“We are all practicing to become the person we will become next.” ~ Andrew Olendzki
“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.”
Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.
~Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta (DN 16)
I hope you are well and enjoying the goodness of impermanence. We see this in the spring that is causing the daffodils to emerge and the birds making plans for new families. Witnessing change and the moment to moment shift of living is a central part of the meditative path. Impermanence (anicca) is one of the three marks of existence, the inescapable truths all beings encounter in life, from the smallest single-celled animal to the complexities of the human experience. Everything changes whether we like it or not. The things that bring us happiness do not last and holding onto the pleasure we encounter on this worldly plane will not give us liberation and freedom but ties us to a continued enmeshment in searching for lasting happiness where it doesn’t exist. And we are not permanent. This idea of self that we see as a separate and discreet is really the confluence of systems and cooperation that stretches wider than my mind can grasp. I am constantly in the process of cellular birth and death and will one day, “wake up dead,” and transition into a new and unknown form of being.
Impermanence is not personal and can sound like a tremendous bummer, but this understanding is also a way out of the suffering of attaching to what is a chimera. The last instructions of the Buddha to his sangha stressed the importance of minding the change in what appears unchangeable. He told his sangha ‘”I exhort you, monks: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.’ Those were the Tathagata’s last words”’ (SN 6.5, Thanissaro trans). Given the weight of timing, we could argue that contemplating impermanence is where we should spend our time.
In the Sutta, The Eight Realizations of Great Beings, translated from the Pali to Chinese, then to English by Thich Nhat Hanh, “The First Realization is the awareness that the world is impermanent. Political regimes are subject to fall. Things composed of the four elements are empty, containing within them the seeds of suffering. Human beings are composed of Five Aggregates and are without a separate self. They are always in the process of change – constantly being born and constantly dying. They are empty of self and without a separate existence. The mind is the source of all confusion, and the body the forest of all unwholesome actions. Meditating on this, you can be released from the round of birth and death ” ( 2006, Taisho Revised Tripitaka, No. 779). This teaching illustrates the hope and reward associated with contemplating impermanence.
Indeed, beings comprised of the five aggregates, form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness are not independently arising and subject to birth and death. When we see this truth we can stand apart from our identification with political ideologies and our quest for becoming somebody. When we see that the government—even ones as powerful as the US, Russia, or China are impermanent and we have witnessed or know about turnovers in these regimes before, yet it seems unthinkable that there could be a paradigm shift in something so solid as the US Constitution or the House of Lords.
When we look with our dharma eyes we see that we aren’t the Democrats or Republicans we think we are; we are transient phenomenon inhabiting a temporary construct, this society, and even this earth. The Buddha recognized that his teachings here on earth are subject to change and dissolution. There is nothing that will not change. Socially engaged spirituality teacher Donald Rothberg told about his own practice of contemplating impermanence for five minutes every day. We can do this through noticing the shifts in our body, mind, and emotions and also noting the beginning, middle and ending of sounds around us. He did this daily exercise for years and recommends it as a way to free us from delusion.
Reflecting on impermanence in my day, I see that the morning is now a sunset. Grey clouds are gathering on the horizon. My body is different than it was. I am not hungry the way I was around 4:00 today. I’m a bit sleepy and I need to turn on a light because it’s now dark in this room where I’m writing. I hear the refrigerator make a noise, then stop. There’s an engine, now it’s gone. My spouse just came in through the garage door. I hear footsteps, now I don’t. Even as I write this I see changes in my surroundings and in myself. My mind is returning to an earlier email that caused some concern and moving ahead to the two tasks I need to do before bed.
Looking into the past, I can imagine myself as two cells, then four, eight, and a developing fetus. I know there was a time I was pre-verbal (there are photos to prove it!) and now I can speak English and poor Spanish. With impermanence, maybe I can speak better Spanish, or if I don’t practice, it will be worse Spanish. Impermanence makes learning possible. My dog’s leg can heal in an impermanent world, babies grow and buds become leaves to feed the trees. With impermanence, we can affect change, but we are not owned by the conditions of this embodied existence. We are free to become what we choose. When we get comfortable with impermanence we can see the preciousness of this time in this body, on this earth, in all the pleasant and unpleasantness. This lifetime is our classroom for waking up from the so serious ideas of ownership, and identity. When we see through the veil of permanent we lose identification to the I, me, and mine and recognize that we are all just visiting here—let us take good care of these borrowed bodies, this lovely home—our planet, and our beloved ones we get to appreciate right now.
May we all trust our light,