The Three Dharma Seals

By Sister Annabel Laity (Chan Duc, True Virtue) 

photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Sister Annabel Laity offered this Dharma talk at the 21-Day Retreat: Vulture
Peak Gathering on June 20, 2016, in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Respected Thay, dear Sangha,

Tomorrow some of us will have to go home from the retreat. We may already have some ideas of how we are going to practice when we are home.

Already a subscriber? Log in

You have read 5 articles this month.

For only $3 per month or $28 per year, you can read as much as you want!
A digital subscription includes unlimited access to current articles–and some exclusive digital content–released throughout each week, over thirty years of articles in our Dharma archive, as well as PDFs of all back issues.


By Sister Annabel Laity (Chan Duc, True Virtue) 

photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Sister Annabel Laity offered this Dharma talk at the 21-Day Retreat: Vulture
Peak Gathering on June 20, 2016, in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

Respected Thay, dear Sangha,

Tomorrow some of us will have to go home from the retreat. We may already have some ideas of how we are going to practice when we are home. Or maybe we think we don’t need to have any ideas about how we’re going to practice, because we know that what we’ve already been practicing here will continue when we go home. That we call the non-practice practice. You don’t have to think about it; it just comes naturally. I have been doing the non-practice practice of the non-toothache. It just comes naturally. I don’t know how many days more it will become natural for me, because I have had a bad toothache for two days, and yesterday the dentist was able to remove the toothache, so now I am feeling very happy not to have a toothache. I don’t have to practice in order to feel that happiness. Somehow my brain just feels happy not to have a toothache. But in a few days’ time, my brain won’t feel happy about the non-toothache anymore. It will think having a non-toothache is something normal; it’s not worth feeling happy about.

There are so many things in our life that we don’t feel it’s worth feeling happy about, and it is the role of our mind consciousness to be able to remind our self of what we can feel happy about in the present moment. The fact that I have two eyes that are working—I have an optic nerve, which is getting into touch with the other parts of my brain, and this can bring me so many wonderful forms and wonderful colors at any time that I open my eyes—is something very precious and really worth feeling happy about. 


We can also use our past suffering in order to feel happy. In Plum Village we say, “The three times inter-are.” The three times are the past, the present, and the future. In some schools of Buddhism, they say that all the times exist: the past exists; the present exists; the future exists, but they exist separately. In Plum Village, the three times exist, but they exist in each other. The future and the past are in the present. So when I feel the happiness of the non-toothache, that happiness is also there because of the past. The past and the present inter-are.

So we practice when we remember a very difficult or not-so-difficult situation that we were in. Now we’re not in that situation, we immediately feel happy. You may be lying on your bed unable to sleep, and you think, “How miserable this is, not being able to sleep,” but then you remember when you were on a flight to Australia, and you had to sit up all night and it was very unpleasant. You just wished for one thing: “If only I could lie down.” And now you’re lying on your bed and you don’t feel happy. The suffering of the past can make you happy in the present moment. 

The present and the future also inter-are. One time I said to a sister, “What are you doing here? You should be in the Dharma sharing now.” She said, “I’m cutting wood to store up for the winter.” I knew what she meant because I remembered a Dharma talk when Thay told us that you don’t wait until the snow is on the ground in order to cut the wood and bring it in. You do that in the autumn or in the summer. You find a dead tree and you cut it down, you bring it in, you chop it up, and you have it ready to light the fire when it’s cold in the winter. Thay said that practicing happiness in the present moment is like that. It’s like preparing yourself for a time when things will be difficult. My sister knew that she had come to a point in her life where things were going to be difficult, and so instead of going to the Dharma sharing, she was practicing walking meditation, enjoying the autumn leaves. She thought that was the best way to store up the wood for the future.  

One of the four Plum Village Dharma Seals is: “The three times and the two truths inter-are.” When you touch the present deeply, you touch the whole of the past and the future. In December last year, my mother died, and at first I used to think, “Oh, my mother’s not there anymore, and I a little bit regret that she’s not there,” but when I looked deeply I could touch my mother in the present in myself and in others. After someone we love has died, we can be in touch with him or her if we want to. If you say to yourself, “Oh, that person is dead, there’s no way they can be present in my life anymore,” then you cut yourself off from the presence of that person who really wants you to be there for them.

photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

The Buddha gives a very good example. There is a merchant who lives with his only son in a village, in a little house, and one day the merchant has to go on a journey to sell his wares. He leaves his son at home in the house, and while he’s away, bandits come. They pillage everything and then set light to the village. When the merchant comes back, he goes to the place where his house used to be, and in the charred remains of the house, he sees the remains of a child who’s been burned and immediately he thinks, “This is my boy who has been burned.”

