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The Second Seal:
All Emotions are Painful
The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means “contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or duality.
Certain emotions, such as aggression or jealousy, we naturally regard as pain. But what about love and affection, kindness and devotion, those nice, light and lovely emotions? We don’t think of them as painful; nevertheless, they imply duality, and this means that, in the end, they are a source of pain.
The dualistic mind includes almost every thought we have. Why is this painful? Because it is mistaken. Every dualistic mind is a mistaken mind, a mind that doesn’t understand the nature of things. So how are we to understand duality? It is subject and object: ourselves on the one hand and our experience on the other. This kind of dualistic perception is mistaken, as we can see in the case of different persons perceiving the same object in different ways. A man might think a certain woman is beautiful and that is his truth. But if that were some kind of absolute, independent kind of truth, then everyone else also would have to see her as beautiful as well. Clearly, this is not a truth that is independent of everything else. It is dependent on your mind; it is your own projection.
The dualistic mind creates a lot of expectations—a lot of hope, a lot of fear. Whenever there is a dualistic mind, there is hope and fear. Hope is perfect, systematized pain. We tend to think that hope is not painful, but actually it’s a big pain. As for the pain of fear, that’s not something we need to explain.
The Buddha said, “Understand suffering.” That is the first Noble Truth. Many of us mistake pain for pleasure—the pleasure we now have is actually the very cause of the pain that we are going to get sooner or later. Another Buddhist way of explaining this is to say that when a big pain becomes smaller, we call it pleasure. That’s what we call happiness.
Moreover, emotion does not have some kind of inherently real existence. When thirsty people see a mirage of water, they have a feeling of relief: “Great, there’s some water!” But as they get closer, the mirage disappears. That is an important aspect of emotion: emotion is something that does not have an independent existence.
This is why Buddhists conclude that all emotions are painful. It is because they are impermanent and dualistic that they are uncertain and always accompanied by hopes and fears. But ultimately, they don’t have, and never have had, an inherently existent nature, so, in a way, they are not worth much. Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them.
Question: Is compassion an emotion?
People like us have dualistic compassion, whereas the Buddha’s compassion does not involve subject and object. From a buddha’s point of view, compassion could never involve subject and object. This is what is called mahakaruna—great compassion.
I’m having difficulty accepting that all emotions are pain.
Okay, if you want a more philosophical expression, you can drop the word “emotion” and simply say, “All that is dualistic is pain.” But I like using the word “emotion” because it provokes us.
Isn’t pain impermanent?
Yeah! If you know this, then you’re all right. It’s because we don’t know this that we go through a lot of hassles trying to solve our problems. And that is the second biggest problem we have—trying to solve our problems.
The Third Seal:
All Phenomena are Empty; They Are Without Inherent Existence
When we say “all,” that means everything, including the Buddha, enlightenment, and the path. Buddhists define a phenomenon as something with characteristics, and as an object that is conceived by a subject. To hold that an object is something external is ignorance, and it is this that prevents us from seeing the truth of that object.
The truth of a phenomenon is called shunyata, emptiness, which implies that the phenomenon does not possess a truly existent essence or nature. When a deluded person or subject sees something, the object seen is interpreted as something really existent. However, as you can see, the existence imputed by the subject is a mistaken assumption. Such an assumption is based on the different conditions that make an object appear to be true; this, however, is not how the object really is. It’s like when we see a mirage: there is no truly existing object there, even though it appears that way. With emptiness, the Buddha meant that things do not truly exist as we mistakenly believe they do, and that they are really empty of that falsely imputed existence.
It is because they believe in what are really just confused projections that sentient beings suffer. It was as a remedy for this that the Buddha taught the Dharma. Put very simply, when we talk about emptiness, we mean that the way things appear is not the way they actually are. As I said before when speaking about emotions, you may see a mirage and think it is something real, but when you get close, the mirage disappears, however real it may have seemed to begin with.
Emptiness can sometimes be referred to as dharmakaya, and in a different context we could say that the dharmakaya is permanent, never changing, all pervasive, and use all sorts of beautiful, poetic words. These are the mystical expressions that belong to the path, but for the moment, we are still at the ground stage, trying to get an intellectual understanding. On the path, we might portray Buddha Vajradhara as a symbol of dharmakaya, or emptiness, but from an academic point of view, even to think of painting the dharmakaya is a mistake.
The Buddha taught three different approaches on three separate occasions. These are known as The Three Turnings of the Wheel, but they can be summed up in a single phrase: “Mind; there is no mind; mind is luminosity.”
The first, “Mind,” refers to the first set of teachings and shows that the Buddha taught that there is a “mind.” This was to dispel the nihilistic view that there is no heaven, no hell, no cause and effect. Then, when the Buddha said, “There is no mind,” he meant that mind is just a concept and that there is no such thing as a truly existing mind. Finally, when he said, “Mind is luminous,” he was referring to buddhanature, the undeluded or primordially existing wisdom.
The great commentator Nagarjuna said that the purpose of the first turning was to get rid of non-virtue. Where does the non-virtue come from? It comes from being either eternalist or nihilist. So in order to put an end to non-virtuous deeds and thoughts, the Buddha gave his first teaching. The second turning of the Dharma-wheel, when the Buddha spoke about emptiness, was presented in order to dispel clinging to a “truly existent self” and to “truly existent phenomena.” Finally, the teachings of the third turning were given to dispel all views, even the view of no-self. The Buddha’s three sets of teaching do not seek to introduce something new; their purpose is simply to clear away confusion.