Three Seals of the Dharma

Three Seals of the Dharma

All Things Are Transient

We must first begin with a clear understanding of the meaning of each of the terms in the phrase all things are transient. “All things” is a translation of the Sanskrit saṃskāra. Saṃskāra indicates all phenomena that appear in this world through the interaction of causes and conditions. “Transience” means that nothing permanently retains the same state or form, or, put more simply: everything changes. Accordingly, all things are transient is to say that “all things that come into existence through causes and conditions, i.e., all phenomena in this world, are in a state of constant change.”

The truth of transience teaches us that when we clearly understand all things are in a state of constant change, we are no longer surprised and discomposed or thrown off by trivial changes in the circumstances of our lives.

If we take a step further to look at the truth of the transience of all things affirmatively, we will understand just how strong and adaptable we human beings are, and it will become clear to us why human beings must live lives of constant growth and improvement. We will also have gratitude to those around us, and because of feelings of fraternal love and a sense of oneness with humanity, our heart will be flooded with a palpable awareness that all humanity must live together in harmony. Our awakening to this realization is nothing less than the reason why the Buddha appeared in our world.

The reason we don’t realize this is that we are captivated by the changes in the world that impinge upon us directly, and because of this we are blinded by concern with immediate gain and loss—what is personally advantageous and disadvantageous. However, if all people could lucidly perceive the Buddha’s teaching of transience, such illusions would be effaced naturally, and an awakened humanity would realize its peaceful and proper way of life in our contemporary world.

All Things are Nonself

The truth that “all things are nonself” teaches that all things in this world, without exception, are related to one another. There is nothing that possesses an isolated “self,” that is to say, there is nothing that exists on its own, completely independent and separate from other things.

When we consider that things seemingly unrelated to us, such as insects, birds, or even the pine trees growing atop a distant hill, all derive, like ourselves, from the same matter that congealed to form the earth billions of years ago, we realize that all living beings are permeated by an identical animating life-force. The same can be said for the soil of the earth, stones, clouds and even the air.

If we leave the distant past and turn our attention to the present and contemplate our own existence, we will see that our lives are sustained not only by the soil of the earth, but even its stones, that our lives also depend in many ways on insects, for example, and that we are even indebted to birds. If there were no clouds in the sky, we would have no rain; no plants would grow, and we would soon find ourselves without food. If there were no oxygen in the air, we would not be able to survive for even a few minutes. Without exception, all of us are connected to any number of things that on the surface, at least, seem unrelated and external to us.

To give an example that cuts to the point, consider that the living organism that is our human body might appear to be an altogether different entity from minerals such as iron. Yet, because our bodies are mostly composed of water and minerals, our lives are sustained by substances such as salt, calcium, iron and copper. Reflecting on this fact provides us with a good opportunity to envision how things exist interdependently in connection with one another. It goes without saying that we have much deeper and stronger relationships of interdependence with other human beings with whom we share our lives. We are all interconnected by inseparable bonds, and if we trace them to their source we will realize that we exist by being permeated by the same life-force. In spite of this, we oppose one another, fight with one another, steal from one another and in the end, sadly kill one another because we are dominated by our egos and live selfishly for our own short-term gain. This is the important reason why we must awaken to the truth that all things are nonself, that there is nothing that exists on its own, completely independent and separate from other things.

If our understanding progresses another step further, we will also realize that, as mentioned above, stagnating at a particular state or reversing course are “offenses” against human nature, or “evil,” because doing so goes against the steady course of natural human progress.

If we understand this, we attain a spiritual awakening to the fact that our own personal decadence or indolence is a source of trouble for many others, and because of this we personally resolve to continue to move forward, even only if bit by bit, in the direction of progress. This is the essence of the teaching that “all things are nonself” and why the true spirit of Buddhism is constant perseverance to improve oneself.

Nirvana is Tranquility

The principle that nirvana is tranquility teaches us that we can completely eliminate the sufferings of human existence and obtain peaceful and tranquil lives precisely when we extinguish our delusions by completely “blowing them out” like the flame of a candle. How can we reach this state of nirvana and live in tranquility? The only way is to realize the other two principles that make up the three seals of the dharma: all things are transient and all things are nonself.

The reason we are troubled by the sufferings of human life is that we forget that all things are transient, that all things constantly change according to the principle of causes and conditions. Instead, we are captivated by the circumstances of the moment and blinded by concern with immediate gain and loss. However, if we study the way to buddhahood and by cultivating its practices truly realize the truth that all things are transient, we will be able to maintain a tranquil state of mind that remains unperturbed no matter how our immediate circumstances change. This is living the state of nirvana is tranquility.

Sometimes we are troubled by shortages of material goods, problems at our jobs, or interpersonal conflicts and disputes, which are, in basic terms, caused by an imbalance between ourselves and physical things, and a lack of harmony between ourselves and others. Why do we find ourselves in disharmony with one another? It is because either we did not know the truth that all things are nonself to begin with, or we have forgotten it entirely. We can naturally achieve harmony when we remind ourselves that all phenomena and the entirety of humankind are permeated by one great life-force, interconnected in unseen ways, and based on this realization, we can vitalize these interconnections by abandoning our petty sense of ego, which entails a deeply rooted desire to benefit both ourselves and others. When we achieve this kind of harmony with others, the result is uninterrupted peace of mind because we no longer experience excess and deprivation, nor struggle and friction with those around us. This sense of emotional and mental well being is also the experience of nirvana is tranquility, an ideal state that can only be achieved by realizing the other two seals of the dharma: all things are transient, and all things are nonself.