The Three Marks of Existence

William B. Turner
9 min readFeb 6, 2020

“[The Three Marks of Existence] is an analysis of the First Noble Truth, the doctrine of dukkha. The three characteristics simply provide a more detailed explanation of what is meant by dukkha, and in what sense our unenlightened experience of the world is one of suffering, frustration, or unsatisfactoriness.”

All things in the human realm bear the three marks of existence, which are impermanence, suffering or disappointment (as we discussed before), and not-self. This merits some explanation. Impermanence should remind us of our previous discussion of our favorite event, and knowing it has to end. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. If you eat the cake, it will be gone. With the cake of life, you don’t really have any choice. Time passes constantly whether you like it or not, and each new moment brings the possibility of new things and new experiences, some of which you will enjoy, some of which you’ll hate, and some of which you’ll hardly notice. If you’re happy, this may make you sad, knowing your happiness will end, but if you’re depressed, this may cheer you up, knowing your depression will end. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve a steady state of joy that does not depend on external circumstances. This is possible.

It is helpful to recall that some things change faster than others. Your breath changes constantly. If you are alive, you are always either inhaling new air, or exhaling used air. The Grand Canyon has been pretty much the same for several hundred years, as long as we have records of its existence, although it must have changed somewhat, just not enough to stop being the Grand Canyon.

And, as we have seen, impermanence is the cause of disappointment. If you want your cake to last forever, you’ll be disappointed either in not being able to eat it in order to preserve it (which won’t work anyway because it will eventually go stale — your cake changes even if you choose not to eat it), or in having it disappear as you eat it. Impermanence and disappointment are very closely intertwined. The good news about this is that we have a great deal of control over the disappointment component. Simply by accepting the impermanence of all things, we can dramatically reduce our disappointment.

Disappointment is relative to expectation. That you cannot have your cake and eat it, too, is only disappointing insofar as the thought that…