A co-worker of mine in China gave this book to my project’s game designer, who really did not like it, but I’ve always been interested in Buddhism, so he gave it to me. Despite being a committed Christian who has been experiencing God’s love and leading in Ps 63:3 sort of way (“Because Your steadfast love is better than life...”), Buddhism has always seemed to be a very rational approach to the world. Incorrect, but without the knowledge of a loving God, very rational, so I have always wanted to learn more. This book was very helpful in explaining Buddhism in a way that makes sense. The author, who, judging from his depth of knowledge of American culture, presumably grew up in the US, wrote this book to wake up those Americans that kind of cherry-pick a few be-nice-to-everything Buddhist philosophies and think that they are Buddhist. He simply walks through the basic tenets of Buddhism and shows how you cannot be living the American life the way we usually do and call yourself a Buddhist.

A Buddhist is simply one who accepts the four seals and lives accordingly. These four seals, discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince whose father tried to protect him from everything bad. He discovered death anyway, which led him to embark on a thoughtful pursuit of how to fix the problem of death that resulted in these four discoveries about the nature of reality:
  1. All compounded things are impermanent
  2. All emotions are pain
  3. All things have no inherent existence
  4. Nirvana is beyond concepts
The reason why we die, Gautama discovered, is that all compounded things are impermanent. Because they are made up of multiple things, they must change, hence they are impermanent. Everything around us is made of more than one thing (down to even the protons and neutrons, it turns out, which are made up of three quarks), so everything is impermanent. So we need to accept that we are impermanent. Everything is impermanent; we are no different. Interestingly, impermanence is good news, because it means that our situation is not permanent; it can be changed. In particular, the pain of death can be eliminated: we cannot be trapped in pain, we need simply accept the inevitability and we will be free.

Part of the problem is that all emotions are pain. We have many desires, yet they are all unfulfillable, because everything is impermanent (and even worse, they do not even really exist). The author gives many examples of how we chase after happiness: we think we will be fulfilled through a relationship, our career, having a family, the security that money appears to buy, the things that money can buy, etc. In fact, what we think happiness may change depending on our stage of life: having kids when we don’t have them, having them out of the house when we do. Ascetism is not the solution, it is just going to an extreme. The problem is that we are consumed with ourselves, but that is ignorance: there is no “self” since we are just an assembly of smaller things. Thus, emotions are pain because they distract us from the truth and encourage us to live as if things really are permanent.

Yet, since all things are compounded, nothing has inherent existence. Emptiness is the only reality, since emptiness cannot be composed of multiple things. Thus what we perceive as reality is just an illusion. It is relative to us, it is not absolute; only emptiness is absolute. One consequence of this fact that everything is emptiness is that there is no big or small, great or worthless. The author gives a good illustration: two Tibetan monks we walking in empty grassland when it started to rain. There was no trees or shelter of any kind, so the older monk took shelter in an empty yak’s horn. The horn did not become larger, nor did the monk become smaller. He called to the younger monk that there was still space, but the younger monk was not able to join him because he did not comprehend the reality that everything is emptiness.

Finally, nirvana is beyond concepts. It is not happiness; Buddhists do not seek happiness, they follow the path that brings freedom from pain: the realization that all compounded things are impermanent, and as such, do not really exist. Enlightenment is beyond feelings, time, self, etc. When you truly understand that everything is impermanent, including yourself, it does not matter whether you are happy, it does not matter if someone praises you or not; it is all emptiness. That is simply ignorance, from which you were enlightened, and you are now free to compassionately help others realize the truth (everyone has the buddha-nature, the ability to become enlightened). Note that since nirvana is beyond concepts, eventually you need to leave the four seals; it, and the Buddhist practices, are simply the path to lead you there, but they are not enlightenment itself.

