The Three Dharma Seals
The Buddha speaks of three kinds of illusion or perversions that grip man’s mind. When a man is caught up in these illusions he perceives, thinks, and views incorrectly. He perceives permanence in the impermanent; satisfactoriness in the unsatisfactory; self in what is not self.
–Buddhist scholar monk Nyanaponika Thera
The classical teachings, as Venerable Thera points out, explain that all phenomena share certain characteristics: impermanence, no-self, and dukkha, the three “Dharma Seals.” Understanding these means that we understand the basic nature of reality. In a sense, that is what our practice is all about: living in ways that are consistent with things as they really are—most especially impermanent. Practicing and realizing this first of the Dharma Seals is fundamental to living wisely and rightly, for unless we understand the nature of ourselves and our world, which is revealed in these three seals, we will remain stuck endlessly in unnecessary, self-created suffering.
Our distorted view of reality is countered by thinking about impermanence, the nature of suffering, [and] selflessness, and the peace that is liberation.
—Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
Impermanence might be deemed the cornerstone of Buddhism.
When beginners to Buddhism are told that everything is impermanent, they universally nod their heads “yes” and cite external material examples to show they understand. Common examples are natural events: plants and trees growing and dying, seasons changing, food and our bodies decaying, and so on. Their examples almost always have an underpinning of aging and decay. We should note that the Dharma Seals are often taught that way, probably because it is so much easier to understand than to be taught in a deeper mind-only way. Impermanence, however, is more meaningfully understood (1) as a mental phenomenon and (2) in a relationship to the other two marks of compounded existence: no-self and dukkha (suffering).
Let’s briefly examine impermanence from this deeper perspective. First, impermanence is an inferred characteristic of all compounded, or conditioned, phenomena. It pervades all compounded phenomena because compounded phenomena, phenomena that we imagine in our minds, are not enduring. They are not enduring, they are “impermanent,” because they arise in our minds in an instant and then vanish, and have no real characteristics apart from the preceding perceptions making them up, which are themselves compounded. Thus feelings and perceptions and volitional formations (the stories or narratives by which we identity ourselves and our world), in effect everything we apprehend as either permanent and autonomous or as dualistically present, is to be regarded as impermanent. All physical and mental phenomena are in a constant process of conditioned construction and are interconnected, being dependently originated and thus arising in the middle way.
This means that the deeper meaning of impermanence is not about dissipation, about food decaying or our bodies aging, it is about the nature of conditioned phenomena being in a constant state of construction and interdependence. Stately slightly differently, all conditioned phenomena exist just for a moment, with momentariness being understood as a metaphor, certainly not as an essential characteristic.
Although all things arise in the mind in a constant state of flux, all things are to be regarded as impermanent. But not impermanence in the sense of loss. As Dogen wrote, impermanence isn’t a problem to be overcome with diligent effort on the path. Impermanence is the path. Practice isn’t the way to cope with or overcome impermanence. It is the way to fully appreciate and live it.
“Awareness of impermanence…will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment.”
– Dalai Lama
Perhaps, as His Holiness says, it will leave us with a sense of urgency. But on a deeper and more important level, it leaves us understanding impermanence as the core of our practice, along with the other two marks of conditioned phenomena: no-self and dukkha. As all that exists is impermanent, meaning nothing exists in a permanent or dualistic way, then there is No-Self, and nothing to be grasped or clung to. Knowing this we realize there is no one to suffer and that none of our conflagrations about what is and what is happening are substantive. Thus there’s nothing to attach to or “cause” us to suffer, so there is no suffering, as suffering would require a sufferer (a subject for the object), and we have just established that there is No-Self, no subject, no entity to suffer. Suffering is just Us conventionally attaching to our mental formations and concocted feelings about a permanent Self. It is our most insidious and erroneous view, as Nagarjuna points out.
When we deeply understand and appreciate impermanence, we see the truth of suffering (erroneously grasping after our concocted stories about Self and the world) and how to end it—with No-Self which arises from impermanence.
As Zen teacher Norman Fischer wrote: “… impermanence is the number one inescapable, and essentially painful, fact of life. It is the singular existential problem that the whole edifice of Buddhist practice is meant to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes [as it arises]. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing [to realize this understanding and following] the path with diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.”
The Other Two Dharma Seals: No-Self and Dukkha
No-Self: If the meaning of “No Self” were that there is literally no Self whatsoever, no personal identity and no moral agency, then the only logical conclusion would be that Buddhism is nonsense. But that’s not the case. There is, of course, a conventional Self that we apprehend on an everyday level, but no permanent, independent Self, which is the way the Self presents to us.
Again, if everything is impermanent, vanishing in the moment that it arises, constantly in a state of ever-changing conditioned construction, then there cannot be a Self, meaning a permanent Self, a substantive, autonomous Me, a Me perceived dualistically as a separate entity. And there cannot be a Me who is bound to suffer or bound to suffering, for I am really not here as an entity in that way.
