In the Indo-Tibetan textual tradition, the four seals (Skt. caturmudrā, T. phyag rgya bzhi), or dom shyi in the Tibetan oral tradition, are the four necessary characteristics of a view or teaching to mark or certify it as Buddhist. These seals mark our views as Buddhist, as opposed to taking refuge in the three jewels, which makes us Buddhist through precepts. Tibetan monastics memorize the four seals in their teenage years in a short formula:
All compounded things are impermanent.
All contaminated things are dukkha (unsatisfactory).
All phenomena are empty and selfless.
Nirvana is true peace.
Several sources attributed to the Buddha, including The Questions of the Nāga King Sāgara (Sagaranagarajapariprccha), mention these four statements. They are closely related to the three marks of existence—impermanence, dukkha, and nonself—that play a quintessential role in the Pali and the Sanskrit traditions of insight meditation. Although the last of the four gives hope for an eventual end to suffering, we must initially grapple with the first three seals.
The Tibetan word for a follower of Buddhism—nangpa—means “insider” and implies that we only truly live in the fold of the Buddhist worldview when these four seals start to permeate our perception and become its natural element. The real challenge is not understanding the four seals conceptually but applying them to our existence, with all our multifaceted identities, challenges, dramas, dreams, and aspirations. We should measure the four seals against the fabric of our daily life to see with greater clarity all the individual threads and knots that make up our lives and then let them dissolve in an ocean of spacious, liberated awareness. Easier said than done, of course.
Looking deeply into our existence will not be unsympathetic toward our conventional reality, where we see ourselves as beings of different backgrounds, genders, cultures, sexualities, and generations. It was this duality of relative identities and universal truths that I, as a queer practitioner and ex-monastic, experienced quite powerfully when interpreting teachings on the four seals given by one of my primary mentors, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. Though he spoke about the four seals in a general way, his talk left room for profound personal reflection on how the roles and labels I have serve as an illustration for the material. In our conventional identities, we see the first three seals with greater precision.With that understanding, we then use the fourth one to see the flip side, sometimes described as the indivisible union of emptiness and luminosity that transcends conventions yet remains inseparable from them.
The First Seal: All Compounded Things Are Impermanent
Hearing that impermanence pervades all compounded things is challenging, not because it’s untrue but because it is true. If the world has cut us deeply with rejection—like it so often does with queer individuals—how can we accept that even our few loving connections will be taken away? How can we accept the inevitable separation from the body we’ve used to find those connections and with which we’ve worked so hard to make peace? We viscerally shy away from knowing that every relationship, even our life, will end.
Despite the resistance, we know that the threads holding the pieces of our lives together will inevitably snap, something new will form, and then again be replaced with another configuration of matter, energy, and awareness. It’s not easy to feel and know this without some sense of grief, but contemplating impermanence is supposed to bring about a level of sadness—a disappointment in our hungry grasping at permanence, in our inability to be like Queen Elsa in Frozen and simply “let it go.”
I can only tolerate impermanence because I deliberately and continually remind myself of the naturalness of change. Like the changing of the season, my own life will endlessly go through cycles of change. I can find solace in the naturalness of it all and keep rolling along, however clumsily. Although this may seem like a simplistic understanding of the first seal, it is, perhaps, “good enough,” as Lama Thubten Yeshe used to say. Good enough to keep my vulnerable queer heart afloat: not yet radiantly enlightened, but certainly still alive.
The Second Seal: All Contaminated Things Are Dukkha
Why does being in the world cut so deep? Why do our interactions with others often continue to slice our hearts like a sharp razor, even when we earnestly try to do our best? Our minds and the minds of all sentient beings are contaminated by primordial ignorance (avidya) and therefore accompanied by multiple types of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness.
This contamination is not about violating the decrees of a higher authority or about systems of social oppression, which ultimately also stem from the fundamental polluting agent of ignorance. This ignorance—that which contaminates us—is our shared tendency to reify: to draw a thick line around ourselves and other phenomena, or subject and object. Living under the influence of this habit, we all construct thick walls and then harm each other and ourselves in endless cycles of attachment and aversion.
The Third Seal: All Phenomena Are Empty and Selfless
Our attempt to overcome this contamination brings us to the third seal, which invites us to recognize all phenomena’s selfless and empty nature: the lack of independent existence. Since this truth goes strongly against our habituated perceptions, people often misunderstand this truth, which leads to additional harm for marginalized communities, adding insult to injury. It is too easy to say, “Everything is empty, so your queerness (race, gender, immigrant status, traumatic past) doesn’t matter.” Even though such a comment (perhaps well-meaning) tries, unskillfully, to point out the emptiness and grasping, it’s hurtful in its dismissiveness, reveals more about the speaker’s unchecked privilege, and in attempting to avoid the extreme of grasping, can also fall into the opposite extreme of nihilism.
