The three lakshanas


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Dukkha and anicca with reference to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
  • Anatta with reference to the Chariot Passage of the Questions of King Milinda.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • Whether the three lakshanas are representative of reality.
  • The relative importance/significance of the lakshanas in Buddhism.


Different translations and understandings of Dukkha

The first of the Four Noble Truths. There is no single English word that adequately defines the full range and subtlety of the term dukkha . There have been many translations such as; stress, unsatisfactoriness or suffering. The Samyutta Nikaya (56.11) states that “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha.” It arose out of the Buddha’s experience of the four sights, old age, sickness and death.

The three forms of Dukkha

Dukkha-dukkha: experiences that are painful in themselves. This is where the translation of dukkha as “suffering” is most valid. War, violence, hunger, natural disasters, political and social oppression, and injustice. The inevitable pain of the body, starting with childbirth, and then sickness, injury, ageing and death. Suffering in the mind, such as feelings of fear, jealousy, anger and hatred.

viparinama dukkha is linked to anicca. It is the unsatisfying, unreliable nature of all things. This is the suffering inherent in pleasant experiences as we realise that the feelings we get from them are impermanent and that nothing can therefore be depended on to bring lasting fulfilment. This means that there are times of association with what we don’t want and separation from what we do want.

samkhara dukkha is linked to anatta. Suffering associated with attachment to self and ignorance of nature of self as ever changing and impermanent. The Buddha points out that people experience an underlying anxiety about the future. This worry and anxiety is a manifestation of life’s inherent unsatisfactoriness due to its impermanent nature. Each moment arises due to certain conditions, then it just disappears. There is nothing lasting or substantial in daily life, thus it leaves a general feeling of insecurity, angst or anguish.


Buddha points out that nothing is what it used to be. Even the ‘everlasting hills’ are slowly being eroded. Everything is in a state of change. Anicca is cyclic; there is birth, growth, decay and death. All things, man-made or naturally occurring, exist in this dynamic.

The nature of anicca, including the gross and subtle momentary level.

Anicca operates on two levels. The gross level is obvious physical changes. The subtle/momentary level refers to everything constantly changing from moment to moment as everything is in a state of movement or flux. So, although some things appear unchanging, if observed closely enough we would see change. Change at this subtle level is what ends up causing the gross change that is more obvious.


anatta/anatman (no permanent self/soul) is the doctrine that nothing which exists, including humans, have a permanent soul or aspect which makes it different from anything else or any other form of life.

The rejection of both eternalism and annihilationism

Atman means soul in the Hindu religion, which the Brahmen of the Buddha’s day would have believed in. They believed it to be the element of humanity which enables people, on rare occasions, to become aware of their oneness with the universe, since the Atman of the universe and the Atman of humans are the same. The soul is therefore not a human soul, but the soul of all reality.

This doctrine of the Atman over time was degraded into a belief in an immortal soul as the part of humans which made them different and separated them from other humans.

The Buddha denies this degraded version of the Atman doctrine.

Anatta is translated as no soul, no self, or non-self. It is a rejection and challenge to the Hindu notion of a permanent, eternal, pure nonmaterial essence within every living being. The Buddha’s teaching denied the existence of a permanent, substantial, metaphysical self (atman) and proposed the truth of the ever-changing dynamic of mental and physical elements which constitute each living being.

The five Skhandas

These are what make up the self. Since they are ever-changing, there is no eternal fixed self.

The ego which says “I am” is merely an aggregate of skandhas – sensations, ideas, thoughts, emotions and volitions. It is not a permanent unchanging entity behind these. The skandhas are the elements of our bodily existence.

Form (rupa) material forms by which all phenomena can be categorized

Feeling (vedana). Sensory experience of an object, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Perception. The process by which we register, recognize and categorize things.

Volition. Mental imprints and conditioning triggered by an object.

Consciousness. Discrimination, discernment, awareness of e.g. objects and its aspects.

These constituent parts temporarily come together and constantly interact, evolve, change and affect each other to create a sentient being.

An understanding of the skhandas enables Buddhists to understand the teaching of anatta. It links to the four noble truths or teachings about kamma or rebirth. Understanding of the five khandas might make grasping less likely, or enable people to let go of their ‘selfishness’. A failure to understand the 5 Khandas indicates a failure to understand issues relating to anicca and anatta, and could make it impossible to follow Buddhist teachings effectively.

The questions of king Milinda

King Milinda had a dialogue with an enlightened Buddhist monk called Nagasena.

The King asked for the monk’s name and the monk replied that they are called Nagasena, but that this was just a general term for common use “for there is no permanent individuality (no soul).”

The King doesn’t understand this idea and claims that there is someone before him who wears robes, meditated and lives a life of righteousness. If that isn’t Nagasena, who is it?

Nagasena answers by asking whether the King arrived on foot or in a chariot. The King responds, a chariot. Nagasena then proceeds to ask whether a particular part of the chariot is the chariot – the pole, the axle, the wheels or ropes. The King answers no each time.

Nagasena’s point is that a chariot is just a name for a particular set of things, combined in a particular way. So too is it with the self. We are just temporary set of Skandhas combined with a particular interrelation. Therefore, we cannot be a permanent soul or self.

