“Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or ‘seals.’ If all these four
seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the
Buddha.” People often ask me: “What is Buddhism in a nutshell?” Or they ask,
“What is the particular view or philosophy of Buddhism?”
Unfortunately, in the West Buddhism seems to have landed in the religious
department, even in the self-help or self-improvement department, and clearly
it’s in the trendy meditation department. I would like to challenge the popular
definition of Buddhist meditation. Many people think meditation has something
to do with relaxation, with watching the sunset or watching the waves at the
beach. Charming phrases like “letting go” and “being carefree” come to mind.
From a Buddhist point of view, meditation is slightly more than that.
First, I think we need to talk about the real context of Buddhist meditation.
This is referred to as the view, meditation and action; taken together, these
constitute quite a skillful way of understanding the path. Even though we may
not use such expressions in everyday life, if we think about it, we always act
according to a certain view, meditation and action. For instance, if we want to
buy a car, we choose the one we think is the best, most reliable and so on. So
the “view,” in this case, is the idea or belief that we have, that is, that the car
is a good one. Then the “meditation” is contemplating and getting used to the
idea, and the “action” is actually buying the car, driving it and using it. This
process is not necessarily something Buddhist; it’s something we’re doing all
the time. You don’t have to call it view, meditation and action. You can think of
it as “idea,” “getting used to,” and “obtaining.”
So what is the particular view that Buddhists try to get used to? Buddhism is
distinguished by four characteristics, or “seals.” Actually, if all these four seals
are found in a path or a philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether you call it
Buddhist or not. You can call it what you like; the words “Buddhist” or
“Buddhism” are not important. The point is that if this path contains these four
seals, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.
Therefore, these four characteristics are called “the Four Seals of Dharma.”
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about.
Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists
think, “This is all suffering.”
All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the
ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.
The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.
Without these four seals, the Buddhist path would become theistic, religious
dogma, and its whole purpose would be lost. On the other hand, you could
have a surfer giving you teachings on how to sit on a beach watching a sunset:
if what he says contains all these four seals, it would be Buddhism. The
Tibetans, the Chinese, or the Japanese might not like it, but teaching doesn’t
have to be in a “traditional” form. The four seals are quite interrelated, as you
The First Seal: All Compounded Things are Impermanent
Every phenomenon we can think of is compounded, and therefore subject to
impermanence. Certain aspects of impermanence, like the changing of the
weather, we can accept easily, but there are equally obvious things that we
For instance, our body is visibly impermanent and getting older every day, and
yet this is something we don’t want to accept. Certain popular magazines that
cater to youth and beauty exploit this attitude. In terms of view, meditation
and action, their readers might have a view—thinking in terms of not aging or
escaping the aging process somehow. They contemplate this view of
permanence, and their consequent action is to go to fitness centers and
undergo plastic surgery and all sorts of other hassles.
Enlightened beings would think that this is ridiculous and based on a wrong
view. Regarding these different aspects of impermanence, getting old and
dying, the changing of the weather, etc., Buddhists have a single statement,
namely this first seal: phenomena are impermanent because they are
compounded. Anything that is assembled will, sooner or later, come apart.
When we say “compounded,” that includes the dimensions of space and time.
Time is compounded and therefore impermanent: without the past and future,
there is no such thing as the present. If the present moment were permanent,
there would be no future, since the present would always be there. Every act
you do—let’s say, plant a flower or sing a song—has a beginning, a middle and
an end. If, in the singing of a song, the beginning, middle or end were missing,
there would be no such thing as singing a song, would there? That means that
singing a song is something compounded.
“So what?” we ask. “Why should we bother about that? What’s the big deal? It
has a beginning, middle, and end—so what?” It’s not that Buddhists are really
worried about beginnings, middles or ends; that’s not the problem. The
problem is that when there is composition and impermanence, as there is with
temporal and material things, there is uncertainty and pain.
Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death,
impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a
relief! I don’t have a BMW today and it is thanks to the impermanence of that
fact that I might have one tomorrow. Without impermanence, I am stuck with
the non-possession of a BMW, and I can never have one. I might feel severely
depressed today and, thanks to impermanence, I might feel great tomorrow.
Impermanence is not necessarily bad news; it depends on the way you
understand it. Even if today your BMW gets scratched by a vandal, or your best
friend lets you down, if you have a view of impermanence, you won’t be so
Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are
impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just
intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed,
narrow-minded belief in permanence. Everything, whether you like it or not—
even the path, the precious Buddhist path—is compounded. It has a beginning,
it has a middle and it has an end.
When you understand that “all compounded things are impermanent,” you are
prepared to accept the experience of loss. Since everything is impermanent,
this is to be expected.
The Second Seal: All Emotions are Painful
The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means
“contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or
Certain emotions, such as aggression or jealousy, we naturally regard as pain.
But what about love and affection, kindness and devotion, those nice, light and
lovely emotions? We don’t think of them as painful; nevertheless, they imply
duality, and this means that, in the end, they are a source of pain.
The dualistic mind includes almost every thought we have. Why is this painful?
Because it is mistaken. Every dualistic mind is a mistaken mind, a mind that
doesn’t understand the nature of things. So how are we to understand duality?
It is subject and object: ourselves on the one hand and our experience on the
other. This kind of dualistic perception is mistaken, as we can see in the case of
different persons perceiving the same object in different ways. A man might
think a certain woman is beautiful and that is his truth. But if that were some
kind of absolute, independent kind of truth, then everyone else also would
have to see her as beautiful as well. Clearly, this is not a truth that is
independent of everything else. It is dependent on your mind; it is your own
The dualistic mind creates a lot of expectations—a lot of hope, a lot of fear.
Whenever there is a dualistic mind, there is hope and fear. Hope is perfect,
systematized pain. We tend to think that hope is not painful, but actually it’s a
big pain. As for the pain of fear, that’s not something we need to explain.
The Buddha said, “Understand suffering.” That is the first Noble Truth. Many of
us mistake pain for pleasure—the pleasure we now have is actually the very
cause of the pain that we are going to get sooner or later. Another Buddhist
way of explaining this is to say that when a big pain becomes smaller, we call it
pleasure. That’s what we call happiness.
Moreover, emotion does not have some kind of inherently real existence. When
thirsty people see a mirage of water, they have a feeling of relief: “Great,
there’s some water!” But as they get closer, the mirage disappears. That is an
important aspect of emotion: emotion is something that does not have an
This is why Buddhists conclude that all emotions are painful. It is because they
are impermanent and dualistic that they are uncertain and always
accompanied by hopes and fears. But ultimately, they don’t have, and never
have had, an inherently existent nature, so, in a way, they are not worth
much. Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely
futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana
meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the
obsessions we have because of them.
Question: Is compassion an emotion?
People like us have dualistic compassion, whereas the Buddha’s compassion
does not involve subject and object. From a buddha’s point of view,
compassion could never involve subject and object. This is what is called
I’m having difficulty accepting that all emotions are pain.
Okay, if you want a more philosophical expression, you can drop the word
“emotion” and simply say, “All that is dualistic is pain.” But I like using the
word “emotion” because it provokes us.
Isn’t pain impermanent?
Yeah! If you know this, then you’re all right. It’s because we don’t know this
that we go through a lot of hassles trying to solve our problems. And that is
the second biggest problem we have—trying to solve our problems.
To be continued…..