The Three Dharma Seals

Buddhists say that for something to be true it must have the following basic characteristics: it must be universally true and apply to all things equally, it must be certainly true and happen every time, it must be true in the past, present, and future.

For example, all people are born and all people must die. This is an ultimate truth because it is true not just for Chinese, Indians, Australians, or Americans, but for all people at all times. Birth and death are universal and certain, and occur in the past, present, and future.

The “three Dharma seals” are truths that affirm the Dharma and are common to all Buddhist traditions. They possess all four qualities mentioned above, and they can be proven both through reasoning and observation. They are also the means by which to judge whether or not something is truly the Dharma: teachings which accord with the three Dharma seals are true, and those which do not are false. The three Dharma seals are:

  1. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.

  2. All phenomena are without an independent self.

  3. Nirvana is perfect tranquility.

Impermanence, lack of an independent self, and nirvana are called the Dharma “seals” because all phenomena are “stamped” with them. There is nothing that does not possess these three characteristics. Another reason that Buddhists call these three truths “Dharma seals” is that they are similar to official seals that prove documents are real and not forged. If any so-called “truth” contradicts the three Dharma seals, then it cannot be an authentic teaching of the Buddha. When a teaching is not stamped by the three Dharma seals, it cannot be true. If something is supposedly said by the Buddha himself, but contradicts the three Dharma seals, it cannot be true. In this same vein, any truth that is stamped with all of the three Dharma seals must be true, whether a Buddha said it or not. These principles are so fundamental to Buddhism that it can further be said that any truth that is stamped with the three Dharma seals is rightfully part of the Dharma.

The First Dharma Seal

The first Dharma seal says that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. This means that all phenomena change; nothing can forever stay the same. All phenomena are constantly interacting with each other, constantly influencing each other, and constantly causing each other to change. In the constant flow of time from past, present, to future, all phenomena are changing from one instant to the next. Within each moment, they arise and cease.

All things change. Sentient beings are born, grow old, get sick, and die. The environment changes from season to season and year to year. Stars form, exist, and die. Thoughts arise, abide, change, and cease. Everything is like this: every moment, the phenomenal world is moving between the four states of birth, abiding, decay, and death. Nothing is permanent.

According to Buddhist sutras, there are two basic kinds of impermanence: momentary impermanence and periodic impermanence.

Momentary Impermanence

In Buddhism, a ksana is the smallest possible moment of time. Within the context of how we measure time today, it is approximately one seventy-fifth of a second. The Record of Investigations of Mysteries states, “A ksana is a ‘moment’ of thought. A single snap of the fingers contains sixty ksana.” Among all phenomena, those that change most quickly are our thoughts.

According to the Treatise on the Great Compendium of the Abhidharma, “In one day, there are 6,400,099,980 ksanas worth of the five aggregates arising and extinguishing.” The Rain of Treasures Sutra says, “The deluded mind is like running water; it rises and falls without stopping. Like lightning, the moments come and go and do not remain.”

The thoughts in our mind are constantly changing from one moment to the next. Material things change as well, from when they are new until they have become old, but they do not change suddenly. Rather, these changes are constantly occurring from one moment to the next. This is why we say it is momentary impermanence.

Periodic Impermanence

Since all phenomena are in a constant state of change, over a long period of time, they will be extinguished. This process is called “periodic impermanence,” and is really just an accumulation of episodes of momentary impermanence mentioned above. The processes of birth, aging, sickness, and death in sentient beings; the processes of arising, abiding, changing, and ceasing in phenomena; and the process of formation, abiding, decay, and emptiness in the universe itself are all built out of moments of gradual change. When these gradual changes accumulate, substantial changes can be observed.

Understanding the first Dharma seal is important because once we recognize the brevity of life and the impermanence of all things, we will be motivated to delve even deeper into the truths of Buddhism. Impermanence should not frighten. Rather, it should inspire us to appreciate our time on earth. We should understand that as difficult as life may be, we should always try to live a good life.

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, “All phenomena are impermanent. Loved ones who come together must one day separate.” Recognizing the impermanence of all things can inspire us to help all sentient beings realize the Buddha nature within.

The Second Dharma Seal

Not only are all phenomena impermanent, but they are also devoid of an “independent self.” Not having an independent self nature means that all phenomena depend upon other things for their existence, and would not be able to exist without them. The word “phenomena” in this case refers to all tangible and intangible things, all events, all thoughts, all laws, and everything else.

To say that nothing has a self is to say that nothing has any attribute that endures over long periods of time. There is no “self” that always stays the same. If the “self” cannot possibly stay the same, then how can it really be a self?

The second Dharma seal goes right to the heart of human psychology. You may say that you do not believe that anything has a self, but chances are you will act and think as if you do. Our thought patterns generally gravitate toward absolutes: things are the way they are, they have always been that way, and they will stay that way. Solid things seem permanent to us. Our sense of self seems immutable. We think, “I am who I am, and I will stay that way.”

