The Practice of Looking Deeply Using Three Dharma Seals: Impermanence, No-self and Nirvana

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that by looking deeply we develop insight into impermanence and no self. These are the keys to the door of reality.

All authentic practices of the Buddha carry within them three essential teachings called the Dharma Seals. These three teachings of the Buddha are: impermanence, no self and nirvana. Just as all-important legal documents have the mark or signature of a witness, all genuine practices of the Buddha bear the mark of these three teachings.

If we look into the first Dharma Seal, impermanence, we see that it doesn’t just mean that everything changes. By looking into the nature of things, we can see that nothing remains the same for even two consecutive moments. Because nothing remains unchanged from moment to moment it therefore has no fixed identity or a permanent self. So in the teaching of impermanence we always see the lack of an unchanging self. We call this “no self,” the second Dharma Seal. It is because things are always transforming and have no self that freedom is possible.

The third Dharma Seal is nirvana. This means solidity and freedom, freedom from all ideas and notions. The word “nirvana” literally means “the extinction of all concepts.” Looking deeply into impermanence leads to the discovery of no self. The discovery of no self leads to nirvana. Nirvana is the Kingdom of God.

Impermanence

The practice and understanding of impermanence is not just another description of reality. It is a tool that helps us in our transformation, healing and emancipation.

Impermanence means that everything changes and nothing remains the same in any consecutive moment. And although things change every moment, they still cannot be accurately described as the same or as different from what they were a moment ago.

When we bathe in the river today that we bathed in yesterday, is it the same river? Heraclitus said that we couldn’t step into the same river twice. He was right. The water in the river today is completely different from the water we bathed in yesterday. Yet it is the same river. When Confucius was standing on the bank of a river watching it flow by he said, “Oh, it flows like that day and night, never ending.”

The insight of impermanence helps us to go beyond all concepts. It helps us to go beyond same and different, and coming and going. It helps us to see that the river is not the same river but is also not different either. It shows us that the flame we lit on our bedside candle before we went to bed is not the same flame of the next morning. The flame on the table is not two flames, but it is not one flame either.

Impermanence Makes Everything Possible

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing each other. It is said a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.

Practicing Impermanence

All of us can understand impermanence with our intellect, but this is not yet true understanding. Our intellect alone will not lead us to freedom. It will not lead us to enlightenment. When we are solid and we concentrate, we can practice looking deeply. And when we look deeply and see the nature of impermanence, we can then be concentrated on this deep insight. This is how the insight of impermanence becomes part of our being. It becomes our daily experience. We have to maintain the insight of impermanence in order to be able to see and live impermanence all the time. If we can use impermanence as an object of our meditation, we will nourish the understanding of impermanence in such a way that it will live in us every day. With this practice impermanence becomes a key that opens the door of reality.

We also cannot uncover the insight into impermanence for only a moment and then cover it up and see everything as permanent again. Most of the time we behave with our children as though they will always be at home with us. We never think that in three or four years they will leave us to marry and have their own family. Therefore we do not value the moments our child is with us.

I know many parents whose children, when they are eighteen or nineteen years old, leave home and live on their own. The parents lose their children and feel very sorry for themselves. Yet the parents did not value the moments they had with their children. The same is true of husbands and wives. You think that your spouse will be there for the whole of your life but how can you be so sure? We really have no idea where our partner will be in twenty or thirty years, or even tomorrow. It is very important to remember every day the practice of impermanence.

Seeing Emotions Through the Eyes of Impermanence

When somebody says something that makes you angry and you wish they would go away, please look deeply with the eyes of impermanence. If he or she were gone, what would you really feel? Would you be happy or would you weep? Practicing this insight can be very helpful. There is a gatha, or poem, we can use to help us:

Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
Where will you be and where shall I be?

When we are angry, what do we usually do? We shout, scream, and try to blame someone else for our problems. But looking at anger with the eyes of impermanence, we can stop and breathe. Angry at each other in the ultimate dimension, we close our eyes and look deeply. We try to see three hundred years into the future. What will you be like? What will I be like? Where will you be? Where will I be? We need only to breathe in and out, look at our future and at the other person’s future. We do not need to look as far as three hundred years. It could be fifty or sixty years from now when we have both passed away.

Looking at the future, we see that the other person is very precious to us. When we know we can lose them at any moment, we are no longer angry. We want to embrace her or him and say, “How wonderful, you are still alive. I am so happy. How could I be angry with you? Both of us have to die someday and while we are still alive and together it is foolish to be angry at each other.”

