The Four Seals are sometimes also called the 'Four Keys of the Buddha's teaching'.
The first seal: All composite things are impermanent,
The second seal: All that is tainted entails suffering,
The third seal: Realization is Peace
The fourth seal: All phenomena are devoid of independent entity.
These are closely related to the Four Noble Truths of the Deeply Realized:
1. The truth of suffering,
2. The truth of the origination of suffering
3. The truth of cessation of suffering
4. The truth of the path.
1. All Composite Phenomena Are Impermanent
Anything produced by causes and conditions is impermanent, not only in the sense that it must at some time terminate but also in the sense of its moment-by-moment transformation. The end of birth is death, the end of good is bad, the end of bad is good, the end of togetherness is separation, the end of creation is destruction and the end of composition is decomposition. Because it is always like that, Milarepa says:
'Impermanence, impermanence, There is nothing that has lasting essence!'
Nothing in samsara has a heart, an essence. This is vividly exemplified by the banana tree - when its first skin is peeled away there is another skin, when that skin is peeled there is another, and so on. Eventually one reaches the centre: the tree is hollow - there was nothing more than the skin. In samsara, nothing is any more than illusion and, because it is like that, everything is impermanent yet nevertheless we still see things and then believe in them as 'I' and 'mine'. How the illusion can be taken for real is exemplified by rivers and flames. When we look at the river from a bridge, we see its ripples, current and motion. If we go back the next day, we will see the same thing; even after a year it still looks the same. Actually, since the river is composed of flowing water, it never stays still for even one second and the water we looked at yesterday has long since gone down to the ocean, yet we look today and say it is the same river as yesterday. The lamp-flame is dark at its centre, then reddish, then yellow and then again red. It is shaped like an arrow-head. Once again, although it always seems more or less the same, it never does stay the same for even an instant yet we look at it and say 'the' flame. In a similar way to these easy-to-understand examples, everything that we see, hear and feel, is not permanent, even for a second. Moment by moment there is impermanence.
How then should we approach impermanence? Impermanence is not something beyond hope - it is, in fact, full of hope. The Bodhisattva Shantideva, in his text called the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, says:
"...using the vessel of this precious human existence we can cross the mighty river of samsaric suffering".
To cross a river we need a boat and to cross samsara's river the precious human existence is the only 'boat' of real use. Therefore within the impermanence of samsaric illusion, the impermanent but precious human existence is very valuable. Milarepa says:
"In life there is no time to be wasted because life is full of destruction".
Billions of potentially destructive elements are always awaiting the chance to affect our lives and for that very reason life is said to be like a water-bubble or a lamp in a draughty window - fragile, unpredictable. From the very instant of birth, death has begun and it will be very difficult after death to gain another life like this. The precious human life arises as a result of former causes and conditions that were extremely virtuous. Because of that, this life could lead one from suffering to great happiness. It is very valuable but impermanent; easily destroyed. Therefore we should not waste it but make the fullest use of the opportunity and wealth it offers. Not only life, but all things, are impermanent.
2. All That Is Tainted Brings Suffering.
There are many ways of understanding this point. Any negative fully-completed (karmically consequential) action is obviously tainted, but even a positive fully-completed action is tainted if it is carried out for selfish motives. More subtly, even positive, fully-completed actions for the benefit of others are tainted if they are accompanied by dualistic thought. The suffering that such tainted actions entail can be approached on many levels. Here we will consider three levels of suffering: 'suffering-suffering', the suffering of change and inherent suffering.
Fully-enacting negative causes will produce suffering-suffering such as birth into the hell-states with their tortures of heat and cold. Fully enacting positive causes which are selfish will produce the suffering of change, that is, a limited kind of happiness. The happiness is produced by the positiveness of the cause but even if it endures for a million years it must eventually change into suffering. A fully-enacted positive action (even if it is very, very good) that is accompanied by the notion of duality can never lead to final liberation because the seed of suffering, the ego, remains. While that is still there then suffering is inherent, inevitable. How does this seed of suffering work? If we consider the practice of generosity or right conduct, then there is a distinction to be made between generosity and the paramita of generosity; between right conduct and the paramita of right conduct, and so on. Just generosity or just right conduct is good but dualistic - a 'good' opposed to 'bad' wherein the opposite of stealing is generosity and the opposite of lying is to tell the truth. Such goodness is tainted goodness, tainted because there is still some ignorance.
