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I can find various modern English-language translations (and descriptions, explanations) of the four dharma seals (e.g. on Wikipedia or on Lion's Roar); but --

  • What's the earliest or original reference (scripture) in which the seals are defined?
  • What's the best and/or the most famous original description (if that's not the same as above)?
  • In which canonical language[s] are they defined? Are they (also) defined in Pali or Sanskrit?

I'm ideally looking for all four seals together as a formula -- not e.g. the three characteristics as an early version of it, nor a text which only for example describes emptiness.

  • See also Pure Land Schools' version of the Three (or Four) Marks of Existence -- I think my new question is similar but not an exact duplicate -- also that question was self-answered but the OP was still looking for any other references. – ChrisW Aug 28 '18 at 13:25
  • I also see them named as "Four Seals of Mahamudra" -- I gather that Mahamudra is Tibetan, but that the Four Seals are East Asian Mahayana too -- and this reference relates them to the four noble truths. – ChrisW Aug 28 '18 at 13:42
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In Tibetan schools the four seals are usually presented like this:

  1. Everything that is conditioned (or "composite") is impermanent.
  2. Everything that is stained (or "tainted") brings suffering.
  3. All phenomena are empty and devoid of a self (or "of independent entity").
  4. Nirvana or ("The Realization") is peace.

The first three look like paraphrases of the original Three Marks of Existence:

  1. anicca vata sankhara (all assemblies are transitory)
  2. sabbe sankhara dukkha (all assemblies are faulty / entail pain)
  3. sabbe dhamma anatta (all phenomena are no-self or "coreless")

And here is a commentary by H.H. Dalai Lama from "The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra."

[For non-Mahayana Buddhists]

  1. never separating the actions of their body, speech and mind from the behavior shaped by the vinaya rules of ethical discipline is karmamudra, the seal of their behavior.

  2. The realization of the lack of any true, unimputed identity of a person, specifically the total absence or voidness of a person existing as a substantial entity able to stand on its own – the coarse identitylessness of a person according to the prasangika-madhyamaka presentation – is dharmamudra, the seal of their preventive measures.

  3. The state of separation from disturbing emotions and attitudes, on the basis of the abiding nature of purity, attained through meditation on the identitylessness of a person is samayamudra, the seal of their close bond.

  4. The nirvana or total release that they attain without any remainder of aggregates is mahamudra, their great seal.

[For Mahayana Buddhists having taken the vow of Bodhisattva]

  1. never separating the actions of their body, speech and mind from behavior based on practice of the six far-reaching attitudes is the seal of their behavior.

  2. Based on their practice of the six far-reaching attitudes in general, and particularly of the joint path of shamatha yoked with vipashyana, their meditation on voidness, free from all mental fabrication and fabricating, seeing that all phenomena appear but without true, inherent existence, like illusion, is the seal of their preventive measures.

  3. Through the ethical self-discipline of a bodhisattva, restraining themselves from all selfish thought or action so that they are never tainted by any stain of working for their own purposes is the seal of their close bond.

  4. Having followed a path that has had as its essence the combination of compassion and the understanding of voidness, on which they have practiced method and discriminating awareness without one having ever been missing, but rather with method always apprehended within the context of wisdom and wisdom within the context of method, their single taste of compassion and voidness is their great seal. At that point, their ultimate combined vision of both the full extent of what exists and how it all exists, being of a single taste of compassion and wisdom, totally pacifies the extreme of remaining passively in a nirvanic state of total release from all suffering.

I do not know the original/earliest source of these.

  • I think though that "tainted" in the second is a reference to Kleśa or Āsava -- not sankhara. – ChrisW Aug 28 '18 at 14:03
  • Yes, that thought has crossed my mind too. And the commentary alludes to that in "state of separation from disturbing emotions and attitudes" and "never tainted by any stain of working for their own purposes". – Andrei Volkov Aug 28 '18 at 14:05
  • So this commentary relates that the second of the four noble truths (and not to the three characteristics). Also it switches their order, i.e. its fourth is your third and vice versa. I'm not sure that stands up to close scrutiny though -- perhaps the different formulations are similar, but not quite identical. – ChrisW Aug 28 '18 at 14:08
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    Also the sequence in your first ordered list (i.e. 2=tainted and 3=empty) wasn't quite the same as the ordered sequence in H. H.'s commentary. – ChrisW Aug 28 '18 at 15:45
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According to Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

Cultivating the four establishments of mindfulness and reflecting on their specific and common characteristics enables us to understand the four seals that determine a teaching to be the Buddha's doctrine. These are mentioned in the Samadhiraja Sutra in the Sanskrit tradition: (1) all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, (2) all polluted phenomena are unsatisfactory, (3) all phenomena are empty and selfless, and (4) nirvana is true peace.

Here is the wikipedia article on the mentioned Sutra.

Apparently, this Sutra has been fully translated on http://read.84000.co/, but I haven't found it yet.

Hope this helps!

  • Thank you. The translation is here: Samādhi­rāja­sūtra. It's interesting to read. I didn't find in it the four seals listed as such though. It has bits which imply some of the seals, e.g. that eliminating kleśas is associated with peace, and that seeing that phenomena are empty (or non-existent) is associated with eliminating klesas. – ChrisW Aug 29 '18 at 8:39
  • The closest I found I suppose to the four seals as a formula was Chapter 24, which consists of lists of things associated with 4 things -- the 4 "things" being 1) the composite (it doesn't say these are impermanent though), 2) teaching the composite (I guess that should be understood as a reference to the doctrine on emptiness), 3) the kleśas (it doesn't say these are unsatisfactory), and 4) purification. – ChrisW Aug 29 '18 at 8:43

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