People often ask me: “What is Buddhism in a nutshell?” Or
they ask, “What is the particular view or philosophy of
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
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
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
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
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 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
The Second Seal:
All Emotions are
The 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 own projection.
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 independent
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
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
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.
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.
The Third Seal:
All Phenomena are Empty;
Are Without Inherent Existence
When we say “all,” that means everything, including the
Buddha, enlightenment, and the path. Buddhists define a phenomenon
as something with characteristics, and as an object that is
conceived by a subject. To hold that an object is something external
is ignorance, and it is this that prevents us from seeing the truth
of that object.
The truth of a phenomenon is called shunyata, emptiness,
which implies that the phenomenon does not possess a truly existent
essence or nature. When a deluded person or subject sees something,
the object seen is interpreted as something really existent.
However, as you can see, the existence imputed by the subject is a
mistaken assumption. Such an assumption is based on the different
conditions that make an object appear to be true; this, however, is
not how the object really is. It’s like when we see a mirage: there
is no truly existing object there, even though it appears that way.
With emptiness, the Buddha meant that things do not truly exist as
we mistakenly believe they do, and that they are really empty of
that falsely imputed existence.
It is because they believe in what are really just confused
projections that sentient beings suffer. It was as a remedy for this
that the Buddha taught the Dharma. Put very simply, when we talk
about emptiness, we mean that the way things appear is not the way
they actually are. As I said before when speaking about emotions,
you may see a mirage and think it is something real, but when you
get close, the mirage disappears, however real it may have seemed to
Emptiness can sometimes be referred to as dharmakaya, and in
a different context we could say that the dharmakaya is permanent,
never changing, all pervasive, and use all sorts of beautiful,
poetic words. These are the mystical expressions that belong to the
path, but for the moment, we are still at the ground stage, trying
to get an intellectual understanding. On the path, we might portray
Buddha Vajradhara as a symbol of dharmakaya, or emptiness, but from
an academic point of view, even to think of painting the dharmakaya
is a mistake.
The Buddha taught three different approaches on three
separate occasions. These are known as The Three Turnings of the
Wheel, but they can be summed up in a single phrase: “Mind; there is
no mind; mind is luminosity.”
The first, “Mind,” refers to the first set of teachings and
shows that the Buddha taught that there is a “mind.” This was to
dispel the nihilistic view that there is no heaven, no hell, no
cause and effect. Then, when the Buddha said, “There is no mind,” he
meant that mind is just a concept and that there is no such thing as
a truly existing mind. Finally, when he said, “Mind is luminous,” he
was referring to buddhanature, the undeluded or primordially
The great commentator Nagarjuna said that the purpose of the
first turning was to get rid of non-virtue. Where does the
non-virtue come from? It comes from being either eternalist or
nihilist. So in order to put an end to non-virtuous deeds and
thoughts, the Buddha gave his first teaching. The second turning of
the Dharma-wheel, when the Buddha spoke about emptiness, was
presented in order to dispel clinging to a “truly existent self” and
to “truly existent phenomena.” Finally, the teachings of the third
turning were given to dispel all views, even the view of no-self.
The Buddha’s three sets of teaching do not seek to introduce
something new; their purpose is simply to clear away
As 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 beings.
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 seal.
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
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we
ever understand emptiness, which is something beyond
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 person.
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
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
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
Now 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 extremes.”
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
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 the Buddha.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in
1961 and was recognized as the second reincarnation of the
nineteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He has studied
with and been empowered by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of
this century, notably the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the late
Dudjom Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche supervises his
traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, as well as
newly established colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also
established meditation centers in Australia, North America and the
Far East. Recently, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche won critical acclaim
for his first feature length movie, The Cup, produced under his name
Khyentse Norbu. Further information on Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
and his activities is available at www.siddharthasintent.org. This
article is based on a talk entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,”
given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.