He feels tremendous grief. He gathers up the remains and he makes a cremation ceremony and then puts the ashes in a pouch, which he wears around his neck. He continues to grieve his son, and he believes that anything that is left of his son must be inside that pouch. That’s all that’s left, the ashes he carries. And one night, late at night, he’s sitting, grieving for his son, and he hears a knock on the door and he says, “Who’s there?”

His son says, “Daddy, it’s me. Let me in.”

He’s very annoyed. He says, “Young boy, don’t play jokes on me. My son is dead.”

The son knocks on the door again and says, “Daddy, it’s really me. Please let me in. I want to come home.”

The father says, “Go away. Don’t play jokes like that.”

The third time he knocks on the door, the father sends him away. The boy gives up. He doesn’t want to try anymore. The son had not died in the fire; the son had been captured by the bandits, and he’d escaped and he’d come back. His father missed the opportunity to have his son.  

We think that we would not be so foolish like that, but in fact, we say that someone we love has died, we can’t find them anymore. There are ways to find them. We have to play a game of hide-and-seek in order to find the one that we think we have lost, but in fact we haven’t. Of course your loved one is always in you. You don’t have to go very far in order to be able to find him or her.  

Thay always gives us a wonderful example. It’s the example of the pot of tea. You make a pot of tea; you pour the water on the tea leaves and you enjoy the fragrant tea. You can enjoy many cups of tea from one pot of tea, but after a time, you need new tea leaves because all the tea to be drunk has been used up. You throw away the old tea leaves. Those tea leaves are like the ashes that the man carried in the pouch. What about the tea that has been drunk and the tea that we can still drink? We forget about that. We just grieve because the tea leaves can’t give us any more tea.

The practice of “The three times inter-are” helps me when I look back over my own life. Sometimes you have done things in the past that you regret, and you think that there’s nothing you can do about this. But in fact, the past is still there in the present and you can do differently in the present. You don’t have to do as you did in the past. That is a way of healing the past, by the way you act in the present. It is like you’ve done something in the past, and it has walked away from you, and then you do something else which is like the opposite of what you regret you did in the past, and it catches up with the other thing and they embrace each other, and they inter-are. 

The teaching of interbeing is a wonderful teaching. It is like a key that can help us overcome our perceptions, our usual, normal way of looking at things. When we can overcome those perceptions, we can heal our self, we can transform, and we can be liberated. 


There is a monk called Chanda. At this time the Buddha has passed away. Chanda takes refuge in the elders in order to learn about the teaching. He has a deep desire to be liberated and he wants to hear the teachings, which can liberate him. He’s living in the Deer Park, in Sarnath. In the early morning he gets up, he locks up his hut, he goes off with the key, looking for the elders. He looks for them in the bamboo grove and on the walking meditation paths. He asks them what are the teachings that can liberate him. They say something like, “All formations are impermanent. All Dharmas are without a separate self. Nirvana is peace.”  

He goes to one and then he goes to another, and everybody tells him the same. When he has heard these teachings, he thinks, “I’m not really happy about this. I don’t feel really liberated, because there must be a person who’s going to be liberated, and these teachings don’t tell who is the one who’s going to be liberated.”

He’d been told about a really good teacher, Ananda. Ananda had been the attendant of the Buddha, so he must have heard everything the Buddha taught, and he was the repository of all the good teachings. So although he is quite a long way away in the Ghoshita Park in Kosambi, Chanda decides that he will go there to ask his question to Ananda. Ananda is a very good teacher, and the first thing he notices when Chanda comes to him and asks the question is that Chanda lacks a little bit of self-confidence.  

Chanda says, “I’ve heard this teaching that all formations are impermanent; all Dharmas are without a separate self; nirvana is peace. But I don’t feel happy about it, because who is it who is going to feel the peace, is going to realize nirvana?”

Ananda says that he is very happy with the monk Chanda because he is honest and speaks out exactly what he feels, so it’s sure that he can become enlightened. So Ananda will give him the teaching. The teaching that Ananda gives is, word for word, the teaching that we have in the Discourse on the Middle Way, about Right View. In that teaching the Buddha says something like, “People in the world are caught in the view of being and the view of non-being. That is because they have all kinds of latent tendencies and they grasp to dualities. The Buddha teaches the Dharma that goes in the Middle Way, that is neither being nor non-being. He also says that when somebody is able to give up grasping to the ideas of being and non-being, he no longer clings to or believes in a separate self.”

