Defining Buddhism: The 4 Seals of Dharma
Category: Buddhist Path
The four dharma seals of Buddhism (hallmarks of Buddha’s teachings)
There are certain philosophies that are fundamental to Buddhism. Among these is the teaching of the four seals of dharma. These four truths are essential to Buddhist teaching. If they’re not supported, or if they are contradicted, you know you’re not listening to an authentic Buddhist point of view.
What is a ‘seal’ in Buddhism? We might think of these four fundamental principles of Buddhism as ‘seals of approval’ because without this stamp, the teaching is not Buddhist. In another sense, consistent meditation practice leads us to direct experience of the nature of the seals, thus ‘sealing’ our own personal understanding of these teachings as markers of truth. Once we have developed this insight, it cannot be forgotten or undone. We can explore these truths further in the teachings of the abhidharma, or higher doctrine of the Buddha.
Because they describe the true nature of reality, the seals are also referred to as four marks of existence, four insights, or four wisdoms. They are related to the four noble truths but are more characteristics of reality rather than a description of the path.
The four dharma seals of Buddhism are as follows:
All Conditioned Things Are Impermanent
Everything that exists in our reality is a conditioned thing. If it was created, built, and made of parts, it can be broken down into parts, disassembled, or dissolved. This includes our personal belongings, our pets, entire ecosystems and our own bodies and minds. These things are all changing right now.
At times, it’s easy for us to accept that all things are impermanent. At one level, we understand our new car will someday be old. But when we turn the key and our car doesn’t start, we get angry! In that moment, we’ve forgotten the truth of impermanence.
Remembering impermanence frees us from this type of suffering. But this remembrance isn’t about dwelling on inevitable collapse, it’s also a positive thing. It’s a good thing that change is inevitable, because it means things can change for the better, and no matter how deep is our suffering at the moment, it will come to an end.
All Contaminated Things Are Suffering
Our own mistaken view of reality is what makes something contaminated. What do we mean by contaminated? Everything we look upon is stained by our judgment and the mistaken belief that things are separate from us. Our likes and dislikes lead to attachment or aversion, triggering strong emotions and harmful reactions, which creates a veil around what is real.
Another way to translate this is that ‘all contaminated things are unsatisfactory.’ Nothing we label as existing outside ourselves, separate from us, can provide us with contentment. Even that which gives us pleasure, will eventually change, run out, or fade away.
This second seal thus helps explain the four noble truths. Suffering is avoidable if we see things as they really are, without contaminating them with our expectations or misconceptions. So, in what way then, do things truly exist? That brings us to the third seal.
All Phenomena Are Empty Of Self
Things exist, they just don’t exist the way we think they do. We continually mistake things as being permanent and unchanging. We view things (and people) as if the subject and object are not dependent on each other. But this is a mistake.
When we investigate this point of view with deep awareness meditation, we discover we’ve been wrong! All things are empty of existing in just one way. Everything we perceive is dependent on the perceiver, even our own self.
At first, we catch glimpses of this truth. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. We remember this, then we forget. (Everyone must agree that my coworker is annoying! He exists in no other way!) But with continued, deeper meditation, we’re able to hold this view all the time. When our habit of solidifying things that aren’t solid comes to an end, nirvana—the cessation of suffering—is revealed.
Only Nirvana Is Bliss
Nirvana is something that’s not conditioned. Nirvana just is. It always has been, and it always will be. Nirvana does not exist outside of ourselves, somewhere else, over there, but is right here, right now. We recognize nirvana when we experience awareness of the first three seals. It’s only then we experience true, unchanging peace, freedom from suffering and bliss. In Buddhism, bliss is defined as the experience of selflessness—the experience beyond our own egos—which is by definition ineffable, but can indeed be experienced.
What would it be like if in every waking moment, we were never separated from the truth that all things were changing? If we never forgot that our own mistaken world view is the cause of our pain? What if we had the courage to let go of this view and make space for the possibility that all is perfectly suited for awakening, just as it is? Realizing these truths of existence is the meaning of the truth, the Dharma as taught by the Buddha.
Nirvana is a concept that’s beyond conceptualization. But by meditating on the four seals, we can sense its truth. To realize the four seals through the body and mind, versus intellectually, is to become unshakably grounded and at peace, despite what happens to us or around us. The resulting contentment is bliss.