Buddhist tool box: Three Seals of Existence


In 2004, a dharma teacher told me to read about the Three Seals of Existence in The Compass of Zen. So I did. I was quite disappointed. I don’t know what I was hoping to get, but there was nothing for me (then) in that chapter. Impermanence. No-self. Nirvana. What could I do with these?

Well, of course I couldn’t do anything with what I didn’t have, or things I didn’t comprehend. What I’m finally starting (just starting) to understand is that reading and studying and thinking about these things doesn’t function the way reading and studying and thinking do for skills and knowledge in academic subjects. Zen really is more like a martial art, where you’ve got to just practice, practice, practice — and then one day, you’ve hit something without knowing you were going to hit it. You’ve got a broken board or whatever lying at your feet, and you look at your hand and wonder how that happened.

Impermanence. This concept gains meaning as we begin to comprehend letting go. The more I sit with a willingness to be open-handed and empty-handed, to carry nothing, to make no name and no form, the more I understand that it’s only the beginning to accept that all things change, that nothing remains constant.

No-self. My glimpses of this are no more than nanoseconds, but the effect is humbling and profound. Zen Master Seung Sahn said: “Realizing that all things are without self-nature, you are not taken in by names and forms. You do not follow the mistaken view that things and their myriad appearances actually exist” (p. 106). Right now I have no real comprehension of this at all, and yet there’s more than there used to be — like music from very far away, carried on a breeze. One moment you hear it, and the next, you’re not even sure you did.

Nirvana. Zen Master Seung Sahn said: “Nirvana is perfect stillness.” Now I have a sense that these three seals are one, the one in many and the many in one. That moment or nanosecond when there is no thinking and no self — that moment is the only thing that does not change. Yet it is gone, and gone, and gone again. Each moment is impossible to hold on to. Each moment is infinitely precious and yet completely uncontainable.


Note: “Breathe” will take a short “breather” and will return on December 29. Be well and do good.


2 responses

  1. In earlier, pre-Mahayana Buddhism, the third seal was dukkha – suffering – rather than nirvana.

    But nirvana and dukkha are not separate, are they?

    I hope you enjoy a wonderful holiday!