The ‘four seals’ or ‘four fundamental discoveries’.
The Four Seals of Dharma, or in the words of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, “the four fundamental discoveries the Buddha made under the Bodhi tree.”, consist of two parts: the Trilaksana and Nirvana.
The Tri-laksana (Pali: Ti-lakkhana).
The identification of dissatisfaction/suffering as the universal characteristic of all experienced phenomenal existence, along with the conditions of impermanence and non-self (the absence of a fixed entity), are principal insights of Buddhism, present at the centre of most Buddhist teachings and practices.
These three basic characteristics of all phenomenal existence are also known as the Tri-laksana (Pali: Ti-lakkhana), or the three marks of existence:
- Anitya (Pali: Anicca): impermanence.
All phenomena are variable/unstable/unfixed; i.e. they are in a constant state of flux – will arise, transform and pass away.
That the human body is subject to change is empirically observable in the universal states of childhood, youth, maturity, and old age. Similarly, mental events come into being and dissolve.
“Anything that is assembled of other things will come apart — a toaster, a building, a mountain, a person. The timetables may vary — certainly a mountain may remain a mountain for 10,000 years. But even 10,000 years is not “always.” The fact is that the world around us, which seems solid and fixed, is in a state of perpetual flux. Being mindful of the impermanence of all compounded things, including ourselves, helps us accept loss, old age and death. This may seem pessimistic, but it is realistic. There will be loss, old age and death whether we accept them or not.”
(Barbara O’Brien, The Four Seals of Dharma – O’Brien is a journalist and student of Zen Buddhism currently residing in the Zen Center of New York City in Brooklyn)
- Duhkha (Pali: Dukkha): unsatisfactoriness .
All phenomena are dysphoric/uneasy/restless. Because phenomena are unstable and transient, they are – sooner or later – experienced by sentient beings as frustration/suffering/pain.
“It is because we see ourselves as separate from other things that we desire them, or are repulsed by them. This is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which teaches that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst (tanha). Because we divide the world into subject and object, me and everything else, we continually grasp for things we think are separate from ourselves to make us happy. But nothing ever satisfies us for long.” (O’Brien, id.)
- Anatman (Pali: Anatta): non-self.
All phenomena are substanceless/without a soul/without a fixed self; i.e. they are without any eternal, independently existing, never changing self or entity. This does not mean there is no self; it states that nothing conditional can be pointed to as the essential, unchangeable core of who or what you are.
“The correct position with regard to the question of Anatta is not to take hold of any opinion or views, but to try to see things objectively as they are without mental projections, to see that what we call ‘I’, or ‘being’, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.”
(Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed., 1974, p. 66 – Walpola Rahula was a Sri Lankan Theravada-monk, scholar and writer)
The interpretation, formulation and emphasis may vary depending on the tradition and teacher, but one way or another, the direct understanding and seeing of the Trilaksana is part of the spiritual path of all Buddhist traditions.
Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana).
The realisation of Buddhahood is the full unfolding of the potential of each and every person. It is a state of tranquility with an enlightened, non-biased view and no more thirst for attachment or aggression. Someone who reached Buddhahood has fully woken up to reality.
Nirvana is sometimes described as Peace, as an imperturbable calm state of mind. Or as Liberation, i.e. liberation from attachment, aggression and confusion (also referred to as the three poisons or the three unwholesome roots leading to duhkha). In other words: it is the awakening and tranquility after the quenching of the burning, delirious fever caused by attachment, aggression and confusion. The path to Enlightenment therefore includes the cultivation of non-attachment, non-violence and non-bias.
We have an almost unsatisfiable tendency to impose our perception of the world onto reality itself. We divide the world into concepts like me vs. them, that’s what’s beautiful (to me) vs. what’s ugly (to me), those who (I think) speak the truth vs. those who (I think) are lying, those who do what is right (to my view) vs. those who act wrong (to my view), good vs. evil, approval vs disapproval, success vs. failure, etc. While our conceptualisation is an understandable survival mode to get grip on the world, it is not real. Enlightenment is beyond our constructed extremes; beyond our concepts.
As with the trilaksana, nirvana is interpreted and formulated in various ways by different traditions and teachers, but all agree that the Buddha taught that nirvana is beyond our conceptualisation.