Life’s Problems and the Three Dharma Seals

posted in: Dharma Topics | 0

Dear Still Water Friends,

As in every spiritual tradition, mindfulness practitioners have a set of words they understand in a particular way. This Thursday evening, after our sitting and walking meditation, we will focus our attention on three words that are at the very heart of the Buddha’s teaching: impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness. (In Pali: anicca, anatta, and dukkha). They are called the Three Dharma Seals because, like stamped or wax seals, they are marks of authenticity. Historically, if a teaching was not in accord with the Three Seals, it was considered not to be a true Buddhist teaching.

Impermanence (Anicca). The First Dharma Seal is that all conditioned things, all the things of our world, are impermanent. Everything we can experience with our senses, or with our mind, is impermanent. Everything changes, whether it is a mountain, an electron, a smell, or a thought.

We can experience impermanence in meditation: moment by moment everything changes. We cannot hold on to an experience. We cannot stop the flow. We also experience impermanence in our daily lives. We notice age-related changes in our parents, our children, and even in ourselves. The typewriters, pay phones, and film cameras that many of us grew up with are now rarely seen.

If we look deeply into impermanence, our hearts and our lives change. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The insight of impermanence helps us to go beyond all concepts. It helps us to go beyond same and different, and coming and going. It helps us to see that the river is not the same river but is also not different either. It shows us that the flame we lit on our bedside candle before we went to bed is not the same flame of the next morning. The flame on the table is not two flames, but it is not one flame either. … Impermanence should also be understood in the light of interbeing. Because all things interare, they are constantly influencing each other.

Not-self (Anatta). The second Dharma Seal is that all things are without a self. Self here means an inherent inner essence that does not change. Not-self, non-self, or no-self does not mean non-existing — it just means there is not an inner essence separate from the rest of the universe.

I may have a two-wheeled vehicle I call “a bicycle.” I can use the word “bicycle” as the subject of a sentence: “The bicycle rolls easily.” But I know that the word “bicycle” is just a label. My bicycle is just a collection of parts, there is no inner essence.

The Buddhist teaching is that the same is true of all phenomena, including humans. I may have a name. I may refer to myself with the terms I, me and mine. I may think of my thoughts, emotions, or will as “me,” but those are also just conventional designations. Like my bicycle, there is something there. There is just not a self there.

Thich Nhat Hanh often explains “not self” in terms of flowers and interbeing:

Looking deeply into a flower we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements. We can describe the flower as being full of everything. There is nothing that is not present in the flower. We see sunshine, we see the rain, we see clouds, we see the earth, and we also see time and space in the flower. A flower, like everything else, is made entirely of non-flower elements. The whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest herself. The flower is full of everything except one thing: a separate self or a separate identity.

The flower cannot be by herself alone. The flower has to interbe with the sunshine, the cloud and everything in the cosmos. If we understand being in terms of interbeing, then we are much closer to the truth. Interbeing is not being and it is not nonbeing. Interbeing means at the same time being empty of a separate identity; empty of a separate self.

Suffering (Dukkha). The Third Dharma Seal is that all conditioned things, all the things of our world, are dukkha. Dukkha means unsatisfactory or unsatisfying. The things of the world do not give us the satisfaction we most deeply want, and because of that, there is stress and suffering in our lives.

To clarify, the Buddha described three types or categories of dukkha:

  • There is the “dukkha of dukkha,” the pain of pain. We obsess on and contract around the inevitable pains and difficulties in every life, and create much greater suffering than the original pain. A metaphor used by the Buddha is of the second arrow. It is as if we shot a second arrow into the exact place that a first arrow has pierced us.

  • There is the dukkha produced by change. We want to hold on to what is desirable. We want to keep away what is not desired. Deep inside of us we fail to acknowledge the reality of impermanence, and we suffer.

  • There is the dukka produced by conditioned existence. This is considered to be the most subtle. Deep inside of us there is a yearning for things to be stable and known. When we sense or realize that everything in the world is changing and contains no unchanging inner essence, we fear that our yearning will never, ever, be satisfied. We experience an existential anxiety.

The Buddha, however, did much more than explain the existence and origin of dukkha. His intent as a teacher was to teach about dukkha and the end of dukkha, suffering and the end of suffering. And the end of suffering comes when we change our attitude or orientation toward the impermanence, non-self, pain and suffering that are inevitably aspects of our experience and our world. This capacity to hold the same experience in different ways is for me captured in William Blake’s poem Eternity:

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls the third Dharma Seal nirvana rather than dukkha. He places the emphasis on the possibility of transformation. When we see things as they really are, we understand that impermanence and not-self can give us peace and freedom.

Impermanence and no self are not rules to follow given to us by the Buddha. They are keys to open the door of reality. The idea of permanence is wrong, so the teaching on impermanence helps us correct our view of permanence. But if we get caught in the idea of impermanence we have not realized nirvana. The idea of self is wrong. So we use the idea of nonself to cure it. But if we are caught in the idea of nonself then that is not good for us either. Impermanence and no self are keys to the practice. They are not absolute truths. . . . The third Dharma Seal is nirvana. This means solidity and freedom, freedom from all ideas and notions. The word “nirvana” literally means “the extinction of all concepts.” Looking deeply into impermanence leads to the discovery of no self. The discovery of no self leads to nirvana. Nirvana is the Kingdom of God.

This Thursday evening we will explore the Three Dharma Seals in relation to a life problem, issue or decision that is in front of us now. Do the Three Dharma Seals have an energy in them that can help us see more deeply into and clarify a difficulty or decision we are facing? As I was preparing these notes I came up with three Dharma-Seal-related questions I will be asking myself during times of stress or uncertainty.

Am I resisting some aspect of my world that has changed?

Have I constrained my understanding by treating myself or others as "selves" in terms of being separated from the rest of the world and unable to change?

What is the nature of the suffering I am experiencing?

You are invited to join us this Thursday evening.

You are also invited to join us this Thursday for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at

Aditionally, this Thursday evening at Crossings we will receive donations for Shepherd’s Table, a Silver Spring nonprofit that provides help to people who are homeless or in need. You are invited to donate clean usable clothes and household items —men’s cold weather clothing is now especially needed. (A receipt acknowledging the donation can be provided.) If you can’t make it this Thursday, it’s easy to drop items off any day at Shepherd’s Table, four blocks from Crossings on Colonial Lane.

The above excerpts by Thich Nhat Hanh are from No Fear, No Death: Comforting Wisdom for Life.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner