One Of The Three “Dharma Seals” That Buddha Taught & What The Human Race Can Learn From It

A large part of the appeal of Buddhism for an increasing number of people today is its practicality, as it has a relative lack of extraneous philosophical fluff to sort through. Buddhism focuses on practical truths that we can use and which make immediate sense.

One of the key teachings of the Buddha is that the origin of suffering (dukkha) lies in desire or grasping (tanha, which means literally “thirst”). The Great Discourse on the Wheel of Dharma (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) contains a succinct statement on the second Noble Truth, which is the origin of this teaching:

And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — that is, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

What Lies Beyond Space & Time?

I have read and heard time and again in recent years about a deeper reality that lies “beyond space and time,” often with some tie to modern physics to support this assertion. A Google search brings up many relevant examples. There is of course a similar tendency independent of the Buddhist tradition, with many Christian and scientific thinkers also trying to ascertain truths or hidden realities that are “beyond space and time,” that is, truly permanent, changeless.

This tendency seems to me to be a resurgence of the type of grasping that Buddha warned about in the second Noble Truth; in particular, the third type of craving, for “non-becoming.” That is, by trying to identify, or by placing one’s identity with, a supposed reality beyond space and time we perpetuate the grasping for permanence that Buddha pointed out was harmful for an accurate understanding of reality and for our well-being.300x250 ad

“Non-becoming” is permanence and the quest for permanence is a common form of grasping. But if we take not only Buddhism, but also modern science seriously, we see that all things are impermanent. This means that there is nothing beyond space and time. Some kind of existence beyond what we know of as space — our traditional three dimensions — is entirely conceivable, sure. But if all things are impermanent there is nothing beyond time. To be impermanent means to be in time, to change, to be in constant flux.

The teaching of impermanence (anitya) was one of the three dharma seals that Buddha taught. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, writes of this teaching in his The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings: “The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent — flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent.” If nothing is permanent, nothing is beyond time. All is flux. This key insight has many parallels in the West.

“Process philosophy” is a western school of thought that stretches back to Heraclitus in pre-Socratic Greece. As the name suggests, process philosophy is all about change/process/the passage of time. In Alfred North Whitehead’s version of process philosophy, which he developed into a detailed, profound yet speculative worldview, “events” are the basic units of reality. An event is a happening, a chunk of space and time. The universe is nothing but the collection of events in each moment, constantly fluxing and bending into the next moment as the future becomes the now and the now becomes memory. My book, Eco, Ego, Eros is a good introduction to Whitehead’s thought.

Focusing on the spiritual and ontological implications of this historical philosophical tradition, some modern thinkers have attempted to create a smooth combination of eastern and western ideas that directly matter to our lives — rather than being relegated to the halls of academia and dusty bookshelves. “Evolutionary panentheism” is one name for this relatively new approach, spearheaded by people like Mike Murphy, Ken Wilber, and Andrew Cohen. The name is a bit unwieldy but effectively descriptive, stressing both change (evolutionary) and the view that the universe is within God (panentheism) and not a separate creation.

Andrew Cohen suggests that his approach, an expansion of traditional Vedanta teaching that he received from his master H.W.L. Poonja, is a new teaching that incorporates a broader understanding of the nature of perpetual change. God, the ground of being, or whatever you prefer to call ultimate reality itself, does change. God evolves in a dance with the universe that flows from this ground of being. Cohen stated in an interview with me from 2011: “As touched as I had been by awakening to the unborn Self beyond time and space, I had never been able to accept the assertion that the world was an illusion. Not only did I believe that the world was real but I also came to give much greater value to Spirit’s power to affect change in the world than its power to liberate us from it.”

He adds that “the goal of traditional enlightenment, to put it simply, is about transcending the world and experiencing freedom from it. The goal of the new Evolutionary Enlightenment is about creating the future.”