The reason we are foolish enough to make ourselves suffer and make the other person suffer is we forget that we and the other person are impermanent. Someday when we die we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything. Our freedom, peace and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have. But without an awakened understanding of impermanence it is not possible to be happy.

Some people do not even want to look at a person when they are alive, but when they die they write eloquent obituaries and make offerings of flowers. But at that point the person has died and cannot smell the fragrance of the flowers anymore. If we really understood and remembered that life was impermanent, we would do everything we could to make the other person happy right here and right now. If we spend twenty-four hours being angry at our beloved, it is because we are ignorant of impermanence.

“Angry in the ultimate dimension/I close my eyes.” I close my eyes in order to practice visualization of my beloved one hundred or three hundred years from now. When you visualize yourself and your beloved in three hundred years’ time, you just feel so happy that you are alive today and that your dearest is alive today. You open your eyes and all your anger has gone. You open your arms to embrace the other person and you practice: “Breathing in you are alive, breathing out I am so happy.” When you close your eyes to visualize yourself and the other person in three hundred years’ time, you are practicing the meditation on impermanence. In the ultimate dimension, anger does not exist.

Hatred is also impermanent. Although we may be consumed with hatred at this moment, if we know that hatred is impermanent we can do something to change it. A practitioner can take resentment and hatred and help it to disappear. Just like with anger, we close our eyes and think: where will we be in three hundred years? With the understanding of hatred in the ultimate dimension, it can evaporate in an instant.

Let Impermanence Nurture Love

Because we are ignorant and forget about impermanence, we don’t nurture our love properly. When we first married our love was great. We thought that if we did not have each other we would not be able to live one more day. Because we did not know how to practice impermanence, after one or two years our love changed to frustration and anger. Now we wonder how we can survive one more day if we have to remain with the person we once loved so much. We decide there is no alternative: we want a divorce. If we live with the understanding of impermanence we will cultivate and nurture our love. Only then will it last. You have to nourish and look after your love for it to grow.

No Self

Impermanence is looking at reality from the point of view of time. No self is looking at reality from the point of view of space. They are two sides of reality. No self is a manifestation of impermanence and impermanence is a manifestation of no self. If things are impermanent they are without a separate self. If things are without a separate self, it means that they are impermanent. Impermanence means being transformed at every moment. This is reality. And since there is nothing unchanging, how can there be a permanent self, a separate self? When we say “self” we mean something that is always itself, unchanging day after day. But nothing is like that. Our body is impermanent, our emotions are impermanent, and our perceptions are impermanent. Our anger, our sadness, our love, our hatred and our consciousness are also impermanent.

So what permanent thing is there which we can call a self? The piece of paper these words are written on does not have a separate self. It can only be present when the clouds, the forest, the sun, the earth, the people who make the paper, and the machines are present. If those things are not present the paper cannot be present. And if we burn the paper, where is the self of paper?

Nothing can exist by itself alone. It has to depend on every other thing. That is called inter-being. To be means to inter-be. The paper inter-is with the sunshine and with the forest. The flower cannot exist by itself alone; it has to inter-be with soil, rain, weeds and insects. There is no being; there is only inter-being.

Looking deeply into a flower we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements. We can describe the flower as being full of everything. There is nothing that is not present in the flower. We see sunshine, we see the rain, we see clouds, we see the earth, and we also see time and space in the flower. A flower, like everything else, is made entirely of non-flower elements. The whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest herself. The flower is full of everything except one thing: a separate self or a separate identity.

The flower cannot be by herself alone. The flower has to inter-be with the sunshine, the cloud and everything in the cosmos. If we understand being in terms of inter-being, then we are much closer to the truth. Inter-being is not being and it is not non-being. Inter-being means at the same time being empty of a separate identity; empty of a separate self.

No self also means emptiness, a technical term in Buddhism which means the absence of a separate self. We are of the nature of no self, but that does not mean that we are not here. It does not mean that nothing exists. A glass can be empty or full of tea, but in order to be either empty or full the glass has to be there. So emptiness does not mean non-being and does not mean being either. It transcends all concepts. If you touch deeply the nature of impermanence, no self and inter-being, you touch the ultimate dimension, the nature of nirvana.

Who Are We?

We think of our body as our self or belonging to our self. We think of our body as me or mine. But if you look deeply, you see that your body is also the body of your ancestors, of your parents, of your children, and of their children. So it is not a “me”; it is not a “mine.” Your body is full of everything else—limitless non-body elements—except one thing: a separate existence.

