The Four Hallmarks of the Dharma


It’s always helpful in the discussion of any aspect of Buddhist studies to see how the topic fits into a larger context of the Buddha’s teachings. This means understanding how that topic fits in with the presentation of the four noble truths and the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as being based on enlightening words, (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi), also known as the four hallmarks of the Dharma, (chos-kyi sdom-pa bzhi). The term “four hallmarks” means the four characteristics or features that define an outlook on life as being a Buddhist view, one based on what Buddha said. 

It’s important to realize that a large amount of what we find in the Buddhist teachings are not uniquely Buddhist. We find them in most of the other Indian philosophical systems. Buddha, after all, lived in India and taught within that cultural context. The teachings on concentration and such sort of things are quite common in Indian teachings. Some of the features also exist in Western systems like Christianity as well, such as renouncing this life and wanting a better future life. Those are not at all particularly Buddhist. What makes a teaching uniquely Buddhist is its consistency with the four noble truths and these four sealing points.
Let’s examine and analyze how the five aggregates fit into the discussion of these four points. The five aggregates are forms of physical phenomena, feelings of happiness or unhappiness, distinguishing, types of consciousness and other affecting variables. One or more items from each of these five make up each moment of our experience.

All Affecting Variables Are Nonstatic

The first of these four hallmarks is that all affecting variables (’du-byed) are nonstatic. That’s sometimes translated as “all collected phenomena are impermanent,” but this can be cause for some confusion. The word “impermanent” can be misleading because it might give the impression of something lasting only a short time. We’re not talking about that; in fact, some things that change every moment can go on forever, like the mental continuum. Nonstatic, then, just means anything that undergoes change.

As for the term “all affecting variables,” variables are things that change, regardless of how long their continuum lasts. Affecting means that these variables affect other things and, in turn, are affected by yet other things. This describes all nonstatic phenomena.

Here, the affecting variables refer to the five aggregates, not just the aggregate of other affecting variable. The five aggregates include everything that changes and which can be part of some moment of our experience. 

All things that arise and undergo change are based on causes and conditions and affect other things. This includes our parents, our environment, our emotions, the weather, and history. Absolutely everything affects how we feel and what we experience in life, doesn’t it? How we experience life and how we feel about it affect not only our own future experience, but also affect the experience of everybody with whom we interact.

As stated in this first sealing point, all affecting variables are nonstatic. That means that they change from moment to moment. Why? This is because the causes and conditions that affect them change from moment to moment. That’s a very profound point to realize. When we are in a certain mood, for example, we tend to think that this mood is here to stay; but actually, it’s changing absolutely every second, depending on what we’re seeing, what we’re looking at, what we’re hearing, our physical sensations and so on. Any mood we are in is changing every moment. There’s nothing static about it.

This phenomenon of not remaining static for even a moment refers to what we call “subtle nonstaticness.” This introduces two terms: gross nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa rags-pa) and subtle nonstaticness (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo):

  • Gross nonstaticness is when something actually comes to an end. For instance, if we buy a car or a computer, eventually it’s going to break. That’s gross nonstaticness. This present life is eventually going to end. When it ends at death, that’s its gross nonstaticness.
  • Subtle nonstaticness refers not just to the fact that we’re going to die someday; but that every passing moment of our lifespan brings us one moment closer to its end. Our death inevitably has to come as our lifespan left to live decreases, without any break, from moment to moment. Why? This is because our present life and lifespan are affecting variables that arose based on causes and conditions. Furthermore, the causes and conditions for our conception and birth are, in fact, also the causes for our death. This is because those causes and conditions – the meeting of our father’s sperm, our mother’s egg and our bardo consciousness – lasts only a moment. The meeting of the three is grossly nonstatic. It doesn’t last and doesn’t continue to generate each successive moment of our lives. In fact, that meeting is the initial cause responsible for the fact that this lifetime will end. If we weren’t conceived and born, we wouldn’t die; we die because we were conceived and born. Because of that, each moment of our lives we draw closer to our death as our lifespan is affected by other fleeting causes and conditions that lack the potency of the causes that started it.