Cohen himself may be a good example of evolutionary spirituality due to the controversy over his teaching style and conflicts with his students and colleagues, which prompted a recent public apology letter two years after he was asked to step down from his leadership role in the community that he began. Cohen, as with all of us, is a work in progress and has hopefully learned much from his own tribulations. (In another interview, with Carter Phipps, a former colleague of Cohen’s at EnlightenNext magazine, Phipps and I explore what it means to be an “evolutionary,” as Cohen describes himself.)

What Do We Do With The Understanding That All Things Are Impermanent?

As the Buddha himself emphasized, by understanding impermanence we automatically reduce grasping, which reduces suffering because of the frustrations that grasping inevitably brings. We accept that all things change and in this acceptance we learn to surf through life a bit more gracefully than is the case when we are constantly grasping for permanence, for solid foundations. The only solid foundation we can find is the truth of the lack of solid foundations. So, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps the only truth that won’t change over time is the fact that all things change over time.

The new conversation in spiritual circles is the degree to which our focus should be on an extra-physical reality — the “world is an illusion” conception of reality — or on a participatory universe in which we are all literally co-creating reality in each moment. Process philosophy and my own preferences fall squarely in the latter school of thought.

The balance we should aim for in our lives is to seek healthy goals (for ourselves and society more generally) but accompany that striving with the grace that understanding impermanence brings. Achieving anything in life requires effort and intention. Yet we can bring our efforts and intentions on worthy goals without unhealthy attachment and without grasping. Rather, we dance, we surf, we glide through life without the anger and suffering that are the more obvious manifestations of frustrated grasping. This is as good a definition of grace as any I know of.

The final irony perhaps is that by approaching life without grasping we are more likely to achieve those worthy goals that we do set for ourselves.

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54 comments
  1. You are grasping my dear little grasshopper.

    …and you think you are achieving what..

    NO THING is eternal and changeless. You are NO THING. BEING IS NO THING.

    Awareness is beyond the grasp of the restless mind ( bound with time, with desire for credibility and a side of thought & logic addiction).

    1. No thing is process, flux, change, my friend. That’s the point of “no-thing-ness.” Yes, I am nothing, as you are nothing. We are not things, we are processes. Awareness is a process.

      1. It’s ironic that calling it nothing, actually makes it something. I guess we need our labels to describe why our labels are immaterial 🙂

    2. Awareness is not a process.

      You are confusing the changeless with things that are in movement.

      On things:Human beings are cycles, but what makes you think you are a human being is not human.

      1. Of course awareness is a process. Awareness can have no role in the world or in our minds if it is not in process. To be is to be in time.

        1. Of course awareness is not a process.

          Why do you believe (and what/who made you think) that to have a “role” something must be a process?

          Why can’t you BE unbound by time( which is mind made)?

          1. Because to have a role is to do something (any thing) and to do anything requires duration, which is to be in time. I suspect we’re simply using the words “time” and “existence” in different ways.

          2. You are still talking about THINGS and the mind made state of time.
            Only the mind assigns “roles” labels and defines.
            What about the role -less awareness?
            What about awareness?
            You said it to Do( being in time) NOTHING requires no duration/time.

            Existence (being alive bound by time) is not the only state.
            Why does the Absolute whole complete beyond time and space need to” Do” ?

  2. Naw my passionate possum .

    The future never becomes the now.
    How could it -it is only imagination in the mind.

    The now never becomes the past.
    Past is just a memory in the mind.

    The past and future only exist in the mind.
    You are beyond the mind.

    The NOW is.

    1. Is the now not always changing? The now becomes the past and the future becomes the now. We only exist in the present but part of our present is an imagined future and a remembered past. So, yes, future and past only truly exist as part of each our present moments, but the appropriate way to think of the less-than-real-but-not-entirely-unreal existence of the past and future is to envision a moving present, a moving now, that enfolds the future in each moment as new nows are created, and each moment leaves the past behind it as it transforms into a new moment. This process is the same in every corner of the universe, from the lowliest subatomic particle upwards.

      1. NO The NOW does not change.
        It is the content (or appearances) that are always changing.
        The past and future are only in your mind.
        There is not multiple NOW’s there is only one NOW .
        There is a different state to being present/the now and to observing a mental state of imagining or remembering.
        The present does not move- it is your mind that is moving .It would not be the present/Now if it moved (into past or future), and that is what makes it special.

