Skip to content

The Three Marks of Existence

Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta

Buddhists believe that there are three characteristics that are common across everything in life. These are known as the Three Marks of Existence . The Three Marks of Existence are important as they can help Buddhists to achieve nibbana and end suffering. They are called Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta.


Anicca is the concept that nothing stays the same and everything is always changing. This concept is also known as impermanence. Buddhists must accept that nothing can stay how it is – everything must move on or change. For example, once a human is born, they will grow and develop and eventually become an adult until at some point they will no longer exist. Everyone grows older and changes.

The Buddha taught that people suffer because they cannot accept change. He believed that people can only come closer to enlightenment when they accept that they are changing beings.


Dukkha is a very important idea in Buddhism as it is vital that Buddhists understand and accept that suffering exists. Buddhists must also strive to end suffering by understanding why people suffer.

Suffering comes from craving things and also from events in a person’s life, such as birth, old age and death.

People go through various types of suffering. For example: People go through emotional pain (eg someone says something that upsets someone else) and physical pain (eg when a person has an injury.)

In life things don’t stay the same and are always changing, which can cause suffering. For example, some people enjoy it when the sun is shining. If they are outside enjoying the sunshine and the weather changes, this may make them sad.

People are attached to many different things, including people and material possessions. When they lose these things, they suffer. Buddhists try to realise that people cannot hold on to everything in life as this will bring about suffering.


Anatta is the idea that humans have no soul or self. The Buddha taught that people have no soul because nothing is permanent and everything changes. Although the Buddha accepted that we exist as people, he also believed that we can only come closer to enlightenment when we accept that we are changing beings.

There is an important story that is used to help people understand the idea of anatta. It is called Nagasena and the Chariot. The story is about a monk called Nagasena, who visited a king called Milinda. The king asked Nagasena for his name. Nagasena gave his name but then told the king that this was just his name and not his real person.

The king was confused and so Nagasena asked the king how he had arrived at their meeting place. When the king answered that he had arrived on a chariot, Nagasena asked the king to show him what a chariot was. The king pointed to the chariot. However, Nagasena explained that the chariot was just a collection of parts, such as wheels and a seat.

He then compared himself to the chariot, saying that he too – the person called ‘Nagasena’ – was just a collection of parts. He wanted the king to understand that the chariot and a human are just collections of parts. For example, a human has a head, heart, lungs, legs and other parts, and the name of the person is the owner of these parts. However, the person only exists because the parts all exist together. There is no separate soul or self that is separate from these parts.