The truth is that we are always changing, just as everything else is always changing. Not only do things not have a self, but neither do we. Most of the world’s religions maintain the exact opposite. They claim that an absolute, eternal, and completely perfect god created human beings and their eternal souls.

Buddhism denies “self” in two basic ways. First, it states that sentient beings are without “self.” Most people are very attached to their bodies and this attachment leads them to believe that there is some absolute essence inside of them that is the “real” self. The Buddha said that the body is formed by the five aggregates and the accumulation of karma. It is a temporary form caused by a brief congregation of the physical and mental components of existence. Just as a house is made up of many parts, the body is also made of many components that create a substantial existence. Once those parts are separated, no real self will be found anywhere.

Second, Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are without self. Phenomena arise due to other phenomena. When the causes and conditions that produce and uphold them are removed, all phenomena cease to be. To say that phenomena have no self is another way of saying that their existence is dependent on one another. It is important to understand these basic ideas because they are fundamental to all Buddhist practice.

The Third Dharma Seal

Nirvana is the third noble truth: the cessation of suffering. According to the Commentary on the Flower Adornment Sutra, “Nirvana means cessation.” The Mahaparinirvana Sutra also says, “The cessation of all suffering is nirvana.” Since suffering is caused by delusion, nirvana is the cessation of delusion; since suffering is caused by the belief in duality, nirvana is the cessation of duality. Nirvana is also the cessation of the belief in an independent self and the cessation of the birth and death of that “self.” Because there is no more suffering, nirvana is the state of perfect tranquility.

When we say nirvana is the state of perfect tranquility, it refers to the state in which greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt are eliminated. It is the state in which the body does not commit unwholesome deeds and the mind does not have unwholesome thoughts. It is a state of liberation.

Buddhists generally understand four varieties of nirvana: pure nirvana of inherent nature, nirvana with remainder, nirvana without remainder, and non-abiding nirvana.

Nirvana of intrinsic nature is also called “intrinsically pure nirvana.” It is another word for Buddha nature, the intrinsically pure nature of all things.  When the Buddha first awakened under the bodhi tree he exclaimed, “Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Buddha’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”

Nirvana with remainder describes the state of an awakened being who still has a physical body. “With remainder” means that the past karma associated with the body still remains. An awakened being is liberated from all defilements of the mind and creates no new karma, but his physical body is still subject to the karmic effects from the past.

Nirvana without remainder describes the state of an awakened being when the physical body no longer remains. The awakened being will never again be subject to the cycle of birth and death.

Nirvana without abiding is the fourth classification of nirvana, and describes the nirvana of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. A great bodhisattva has great wisdom and has severed all defilements, and as such they do not abide in our world. However, because of great compassion for all sentient beings, they choose not to enter the state of perfect tranquility. This state of not dwelling in our world and not entering perfect tranquility is known as nirvana without abiding.

The Buddhist sutras describe nirvana with many other names. One common one is the Sanskrit term anuttara samyak sambodhi, “complete, perfect, unsurpassed awakening.” Nirvana is also commonly called “attaining the Dharma body.” This term has many meanings, but it refers to the aspect of the Buddha which is manifest throughout the universe. The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Sutra says, “The Dharma body is the great nirvana-body of the Buddha.”

Nirvana is also called the “Dharma realm of all Buddhas.” It is also called the “deepest samadhi,” meaning the greatest level of meditative concentration. Nirvana is a state of blissful purity that only a Buddha has fully attained. The Lotus Sutra says, “Only the Buddha has attained great awakening. This state of complete and perfect wisdom is called great nirvana.”

Sakyamuni Buddha taught the three Dharma seals to help us eliminate our defilements. Contemplation of the three Dharma seals helps us overcome delusion because the three Dharma seals cut off delusion at its three primary points. They teach us to understand that all phenomena are impermanent and devoid of an independent existence. At the same time they teach us that contemplating these truths should not lead us to despair because all sentient beings possess Buddha nature. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says, “I speak of the three Dharma seals to benefit all sentient beings in the world.”

Understanding the Three Dharma Seals

People sometimes think that Buddhism is a pessimistic religion because it talks so much about emptiness, impermanence, and suffering. The Buddha spoke of these basic truths not because he was pessimistic but because he wanted people to fully understand delusion. The Buddha knew that once delusion is understood, it loses its powerful hold over us. Once we see delusion for what it is, we will want to be rid of it so we can be more aware of things as they are. The three Dharma seals should not make us feel despair, but instead be what allows us to transcend despair.