        1. I disagree and it’s pretty easy to check empirically that the now is always changing. If you assert that the NOW is something different than the contents of your consciousness and the process that produces consciousness (whether that be physical or metaphysical) then you are simply asserting your own definition that is beyond debate. I respect your choice but if we are being rational and not simply relying on a faith-based approach then we need to look a little deeper. When we do that we see that literally all things change because all things are not things but processes, including the very ground/ocean of being. This is what the Buddha was getting at and this truth reverberates even more forcefully today. Once we accept this truth of impermanence you gain some liberation.

          1. No the NOW does not change.
            Things that arise in the now change.
            The present is always now (and not changing to the past or future).
            All THINGS change but awareness is not a THING.

          2. Empirical shmerical .

            The Now never changes (and is not to be confused with content arising in the now) .

      2. Our perception of time, is also unfortunately another illusion. If we were 4th dimensional beings, time would become a dimension along which we can move at will. One thing that we CAN cling to, is that even though our experiences pass and we can’t hold on to anything for long- the state in which we did have it still exists in the past, even though we can’t yet access it again.

      3. I understand what the guy you were arguing with was saying and I think I could word it better. He considers the present, not to be your current perception of reality and the thoughts in your head. He considers the present to be the awareness itself.

  3. When you are in deep sleep are you aware of any past,present or future, are you aware of any movement,any sound or any change at all? No. Only when your body wakes up and the mind arises again do you imagine these things to be. They are all the daughters of a barren woman. In truth they cannot be said to exist. they are all projections on the screen. The projections may appear to move but the screen is still. The projections may appear to change but the screen is changeless and the projections may appear to make a noise but the screen is silent. Changeless,motionless silence. Existence,consciousness bliss. This is the now that Cohen was referring to.The now that you speak of my dear Tam, the change you speak of, the process you speak of are all just projections on that changeless,motionless silent screen. This is the truth…to know it is to be free, to deny it is bondage,delusion and suffering.

      1. The “Right on!” was to Jonathan.
        He gets it.
        You my brother Tam does not get it (yet):)

    1. Jonathan, the screen may seem still but it’s not. It too is always changing. Just as a screen in our physical world is impacted with every photon that it receives, and just as a mirror is impacted by every photon it receives, the screen and the mirror are slowly changing in time. So, all things change because things are not things but processes. All is process and this is easily verifiable empirically. Assertions about timelessness rely on intuition alone and, in my view, a grasping toward a timeless reality beyond our actual reality where all is in time. This intuition of timelessness is, I feel inaccurate, and one of Buddha’s major breaks with the traditions of his time was to highlight the truth of impermanence. We’ve forgotten that lesson it seems, and my point here is to try and revive that lesson and tie it to similar insights in western philosophy and science. The ground of being changes with the physical reality it produces in an ongoing dance of creation where all levels of reality are perpetually intertwining and growing from this embrace.

      1. Siddhartha Gautama last known quote was “impermanent are all living things,strive on with awareness”the goal in life I believe is to reach enlightment through improving one’s positive energy to the highest levels possible,which I believe is achieved thru meditation or finding one’s zone & reaching it as often as possible.most people live their lives to distracted in society’s demands of materialistic wealth to ever understand this sense of inner peace.

  4. I think all the sincere opinions are valid and will be created accordingly. The perception Tam is onto is leading edge thought. Th “now” philosophies are still valid and right for some.

    1. Opinions are just opinions.

      The changeless state is not a philosophy.
      Making an (mis)interpretation of the big B’s quotes out of context is not cutting edge as it has been done for yonks.
      “Let me tell you what it means….”

      Turning what is not into what is is a philosophy common at this time of thinkers (of “reputed” & popular “thinkers” that at this time of though obsession are treated as many as rock stars and though to be “leading edge”).

      Turning the NOW into a process (confusing it with past future) is a common mistake ( a mistake that is even made by others that have traveled for more than 25 yrs).