There are certain types of affecting variables that degenerate from the start, like our lifespan. There are other kinds that change all the time but don’t actually degenerate, like the conventional nature of our mind. That’s not going to degenerate; but, still it’s subject to a subtle nonstaticness, in this case, one with no beginning and no end. Our mind’s conventional nature to experience things with clarity and awareness changes from moment to moment in the sense that, as what we experience changes each moment, our experiencing of it also changes. In other words, our experiencing of a certain situation arises based on so many causes and conditions to make that situation, and that’s constantly changing. Therefore, what we’re experiencing is constantly changing. However, the experiencing itself of situations, as a phenomenon, is not degenerating. It’s not getting weaker and weaker and drawing toward its final end, although each specific lifetime does.

Think of a mental continuum being like a line, lasting forever with no beginning, no end. In general, it is not going moment to moment to its end, because there is no end. But in each lifetime, that line sort of jumps up at conception and then goes down like a hill to the end of that lifetime. Then it jumps up to the beginning of the next lifetime and then goes down again. In this way, each lifetime is drawing to its end, but the continuity of the line goes on forever.

Depending on our compulsive karmic urges in past lifetimes, the disturbing emotions that incite them and the karmic aftermath that acting upon them build up – the tendencies and habits to repeat those actions – our mental continuum will contain the experiences of the five aggregates of our present or a future lifetime. These aggregates arise as the basis and content of what we experience in that lifetime. In that lifetime, our metal continuum will be associated with a particular life form and its types of experience, like experiencing a lifetime as a dog, a cockroach, a Mexican human woman, a Russian human male, and so on. The life forms our mental continuums assume change from one lifetime to the next. It’s not that our mental continuum is inherently a female one or a dog one. Each mental continuum is individual, but it doesn’t have one specific identity of one particular lifetime that remans with it forever. 

Obviously, it will require a long time to digest all the implications of that in terms of how we relate to ourselves in our present life form and to absolutely everybody else, including the cockroaches. As this is just an introduction to these four hallmarks, let’s move onto the next.

Whatever Is Tainted Is Suffering

The second sealing point or hallmark is that whatever is tainted is suffering, in other words problematic. Tainted (zag-bcas) is usually translated as contaminated, but that term is really a bit heavy-handed. According to Vasubandhu’s definition in A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha), tainted phenomena are those that cause tainted phenomena "to increase." In other words, they are those items that cause more tainted phenomena to occur. To understand this definition, we need to know that “tainted" has the general meaning of something that arises dependently on disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic urges. 

Tainted phenomena ripen in the form of the five aggregates of our experience from the aftermath of karma on our mental continuum. The compulsive karmic urges that leave this aftermath arise based on our disturbing emotions. Our disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic urges, and so again our five aggregates, come from our unawareness or ignorance about how we exist. If our tainted aggregates are accompanied by unawareness, they perpetuate and bring about more tainted aggregates. This cycle will continue uncontrollably until we attain a true stopping of our unawareness. Until then, our five aggregates are problematic and forms of suffering because they are tainted phenomena.

Types of Suffering

There are three types of suffering or problematic experiences:

  • The first is the suffering of pain and unhappiness.
  • Second is the problem of things changing all the time. That refers to our ordinary happiness in that it’s not going to last, it’s never enough, it’s never satisfying, and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to come next. It’s very insecure.
  • The third type of problem is called the all-pervasive problem. This refers to our moment-to-moment experience, uncontrollably consisting of tainted aggregates. If what we experience is coming as the result of our disturbing emotions and compulsive karmic urges, and if, not being arhats (liberated beings), we still have disturbing emotions building up more and more karmic aftermath, we will continue to produce more moments of disturbing emotions and more karmic urges. The tainted aggregates that ripen from this karmic aftermath will be the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering, either pain and unhappiness or unsatisfying, ordinary happiness. That’s the all-pervasive problem.

This is also very profound. What we are experiencing in each moment, difficulties and so on, are arising because of our disturbing emotions and past compulsive behavior. We’re still confused and so we respond to what we experience with unawareness of how we actually exist and, in doing that, we make even more problems. What’s worse, if we don’t do something about this situation, it’s going to go on forever. It’s going to be one problem after another after another from one lifetime to another to another, forever. No matter what’s going to happen to us, we’re going to have disturbing emotions, act on our ignorant, compulsive urges and just make more of a mess. In this way, we uncontrollably continue to experience more problems. That’s the all-pervasive suffering.

