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The Four Seals of the Dharma in Buddhism


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Parts, aspects, divisions and directions

rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) All functioning phenomena are composite                        rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) (1) Impermanence of functioning phenomena

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Mental labelling

rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) Lack of inherent existence rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) (2) Unfindability of all phenomena

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Biological existence

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Reification - wrong view of reality rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) (3) Ultimate unsatisfactoriness of biological existence - dukkha
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rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) Purification of The Three Poisons rtwhitearrow.gif (358 bytes) (4) The true nature of the mind is Peace
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Two truths - Ultimate and Conventional



The Four Seals of the Dharma

As described in The Dharma Jewel, there are many different schools of Buddhism, which provide different presentations of the Buddha's teaching.  Different schools appeal to different personalities, and no one school claims to be 'right'.

So what is it that all forms of Buddhism have in common, and what differentiates Buddhism from other religions and philosophies?

The defining features of Buddhism are THE FOUR SEALS OF THE DHARMA - four statements about the world which form the basis of all Buddhist teachings.   The four seals aren't 'revealed truths' which we have to take on trust from some self-proclaimed 'prophet' who claims to have heard the voice of God, they are philosophical statements derived from logic and experience.   They are:

(1)  Impermanence.  All phenomena are subject to change, growth, dissolution and decay. Even the sun, planets and galaxies are changing and will one day cease to exist.

(2)  All phenomena are unfindable upon analysis.  If you search for the ultimate nature of your car, you won't find it. All you'll find is parts, the causes of those parts coming together, and mental projection or 'imputation' of something that performs the function of a car.  Similarly with the ego - the self.   The essential nature of the self is as unfindable as the essential nature of a car or Milinda's chariot.  'We are such stuff as dreams are made on'.

(3)  Materialistic existence is ultimately unsatisfactory.  All emotions based on the three mental poisons of attachment, aversion and ignorance are ultimately painful. You can never have enough worldly possessions, and even if you did you'd worry about losing them since they are all impermanent.  And you've got to lose the lot eventually when you shuffle off your coil. All materialistic cravings eventually lead to dissappointment and worse.  This is known as dukkha.

(4)  The true nature of mind is clarity and peace, 'but whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in' we cannot experience it. The sky-like clarity of the mind is obscured by the thunder clouds of anger, attachment and ignorance.  The real nature of the mind is Nirvana - which is NOT nothingness, but the non-conceptual peace 'which passeth all understanding'.






All functioning phenomena exist dependently upon their causes (as well as parts). In fact, all functioning phenomena are changing moment by moment, and the causes of an object appearing in this moment are the dispositions of its parts in the previous moments.   All parts of an object are continually in motion and interacting moment by moment, with electrons jumping in and out of orbbits round their atoms etc. 

The cause of my stainless steel spoon persisting in my soup is that the interaction of the electrons of the iron atoms with those of the chromium atoms are stronger than they are with those of the water molecules of the soup.

The cause of an iron nail rusting away in damp wood are that the interactions of the electrons of the iron atoms with those of the water molecules are stronger than they are with those of other iron atoms.


All funtioning phenomena exist in dependence upon their parts, including aspects, divisions and directions.

The classic Buddhist demonstration of this is Milinda's chariot.  Nagasena demonstrated that if Milinda's chariot were gradually dismantled - knock a spoke out of a wheel here, a plank off there, then a bit of the frame and so on - there was no way for Milinda to decide at exactly what step in the procedure he should stop calling the assemby a chariot and start calling it a heap of firewood.

Nagasena said this was because the chariot had no power to define itself from its own side. Nor was there any ideal chariot form 'in the sky' which engaged and disengaged with the timber at definite stages of assembly and disassembly.  Milinda's mind was the only thing that could make the distinction between vehicle and firewood.

- Particle Physics
Of course nowadays we know that the wooden pieces of the chariot could be ultmately disassambled into molecules of cellulose, and then into atoms of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, and these too could be disassembled into electrons, protons and neutrons.    

But what happens when we reach a fundamental particle? Surely now we have found something that cannot be broken down any further?  Well, in fact a fundamental particle breaks down into an arbitrarily large number of parts which are smeared out in space.   In the case of electrons these are known as orbitals, which are probability distributions of interacting with the electrons along certain directions. 