When we talk about ignorance, there is a puzzle to be solved; the puzzle of samsara's origin. Many people ask me the question (which I find very reasonable), "How could samsara have ever begun?" They think this will leave me speechless! But there is much to be said. It is the illusion of ego which is the beginning, the very source of the twelve links of interdependence. The first of these links is ignorance, ignorance in the sense of not seeing, not knowing, the 'as-it-isness'. That is the beginning of everything. That which is not 'I' is held as 'I'. Since there is no 'I' then there is no 'mine', yet we believe in 'I' and 'mine'. Everything stems from that point - ignorance. When did it happen? - always, each and every second. Whatever is a pleasant illusion for the 'I', we seek. Whatever is an unpleasant illusion, we try to escape or avoid. In this way, all kinds of subsequent incarnation, the extension of our present existence, are created for us to experience later as results.
The continuum of incarnation each minute, each day, each year, becomes incarnation life to life; from human to animal, animal to ghost, ghost to hell, hell to god-realm, god-realm to human and so on. Up to down, down to up, it is always turning like a circle, the circle of the life-dream. Life continues as a circle of reincarnations but the Buddhist teachings will never say that reincarnation, or anything else, has true existence. In that sense, when people say, "There is no good result of virtue...bad result of non-virtue", then I definitely agree. It is so true! But then I must ask the person who says that, "Do you feel happy when things are going well for you? Do you get upset when they go badly? Do you ever make mistakes?" There is only one answer to those questions. The way things appear and the way they really are - are different. We do not yet have enough genuine understanding to see the 'as-it-isness' - the ultimate wherein there is neither happiness nor suffering and likewise no reincarnation. We just see the relative wherein there is happiness and suffering, reincarnation, virtue and non-virtue. It is very simple - they are just there. Reincarnation - the cycle of samsara - is nobody's experience. It is not something created by anybody's will. It is just the experience of obscured karmic consciousness. Ignorance was the first link, the perpetual incarnation that it caused was the second link, and now the resultant obscured karmic consciousness is the third link.
Because of that consciousness, good and bad karma will be accumulated. As the universal law of karma is activated, then birth takes place; birth into a specific realm determined by the causes and conditions that have interacted. The specific experiences of that life-situation are also determined by causal conditioning, thus giving the fourth link called name and form. 'Name' means communication and 'form' refers to the physical aspect. Mind is joined to body and speech.
Then follows the fifth link: when the karma is fully blossomed there is completion of the senses. The degree of completion will depend upon the karma; for instance, those who do not have the karma to possess eye-consciousness will be born blind. Through the completion of the senses there arises the sixth link - contact with the various sense-objects. This contact will be either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. After this arise feelings-the seventh link: one detests the unpleasant and appreciates the pleasant, and then there is automatically the eighth link - attachment. The attached mind then tries to take or possess the object of its attachment; this grasping is the ninth link. Through the taking of what is desired and the rejection of the unwanted, there is the tenth link - becoming and this ends in birth, the eleventh link. Through birth there is the subsequent old age and death and this twelfth link completes the circle. Reincarnation is not something difficult to understand. Yesterday's person and today's person are basically the same and in a similar way, the person of this life and the person of the next life is also basically the same.
Any action which is tainted (whether negative, selfish or dualistic) is not free from the first link, the darkness of ignorance, the notion of 'I'. This is why we say that all that is tainted is suffering. 'Suffering' does not necessarily mean that one's eyes need be full of tears - some people even cry when they are happy! Here 'suffering' covers both suffering itself and the causes of suffering. When explaining this, the Buddha taught that ordinary beings are like the palm of the hand - which cannot feel the touch of a small hair resting upon it. Extraordinary beings are like the eye - sensitive to a hair or even a tiny speck of dust. This means that for ordinary beings duality is not a major issue; we cannot feel the distraction of duality We can feel the result of duality's negativity, which is like pouring hot water on the palm of the hand but the presence of duality itself is like the hair to which we are insensitive. When we do reach a certain level of realization then the object of our practices, of purification and clarification, is duality itself since it is the seed of all suffering. At that time duality becomes clearly manifest. It can be seen and understood and, like the hair in the eye, clearly felt.
3. Realization is Peace:
This is the third seal. 'Realization' does not mean something new or extra. It means full accumulation and full purification. When there is nothing further to be accumulated or purified, one realizes the ultimate truth, of oneself, by oneself. That understanding is incomparable to any other understanding or realization.
How does such realization come about? It is with us all the time, just as are our own faces. Ignorance is also not something other than us, it is not a new thing. When we realize - that is wisdom. When we do not realize - that is ignorance. One may well wonder, "If this ultimate truth is with us all the time, how is it possible not to realize it?" It is very possible. None of us in all his lives has ever seen his own face. He may have seen a picture or a mirror-image but never directly the face itself. I am twenty-seven and have never seen my face nor will I see it until I die or achieve realization.