Impermanence has to be seen in the light of emptiness, of inter-being, and of non-self. These things are not negative. Emptiness is wonderful. Nagarjuna, the famous Buddhist teacher of the second century, said, “Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible.”

You can see no non-self in impermanence, and impermanence in non-self. You can say that impermanence is no self seen from the angle of time, and non-self is impermanence seen from the angle of space. They are the same thing. That is why impermanence and non-self inter-are. If you do not see impermanence in non-self, that is not non-self. If you do not see non-self in impermanence, that’s not really impermanence.

But that is not all. You have to see nirvana in impermanence and you have to see nirvana in non-self. If I draw a line on one side there will be impermanence and non-self, and on the other side there will be nirvana. That line may be helpful, although it can also be misleading. Nirvana means going beyond all concepts, even the concepts of no self and impermanence. If we have nirvana in no self and in impermanence, it means that we are not caught in no self and impermanence as ideas.

Nirvana

Impermanence and no self are not rules to follow given to us by the Buddha. They are keys to open the door of reality. The idea of permanence is wrong, so the teaching on impermanence helps us correct our view of permanence. But if we get caught in the idea of impermanence we have not realized nirvana. The idea of self is wrong. So we use the idea of non-self to cure it. But if we are caught in the idea of non-self then that is not good for us either. Impermanence and no self are keys to the practice. They are not absolute truths. We do not die for them or kill for them.

In Buddhism there are no ideas or prejudices that we kill for. We do not kill people simply because they do not accept our religion. The teachings of the Buddha are skillful means; they are not absolute truth. So we have to say that impermanence and no self are skillful means to help us come toward the truth; they are not absolute truth. The Buddha said, “My teachings are a finger pointing to the moon. Do not get caught in thinking that the finger is the moon. It is because of the finger that you can see the moon.”

No self and impermanence are means to understand the truth; they are not the truth itself. They are instruments; they are not the ultimate truth. Impermanence is not a doctrine that you should feel you have to die for. You would never put someone in prison because they contradict you. You are not using one concept against another concept. These means are to lead us to the ultimate truth. Buddhism is a skillful path to help us; it is not a path of fanatics. Buddhists can never go to war, shedding blood and killing thousands of people on behalf of their religion.

Because impermanence contains within itself the nature of nirvana, you are safe from being caught in an idea. When you study and practice this teaching you free yourself from notions and concepts, including the concept of permanence and impermanence. This way, we arrive at freedom from suffering and fear. This is nirvana, the kingdom of God.

Extinction of Concept

We are scared because of our notions of birth and death, increasing and decreasing, being and non-being. Nirvana means extinction of all notions and ideas. If we can become free from these notions we can touch the peace of our true nature.

There are eight basic concepts that serve to fuel our fear. They are the notions of birth and death, coming and going, the same and different, being and non-being. These notions keep us from being happy. The teaching given to counteract these notions is called “the eight no’s,” which are no birth, no death, no coming, no going, not the same, not different, no being, no non-being.

Ending Notions of Happiness

Each of us has a notion of how we can be happy. It would be very helpful if we took the time to reconsider our notions of happiness. We could make a list of what we think we need to be happy: “I can only be happy if…” Write down the things you want and the things you do not want. Where did these ideas come from? Is it reality? Or is it only your notion? If you are committed to a particular notion of happiness you do not have much chance to be happy.

Happiness arrives from many directions. If you have a notion that it comes only from one direction, you will miss all of these other opportunities, because you want happiness to come only from the direction you want. You say, “I would rather die than marry anyone but her. I would rather die than lose my job, my reputation. I cannot be happy if I don’t get that degree or that promotion or that house.” You have put many conditions on your happiness. And then, even if you do have all your conditions met, you still won’t be happy. You will just keep creating new conditions for your happiness. You will still want the higher degree, the better job and the more beautiful house.

A government can also believe that they know the only way to make a nation prosper and be happy. That government and nation may commit itself to that ideology for one hundred years or more. During that time its citizens can suffer so much. Anyone who disagrees or dares to speak against the government’s ideas will be locked up. They might even be considered insane. You can transform your nation into a prison because you are committed to an ideology.

Please remember your notions of happiness may be very dangerous. The Buddha said happiness can only be possible in the here and now, so go back and examine deeply your notions and ideas of happiness. You may recognize that the conditions of happiness that are already there in your life are enough. Then happiness can be instantly yours.

Reprinted from No Fear, “No Death: Comforting Wisdom for Life,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Thich Nhat Hanh