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The Four Seals


Hi Brian, I’m reading a book by by the Dalai Lama, and he mentions the “Four Seals.” What are these?


I’m not sure I’d call this a beginner’s idea, but it won’t kill anyone to touch on some more advanced ideas occasionally.

The Four Seals are:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All stained emotions are painful.
  3. All phenomena are empty.
  4. Nirvana is peace.

1. All compounded things are impermanent. Anything that is assembled or built from component parts is going to break down someday. Your body is the sum of its components. Your personal relationships are the sum of the individuals. Your daily schedule is the sum of work, play, rest, sleep, and everything else. A mountain is made up of rocks, dirt, and other materials. All of these are impermanent.

2. All stained emotions are painful. What’s a stained emotion? The Dalai Lama translates this seal “all contaminated phenomena are of the nature of suffering.” The word “stained” or “contaminated” refers to actions, emotions and thoughts conditioned by selfish attachment, or by hate, greed and ignorance. Even love and compassion can be stained if they lead to false assumptions or are built up on ideas of dualism or too much attachment.

3. All phenomena are empty. This comes right from the idea of anatman (no-self), which we have looked at briefly in the past. There is no “self.” The being you think of as “You” is both far more than you think, and also nothing. Westerners, with our tendency toward self-centeredness and individualism, often find this an insanely hard concept to grasp. “Being one with the universe” also means the same thing as being nothing at all.

4. Nirvana is peace. As we discussed yesterday, Buddhism (whose goal is Nirvana) is centered around removing and eliminating suffering. Without suffering, we have… peace.

I also have a too-long-to-include-here article written by the Dalai Lama on this topic, which I’ll put in the Weekly PDF Magazine. This is also one of those times when I probably have oversimplified things again. If you have anything to add, please post your thoughts in the comment section.

1 comment to The Four Seals

  • From JJ Simon:

    Hello everyone I’d like to add a couple of comments to this post.
    The first is that all Phenomenon being empty is first looked at by contemplating impermanence and then is linked to the experience of emptiness which is not nothingness but no-thigness. I know this is a slight change but it helped me to begin to understand what was being expressed. There is no solid thingness to anything; that is why all things are compounded and thus impermanent. I tend to look at this sometimes from the mathematical standpoint of absolute value. The absolute value of any given number is 0. The absolute value of any given phenomenon is empty. This has helped me to be able to investigate and experience Shunyata and even that experience is impermanent.
    Good luck, look to your own salvation,