The vision of the essence of the mind is obscured by ignorance: because of 'I-and-other' ignorance we cannot see it. When we do first see the nature of the mind we realize that it is something completely other than the self. This is how it is from the first to the tenth profound Bodhisattva levels. The realization at that stage is a subject-object realization and that is the real difference between the Mahabodhisattvas and the Buddhas, because Buddhas' realization completely transcends subject and object. It has nothing at all to do with them. I cannot describe this. No one can describe it. All we can do is actually achieve realization and that in itself is the experience, the explanation and the realization, beyond terminology and duality. All we can say just now is 'realizes itself by itself just as it is'.
How can we start to work towards such realization? Even though everyone has it within, and it is something very absolute, we must start in a very down-to-earth way, on the relative level, by removing the obstacles which block realization - basically desires, aversions and ignorance. Satisfaction is the remover, the purifier, of desire. Loving-kindness is the purifier of anger, and knowledge and wisdom are the purifiers of ignorance.
The understanding of satisfaction has many levels and as one progresses through these levels then desires diminish. Ordinary human nature knows very little satisfaction. A poor person, for instance, may think, "If only I had somewhere to sleep, something to eat and something to wear - that would be quite enough"...but when he actually gets those things then he starts thinking, "Well, this food I have tastes pretty bad - I would prefer something a little tastier. These clothes are so poor - I would like something better to wear. This place where I sleep is so cold - I need somewhere warmer to sleep". So he gets better food, shelter and clothing but still continues thinking, "It's O.K.. but I still need more comfortable things". Everything must be bigger and better, and once one has the same as the others in the village, one thinks, "I want to be the best in the village", and once one is the best in the village then, "I must be the best in the whole country" and in this way even if one becomes the richest person in the whole galaxy, the mind is still empty. It is more or less like that for everyone.
Through cultivating satisfaction, loving-kindness and knowledge and wisdom, we need to purify and remove all the obstacles on a very down-to-earth level dealing with them one by one, step by step, until we are free of suffering-suffering, the sufferings of change and the inevitable suffering, truly ridding ourselves of duality, which will eventually free itself by itself. This is the way in which realization develops.
Realization is Peace. As soon as we are satisfied there is peace; we can enjoy what we have. When we have loving-kindness there is peace, and when there is knowledge and wisdom, we abide in peace. If, from now onwards, we develop step by step towards the peace of realization, which transcends peace and suffering, then eventually after realization I think you will understand the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya.
The way in which Realized Beings help others does not involve effort; if there is effort then they are not Buddhas. They do it through their very nature, their essence, which is the full realization of everybody's essence and so their benefit is always there for everyone. It is not at all the sort of situation where suffering beings pray to them, they then become so deeply moved that they want to help and then they help; never, never like that. Were it like that, all beings would have already become Buddhas, since Sakyamuni Buddha achieved enlightenment over two thousand five hundred years ago and that would have been too long a time for him to be asleep.
When our trust, devotion, diligence and moral discipline are not correct and co-ordinated, the benefit of the Buddhas or of the Transmission Lineage cannot come to us. If there is a seed then the ground must be warm and wet in order for it to grow. If it is not, how could it ever grow? A dry seed left on a table would produce nothing, even if left for ten years. Likewise a pot must be turned the right way up in order for it to hold its contents. One could pour nectar into an upturned pot for ten years and not a drop would enter. In a similar way to these examples, the teachings of the Buddha which would lead from peace to greater peace, do not work by the Buddha making effort and saying, "I want to help all beings". The teachings of the Buddha are like a lasso, not the ordinary sort of lasso with a noose that catches animals but a nooseless lasso that one must catch and hold onto. Then it will pull one away. Or like a trap; not an ordinary trap that works by force but an open trap that one is in if one wants to be freed from suffering and the causes of suffering. But if one wants to suffer or do something else, then that trap can never trap one because it does not work by force or of its own will. It only works through the voluntary power of devotion and compassion.
When within the Madhyamaka view we speak of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya and their activity, we should understand them to be free from duality. When we say that Realization is Peace, the Peace beyond peace, then the benefit of such Realization is in the path - the path which leads from peace to Peace.
4. All Phenomena Are Devoid of Self-Entity
This is the fourth seal. Self has two main aspects: the beings' self and the things' self. We could say the animate self and the inanimate self. The first of these, the animate self, concerns 'I' and 'mine'. When we say 'I', we are deluded. It is illusion. Through reason and logic this can be easily proven since for 'I' to exist it would have to have independence and be constant but since 'I' is a very dependent and relative thing, then as such it cannot have true existence. The interdependent way in which 'I' arises is just illusion and since 'I' is not here then 'mine' cannot exist either. This is all dealt with in great analytical detail in philosophy.