Hopeful Impermanence

Most people instinctively react negatively to the first Dharma seal, because they think that impermanence only means that what is good will get worse. While this may be true in some cases, it is just as true that what is bad can get better. Impermanence is a great source of hope, for it teaches us that as hard as our present circumstances may be, they can change. If we have diligently cultivated good karmic causes, then the changes will inevitably be changes for the better.

Properly understood, the concept of impermanence can be a great aid in difficult situations. If we are poor, impermanence can teach us that our circumstances will not last forever. If we meet with a setback in our work, it can teach us not to despair. If we meet with hardship or tragedy, impermanence can teach us that one day, things will change again for the better. Impermanence tells us that nothing stays the same; it teaches us that things can change for the better if we truly work to better our circumstances.

Contemplating impermanence also helps us to treasure what we have. Impermanence teaches us to be grateful for every moment of life and to use our time as productively as we can. It reminds us that if we do not make progress in Buddhism now, we may have to wait many lifetimes before we encounter the Dharma again. Impermanence inspires us to progress, study, and learn. Now is the time to act, because the present is all the time that we really have.

No-Self Teaches Us How to Cooperate

The reason Buddhists emphasize the lack of an independent self is to help each one of us get past the narcissistic devotion we normally feel toward our body and the deluded belief that the body “proves” that there is some absolute “self.” Attachment to the self is the root source of all delusion. It produces anger and greed, and keeps us bound firmly to ignorance. Contemplation of the second Dharma seal will teach us how to break the bonds of self-love.

The human body is produced by conditions, and it is made up of physical and mental components. When conditions bring those components together, a body is formed. When those same conditions disperse, the body will cease to be. There is no substantial existence or absolute self present anywhere in the body.

From the time we are born to the time we die, all of us change all of the time. There is nothing eternal or permanent about us. Knowing this can be a great help if we find ourselves trapped in adverse circumstances. Contemplation of no-self can remove deep-seated and painful feelings that arise from the erroneous belief that we possess a permanent self that really can be threatened, or insulted, or defamed. The Great Stopping and Seeing says, “When there is no wisdom, we will perceive the self as real. When we contemplate with wisdom, the self will be recognized as unreal.”

In understanding the concept of non-self, it is important not to fall into the mistaken belief that you as a person are not here or that you do not exist. Most Buddhist beliefs and ideas should be understood on at least two different levels. One level is called the “mundane level,” and has to do with how things appear from an ordinary, worldly perspective. But there is also the “supramundane level,” which is concerned with the absolute and transcendent nature of reality.

Mundane truths are important, because they help us to understand the world we all live in. We must all learn to function with the mundane understanding of “self,” because it is a concept upon which our languages and society are built.

The second Dharma seal is a teaching which operates at the supramundane level. This type of understanding is not entirely separate from the world in which we live, because once we understand that our mundane assumptions about the world are based on observations of temporary existence our ability to function in the world will be greatly enhanced. The truth of non-self should be used when it can help us understand life, but it should not become a prism that is used to distort life or an excuse to avoid life.

When the second Dharma seal is understood, it allows us to more fully participate in life, because it provides a basis for us to cooperate with other sentient beings. Knowing that all phenomena lack an independent self teaches us to get along with others because it clearly shows that we are sustained by many conditions, and others are too. In the same way that we need others, they need us too.

Buddhism places great emphasis on the welfare of all sentient beings. The Buddha spent forty-nine years teaching the Dharma, so none of us should believe that the truth of non-self is a reason to abandon other beings for a life of complete seclusion. On the contrary, the second Dharma seal is a reason to become involved in the community and live among other sentient beings. When we see others as ourselves and ourselves as part of a much larger whole, then, and only then, will we have fully understood the second Dharma seal.

Nirvana Is the Ultimate Refuge

Most people believe that nirvana is attained only after death. Actually, nirvana is beyond birth and death. It is the state where the attachment to self and phenomena is extinguished, the state where all afflictions and defilements are eliminated, and the state of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

In the same way that a criminal loses his freedom by being shackled and manacled, so too are sentient beings bound by the chains of greed, hatred, and ignorance. The Dharma can liberate us from these defilements, and allow us to attain nirvana.

Life is like a turbulent ocean, with crashing waves coming one after another. The continuous movement of the ocean exemplifies the impermanence of all phenomena. But, if we can look at the waves through the eyes of the Buddhist sages, we can see that although the waves are turbulent, the nature of water is to be calm. Likewise, life is an endless cycle of birth and death, but our intrinsic nature is a state of perfect peace. Thus, if we want to attain the liberation and tranquility of nirvana, we must realize it in the impermanence and non-self of all phenomena.

To be in nirvana is to be beyond all time and space, all duality, all delusion, and all fear. Nirvana is the ultimate refuge of all life. To understand the third Dharma seal is to understand that nirvana is the pure Buddha mind, the truth that lies at the center of all of the Buddha’s teachings. One does not need to wait for death to experience nirvana because nirvana is always present in everything.