Footnotes To Buddhism’s Four Seals

This essay was originally drafted as a reaction to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s 2008 book What Makes You Not a Buddhist. I did not enjoy the book the first time I read it. Probably, I wanted it to be something other than it is. Now, a few years later, I appreciate it significantly more by taking an altered perspective. While I still don’t agree with or support what seem to be Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s motives in publishing the book nor some of his insights, the author does a reasonably good job of explaining the the “four seals” for a non-Buddhist to consider. There may be better and/or more authoritative books on Buddhism, but it is a place to start.

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Khyentse suggests a number of ways that a person may not be a Buddhist but the main theme of the book is that affirmation of the “four seals” is the fundamental and essential gatekeeper. According to Khyentse, if you don’t endorse the fundamental doctrine, that makes you not a Buddhist.

“Four Seals” is another way of saying “four central doctrine” or “four dogmatic beliefs”. So what are they?

  • All compounded things are impermanent.
  • All emotions are pain.
  • All things have not inherent existence.
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts

Khyentse spends 125 pages explaining these doctrines and how they might apply to various aspects of contemporary human experience. As with my inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy, this is not a book-review and I do not intend to reproduce the book in encapsulated form. This is an inquiry into the “four seals”.

Hermann Hesse - Wikipedia
Herman Hesse

Early in the book Khyentse suggests that these doctrine should be taken in a literal way rather than a metaphorical or mystical way. If one accepts that the authoritative definition of a Buddhist is a person who believes (affirms, acknowledges, supports or whatever term one might prefer) these four doctrine on a literal level, then I am certainly not a Buddhist. Mind you, there’s no particular reason to expect me to be a Buddhist. I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture or home. I’ve had relatively limited exposure to Buddhist practices (diverse as they certainly are). Even my literary and philosophical investigation of Buddhist-oriented literature is extremely narrow. I don’t even have an active ambition to prove myself to be any particular “ist”. But I have an active and respectful interest in Buddhist perspectives which has occupied a fractional part of my attention over several decades. Initially this interest began as a literary interest stimulated by Robert Pirsig’s books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) on the one hand and Herman Hesse’s books ( Siddharta, Magister Ludi, Der Steppenwolf, etc) on the other. Perhaps it also comes of growing up during the 1970’s.

So the four seals.

What makes me not a Buddhist (per Khyentse) is that I can’t give all four of the doctrine a full and complete literal pass. That is to say, if we are to set metaphorical, mystical, rhetorical and other referential “truth perspectives” aside, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to affirm these doctrine. Two of the doctrine don’t provide reliable information while a third requires some grudging qualification of the terminology.

Terminoloy is a significant factor. There’s no certainty that the specific phrasing of the “seals” that Khyentse’s book presents is adequate to whatever may be intended of the concepts. Certainly, one may wonder, as with any text, whether the particular words, as rendered in one’s contemporary language contain the same meanings as in some other language and/or time. What if its just a bad translation? What if Khyentse’s definition of “emotion” or “pain” is different than mine? All philosophy must, tediously, begin with a definition of terms. However, given the assertion that the doctrine be taken literally, it must be assumed that some significant care was taken in word choice when the book was published.

Tentatively, however, moving forward with a generous (and perhaps mistaken) assumption that the language is precise, accurate, authoritative and may be taken literally, let’s have a look.

All Compounded Things Are Impermanent

This doctrine is, in my opinion, the most concrete and supportable of the four truths. The two sides of the equation that one has to deal with are “compounded things” and “impermanent”. It may be a quirk of my own that I find the most certainty in a doctrine which focuses on physics. Here we have space, matter, processes and time.

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...
A.N. Whitehead

In Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead used the term “actual entity” as a rough equivalent to “all compounded things”. Physics, specifically particle physics, shows how our reality of matter, space and process are composed of interactions and combinations of particles. This is “compounding”. Particle and interaction. Matter and process. Two particles combine or repel and there is a result. The result is a compound thing (entity). That compound thing may then further compound to result in an even more compound thing. Particle. Atom. Element. Molecule. Organism. Consciousness. Society.

Whitehead called his philosophy a “Philosophy of Organism”. This seems to be a philosophy of the doctrine that “all compounded things are impermanent” where the term “organism” may be roughly equated to “compounded things.”

The second factor in the term is more easily dealt with. Time. Duration. Buddhism, Whitehead and Physics all seem to be on the same page. Things that exist (compounded things, actual entities) are not timeless. They are not infinite. They have a quality of duration. They are “of time”. I would further suggest that time is equally “of compound things”. They are inseparable and inherent qualities of the same thing.

Score: If the “four seals” are considered each to be of equal value, I would rank my acceptance of “all compounded things are impermanent”, as so far explored, to be a full twenty-five out of twenty-five points.

All Emotions are Pain

This doctrine is, in my opinion, one that is least defensible as a literal statement. The terms “emotion” and “pain”, while occupying adjacent conceptual space to one another, do not necessarily refer to the same things.

Emotions include happiness, sadness, anger and other familiar concepts, but emotion also includes more complicated concepts such as curiosity. It seems simple to reconcile some of the more familiar emotions with pain, but there are a variety of emotional concepts which cannot readily be reduced to “pain”.