All functioning phenomena are composite.

An entity that was not composite, or capable of becoming composite, could not function.   Things can only interact with one another by giving and receiving parts of themselves as matter/energy.  Neither could a non-composite entity ever undergo any internal rearrangements or changes of state. It would remain in eternal, undetectable isolation.

Mental labelling

As we saw with Milinda's chariot, there is no citerion which detemines from the side of the object at what stage of assembly or disassembly it ceases to exist. That is a judgement that is made from the side of the observer, who stops labelling it 'chariot' and starts labelling it 'heap of firewood'.

Similarly, when does a box become a tray? If you gradually cut the sides down at what point does its  boxiness gave way to trayfulness ?

Lack of inherent existence

Objects do not exist from their own sides, or from some intrinsic essence, but only by being dependent upon  (i) their causes, (ii) their parts, and (iii) mental labelling.

In fact, to say that something exists is an arbitrary statement. All we are saying is that its rate of disintegration is negligible on the timescale of our lifetime. In reality, all phenomena are impermanent - it's just that some are more impermanent than others.

All 'things' are impermanent, and so all things are in reality processes. Things do not stay the same from one millisecond to the next. Anything composed of atoms is composed of parts in a constant state of flux.    Existence is merely impermanence viewed in slow-motion.

The ultimate truth about my car is that it has no power from its own side to make itself or keep itself a car. There is no 'inherently existent' car to be found.

The car I arrived home in tonight is not the car I set out in this morning. It has rusted a bit. Its moving parts are more worn. Its spark plugs are increasingly burnt. Its tires are slightly less legal.

Without my constant intervention in renewing its parts (expensive), and paying the garage mechanic to cause those parts to come together (even more expensive), I would soon cease to be able to label it 'car'.


Biological existence

Humans have only been around for a comparatively short period in history of living things. Most of the traits we inherit have evolved before our ancestors became human.

So our minds are well acquainted with living the life of animals, of attempting to get the competitive edge, of never being satisfied with second place, of perpetual restlessness.

Darwinism shows that evolution is a game that the individual cannot win. His genes drive him to compete and propagate, but he is not propagating himself, he is propagating his selfish genes. We spend our lives from birth to death acquiring nutrients to grow and ensure our survival. Nowadays many of us acquire sufficient nutrients to actually reduce our chances of survival, but instincts driven by genes developed during millions of years of selection by famine don't disappear in a generation or two of plenty.

We acquire every material need and even then we're not satisfied. Our instincts drive us to acquire everything else we can lay our hands on. Things may be no use to us, but our deep instincts tell us that by holding them ourselves we are depriving our competitors (everybody but our immediate kin) of them. The sociobiological  roots of greed and attachment to possessions go deep into our evolutionary past. 


Reification is the identification of phenomena as solid and permanent things,   when they are in fact impermanent aspects of processes.

'A basic idea of the Buddha is that the world must be thought of in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances. The Buddha advised viewing reality as comprised of dependently originated phenomena. Buddhists view this approach to experience as avoiding the two extremes of reification and nihilism.

Our biological drive to possess resources is one of the causes of reification.


Mind is an aspect of reality that cannot be reduced to matter.   This, of course, is the basis of all religions. But whereas most other religions state this as an irrational article of dogma, Buddhism provides rational arguments against materialism.

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are attachment, aversion and ignorance. They produce strong delusions of inherent existence of objects and persons, and prevent the mind becoming peaceful. Some predatory cults deliberately cultivate the Three Poisons in order to mentally enslave their votaries.

The mind can be purified of the three poisons by meditation and visualisation.

The Two Truths -  Ultimate and Conventional Existence

The ultimate truth is that all phenomena are interdependent, interrelated, impermanent and lack inherent existence.

The conventional truth is that we need to divide the world up into reasonably stable, manageable chunks and label them so we can find our way around it.

Ultimate truth is the territory of the real world: conventional truth is the map that describes it.

- Sean Robsville


Christian versus Buddhist worldviews


Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation


More on the Four Seals at  RATIONAL BUDDHISM