The idea that I have a separate self is really the key to Chanda’s problem: who is this “me” who is going to become enlightened? The Discourse on the Middle Way is to remove all ideas about a separate self. The example that the Buddha gives in the Discourse on the Middle Way is that when the conditions and causes are right, suffering arises, and when the causes and conditions are not right, then suffering is no longer there. You do not have a self that suffers; you do not have a self that ceases to suffer. You just have the suffering. This is the Dharma Seal of no self.  

The monks were teaching the Three Dharma Seals, but Chanda could not accept them because he couldn’t understand no self. No self is difficult for us to understand because from the day we were born, from before we were born, we already had the idea, “I am a separate self.” In our language every day we talk about “me” being a separate self. 

The Three Dharma Seals are not just dogma to talk about; they are things we have to practice in our daily life. We need to practice the samadhi on impermanence, no self, and nirvana. Samadhi is concentration. The concentration is what we need. When Chanda was listening to Ananda’s Dharma talk, in which Ananda was repeating the Buddha’s Dharma talk, Chanda was very confident that he could be liberated. He therefore had a good concentration and just in the Dharma talk, he was able to see the truth of interbeing. It was the truth of interbeing that helped him to realize no self. He saw that when the causes and conditions for liberation are there, then there is liberation. When the causes and conditions for liberation are not there, liberation ceases. 

There is another sutra. In Chinese, it’s called The Discourse on the Great Emptiness, and in Pali, it’s called The Ending of Ignorance. In this sutra, the Buddha is talking about old age and death. The Buddha asks, “Who is it who grows old, and who dies? If you can answer that question, you will be liberated from old age and death.” When I have a toothache, I have to ask, “Who is it who has a toothache? Who is it who has pain?” When I look at that question, I answer, “There is a toothache.” The toothache has causes and conditions, and as long as the causes and conditions are there, the toothache is there. But I cannot find anyone who has a toothache. 

The same thing is true with getting old. Who is it who gets old? Normally we say, “I am getting old, he is getting old,” but when we look deeply, we cannot find someone who’s getting old. Who is it who dies? You say, “I die,” or “He dies.” If you look deeply, you cannot find that “I,” you cannot find that “he.” But you can find death. It’s very easy to find a toothache. The pain is very clear; it’s really there. But the “I” who has the toothache is very difficult to find. So this practice is on the samadhi on no self. It’s something that we can practice at any moment in our life.  

The same is true of happiness. You say, “I am happy.” “I am sad.” The happiness is very clear. You can feel it deeply. The sadness is also very clear. But who is the “I” who feels happy? It’s very difficult to find.


This morning I really enjoyed the guided meditation we had before the Dharma talk. It’s a little bit about no self. “Breathing in, I am breathing with the Sangha. Breathing out, I smile.” I hope that when I’m on my deathbed, there will be one person or two people who are there, breathing with me. I can say, “I’ll stop breathing quite soon, but they will continue to breathe.”

When we do the meditation, “Let the Buddha breathe; I don’t need to breathe,” we practice: There is only breathing. There is no one breathing. This is a way that we practice in our daily life to remove the idea of a separate self. 

When we came to the part about smiling, I thought, “Oh. Then when I’m on my deathbed, I can smile,” not only because I can smile now, but because I have a good example. One of my spiritual ancestors, Su Ba The Thanh in Vietnam, came into touch with the teachings of Plum Village, the teachings of Thay. They transformed her life. She practiced that meditation, “Breathing in, breathing out, deep, slow, smile, release.” And it brought her so much joy, so much transformation, and took her through many difficult times because she also used to do a lot of social work, and the Communist government didn’t allow her to do the social work she wanted to do.  

She was very ill and she knew she was going to die. But she had no fear of dying. She wanted very much to come to Plum Village and she said, “Never mind, in a few days I’ll be able to go there because when I die I will be free to go anywhere.”  

She really practiced, “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” She said to her disciples, “It is sure that when I die I will be smiling, and please take a photograph of me smiling, and send it to Thay in Plum Village because he will then know how effective the meditation is.” We received a very beautiful photograph of Su Ba lying in the lion posture, like the Buddha when he passed into nirvana, and smiling after she had passed away. 

