The Three Dharma Seals

Buddhism: Week 2

The Three Dharma Seals
Friday, September 11, 2015

Thay, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes: “The Three Dharma Seals [Touchpoints of the Teaching] are impermanence (anitya), nonself (anatman), and nirvana. Any teaching that does not bear these Three Seals cannot be said to be a teaching of the Buddha.” [1]

Let’s explore each of these briefly. Thay describes impermanence as “what makes transformation possible. We should learn to say, ‘Long live impermanence.’ Thanks to impermanence, we can change suffering into joy.” [2] James Finley would say that what makes us suffer is clinging to or craving things that are passing away, or trying to avoid things that are unavoidable (aversion). The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths as a middle way between craving and aversion, between indulgence and asceticism.

Flowing from impermanence, we see that it is futile to cling to even our assumed identity or our perceptions of reality. Paul Knitter writes, “For Buddhists, the most basic fact or quality of the world is not being, as it is for most Western philosophers and theologians: it’s becoming. . . . Everything changes because everything is interrelated.” [3] The Second Dharma Seal, nonself, affirms the Buddhist understanding that “nothing has a separate existence or a separate self. Everything has to inter-be with everything else.” [4]

Thay explains the importance of the first two Dharma Seals: “The teachings of impermanence and nonself were offered by the Buddha as keys to unlock the door of reality. We have to train ourselves to look in a way that we know when we touch one thing, we touch everything. We have to see that the one is in the all and the all is in the one. We touch not only the phenomenal aspects of reality but the ground of being. Things are impermanent and without self. They have to undergo birth and death. But if we touch them very deeply, we touch the ground of being that is free from birth and death, free from permanence and impermanence, self and nonself.” [5]

The Third Dharma Seal, nirvana, is this freedom, the ground of being. Thay uses an illustration—as great teachers like Jesus and the Buddha do so often—to describe this mystery:

A wave does not have to die in order to become water. Water is the substance of the wave. The wave is already water. We are also like that. We carry in us the ground of interbeing, nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death, no permanence and no impermanence, no self and no nonself. Nirvana is the complete silencing of concepts. The notions of impermanence and nonself were offered by the Buddha as instruments of practice, not as doctrines to worship, fight, or die for. “My dear friends,” the Buddha said. “The Dharma [teaching] I offer you is only a raft to help you cross over to the other shore.” The raft is not to be held onto as an object of worship. It is an instrument for crossing over to the shore of well-being. . . . If you know how to use the tools of impermanence and nonself to touch reality, you touch nirvana in the here and the now. [6]

Gateway to Silence:
“The suchness of each moment is the infinite mercy of God.”  —Paul Knitter

References:
[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Broadway Books: 1998), 131.
[2] Ibid., 133.
[3] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oneworld Publications: 2009), 10.
[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, 133.
[5] Ibid., 136.
[6] Ibid., 136.

Image credit: “The Bodhisattva attains Awakening and becomes the Buddha” (detail), a Lalitavistara (The Life of the Buddha) relief at Borobudur in Java, Indonesia, 9th century.
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