So what is “pain”. Physically pain is a kind of negatively experienced sensory input suggesting harm or potential harm to the organism within-which the pain is experienced. It is a neurological warning signal recommending aversive action. There are a variety of ways that the term “pain” is extended from this neurological-based definition to include other negative experiences. Whether it is appropriate and correct to lump all negatively-perceived experiences as pain or not may well be “to the point” of this doctrine. I tend to think this becomes an over-simplification.

For purposes of this doctrine, it also seems to be an over-simplification to suggest that all emotions are a warning of coming “pain”. It is an unreasonable extension. “Sooner or later you’ll suffer” or even the ability to extrapolate future suffering from the limited duration of pleasure is not the same thing.

It would seem to be more precise and accurate to articulate the doctrine as “all emotions eventually result in pain”, “all emotions lead to suffering” or even “ all emotional states should be perceived as a reminder of coming pain and suffering”. But that is not the doctrine, as typically rendered.

Note that I have used the term “suffering” but the doctrine does not. Pain and suffering are adjacent but separate concepts. Suffering is an emotion. To suggest that all emotions lead to the emotion of suffering is not as indefensible as all emotions are pain.

Score: “All emotions are pain” can’t earn a full twenty five points. There’s too much that requires qualification and/or re-definition of the concepts. That being said, some of these qualifications provide a valuable window to view human existence and experience. Provisional as any scoring might be, I’ll give this maxim ten out of twenty-five.

All Things Have No Inherent Existence

This doctrine seems to be a corollary of “All compounded things are impermanent”, or at least dealing with the same physics. The two factors are “things” and “inherent existence”.

Body and Mind - One unit or Two? | The GOODista Blog
Monism: one substance or two?

This statement of reality breaks down, as many things do, at the subatomic level. There is a suggestion here of monism – that everything is really a single substance. It is this single originating substance that has been compounded in different ways to result in the appearance of diverse substances. This hinges on explaining what “things” means.

A.N. Whitehead used the term “entity” and “actual entity”. If “all things” means there is nothing that isn’t compounded, there is the problem of how to categorize the pre-compounded monist substance. If the definition of “thing” excludes this substance, then that is a convenient way to validate this doctrine. Whitehead describes a primordial entity as an allowance.

Similarly, if existence is taken to mean “truly is”, it is paradoxical, at best, to argue for a monism where something both does exist and does not exist. Buddhist philosophy isn’t uncomfortable with paradox.

Score: as with the previous maxim, a problem I have with “All things have no inherent existence” is the absolute scale of the statement. I am able to full-on accept “all compounded things are impermanent” based on the qualification that the statement covers only “compounded things“. Still, this doctrine is largely, if not wholly, a corollary of the first. Fifteen points out of twenty-five.

Nirvana is Beyond Concepts

This is also a difficult doctrine as a statement of reality. “Nirvana” is a concept. It could be argued that “nirvana is a concept of that which is beyond concepts”. Khyentse’s urging that the doctrine be taken literally runs afoul of a doctrine which refutes that it can be taken literally.

Here it is almost impossible not to reference Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Philosophicus argument that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wittgenstein: vida/obra del filósofo que se retó a sí ...
Ludwig Wittgenstein

If one describes “nirvana” as a state of being, it is within conceptualization. And it also becomes fair game to examine. But all of mysticism hinges on some element being placed outside of understanding or comprehension.

Score: Buddhism, Zen and a variety of mystical fields often derive their attraction from their paradoxical-seeming principles. A suggestion that “human language is not adequate” should , in most cases, be modified to say “human language is not yet adequate”. That any given speaker or listener isn’t competent to explain at a certain point in time, does not mean there will never be competent speakers and listeners. Additionally, I don’t think this version of the doctrine is well-phrased by what may be intended by the doctrine. “Nirvana is beyond concepts” ranks lower than other versions of this doctrine that I’ve seen. If the doctrine were “Nirvana needs to be experienced, not explained”, then it would rank much more highly with me. As currently expressed, five out of twenty five.

Provisional Summary

Clearly, I am not an expert in Buddhist philosophy nor of the religions and practices that have been built upon it. I doubt that it is common practice to rank one’s relation to the doctrine as a percentage-score. But I like to quantify things, including the degree to which I am likely to integrate ideas into my thinking. That I agree with about fifty-five percent of these doctrine is interesting information.

It is also interesting to observe that if the “four seals” are taken to be the absolute foundation upon-which all the rest of reality is built, then there remains a great deal to be reconciled in the provided “literal statements”. I do not assert that these doctrine are “wrong” nor that those who may uphold them to be accurate literal statements of fact are in error. However, as statements of literal truth (fact), I find that they do not convince me beyond a generously weighted 55%. As predicted by the book title, I am not a Buddhist.

However, as cultural, metaphorical, rhetorical, mystical or referential statements, these doctrine are interesting and offer a particular kind of window to introspection – not to exclude the fact that some Buddhist practices upon which these doctrine are founded (eg. meditation) are extremely beneficial and worth exploration quite apart from the doctrine.

None of my reluctance to fully affirm the four seals as accurate, factual statements takes away from these statements as extremely helpful in an investigation of reality and existence. Quite the opposite – I recommend serious consideration of these assertions as a useful metaphysical starting point.

Engaging with ideas and ideals that may be different from your own may be a thing that needs to be done over the course of several discrete and separate exposures. In this way, it is possible to see how an idea different than you’re own may have applications that you can appreciate and understand.

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