This next comment may seem rather random, but as I was reading this, I was struck by how very Buddhist the movie The Matrix is its outlook. In fact, this book made the movie make sense. It also made sense of the seemingly contradictory Buddhist statements, such as the one in the movie: “Do not try to bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, try to realize the truth ... that there is no spoon.” The matrix is not real, and we are trapped in it by our own ignorance in thinking that it is real. In reality, nothing in the matrix really exists. Thus, when Neo realizes this, he is no longer bound by the matrix, and is able to break the rules. Like the monk, he is not bound by biggness or smallness, or in Neo’s case, gravity, speed, or strength.

Despite Buddhism and Christianity have very opposing views of reality, both have very similar views on the nature of the problem. Christianity says that the essence of humanity is a relationship with the God who created us for this relationship. We were designed for this relationship and apart from it we cannot function (just as a car designed for gasoline cannot run on diesel fuel, not matter how much it might want to). Sin is ultimately us living for ourselves, trying to satisfy our desires our way, instead of letting God fulfill them. Just as Buddhists see our hedonistic living for our own satisfaction as the problem, so Christianity also sees our living for our own satisfaction as the problem. In fact, as I have matured in my relationship with God, I have seen more and more how my desiring my own happiness is the fundamental self-worship that the Bible calls “sin.” I have even seen how it is pain: I want, but do not or cannot have. On this we agree: Buddhists would say that my love of myself is the cause of my pain.

However, the prescriptions given by Buddhism and Christianity are very different, because the underlying worldviews are very different. Buddhism says that all compounded things are impermanent and therefore not real; the only reality is emptiness and that realizing this is the solution. Christianity says that God is not compounded, and all compounded things were made by God, and that they have no inherent life apart from God. It says that we were made for Him, and that our abandoning Him to love ourselves is both foolish and also an affront to God (because all God’s arrows point out; all our arrows point in, to ourselves, and so we now have a character and essential value that is opposed to God and that is destructive). To fix this problem, Christ, God, paid the punishment for our idolatrous self-love, and invites us to return to Him, to trust that He will provide for the needs that He created us with. Reality is not emptiness, and if we accept the invitation, reality can be relationship. Instead of emptiness, God offers us fullness. Interestingly, the Bible describes the results of this in us similarly to the results of the four seals: when we can trust God to fulfill our needs, we can stop seeking ourselves, we can be freely generous; our arrows will begin pointing outward, just like God’s. However, there is still one big difference: the Christian ends up with a fulfilling relationship from which this love and generosity flows, but the Buddhist ends up with emptiness. (Actually, if Christianity is true, the Buddhist probably ends up in an eternity in Hell, being trapped with all his arrows pointing inwards in opposition to the character of the loving God)

I also think that Buddhism, at least as described in the book, has two major logical errors. First, from a logical standpoint, change does not necessarily imply impermanence. Logically, something could be constantly changing, yet never cease to exist. Thus, it is possible that God as described in the Bible can exist: He experiences the reality He has made, and he also sometimes changes His actions based on our requests and our obedience or disobedience, so he changes, but logically, He can be permanent as He claims to be. Second, while we are impermanent, even if the reality we experience is wrong, it does not imply that reality can be whatever we make it. It is logically possible (and consistent with experience) that we share a reality. If we do share a (incorrect) reality, we cannot necessarily break the rules of that reality: if we are embedded in a shared reality, presumably we are also bound by it, and logically, the bond is not necessarily breakable just because we have a new understanding.

However, this is definitely a good introduction to Buddhism, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in understanding Buddhism (or for the kind of people who think they are Buddhist because they like the values of nonviolence and of being kind to living things). The author gives the thought process behind the truth claims of the four Buddhist seals, gives many illustrations of how we do not live as Buddhists, and what Buddhist life looks like if these seals are true and we live by them.
Review: 9
The author gives an explanation of the seals in a way that is very understandable to modern ears. He gives a great many examples that demonstrate how we are living for ourselves, and he gives a clear explanation of the consequences of the Buddhist truth claims. He also uses good teaching practices, such as constantly repeating the four seals, so that by the end of the book, the reader is sure to have remembered them.