The three lakshanas as representative of reality

Buddhism & science

According to Buddhist teaching, the three lakshanas can be verified by human experience during the insight gained from meditation. This suggests that they are representative of reality and that they have great importance as Buddhist teachings.

The Buddhist approach to the human experience is arguably scientific because it’s based on observation, trial and error. The Buddha himself only discovered the path through experiments, first with luxury and then with asceticism, before finding the middle way. Buddhism is therefore not based on faith, but personal testing.

The 14th Dalai Lama said that if something is ‘definitely proven through scientific investigation’ which nonetheless contradicts a Buddhist belief, ‘we must accept the result of the scientific research’.

In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha claims we should not believe a teaching just because we have repeatedly heard it, nor because it is traditionally believed, nor because it is in scripture, but only when we have observed ourselves that it leads to benefit and happiness: “then and only then enter into and abide in them”.

However, Buddhism is not truly scientific because we have to take the word of the Monks at face value regarding their experiences of Buddhist teachings like Anicca and Anatta. There isn’t an objective method to test Buddhist claims because science cannot verify private subjective experiences.

Furthermore, even if Anicca and Anatta can be experienced through high levels of meditation – that doesn’t prove that they are true. Meditation is assumed by Buddhists to produce insight, but it might simply alter experience so that it appears that those marks are true. Arguably only the scientific method of observation, hypothesis and experiment can provide reliable knowledge.

Arguably we can see that the Monks are more peaceful and blissful than the average person, however. The Buddha says we know a teaching is valid when it benefits and brings happiness. Maybe this is the only ‘truth’ the Buddha was interested in though. The truth about what teachings bring benefit and happiness and reduction of suffering. The parable of the poison arrow suggests this. This is also why he regards the Dharma as a raft – valid only as a means to an end – not necessarily as an ultimate truth.

However – that a teaching brings benefit and happiness is technically not a valid reason for thinking it is actually true. Science is concerned with what is true about reality, but the Buddha seems concerned with which beliefs about reality cause happiness. That is only part of the truth, not the full scientific truth.

Dukkha as pessimistic or realistic

Dr Radhakrishnan, the Indian President and Philosopher thought that the Buddha overemphasised suffering. “In the whole history of thought no one has painted the misery of human existence in blacker colours and with more feeling than Buddha”. For example, in the Assu Sutta, the Buddha told his Bhikkhus that there is less water in all the oceans than they have ever shed through tears due to all the suffering experienced in their past lives, due to being joined with what they hate and separated from what they love. Due to Loss of family, children, property and disease.

Radhakrishnan concludes that the Buddhist emphasis on suffering “if not false, is not true. The predominance of pain over pleasure is an assumption”. Radhakrishnan points to a quote from Nietzsche, discussing how some people “meet an invalid, or an old man, or a corpse, and immediately they say, ‘life is refuted’”.  Radhakrishnan is pointing out that this is a reference to the passing sights, and that it is absurd to generalise from particular examples to a negative judgement about life – that to exist is Dukkha.

Dukkha only appears falsely pessimistic on a narrow interpretation, but on a wider understanding it does seem to capture the ups and downs of everyday human experience. So, it is realistic. Even in positive experience there is our grasping for the continuation of the pleasure, yet because it is impermanent, this grasping is inevitably dissatisfying. For example, rich celebrities who have anything they could want often discover that it doesn’t bring them happiness and fulfilment. That is what Siddhartha discovered during his early life of luxury in the palace.

The challenge of belief in Atman

the Buddhist teaching of Annata/Anatman will always conflict with those who believe in a soul (Atman). If you think reality contains souls, then Annata cannot be descriptive of reality. Many religious people would claim that human experience involves a soul.

Science would probably back up Buddhism on this point though, because there is no scientific evidence for a soul and scientists claim that our minds are just our brains which are temporary structures of atoms that are impermanant. Anatta is the claim of impermanence about our minds/selves – so we don’t have a permanent self/soul.

Hume vs Descartes on whether a self/soul exists

Descartes argued that the ‘self’ does exist as a soul which is a mental substance that persists over time. He claimed that the existence of the self is beyond doubt. This is because you must exist in order to doubt that you exist. Descartes’ famous argument “I think therefore I am” is called the cogito.

Hume is an empiricist and thinks we can only derive knowledge from experience. Hume criticises Descartes in a way very similar to Buddhist arguments for anatman – some even speculate that Hume was influenced by Buddhism through his personal connection to Jesuit missionaries who travelled to the far east.

Hume points out that the experience from which we could derive the idea of an enduring mental substance would have to be an experience of something constant and invariable. However, Hume claims we never experience any such thing within our own mind.

Whenever we try to introspect and experience this ‘self’ we believe in, we only ever experience particular mental states such as sensations or emotions. We never experience a constant and invariable ‘self’ which supposedly exists as the experiencer of those mental states. All we really experience ourselves to be is a “bundle” of ever-changing mental states.

When we think about the contents of our own mind, we never experience an enduring mental substance which could be the ‘I’ of the cogito. There is no persisting substance over time that could constitute an enduring personal identity.

Descartes’ replies to this kind of argument by claiming that thoughts require a thinker.

The relative importance of three lakshanas as teachings in Buddhism