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The Three Basic Facts of Existence (Extract) 1

Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!

Access to Insight

Published: 2014-10-10 — Updated: 2018-07-29

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“Impermanent, subject to change, are component things. Strive on with heedfulness!”

This was the final admonition of the Lord Buddha Gotama to his disciples.

And when the Buddha had passed away, Sakka, the chief of the deities (devas — divine beings), uttered the following:

“Aniccaa vata sankhaara — uppaada vaya dhammino Uppajjitva nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.”

“Impermanent are all component things, They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away, Release from them is bliss supreme.”

— Maha—Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16)[1]

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If we contemplate even a minute sector of the vast range of life, we are faced with such a tremendous variety of life's manifestations that it defeats description. And yet three basic statements can be made that are valid for all animate existence, from the microbe up to the creative mind of a human genius. These features common to all life were first found and formulated over 2500 years ago by the Buddha, who was rightly called “Knower of the Worlds” (lokavidu). They are the Three Characteristics ( of all that is conditioned, i.e., dependently arisen. In English renderings, they are also sometimes called Signs, Signata, or Marks.

These three basic facts of all existence are:

  1. Impermanence or Change (anicca)
  2. Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)
  3. Not—self or Insubstantiality (anatta).

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The first and the third apply to inanimate existence as well, while the second (suffering) is, of course, only an experience of the animate. The inanimate, however, can be, and very often is, a cause of suffering for living beings: for instance, a falling stone may cause injury or loss of property may cause mental pain. In that sense, the three are common to all that is conditioned, even to what is below or beyond the normal range of human perception.

Existence can be understood only if these three basic facts are comprehended, and this not only logically, but in confrontation with one’s own experience. Insight—wisdom (vipassanaa—panna) which is the ultimate liberating factor in Buddhism, consists just of this experience of the three characteristics applied to one’s own bodily and mental processes, and deepened and matured in meditation.

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To “see things as they really are” means seeing them consistently in the light of the three characteristics. Ignorance of these three, or self—deception about them, is by itself a potent cause for suffering — by knitting, as it were, the net of false hopes, of unrealistic and harmful desires, of false ideologies, false values and aims of life, in which man is caught. Ignoring or distorting these three basic facts can only lead to frustration, disappointment, and despair.

Hence, from a positive as well as a negative angle, this teaching on the Three Basic Facts of Existence is of such vital importance that it was thought desirable to add here more material to those brief expositions that had already appeared in this series.


  1. In the Maha—Sudassana Suttanta (Digha—Nikaya), this verse is ascribed to the Buddha himself; in the Maha Sudassana Jataka (No. 95), it is ascribed to the Bodhisatta, in his rebirth as King Maha—Sudassana. In the Theragathaa (v. 1159), Maha Moggallaana Arahant recites it, after mentioning (in v. 1158) the passing away of Sariputta Arahant that preceded his own only by two weeks.

May all be happy and well!



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