Four seals

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The four seals (Skt. caturmudrā; T. phyag rgya bzhi ཕྱག་རྒྱ་བཞི་; C. siyin 四印) are considered to be the fundamental tenents of Buddhist philosophy in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.[1]

These seals are described as "disguishing characteristics" of Buddhism. From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, "if all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.”[2]

This formulation is also sometimes used in the East Asian Buddhist tradition; the East Asian tradition also refers to the three dharma seals.

The Four Seals in English

There are multiple translations of the expression of the four seals into English.

Geshe Thupten Jinpa translates the four seals as follows:

  1. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent and suffering
  2. All contaminated phenomena are, by nature, suffering
  3. All phenomena are empty of self-existence
  4. Nirvana is true peace.[1]

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche translates the four seals as follows:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent
  2. All emotions are painful
  3. All phenomena are without inherent existence
  4. Nirvana is beyond description[2]

The Four Seals in Tibetan

The four seals are expressed in the Tibetan language as follows:[3]

༈ འདུ་བྱེད་ཐམས་ཅད་མི་རྟག་ཅིང༌།
མྱ་ངན་ལས་འདས་པ་ཞི་བའོ། །

The four seals are referred to by different names in the Tibetan language. For example:

  • ཕྱག་རྒྱ་བཞི་ (Wyl. phyag rgya bzhi) - the four seals
  • ཆོས་རྟགས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་བཞི་ (Wyl. chos rtags kyi phyag rgya bzhi) - four seals proving the dharma[4]
  • བཀར་བཏགས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་བཞི་ (Wyl. bkar btags kyi phyag rgya bzhi) - the four seals which distinguish the view[5]
  • ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྡོམ་བཞི་ (Wyl. chos kyi sdom bzhi) - four summaries of the dharma[6]

Significance of the Four Seals

The four seals are said to be the hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching, and it is often said that the mark of a real Buddhist is that he or she accepts these four. On the physical level, taking refuge is said to be the entrance to the Buddhist path, and that which serves to distinguish Buddhists from non-Buddhists. But in terms of right view, these four statements encapsulate the uniqueness of the Buddha’s teachings and set the Buddhadharma apart from all other religions and philosophies.[3]

Origin of this expression

Phillip Stanley has noted that the four seals do not appear in the early Tibetan sources on Buddhist terminology, the Mahavyutpatti, Madhyavyutpatti, or Kawa Paltsek's Memoranda on Dharmic Enumerations (Wyl. chos kyi rnam grangs kyi brjed byang). According to his research, the first Tibetan author to mention the four seals was Longchen Rabjam in his Treasury of Philosophical Tenets. The scholar Butön mentions 'three seals', an enumeration that is also to be found in Indian sources, such as Shakyaprabha's Prabhāvatī ('od ldan).[7]

Formulations in other traditions

The formulation of the basic tenets, or dharma seals is expressed differently in other traditions.

Three seals

In East Asian Buddhism, it is more common to identify three, rather than four, dharma seals. The three dharma seals are:

  • Impermanence
  • Not-self
  • Nirvana

Three marks of existence

In the Theravada tradition, and the three marks of existence are:

  • Impermanence
  • Not-self
  • Dukkha

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dalai Lama 2000, p. 101.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzongsar (March 1, 2000). "Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma". Lion's Roar. Retrieved Dec 5, 2018. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 RW icon height 18px.png Four seals, Rigpa Shedra Wiki
  4. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg chos_rtags_kyi_phyag_rgya_bzhi, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki
  5. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg bkar_btags_kyi_phyag_rgya_bzhi, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki
  6. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg chos_kyi_sdom_bzhi, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki
  7. From: D. Phillip Stanley,The Threefold Formal, Practical, and Inclusive Canons of Tibetan Buddhism in the Context of a Pan-Asian Paradigm (Doct.Diss.), University of Virginia, 2009, pp. 149-154


Further Reading

  • Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not a Buddhist (Shambhala publications, 2007)
  • Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Indisputable Truth (Rangjung Yeshe, 1996)
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dzogchen (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2000), pages 101-106
  • The Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002), pages 91-97
  • Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), pages 37-39
  • Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge Vol. 4 (Rangjung Yeshe publications, 2012)
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö, The Four Seals of Dharma, downloadable here