I also enjoy chanting with my brothers and sisters because it helps me to be in touch with no self. I don’t know if you, who are sitting there, feel that you are no self when we do the chanting, but we who are standing up here, we are meant to be practicing to feel no self. To feel: you are there and therefore I am here. And at that moment I feel very free. I can chant with all my heart, but there is no self chanting. There are my brothers and sisters alongside me; they are part of the chanting too. You who are sitting down there, you are also chanting with your listening. If there were no listeners, there would be no chanters. If there were no chanters, there would be no listeners. Sometimes it’s a little bit difficult for us to be in touch with our no self. That is why we really need to practice the concentration on impermanence. The concentration will help us to be in touch with no self.

You are changing at every moment, but not only you are changing at every moment. This Dharma hall we are sitting in is also changing at every moment. One day, when it falls to the ground in a hundred years or two hundred years, that will be the result of the fact that it’s changing now. One day, when you lie down on your deathbed, that will be part of the fact that you are changing now. Impermanence means changing at every moment.

There are two kinds of impermanence. There is the impermanence that is changing every instant, and there is the impermanence that is called periodic, or cyclical, impermanence, when you suddenly see that person has changed, that person is no longer alive, that person has grown old. That is something we see with our eyes, but it’s not the only kind of impermanence. When we practice the meditation, the samadhi on impermanence, it is something that we do throughout the day, to see that we are not the same person as a moment ago. The person eating breakfast and the person giving the Dharma talk are not the same. When you’re eating breakfast you may say you are the eater, and when you are giving the Dharma talk you may say you are the speaker. You have a feeling that that “I” had the toothache, and this “I” who has the non-toothache are the same “I.” But that’s only a feeling that you have. They are not the same.  


There is a passage that is often repeated in the sutra. You can read it in the Samyutta Nikaya, in the 22nd chapter about the skandhas, the Khanda Samyutta.

This passage says, “Monks, is the body permanent or impermanent?”

The monks said, “Impermanent.”

And then according to this sutra, the Buddha said, “If the body is impermanent and subject to change, is it suffering or happiness?”

The monks said, “Suffering.” 

Sometimes the body has pain, it’s true, but for instance, you do total relaxation and the body feels so happy, or you go for a swim and your body feels so happy. 

The Buddha then asked the same question about feelings, whether they are permanent or impermanent and suffering or happiness.

The monks said that if they are impermanent, they are suffering. But we know that many feelings are happy feelings. Impermanence is something wonderful. It makes life possible. This orchid is beautiful because it’s impermanent. Because we know that it won’t always be like that, we really are in touch with its beauty. 

To say that impermanence is suffering is strange. Impermanence is a Dharma Seal. It is a fact of life. Life is only possible because of impermanence. It isn’t suffering; it isn’t happiness. Sometimes it leads to feelings of suffering; sometimes it leads to feelings of happiness. We are the ones who are responsible for our feelings of happiness and suffering. When things are impermanent, if we suffer, we can transform our suffering into happiness if we know how. Impermanence cannot be made the cause, the blame, for our suffering. We are to blame for our suffering. 

The building we’re in is impermanent but you cannot say that this building is suffering; you can’t say it’s happiness either. What happened is that suffering was inserted here in the sutra between impermanence and no self. I don’t know when, but probably after the Buddha passed away, the monks and the laypeople needed to keep doing the practice, and they knew that suffering is one of the main causes that makes us practice. When we suffer, we really feel motivated to practice. So they have to keep reminding themselves all the time, “This is suffering, this is suffering,” so that they practice in order not to have to suffer.

Suffering became very important and so it was inserted in places that the Buddha probably never taught. We have to look deeply when we read something in the sutra and not assume that because it has been handed down it is what the Buddha said. 

If we remove the reference to suffering here, we have a very cogent argument between impermanence and no self.

“Monks, is the body permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, World-honored Lord.”

“Is what is impermanent and constantly changing a separate self?”

“It’s not a separate self, World-honored Lord, because how can you call a self something that is always changing?” A self is something that has to have an identity. The “I” has to have an identity, but the “I” of yesterday is not the “I” of today.

This is a very logical thing to say: contemplating impermanence, we are able to be in touch with no self. We can use this teaching in our daily life to liberate ourselves from suffering.

Sister Annabel Laity (Chan Duc, True Virtue) was born in England and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, and in India in 1988, she was the first woman from the West to be ordained as a nun by Thay. She became a Dharma teacher in 1990 and now leads meditation retreats and gives talks throughout the world. She is the Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

Log In

You can also login with your password. Don't have an account yet? Sign Up

Hide Transcript

What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

00:00 / 00:00
Show Hide Transcript Close
Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!