      Namaste Origami Suduke
      XXX

      1. Halley, words are imperfect tools. A timeless ground of being can do nothing and it certainly can’t create the reality we experience. So the ultimate reality is very much in time, in order to create and interact with the reality of space and time as we experience it.

        1. Words are just pointers.They can point to the truth or not. In our case they create misunderstandings.

          The timeless ground of being can do nothing???!!Oh dear me I disagree.

          What do you believe creates the reality you experience? If you were not and had no Being could your experience/existance?

          Is your idea of what reality is outside your mind?

          What if reality was beyond your mind?
          Timeless:)

          1. Hailley, how can that which is beyond time do anything? Doing requires time. This is my point: the idea of timeless reality is a poetic description of what we must describe, if we’re being more literal than poetic, as that which is so vast and deep that it is “as if” it is beyond time. But it’s not really beyond time b/c if it were really beyond time it couldn’t do anything at all.

          2. Tam you ask “How can that which is beyond time do anything?”

            Why does that which is not bound by time need to “Do” anything?
            What does the Absolute/Reality need to “do” when complete/changeless/timeless?

            The NOW is not an object .
            Not something (or an object) that needs to DO something.

    2. Thanks Hadley. To clarify, I very much agree that only the now is real. Where I disagree with some, in this discussion and elsewhere, is over the “outside of time” concept of the now. Of course, the now is time, a constant flux of now, now, now, as the contents of our consciousness changes in each moment. And this is the same process for every element of reality. The traditional Hindu idea of a timeless reality beyond the familiar space and time has been part of a very long debate between Buddhists and others. My understanding of the Buddha’s message and many other co-thinkers, as well as my experience of deeper levels of reality, is that it is all in time. Certainly change slows down to the point where it seems that the ocean of being couldn’t possibly change at its deepest depths. But even there there is a tiny frisson of creativity, of passion, of love, that keeps even the deepest deeps churning a little.

      1. The idea of a timeless reality( the ultimate) beyond space and time has been part of a very long disagreement… that continues here and now.

        The Absolute is not dependent on time and space.

        1. Yes, one of Buddha’s key points of disagreement with the views of his day (as best we can tell from what sketchy records we have of the Buddha) was the degree to which all things are impermanent. Let me ask you this: how can that which is beyond time interact in any way with that which is in time?

      2. Your whole argument rests on your assertion that there is not the NOW .

        You incorrectly believe that there are he multiple NOWS moving in time( mixing up the mind made past and future with the only ONE NOW).

        Your experience (and experience of other thinkers you respect ) is of time.

        I am suggesting you have not experienced the timeless state.

        1. Shiva, one can’t experience a timeless state, by definition. Experience requires time. To exist is to be in time.

          1. It is beyond time and is not an experience -unless you think about it (in time)and there are no words to explain it only to negate it timeless, changeless…

            I am agreeing with you -YOU have not experienced the timeless state beyond mind and time.

          2. Shiva, responding to your 9:45 PM comment. You are now contradicting yourself. Previously you stated that “you have not experienced the timeless state.” Then you state that “it” is beyond time and space and “is not an experience.” So which is it?

            I have dropped into what felt like a timeless state on a few occasions, and when my consciousness reintegrated I could paint some kind of picture of that experience. But when I was not there, there was no experience. So these kinds of experiences can offer us little to no clues about the ontology of the ocean of being. Rather, we must use the best empirical facts of deep experience, altered states, etc., plus rigorous logic to determine the contours of this deeper reality. The bottomline is that for anything/any entity/any process/any level of reality to have any interaction with our reality of space and time it must also be in time. Because to have an interaction requires being in time. Any action requires being in time.

          3. I am agreeing with what you previously told me -you have not experienced the timeless state. Experience is in time.

            But you will find accusing me that it is you that is are the one contradicting yourself you say ” I have dropped into what felt like a timeless state on a few occasions”.
            But when I told you I had experienced the timeless state you then denied my experience( it was experience as I was remembering it with my mind in time -I was not in the timeless state )

            You are now also confusing action with the timeless state.

            The action less/changeless/timeless would not require time now would it Mr smarty pants.