Generalizing this, not only do we as individuals not have a Self (No-Self), but nothing—not people, places, things, events, nor even states of mind—can have an independent, existing Selfhood (Non-Self), for there is no entityhood of anything–not Us nor anything else in the physical or psychological world. So no one and nothing is independent and substantive in the way it appears and is apprehended.
As suffering is the result of the erroneous view of Self, this false notion that we are not impermanent, a belief that we exist as an independent being in the way that we imagine ourselves to be, Buddhism considers the belief in No-Self as a foundational doctrine and a key path to ending suffering. Again, as suffering is the result of an erroneous view of Self, realizing impermanence leads to realizing No-Self, which move us toward ending our suffering!
Without a Self to suffer, obviously, there cannot be suffering! Why, because, as we have already explained, suffering requires a sufferer to exist, and there is no such being. See Chapter Twelve of Middle Way Philosophy for a deeper explication of this [ https://www.deepdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Nagarjuna-Middle-Way-Philosophy-MMK.pdf ].
For millennia, Buddhist teachers and philosophers have contemplated this simple truth, and the more they searched to find a Self, the less able they were to assert on any level that there is a Self. No matter how you take Me apart and put Me back together, there just isn’t a findable Self anywhere, either in the pieces or in the apparent whole.
What Buddhism teaches is that there is no Self in some fixed or static way. Instead, the psycho-physical Self is defined by the Five Aggregates, [see Chapter Four of the MMK [ https://www.deepdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Nagarjuna-Middle-Way-Philosophy-MMK.pdf ] a collection of five ever-changing processes: (1) the physical process of sense contact and sense response, (2) the process of assigning feelings of desirability or undesirability to the sense processes, (3) cognition of the contact and affect and its weightiness, (4) creation of a narrative to explain what is perceived and how to respond to it (a volitional formation, a concocted story), and (5) the arising of a flow of consciousness about our narratives of who we are. Our sense of Self arises whenever we grasp at and identify with these narratives. It is these narratives that we define as I and Me, and Mine, as Self. But neither in combination, nor individually, can these five components yield a permanent Self. Five impermanent pieces cannot be combined to form something permanent.
As Nagarjuna explains, in classic fashion, when we examine each of these five separately, there is no Self to be found anywhere in them, because on examination, we observe that each of the five is impermanent. Further, combining five impermanent components cannot produce a permanent entity, nor can the connection between them be permanent.
Vasubandhu, as Anacker puts it [ https://www.deepdharma.org/our-commentaries/five-aggregates/ ], says an “individual” is really all the changing states “which make him up,” and there is no central entity underlying the organism. It is only the close interdependence of aggregation of moment-events which make up for their relationship [that appears as a Self]. Even so, there is no Whole [Self] that arises from the aggregation.
Another perspective on No-Self can be found at DeepDharma’s site: [https://www.deepdharma.org/no-self/]
Dukkha: In Buddhism, there is constant talk about dukkha (suffering), ending suffering is, after all, the whole point of Buddhism, so let’s briefly define dukkha, the Pali word for suffering:
No single English word adequately captures the full depth, range, and subtlety of the crucial Pali term dukkha. Over the years, many translations of the word have been used, such as “stress,” “unsatisfactoriness,” and “dis-ease.” Each has its own merits in a given context. There is value in not letting oneself get too comfortable with any one particular translation of the word, since a primary aim of Buddhist practice is the broadening and deepening of one’s understanding of dukkha until its roots are finally exposed and eradicated once and for all. One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.
Dukkha is, from a definition by Buddhist scholar Francis Story: disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vulnerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striving/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; decision/indecisiveness, vacillation, and uncertainty.
That certainly made it clear, eh?
Taken together, this variety and spectrum of translations leads us to an understanding that anything other than peacefulness and calm, being in emptiness, whether physical or psychological, is dukkha because it is all conditioned phenomena that is making the impermanent seemingly permanent. That dukkha arises in us in every moment with every thought, because of how we mistakenly identify and appropriate a Self where there is none and attach where there is not-Self. So we arise in dukkha, from grasping after and clinging to, as a conditioned Self that does not exist. Wow, do we miss the point!
All that said, when we realize that dukkha is impermanent, it lacks the substantiveness needed for us to attach to it our perceived suffering lightens and vanishes. This dispels any notion that there could be something external to us that has the ability to cause us to suffer, nor anything mental that is permanent and can cause us to suffer.
Impermanence = No Self = No Dukkha.
This brings us back to the first teaching of the Buddha, that all conditioned phenomena are dukkha, because we erroneously think they are real and independent and existent in a way that makes them, makes everything we perceive, desirable or aversive, and so worthy of our grasping for and clinging to, or pushing away and getting caught in an aversion. Such unnecessary self-inflicted discomfort and unsatisfactoriness!