness? Suffering, Master Gotama (yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā tam sukhaṃ vāti? dukkhaṃ bho gothama).
3. Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded as thus; ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self? No Master Gotama. (yampanāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ viparināmadhammaṃ kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ etaṃ mama esohamasmi eso me attā ti? Nohidaṃ bho gotama).
The rest of the aggregates were also discussed in this manner. It becomes evident that Saccaka is saying something very different from what he said earlier as self. The Buddha pave the way for the intuitive mind to awake by asking questions based on three characteristics. It is impossible to correctly say that the form is permanent, blissful and with a self. That means the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and no-self are interconnected nature. If the Buddha debated the aggregates as being essenceless without stating the three characteristics it would be hard for him to make it easy to understand.
Insight or vipassanā is seeing the way the three characteristics exist. The foundation for asmimāna (consideration of being) is clinging- aggregates. So that to eradicate asmimāna consideration of impermanence must be developed. Consideration of impermanence is the beginning of the spiritual path. The consideration of suffering in the things that are impermanent must be developed. The consideration of non-self in things that are suffering must be developed. Afterwards the perception of abandoning, the perception of dispassion and the perception of cessation must be developed. These perceptions can be developed only by the consideration of the three characteristics. That is acting with vipassanā paññā (wisdom of insight). As saṅkhatadhammās (conditioned phenomena) are connected with the three characteristics it must be understood that Buddhism does not consider conditioned phenomena to be eternal suffering. If forms are eternal suffering and always connected with the suffering then people would not be lustful about forms. The same happens with the other aggregates. If the aggregates of forms are eternal blissful the people would never be dispassionate about forms. The people get attached to the forms because there is something blissful about it. The people get detached to the forms because there is something suffering about it. It can be concluded that aggregates are not eternal suffering. But they are suffering because they are impermanent. All blissful things that are connected with the cycle of existence are associated with suffering. As these blissful things are suffering and impermanent they have no essence or self. The connection of the three characteristics can be understood by above explanation.
According to the Buddhism the three characteristics are associated with everything that exists in this conditioned world. This concept is not something ascribed by Buddhism but it is the law, the nature of everything conditioned. Everything that exists in this conditioned world is subject to these three characteristics. These three characteristics prevail in all three levels of existence namely sensual world, world of form and the formless world. The three characteristics are available to all conditioned things that are in the past, present and the future as well as conditioned things that are broad and subtle, and things that are low and high and conditioned things that are far or near.
 Dhp.277, 278, 279.
 Paṭis.i. ‘278.
 Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā, yadanattā taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, name so me attā ti evam etaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ, S.iv.1.
 A. P. Buddhadatta Mahathera, Concise Pali-English Dictionary, (Colombo: The Colombo Apothecaries, 1968), p. 12.
 According to PED, nicca meeans ‘constant’, ‘continuous’ and ‘permanent’. The emphatic assertion of impermanence (continuous change of condition) is a prominent axiom of the Dhamma, and the realization of the evanescent character of all things mental or material is one of the primary conditions of attaining right knowledge (anicca-saññaṃ manasikaroti). PED, p. 807.
 Maurish Walshe, The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīghanikāya, (Kandy: BPS, 1950), p. 271.
 Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ: jātipi dukkhā jarāpi dukkhā vyādhipi dukkho maraṇampi dukkhaṃ appiyehi sampayogo dukkho piyehi vippayogo dukkho yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā, S.v.421.
 A. P. Buddhadatta Mahathera, Concise Pali-English Dictionary, (Colombo: The Colombo Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd, 1968), p. 12.
 PED, pp. 57-58.
 Na jāyate mrīyate va kadācin, nāyaṃ bhutvā bhavita vāna bhuyah, ajo nityah śāsvato 'yaṃ purāno, na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre Bgvg, Ii. 20.
 Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha, A New Translation of the Majjhimanikāya, (Kandy: BPS, 1995), p. 325.