Marks of Distinction

On the three general characteristics: impermanence, conflict and the void in conflict.

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Marks of Distinction

Marks of Distinction


It has been said about my writings up to date that they are not the simple expositions as found in the earlier booklets by Bhikkhu Dhammapāla, such as ”Basic Buddhism” and ”Buddhism for Students”. These writings and others before 1947 had to fulfil a certain need which was the lack of information in English in a form understandable by young students in Christian schools, who by that time had banded themselves together in the All-Sri Lanka Buddhist Students’ Union with their branches all over the country and their annual Congresses since 1942.

Many students are now leaders in their own right, but show their appreciation for the work of that time. But time has passed on and their needs have also shifted. The present day young generation is more Sinhala, oriented, as it should be; and there are many eminent scholar monks who can provide for their needs. Thus we have to move on to a deeper understanding which must supersede mere learning.

It is the feeling of that need which is the urge for my late writings, which are perhaps more individualistic and thereby less dependent on ancient tradition. Yet, the truth remains the same, as each one has to find out for himself (pacattaṁ veditabbo viññūhi), if he is intelligent. And if he is not, I can only quote Buddhaghosa from his commentary of the Majjhima Nikāya: “If you follow this, try to understand; if you don’t, go home and eat some porridge!” Papañcasudani, II, 44.01

Henri van Zeyst
Kandy, January, 1979


The three marks (ti-lakkhaṇa) are referred to as characteristics, essentials, signata, signs of the teaching of the Buddha. They are the most noteworthy, most important, most expressive, most typical, most distinctive, indispensable, elementary, basic, constitutional components or qualities of the doctrine of the Buddha, without which there just would not be any Buddhism.

The entire doctrine finds its foundation in those essential principles on which rests the entire super-structure of the Buddha’s philosophy, logic, cosmology, ontology, psychology, ethics and eschatology. They are there, not made by the Buddha, but observed by him, to be the essential qualities of all that appears and becomes in matter and in mind, in time and in space; all that operates by nature or by will, as cause or as effect; all that is composed, arises and ceases; all that is constructed, or invented, arranged or adjusted, in fact or in fancy; all that is formed by hand or by thought; all that is dependent on conditions in arising and cessation, in birth and death, in becoming and ending. And thus they form the characteristic marks of the teaching of the Buddha, because they are the essential elements of all phenomena which appear or are perceived.

But it was the Buddha alone among all great founders of religion, of systems of philosophy, among all the great thinkers of the world throughout the ages; it was he alone who made those foundations of the universe also the foundations of his doctrine. They are the marks of impermanence (anicca), conflict (dukkha) and insubstantiality (anatta). Each one of the three is a complete unit for observation, basically integrate in all its parts, complete in its complex, finished in its composition, perfect in its circuit, universal in its application, an all-enclosing orbit, a circle of action and reaction, each one a sphere with its own influence; and yet so closely linked together, that the three are inseparable and complete; that to understand one, one has to understand all; that in the understanding of one, one has also understood all.

This is possible in the perception of impermanence (anicca saññā), in the perception of conflict in impermanence (anicca-dukkha saññā) and in the perception of the unreality of conflict (dukkha-anatta saññā). Thus the three circles are linked and interlinked to form the chief characteristic teachings of the Buddha, the three marks, which are the distinguishing features of his doctrine, its basis and foundation, which must be understood before any true progress can be made, and without which there just is no Buddhism.

Without separating the three, we shall consider them one by one, in their origin, their function and their cessation, for the sake of understanding. For, only in understanding is there awakening and enlightenment.

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