WHAT IS A DHARMA SEAL?
The Three Dharma Seals are the axioms that distinguish the Dharma from non-Dharma, Buddhism from non-Buddhism. They are essential to establishing what the Dharma truly is.
The Three Dharma Seals and the Four Dharma Seals are actually the same thing since the first three seals are the practice, while the last seal is the result. The first three are the cause, the fourth its effect. By practicing the first three seals, we can reach the state of nirvana.
As in any practice, we must first know its underlying concept. It is only after full apprehension of the concept that practice can proceed. Without right understanding, our practice is blind. Without practice, right understanding is also useless. Hence, one complements the other; each is indispensable. We can eradicate our afflictions and attain liberation only with the perfect union of the two. Accordingly, before we discuss the actual practice of the Three Dharma Seals, we must also know its concept.
How did the concept of the Three Dharma Seals originate? According to the sutras, when Sakyamuni Buddha was about to enter parinirvana, a disciple asked the Buddha, “If a non- Buddhist or some other person comes along after you are gone to give teachings and proclaims that to be the Dharma, how should we discern if it is the true Dharma?” The Buddha replied, “After I am gone, any belief or teaching which incorporates the Three Dharma Seals is the true Dharma; any belief or teaching which not only excludes but also refutes the Three Dharma Seals is not the true Dharma.”
What is a dharma seal? The “dharma” herein refers to Buddhadharma, the teachings of the Buddha; the “seal” is a handprint or stamp, which means it does not change. The Three Dharma Seals are called “dharma seals” precisely because they are a fundamental view in Buddhism that will never change. To be sure, this is just the standpoint of exoteric Buddhism. Another interpretation is that the “seal” is likened to a king’s seal. When the king’s seal is fixed on a royal document or edict, it assumes special significance – it is a confirmation of a royal decree which cannot be defied or altered. In the same way, the Three Dharma Seals confirm the authenticity of the Dharma; without the Three Dharma Seals, it is not the Dharma.
What are the Four Dharma Seals?
The first seal states all composite phenomena are imper- manent; the second, all contaminated things are unsatis- factory; the third, all phenomena lack self-existence; the fourth, nirvana is true peace.
WHY SHOULD WE PROPAGATE THE FOUR SEALS?
Why should we practice the Dharma Seals?
There are three main reasons sentient beings perpetuate in samsara: first, clinging to impermanence as permanence; second, seeing activities that are inherently unsatisfactory as joyful; third, mistaking a non-existent self for a truly existent self. With these three forms of attachment, good and bad karma is created. With good karma, beings take rebirth in the upper realms of the gods and human beings; with bad karma, beings take rebirth in the lower realms such as hell, unable to transcend samsara and attain liberation.
Actually, the cause for liberation arises inside the self, not outside. Here we are referring not to our body but to our thoughts or mind. By overcoming the three forms of attachment, we can be free of mental afflictions and bondage; if these three forms of attachments are not eradicated, liberation cannot be attained.
How do we overcome this attachment? Not by burning incense, praying, or prostrating to the buddhas! Not by supernatural powers! The only way is to realize wisdom. Why is wisdom the only method that works? Because all three forms of attachment are basically manifestations of ignorance. Just as we use light, the opposite of darkness, to dispel darkness, we use wisdom, the opposite of ignorance, to dispel ignorance; all other methods are ineffective. Wisdom here denotes insight that fully apprehends impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Although the practices on impermanence and suffering appear simple, they are essential to the path of liberation and must therefore be undertaken. By relying on these three types of wisdom, we can cut through the three forms of attachment that bind us to samsara. There is no reason liberation cannot be attained under the circumstance.
The Three Dharma Seals are not only the view of Sakyamuni Buddha but also that of all the buddhas of the ten directions and three times. Any buddha that turns the wheel of Dharma will expound the Three Dharma Seals. All that is transmitted pertains to the Three Dharma Seals; in whatever manner the teachings are given, their essence is the Three Dharma Seals, even in Vajrayana Buddhism. Although the uncommon view of Vajrayana speaks of emptiness and clarity, it also espouses impermanence, suffering, etc. at the same time.
Whether in Mahayana or Vajrayana, the teachings cannot deviate from the Three Dharma Seals — they are the essentials of Buddhist doctrine. This is the very reason why we choose to discuss it here.
It is neither useful nor necessary to talk about other practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra at this time. If we bypass basic practices such as renunciation and bodhicitta for the more advanced methods, we will come up empty- handed in the end. Those who want to understand the advanced practices from a conceptual standpoint can listen to other teachings or read up on them. My purpose is to establish a method of practice that can benefit you and allow you to progress on the spiritual path. Thus, I shall not elaborate on methods that are not helpful to you now, or in which the results are barely perceptible.
Human birth is hard to come by. Having acquired human birth, we should cherish this opportunity. Although spiritual practice is difficult, we should also welcome the challenge, since it is only by way of practice that we can transcend samsara.
There are some who believe we will still undergo many lifetimes in samsara. How can we say this is our only opportunity?
Indeed, even the slogans on the main roads say “We live but once!” but in fact this is not so. As sentient beings with strong karmic imprints, we will continue to take rebirth in samsara over countless lifetimes; however, without practice, we will only end this life in spiritual decline. As you know, beings who take rebirth in the lower realms – even in the most favorable animal realm – do not have a chance to practice Dharma, let alone hear the sacred designations and mantras of the buddhas. Beings in the hungry ghost and hell realms are even less likely to have this chance. Therefore, however busy or difficult it may be, we must still seize the moment to practice. If we forgo this most propitious opportunity, we cannot be sanguine about coming back as human beings again.
In this book as well as in my previous lectures, there is a complete explanation of the basic practice which can be undertaken by everyone in stages. If we are serious in our practice but do not see much in the way of results, we cannot be blamed. However, if we do not practice at all, it is really regrettable.
Actually, concept and practice are essential aspects of any method; the two are inseparable. Of these, concept is likened to our eyes when we take a walk, while practice is our footsteps. We can proceed to walk only after seeing the road ahead; however, if we only see the road but fail to take steps, we will never arrive at our destination. In the same way, we should fully comprehend the underlying concept in the practice before we begin. But concepts are no more than knowledge found in the books. Except when one is truly enlightened, whatever is gained through listening or thinking — be it listening to the Dharma, reading, or contemplating — is considered conceptual knowledge. If this knowledge is not put into practice, it will not be very helpful in eliminating our afflictions. Having established the right understanding, we must then begin to practice. The purpose of listening to the Dharma and applying the teachings is to eliminate afflictions and attain liberation, not only for ourselves but also for all sentient beings.
In this book, we shall first discuss the underlying concept in the Four Dharma Seals, then the actual practice itself. The two are equal in importance.