All Phenomena Are Devoid and Lacking an Impossible Soul

The third sealing point is that all phenomena are devoid and lacking an impossible soul (bdag-med). This terminology is usually translated as “void and selfless,” but instead of selfless, I prefer the term “lacking an impossible soul,” since the Sanskrit terms is anatman, meaning not the atman that is asserted by non-Buddhist Indian systems. 

What does an impossible soul refer to? Among the Buddhist tenet systems, all refute an impossible soul of persons, while only the Mahayana tenets also refute an impossible soul of phenomena. Since these four hallmarks pertain to all Buddhist tenet systems, then in this context, the third hallmark refutes only that our aggregates do not have an impossible soul of persons. As for all phenomena, it refutes only that all phenomena can be possible objects of use or cognition of an impossible soul of persons.

In most of the tenet systems, there are two levels of impossible soul of a person.

  • The coarse impossible soul is a soul that we identify with as the real “me” – one that is static, a monolithic whole with no parts, and which can exist independently of a body and mind, in other words independently of the five aggregates. It’s as if there were some separate “soul” independent of all that we experience, a separate “me” that’s using our body and “mind” as a machine to experience things and is the speaker of the voice in our heads.
  • The subtle impossible soul is a “me,” a person that is self-sufficiently knowable. To be “self-sufficiently knowable” means a “soul,” “me,” that could be known all by itself, independently of the aggregates. 

This is what is meant by an impossible soul. Such a soul is impossible; there’s no separate soul that could be known by itself that we can find and say, “That’s me.” There is no such thing as some separately existent, separately knowable soul.

In this third sealing point we have the two terms: “devoid” and “lacking an impossible soul.” According to some presentations, “devoid’ means that our aggregates, our experience, do not have or are devoid of a person, a “me,” that exists as a coarse impossible soul. “Lacking an impossible soul” refers to the aggregates lacking a subtle impossible soul. According to another presentation, “devoid” means that our aggregates are devoid of a person, a “me,” that exists as an impossible soul that is either identical with or totally separate from the aggregates. The term “lacking an impossible soul” is the conclusion that logically follows. We can conclude that among all knowable phenomena, there’s no such thing as an impossible soul of a person. In the Prasangika presentation, this third sealing point refers to a person, “me,” being devoid of and lacking a self-established, inherent identity.

It is essential to understand this third hallmark. The aggregates that make up our experience don’t have a separate soul that can be known by itself, or a soul that is identical with one or all of them. That’s very significant. Not having that understanding leads to confusion and difficulties. For example, we may think, “I’m trying to find the real me and know the real me,” as if we could ever know a real “me” separate from our experience. There is no self or soul that is static and unchanging, monolithic, and independently existent and which can be “found” and known as the “real me,” independently of anything else.

Nirvana Is Peace

The fourth sealing point is that nirvana is peace. This means that it is possible to get rid of the tainted aggregates and gain liberation. In other words, if we can realize the third point, that these aggregates are lacking some separate, self-sufficiently knowable self and that there is no such thing, then we achieve liberation. That’s nirvana; and it’s peace because it’s the end of all-pervasive suffering. 

We can see how this actually all fits together very nicely with the teachings on the four noble truths as well. The first two hallmarks – all affecting variables are nonstatic and all tainted phenomena are suffering – describe the first two noble truths: true suffering and true origins of suffering. The third and fourth hallmarks – all phenomena are devoid and lack an impossible soul and nirvana is peace – refer to the third noble truth, true stoppings of sufferings and their causes. They also indicate indirectly the fourth noble truth, true pathway minds or non-conceptual understandings of the lack of an impossible soul that bring about true stoppings.

Our five aggregates, then, as affecting variables, are nonstatic. Because they arise from and contain unawareness, they are tainted; and because they are tainted with unawareness, they perpetuate suffering and are in fact suffering. However, our aggregates are devoid of and lack an impossible soul. Through non-conceptual cognition of that lack of an impossible soul, we attain nirvana, which is peace in the sense that our aggregates become free of the disturbances of true suffering and its true causes.

Original Audio from the Seminar