Indeed, we are not merely our marginalized identities—but acknowledging those identities is essential, both in terms of our dukkha and as tools we can use to serve others. When doing Buddhist visualization practices—so beloved in the Indo-Tibetan lineage, where they form an integral part of Vajrayana practice—we keep the rules of the meditation intact: each Buddha figure appears in its color, with the correct number of arms, faces, and eyes. Arya Tara’s green form is visualized as green, and Medicine Buddha is imagined as radiantly sapphire-blue, without qualms about their unusual appearances or claims that the form is irrelevant. Things do not collapse into utter nihilistic chaos, even as they arise against the background of emptiness. So, why would our conventional roles no longer matter in the relational realm? I have repeatedly heard from my teachers of Madhyamaka philosophy that emptiness does not mean nothing matters. Since everything is empty, everything matters. Embodying the perfection of wisdom on the bodhisattva path by finding the balance between the relative and ultimate —between “I am definitely and defiantly queer” and “The empty self is not inherently queer”—requires a lifetime, or multiple lifetimes, to fully master.
The Fourth Seal: Nirvana is True Peace
Fully embodying the wisdom of knowing emptiness is nirvana. However, for many of us, the possibility of nirvana is merely a working hypothesis and something to be gradually tested through practice. So, how does the fourth seal provide peace right now? Is nirvana simply a promise for the distant future, like one day going to Heaven or one of the Buddhist pure lands?
Some Western teachers insist that all we have available are discrete moments of insight, which can never remove our underlying fallibility, no matter how meaningful. While the Indo-Tibetan tradition (or “Nalanda tradition,” as the Dalai Lama prefers to call it) that I’ve been trained in does not disagree with the persistent nature of our fallible traits, it does envision a complete potential transformation that transcends this life, even if it takes numerous lifetimes to achieve. Knowing which of these interpretations is correct requires carefully examining our reductionist and colonial conditioning, assessing our assumptions about the nature of consciousness, and, perhaps, a few encounters with realized practitioners of the highest caliber.
While all of that is underway, a beautiful element of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) and Great Seal (Mahamudra) traditions is that they readily offer meaningful glimpses into our ultimate radiant nature. Gained through qualified guidance, careful preparation, and practice, these glimpses aren’t the same as full realization or nirvana but still provide essential insights. Je Tsultrim Zangpo, from the Dzogchen lineage, compares these insights into our pristine awareness to rays of light. Following the ray to its source, we arrive at the sun of complete freedom and experience the fourth seal in its full form.
Tenderness is an inseparable quality of our true nature.
This journey to the fourth seal is not only about exploring the qualities of awareness—at least not emotionally, since our hearts might hunger for more—but also about how tenderness is an inseparable quality of our true nature. The Dzogchen tradition teaches that our ultimate nature has three primary qualities: emptiness, luminous cognizance, and all-pervading spontaneous compassion.
My limited conceptual understanding of spontaneous compassion (stemming from both emptiness and luminosity) had a powerful transformative effect on my practice and my way of being in this world. A few years into my decade-long monastic training, one of my primary teachers reminded me of the connection between the more effortful practices of the four immeasurables (brahmaviharah)—love, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—and the spontaneous, effortless warmth of our pristine nature. That reminder (less than a sentence in a short email) made me think: how can I work towards greater levels of trust towards this loving nature, which, in my case, manifests through the lens of my queer identity and has perhaps been obscured by all the heartbreak experienced so far? This question inevitably brings me back to the practical application of the four seals—a way of holding my mindfulness on them so they can transform my experience.
The four seals interpenetrate each other in our lives and can become a powerful emotional support system if we let them. For that, an excellent place to start is the fourth one: in seeking peace, let’s start with the promise of peace (nirvana). Let’s imagine that our ultimate nature is, as Dzogchen teaches, empty of inherent existence, radiantly cognizant, and boundlessly compassionate. When can that boundless compassion manifest and be strengthened? When we face change (first seal) and the knots of our contaminants—our afflictions—make us hurt ourselves and others (second seal). What helps us undo those knots? Deeper and deeper levels of knowing that things are not inherently existent. Understanding that things are, in the words of Suzuki Roshi, “not always so” can help us face life’s challenges with more compassion and respond in more wholesome ways.
Systems of oppression, acts of violence, the roughness of the fabric of existence, and even change itself can leave us aching, but by reflecting on the four seals, we can see what lies at the root of both pain and the tendency to create pain. Understanding the source of our suffering, expressed in the second seal, we seek the medicine of emptiness and find peace by experiencing our true nature.
Developing a trusting confidence in our true nature—our basic goodness—has been emphasized by many notable Buddhist teachers whom I’ve had the fortune to meet. This confidence does not come through simply telling yourself that “I’m a radiant magical being” or being reminded by others. It unfolds when we gradually realize the first three seals so that all of us—queer or not—can gracefully accept change, compassionately deal with our afflictions, and constantly remain aware that all things are radiantly empty. To whatever degree these four qualities seal the fabric of my life, I feel that my practice and existence—as an individual and a part of my communities—have been meaningful.
Watch a guided meditation from Michael Lobsang Tenpa on the second of the four seals below.
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