Most traditions of Buddhism recognize the existence of the “three Seals of the Dhamma“—statements about the nature of things that are true “whether a Buddha (an enlightened being) appears in the world or not”. These are:
Sabbe sankhara dukkha
Sabbe dharmana anatta
Sabbe means “all” or “every”. Sankhara is that same difficult word we were exploring in our examination of the five khandas—the components of experience that comprise what we are. In the context of the Dhamma Seals, the word refers to phenomena that can be broken down into component parts, i.e. almost everything we experience in our daily lives. The translation I suggested for sankhara as one of the khandas was “distinguishing”. In the context of the Dhamma Seals, I would propose “distinguishable phenomena” as an acceptable translation. (As I suggested in class, a very good one-word translation of sankhara in both contexts might be “stuff”.) Dhammana refers to all things whatsoever—not only phenomena that are distinguishable via the mechanisms with which we shape experience (perception, cognition, consciousness, the sense organs), but also the component elements of those phenomena that are too minute, too momentary, too vague to be distinguishable. Anitta means “without permanence”. We’ve spent a lot of time on dukkha: “stress”, “suffering”, “unsatisfactoriness”. And much of our last class was spent on the notion of anatta: without essential Self-nature, without permanent identity.
So, to my understanding, the Dhamma Seals mean:
Nothing we experience can deliver lasting satisfaction.
Nothing whatsoever can be distinguished—absolutely, finally, unambiguously—from everything else.
The Dhamma Seal statements appear in Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada, a magnificent anthology of verses dealing with the Buddha’s Path. Each of the statements is presented as an aphorism, and each is followed by the same message: “When you can understand this with deep insight, then you will no longer be deluded by the ways of the world, and you will be on the path to independence.”
The final verse of Chapter 20 makes another statement, which has sometimes been asserted as the “fourth Seal” of the Dhamma: “santam nibbanam“—peace is to be found in nibbana. And that, of course, brings in what I have come to believe is the single most difficult and most widely misunderstood technical term in Buddhist doctrine, and the term that will form the theme of our next class.
There are a lot of translations of the Dhammapada on the web. Two good ones, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Acharya Buddharakkhita, are on the Access To Insight website. There is an exceptionally graceful new translation by Gil Fronsdal; you can hear him read a couple of chapters at the Sutta Readings website.