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
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.” They are:
- 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 will see.
The First Seal:
All Compounded Things are Impermanent
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 don’t accept.
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
“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 worried.
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
Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means
“contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by
confusion or duality.
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
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
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 independent existence.
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 mahakaruna—great compassion.
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
The Third Seal:
All Phenomena are Empty; They Are Without Inherent Existence
Buddhists we practice compassion, but if we lack an understanding of
this third seal - that all phenomena are empty - our compassion can
backfire. If you are attached to the goal of compassion when trying to
solve a problem, you might not notice that your idea of the solution is
entirely based on your own personal interpretation. And you might end up
as a victim of hope and fear, and consequently of disappointment.
You start by becoming a “good mahayana practitioner,” and, once or
twice, you try to help sentient beings. But if you have no understanding
of this third seal, you’ll get tired and give up helping sentient
There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding
emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists.
Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are
not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to
meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side
effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do
whatever I like.”
So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for
our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the
bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of
not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads
us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our
You can read millions of pages on this subject. Nagarjuna alone wrote
five different commentaries mostly dedicated to this, and then there
are the commentaries by his followers. There are endless teachings on
establishing this view. In Mahayana temples or monasteries people chant
the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra - this is also a teaching on the third
Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world
is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind
that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In
Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana - from
the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread - everything is emptiness. There
is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth.
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness, which is something beyond description?
Rinpoche: Buddhists are very slippery. You’re right. You can never
talk about absolute emptiness, but you can talk about an “image” of
emptiness - something that you can evaluate and contemplate so that, in
the end, you can get to the real emptiness. You may say, “Ah, that’s
just too easy; that’s such crap.” But to that the Buddhists say, “Too
bad, that’s how things work.” If you need to meet someone whom you have
never met, I can describe him to you or show you a photograph of him.
And with the help of that photo image, you can go and find the real
Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking,
it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our
world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has
to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I
can tell you why things don’t exist inherently.
Question: In Buddhism there’s so much iconography that you might
think it was the object of meditation or an object of worship. But, from
your teaching, am I to understand that this is all non-existent?
Rinpoche: When you go to a temple, you will see many beautiful
statues, colors and symbols. These are important for the path. These all
belong to what we call “image-wisdom,” “image-emptiness.” However,
while we follow the path and apply its methods, it is important to know
that the path itself is ultimately an illusion. Actually, it is only
then that we can properly appreciate it.
The Fourth Seal:
Nirvana is Beyond Extremes
that I have explained emptiness, I feel that the fourth seal, “Nirvana
is beyond extremes,” has also been covered. But briefly, this last seal
is also something uniquely Buddhist. In many philosophies or religions,
the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final
goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated,
so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond
We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better
sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana
where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is
there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that
we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is
achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a monk or a nun who has renounced
worldly life or you are a yogi practicing profound tantric methods. If,
when you try to abandon or transform attachment to your own experiences,
you don’t understand these four seals, you end up regarding the
contents of your mind as the manifestations of something evil,
diabolical and bad. If that’s what you do, you are far from the truth.
And the whole point of Buddhism is to make you understand the truth. If
there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were
true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to
recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to
his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true,
what is real.
When you have a clear understanding of these four seals as the ground
of your practice, you will feel comfortable no matter what happens to
you. As long as you have these four as your view, nothing can go wrong.
Whoever holds these four, in their heart, or in their head, and
contemplates them, is a Buddhist. There is no need for such a person
even to be called a Buddhist. He or she is by definition a follower of
This article is based on a talk by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,” given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.