            The NOW is, time is an illusion you cannot find the past or future anywhere it is mind made.

  5. “No image of self, no image of person, no image of being, No image of a liver of life.” Hui-neng

  6. The changeless state is not an opinion. True. But your perception of it is. As is the opinion that worthy opinions come from older travelers. Is there a benefit from your perception that trumps another. If someone felt powerless and ready to end there life but stopped because (insert “wrong” perception) of heavy metal music or “now” philosophies or Christianity, it would still be the next correct baby step in their expansion. Tam’s outlook speaks to me and I will buy his book.

    1. @Hadley Yes I agree its meaningless just because someone traveled for 25yrs and thinks their opinion is like a fine wine (better or superior).

      Wisdom does not come from thinking.

      “Is there a benefit from your perception that trumps another?”
      Is there a benefit to having a perception unclouded by fear and desire?

      Are we now discussing expansion because that is a new bag (and is not possible without contraction).
      “Every grain of sand is where it is suppose to be. ”

      Peace & Love

  7. There is no permanence to time. Therefore the NOW is constantly changing. It is changed by time and the impermanence of all things in the stages of being, which is in constant flux.

    1. It is not the NOW that changes but what appears or arises in the NOW that changes.

      .

      What appears and arises ( the contents of consciousness)in the Now is in flux, while the Now itself remains uneffected/unmoved/changeless.

  8. Don’t we seem to be having a Desire to know just how now “now” is? And having a Fear of not being right or understood? Accepting the now as timeless has not launched anyone beyond desire and fear. We might as well accept that in this life, in this human form we are part of time. Meditation is a wonderful tool. Both have there place. All truth has an opposite truth/paradox

    1. Have you found (and do you know )”All truth” that you can say that All truth has opposite ?

      “Knowing yourself” as not separate from the eternal/timeless has launched someone beyond desire and fear.

  9. I am basically saying there is no universal one size fits all truth. Find it, start your website about it and you will find many gurus agreeing and disagreeing. I prefer finding my own truth which is also changing. Not changing so much that yesterdays truth is obsolete but changing to make room for new truths that add to the whole. I like what Tam is advocating because it makes desire desirable while still respecting the importance of presence

    1. Your changing ideas, thoughts and concepts are not the Truth.
      You are confusing words (as pointers) for the truth.

  10. The main purpose of relinquishing grasping and the self ego is for us to be able to tap directly into the ‘source’ energy. With that, we will no longer have thirst or desires of any sort because once you are connected with the ‘source’ or what some call ‘the collective cosmic consciousness’ (真如本性), you will become everything and be 100% satisfied all the time. There are many types of religions in this world, you can think of the mainstream ones as licensed fund managers – you pay them a small fee(soul) and they help you grow your soul at a maybe 5% – 6% annual rate. It means you must follow their teaching and use up your soul at a reasonable rate. However, there are the so called vulture funds out there which go for fast return but charges a big fee and may also cause you to loose everything. Then there are also the dark and dangerous ‘ponzi schemes’ which thrive on getting members to recruit more members so that the structure can have sufficient souls to be fed to the up-lines or senior members.
    Buddhism is different because it seems to teach the students to be fund managers so they can manage their own funds. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that other religions are not good, we need a variety of services to cater to people with different needs and taste.

  11. True. Whoops! I mean…pointer. I think by being alive you will grow some soul regardless of any religion. Sell your t.v. and up the %. Spend time in nature. Or find what you feel works. No one size fits all.

  12. I leave you with this. Had Tam chose the laws of gravity to question would enlightened protesters type on there science made machine and say gravity is an illusion. Ultimately I beleive it is an illusion but we are here for a reason. In this life we will respect our current level of enlightenment explore this world spiritually and scientifically

    1. If you believe time is an illusion now then Ultimately we agree.
      (No Buts,,, isn’t that what the “protester types” say?)

      Aio

  13. If someone strikes out to make a positive mark in the world of science by linking a new scientific outlook at time with gods world of signs pointing the way to new discoveries that you and I don’t mind utilizing then parade them on

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