A reader called Sean sent this one to me yesterday.
It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.
He’d seen Jack Konfield attributing it to the Buddha, and wondered if it was Jack’s own paraphrasing of some statement on the three lakkhanas (Pali) or lakshanas (Sanskrit). These are statements that say that anything that’s fabricated is impermanent and unable to give lasting peace and happiness, and that all things whatsoever are not oneself.
As it happens however, this is canonical. It’s found in the Anguttara Nikaya, which is the Numerical Sayings of the Buddha. It’s from the Sīha Sutta (Discourse on the Lion).
In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation this same passage is:
It seems that we are actually impermanent, though we thought ourselves permanent; it seems that we are actually transient, though we thought ourselves everlasting; it seems that we are actually non-eternal, though we thought ourselves eternal.
The people saying these words are gods, who in Buddhism are not immortal, not creators, and not objects of worship, but simply long-lived and joyful beings who live in a kind of parallel dimension. Being long-lived and blessed with happiness, the gods tend to forget about death. As a result, they don’t think much about living life wisely and meaningfully. Here’s a longer quote from the sutta to put the gods’ words in perspective:
When a Realized One arises in the world—perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed—he teaches the Dhamma: ‘Such is identity, such is the origin of identity, such is the cessation of identity, such is the practice that leads to the cessation of identity.’
Now, there are gods who are long-lived, beautiful, and very happy, lasting long in their divine palaces. When they hear this teaching by the Realized One, they’re typically filled with fear, awe, and terror. ‘Oh no! It turns out we’re impermanent, though we thought we were permanent! It turns out we don’t last, though we thought we were everlasting! It turns out we’re transient, though we thought we were eternal! It turns out that we’re impermanent, not lasting, transient, and included within identity.’
That’s how powerful is the Realized One in the world with its gods, how illustrious and mighty.
So this one is verified as been scriptural. I like this sutta because it applies the formula most often associated with the four noble truths to the question of identity-view — the concept that we have some kind of metaphysical self. There is a delusion of self, there are causes for that, there is a cessation of that delusion, and there’s a path leading to that cessation.