The Four Seals of Dharma By Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche Part 2
The Third Seal: All Phenomena are Empty; They 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 begin with.
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 existing wisdom.
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 nonvirtuous
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
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
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 world.
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
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness,
which is something beyond description?
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 non-existent?
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 Extremes
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 is real.
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. This article is based on a talk entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,” given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.