The Four Hallmarks of the Dharma

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It’s always helpful in the discussion of any topic in Buddhism is to see where the topic fits into a larger context. Usually we try to understand where it fits into the presentation of the four noble truths or in the context of the four sealing points for labeling an outlook as based on enlightening words (lta-ba bka’-btags-gyi phyag-rgya-bzhi) or the four hallmarks of the Dharma (chos-kyi sdom-pa bzhi). What it means is the four characteristics that define a view, an outlook on life, as being a Buddhist one (i.e. it’s being based on what Buddha said). So the four features of a general teaching that make it Buddhist

It’s important to realize that a large amount of what we find in the Buddhist teachings are not uniquely Buddhist. You find them in most of the other Indian systems. Buddha, after all, lived in India and taught to Indians within a cultural context. Some of the features we find in Western systems as well, such as renouncing this life and wanting a better future life. We find that in Christianity as well, so that’s not at all particularly Buddhist. Right? Or all the teachings on concentration and these sort of things: you find them everywhere in Indian teachings.

So what we really always have to focus on in any teaching, starting from precious human rebirth on up, is making it a Buddhist teaching – in other words, fitting it into the four noble truths and these four sealing points. Otherwise it’s not Buddhist. Let’s see how the five aggregates fit into the discussion of these four sealing points.

All Affecting Variables Are Nonstatic

The first one is that all affecting variables (’du-byed) are nonstatic. That’s sometimes translated as all collected phenomena are impermanent, but I have objections to a lot of the standard vocabulary. All affecting variables: “variables” are something that changes. “Affecting” is that it’s affected by other things and it affects yet other things. Impermanent is very misleading because it gives the impression that something lasts only a short time. We’re not talking about that. Something could go on forever, like the mental continuum. We’re talking about something that’s nonstatic – it changes from moment to moment.

So these affecting variables, that’s the five aggregates. There’s all these different factors. Basically it’s everything that changes. All these things that arise based on causes, they arise based on causes and conditions and affect other things. So our parents, our environment, the weather, history – I mean, absolutely everything affects how we feel, our emotions, affects what we experience in life, doesn’t it? How we experience life and how we feel about it, that’s going to affect not only our own future experience but it affects everybody else’s experience that we interact with.

Affecting variable: it changes from moment to moment. And this point says all affecting variables are nonstatic. So that means that they change from moment to moment. Why? Because conditions and causes change from moment to moment, and they’re affected by them. That’s very, very profound to actually realize. Because for instance, when we are in a certain mood, we tend to think that this mood is here to last, 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. It’s changing all the time. There’s nothing solid about it.

This is referring to what we call subtle nonstaticness. There’s 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. Like for instance if we buy a car, eventually it’s going to break. Or the glass is eventually going to break. That’s gross nonstaticness. In this particular lifetime, our life is eventually going to end. When it ends, that’s the gross nonstaticness.
  • And the subtle nonstaticness is to realize not just that we’re going to die someday but that every single moment is changing and growing closer to that point when we will die.

Our death has to eventually come. It’s changing from moment to moment and getting closer and closer to its final end, and we’ll finally finish. Why? Because it’s an affecting variable. It’s a specific type of affecting variable. It arose based on causes and conditions, and those causes and conditions are fragile, and they’re changing all the time. And so because it’s dependent, when those causes and conditions are no longer there, it’s going to end.

There are certain types of affecting variables that are degenerating from when they start, like our lifespan. And there are other things which change all the time but which actually don’t degenerate, like the conventional nature of mind. That’s not going to degenerate, but still it’s a subtle type of nonstaticness because it has no beginning and no end, but still it’s going to change from moment to moment because obviously our experiencing of things changes as we experience different things, affected by what we experience. In other words, our experiencing of a certain situation arises based on so many causes and conditions that make that situation, and that’s constantly changing, so what we’re experiencing is constantly changing. But the experiencing itself, as a phenomenon, is not degenerating. It’s not getting weaker and weaker and drawing toward its final end, although a specific lifetime does.

It’s probably not so easy to understand. It’s a little bit difficult perhaps to understand. I don’t want to just leave you with something that’s puzzling. So if you think of a mental continuum, it’s like a line, forever – no beginning, no end. Right? So it’s not in general going to its end, because there is no end. But in each lifetime, that line sort of jumps up and then goes down like a hill to the end of that lifetime, and then it jumps up to the beginning of the next lifetime and then goes down again, and like that. So each lifetime is drawing to its end, but the continuity of the line goes on forever.

Depending on what we’ve done, our actions, and the tendencies and habits that we’ve built up, then – the five aggregates – what we’re going to experience in any particular lifetime will be associated with a particular life form and a particular type of life, like a dog experience or an experience of a cockroach lifetime or a Mexican human female lifetime or a Russian male lifetime. It’s changing all the time. It’s individual, but it doesn’t have one specific identity of one particular lifetime; it’s not that it’s always a female mental continuum or a dog mental continuum.