The no-self-entity of phenomena mainly shows the absence of self-entity (unitary, independent existence) in spatial and temporal phenomena, by analysing the smallest supposed units of substance and likewise the smallest units of time. Since there cannot be a shortest time (which would have to be an indifferentiable instant without duration), then how can there be longer true time composed of sequences of those shorter time units? If this is correct, then how did everything start and what does time mean? Similarly with particles: if the smallest particle were really the smallest then it would follow that it would be partless and directionless without inner, outer, back or front, and so on (had it these aspects then it would be divisible and hence not the smallest particle). Without such parts it can have neither dimension nor size and hence no existence. It would take a long time to expound this fully in a technically accurate way, since it comprises the whole Madhyamaka philosophy. In the Madhyamaka this understanding is developed through analysis of four main aspects: cause, result, cause and result together and the general. These analyses give rise to what are known as the four great tenets of Madhyamaka which are like its alphabet. Knowledge of that alphabet is the key to all Madhyamaka language.
Thus, in the ultimate truth there is no 'I' but in the relative truth 'I' exists. Because there is 'I' then the Buddha also teaches that there are no phenomena which are not interdependent. 'I' exists as a dependent phenomenon in a relative, conventional world. When 'I' create a good karmic accumulation, the good result comes to 'me', not someone else. When 'I' study it is 'I' who become well-educated. On the relative level there is nothing which is not dependent and so there is definitely an 'I'. On the ultimate level, precisely because everything is interdependent, then nothing has true existence as its essence. Everything depends upon something else and so nothing has solid independent existence. For this reason it is said that there is not anything which is permanent.
What is the outcome of all this? In one way it all seems confused yet it is not confused or confusing at all. As we train in Madhyamaka, we learn about the ultimate and relative levels of truth and how these must be understood very clearly without ever being mixed-up or confused. We are on the relative level following a path which leads to the ultimate. That ultimate is our essence, our view. The one who adopts that view and understands it is the relative person. This is why it is said in the mystical songs known as doha, that:
In this universe, this world, which is illusion,
The illusory practitioner travels the illusory path
To obtain the illusory result.
This means that according to the ultimate view, the relative is illusory, but nevertheless we who are in the illusion must try to progress, to attain realization by ridding ourselves of the obstacle of illusion. In order to eliminate these obstacles, we first have to create better illusions and remove the bad illusions.
When controlled by desire, aversion and ignorance, there is no possibility of us achieving realization. They must be removed by dropping anything which might constitute a cause or condition for their growth or development. Simultaneously, the causes of the positive must be cultivated. Thus we must stop killing and preserve life - this results in longer life. We must stop lying and tell the truth - this results in good respectable speech and environment, and so on.
All these things are positive but they are not the main thing because they are still illusion and to get rid of the illusion we must meditate, taking advantage of the good speech and healthy life to really get free from duality. An example of how this works is given by the sun, the clouds and the wind. Even when the weather is very cloudy the sun is always there. In order to remove the clouds there must be a strong wind and then the sun will be seen but still its full heat and vitality will not be felt because of the effect of the wind. The wind itself has become the obscuration and that is the next thing to be removed. We must first create a better illusion which gets rid of the worse one and then later remove the better illusion with the wisdom of non-duality.
The most important point in this brief explanation of the four seals or the four keys of Dharma is that both the relative and ultimate be included in our basic view. If one does not accept both in the basic view then it is not easy to grasp the essence of the Buddhadharma since all the teachings are based upon this twofold approach.
How can we apply this to our practice? Sometimes we are happy, sometimes unhappy. These teachings do not mean that when we feel happy we should tell ourselves, "Oh, it's nothing - just emptiness" nor does it mean that when we are miserable we should think, "Oh, it's nothing, I have to suffer". We will still suffer and be happy just like everyone else, but we should do so in the light of the understanding that happiness and suffering have no solid existence, no true existence - they are just like an illusion, an experience, a dream, and so there is no point in trying to avoid them by developing aversion towards them.
We need to try to avoid the sufferings without developing hatred towards them, without taking them for real and also to accept the happiness without making it too solid, uninvolvedly doing the best for one's family and to improve life. That is one aspect of understanding. Another aspect applies more specifically to our practice. When doing something good, practicing moral discipline and so on, we should not take our practice of virtue as something solid, or very, very special - we should just take it as it is. When doing something good, it is important to do it without a selfish motivation and without a very fixed, solid idea of good and bad. Then we can keep to the view in its entirety. Of course, we cannot manage to think like that each and every time we act, but we can accustom ourselves to this general approach.
This whole, integrated view is said to be the sign, or seal, of a true teaching of the Buddha and, as such, it is the fundamental viewpoint of Dharma.