At its most basic level, Buddhism is about recognizing the things we have in common. That isn’t so we can step back and understand the universe or make a chart of how reality works—it’s so we can establish true empathy with others. It’s so we can see others as ourselves.
When I talk about Buddhism’s three seals, then, it’s usually in the context of how we see others. When we see dukkha, our chronic feeling of being unsatisfied, we extend the teaching to acknowledge that everyone feels this way—all the time. Why is that person cranky today? Why did that driver cut me off? Because they feel somehow off, just like I do. They may not see it that way, and they probably don’t see it as a universal and constant aspect of being human, but they just don’t feel right. If we understand this quality in ourselves, we can be gentle toward it in others.
Impermanence, the second seal, becomes a lens for seeing how everyone is experiencing change—and loss. We give people space to evolve and grow, understanding that they can’t possibly stay the same. And we keep in mind that because impermanence applies to everything and everyone, the person across from you is struggling with that. Just like you, there are things they don’t want to change, things they don’t want to let go of. On that simple level, we’re always experiencing some stage of loss—maybe denial, or bargaining, or acceptance. We can allow them to grow, and we can allow them to grieve.
The third seal, non-self, is a reminder that no one is acting alone. We don’t think, speak, or act in a vacuum—we are influenced by our past, by the people around us, by loss, by weather, by diet, by pollen, by trauma, by hormones. Maybe we have phobias but don’t know why, or we have longings that we can’t simply will away. Everyone you meet is their parents and their friends and their country and something that happened to them in elementary school and what they ate for breakfast. That doesn’t mean people aren’t responsible for their actions—they are. But we can appreciate that they might not know why they do what they do; in all likelihood, they don’t see their own big picture. And that’s hard.
Looking at others through these lenses is a powerful, sometimes-heartbreaking, lifelong practice. But in cultivating all that empathy for those around us, in laying that foundation for compassion, we can forget the other side: these teachings are also about us. We can turn that same lens on ourselves and see what we are trying to see in others. I experience dukkha. I don’t always see things as they are; I see them as I want them to be. That’s something to be explored, but it’s also just being human. I experience impermanence. The ground beneath me is never stable, and that can be frightening—I am always trying to find that solid ground. And I am always losing something. I experience non-self. When it rains, I don’t feel so great. I am connected to people across space and time whom I’ve never even met; their heartache, in a way, is my own. Sometimes I don’t really know who I am. The practice says to dig into that, but that doesn’t make it less scary.
In a tradition so deeply invested in developing compassion for others, we need to remember—then keep reminding ourselves—that really, there are no others. Whatever this practice teaches me about myself, it teaches me about you; whatever I see in you, I must also see in myself. In this way, I can make space for you. I can respect how hard it might be for you. I can forgive you. And then I can do the same for myself.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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