We could spend several years thinking about what I just said, and obviously it requires a very long time to actually digest that and all the implications of that, in terms of not only how we relate to ourselves but how we relate to absolutely everybody else, not just the cockroaches. So we’ll leave that. That’s only our first point, sorry.

Whatever Is Tainted Is Suffering

The second sealing point is that whatever is tainted is suffering or problematic. Tainted (zag-bcas) is usually translated as contaminated, but I don’t like that term; that’s really a bit gross. Tainted here means that it arises dependently on disturbing emotions and attitudes and on karmic urges – karmic causes, causes and conditions – so coming from disturbing emotions and karma.

Tainted phenomena are things that are ripening from basically karma, which is based on our disturbing emotions, and that is the five aggregates. They’re coming from basically our unawareness or ignorance. And also it can be, but not necessarily, accompanied by unawareness or ignorance, more disturbing emotions. Like with an arhat, it’s not necessarily still accompanied with it, although their body came from karma from before they died in their previous life. And if it’s accompanied by these disturbing emotions or our unawareness, it brings on more (unless it’s the last moment before a true stopping of it).

So all of these are problematic, they’re suffering, these types of phenomena – our five aggregates, basically – tainted aggregates. So these are tainted aggregates we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the aggregates that make up a Buddha’s experience; they’re untainted.

When we talk about problematic or suffering, there are three types of suffering or problems, and we’re talking about the third type.

  • The first one is just the suffering of pain, unhappiness.
  • The second one is the problem of things changing all the time. That’s referring to our ordinary happiness – that it’s not going to last, and it’s never enough, it’s never satisfying, and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to come next, so it’s very insecure.
  • The third type of problem is called the all-pervasive problem. This is what we’re talking about here. If what we experience is coming from our disturbing emotions and karma, and if we’re not arhats (so it still has disturbing emotions and it’s building up more karma), it’s going to produce more moments of disturbing emotions, more karma, which will be the basis for 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, if you think of it. What I’m experiencing, this difficulty and so on, it’s coming because of my disturbing emotions and all this stuff in the past, and I’m still confused, and if I don’t do something about it, it’s going to go on forever. It’s going to be changing all the time – it’s nonstatic – it’s going to be one problem after another after another from one lifetime to another to another, forever. And so that is really, to put it in colloquial English, a drag. That’s the all-pervasive suffering. And no matter what’s going to happen to us, we’re going to get disturbing emotions, and we’re going to just make more of a mess and experience all of that.

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). That’s the terminology. That’s usually translated as void and selfless, but selfless is too vague a word.

Impossible soul. You have to use a general word like that to cover all the tenet systems. So what is this referring to? We had this already in our definition of mind with that word only (tsam, mere). What is the impossible soul that they’re talking about here? It’s what’s called the subtle impossible soul in most of the schools. This is referring to a “me” as a person that exists as a separate “soul” that is self-sufficiently knowable – that could be known by itself independent of the aggregates (in other words, independent of experience, what I’m experiencing) – that there’s some separate “soul.” It’s like what I was saying about the separate “me” that’s using a machine, “mind,” to experience things. So this is a soul. I mean, usually in most philosophies we think of that as a soul. I call it an impossible soul, which is much too confusing. So there’s no separate soul that could be known by itself (“That’s me”).

So here we have two terms, devoid and lacking an impossible soul. Devoid means that our aggregates, our experience, don’t have – they’re devoid of – a person, a “me,” that exists either as one or many self-sufficiently knowable souls. And then lacking an impossible soul is the conclusion that follows from it. So the conclusion that follows is that among all knowable phenomena, there’s no such thing as a person existing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul. So devoid means it doesn’t have one or many of these souls, and what’s usually translated as selfless is the conclusion “Well, there is no such thing as a self-sufficiently knowable soul.” That term lacking an inherent identity – that’s the way I used to translate it – is not general enough to cover actually the definition and usage in all the four tenet systems, so that’s why I say it doesn’t have an impossible soul.

So these aggregates, what’s making up our experience, don’t have a separate soul that can be known by itself. That’s very significant. You have to always put that in because that leads to a huge, huge discussion of what that means. Like “I’m trying to find the real me and know the real me,” as if I could know a real “me” separate from my experience.

I’m going into this in detail. I know that it’s not leaving very much time for the individual aggregates, but I know that you’ve been discussing and learning about these four points, and it’s important perhaps to get a little bit more clarity.

Nirvana Is Peace

The fourth point is nirvana is peace. This means that it is possible to gain liberation, that we can actually get rid of the tainted aggregates. In other words, if we can realize the third point (which is that these aggregates are lacking some separate, self-sufficiently knowable self, that there is no such thing), then we achieve liberation (that’s nirvana), and it’s peace (it’s the end of this all-pervasive suffering). So it all fits together actually very nicely with the four noble truths as well.