The Chinese characters for impermanence: 無常 (wú cháng), as calligraphed by Rev. Nonin Chowaney, http://www.prairiewindzen.org/calligraphy/impermanence.html

In recent weeks, my primary religious practice has been the contemplation of impermanence; or contemplation as impermanence. This is not necessarily intentional, in that I’d rather say that I am able to meditate for 40 minutes everyday, chant sutras in the morning, and read some Dharma in the evening. However, I can’t say this, as the new Chinese course I am in is extremely demanding and requires the vast majority of whatever time I have (there is, evidently, a reason why I’m the first monk in this program’s 40-odd year history: no-other monk would even think about it … and I don’t blame them.) So, this focus on impermanence has largely come about as a survival technique; and yet it is a rich and, ironically, an ever-present field of insights.

When I was first beginning to study Buddhism, I heard a talk by a monastic teacher about impermanence that continues to give good insight into this central teaching of the Buddha. Impermanence (anicca in Pali) is one of the Three Characteristics of Existence, the others being unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self (anatta). Everything “thing” in the universe is marked by these characteristics.

In this talk, the teacher said something to the effect, “Impermanence does not mean that things change; it means that nothing ever stays the same.”

It took me a few years until I had some measure of understanding what he meant with this quote; but I can’t know for certain, as I never asked him specifically. What the quote seems to be saying is that the word “change” assumes that there is one thing at one time that then changes into another. Impermanence, on the other hand, is not bound at all to the assumption of a thing existing in the first place. In other words, because of impermanence (and its implications), there is no-thing that changes as there is no-thing to begin with. Impermanence is inconstancy, which never allows any “thing” to settle for a moment long enough to be pinned down as any one thing more than another.

The Buddha very often implored his disciples to contemplate and reflect on impermanence, as it directs the mind toward dispassion, renunciation, and release. Even this, his very last words, were:

Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare to you: All formations are subject to dissolution; attain perfection through diligence. (DN 16)

He often taught contemplation of impermanence to break the cycle of the conceit of thinking we exist in a solid way:

Perception of impermanence should be maintained in being for the elimination of the conceit “I am,” since perception of not-self becomes established in one who perceives impermanence, and it is perception of not-self that arrives at the elimination of the conceit “I am,” which is extinction [nibbaana] here and now. (Ud Iv)

Also, as the content of Right View:

Bhikkhus, when a person sees as impermanent the eye [and the rest of the sense organs], which is impermanent, then he has right view. (SN 35.155)

Or:

It is impossible that a person with right view should see any condition [internal or external] as permanent. (MN 115)

However, ordinarily we do not actually see impermanence. We may think we do, but there is so often an ever-hoped-for and assumed constant in the form of the perceiver; someone watching something else that is impermanent. In other words, the profundity of impermanence is hidden in the familiar, which means that we don’t actually contemplate in the right way. As Buddhaghosa said in the Vissudhimagga:

The characteristic of impermanence does not become apparent because, when rise and fall are not given attention, it is concealed by continuity… However, when continuity is disrupted by discerning rise and fall, the characteristic of impermanence becomes apparent in its true nature. (Vism., Ch. xxi)

(The above quotes all were found in this excellent compilation of articles on impermanence.)

So, the task in contemplation of impermanence is to perceive correctly the “rise and fall” of what comes into awareness, including awareness itself.

Rise and fall of what? Of thoughts, the breath, time, attention, rain, love, war, words, hunger, happiness, loneliness, 6 o’clock news, desires, music, fears, work, sleep, touch, color, conversation, sounds, wind, internet blogs….

Whatever we perceive rises and falls; including the perception of rise and fall.

Impermanence is another way to describe emptiness, which is also another way to describe dependent co-arising, which is another way to talk about what we call the “middle way.” These are all pointing to the same experience: impermanence (operating as dependent co-arising) is the function of emptiness; the “middle way” (as right view) is the direct participatory-awareness of this process, with insight on how it comes into being and how it ceases. (This post talks a bit more about this relationship between emptiness and impermanence, but not much. I foolishly tried to talk about this at MABA back in early May in a Dharma talk, which can be found here, along with the accompanying .pdf)

To be clear, contemplation does not mean trying to understand what is going on. Rather, contemplation is relaxing our minds into what is already taking place. Paying attention in a completely unbiased way, open-minded, open-hearted, and open-handed. I cannot say that I have ever been successful at this, but the joy of trying is very encouraging. Indeed, sometimes I find myself smiling at a bus stop as the mind relaxes a bit into the sheer beauty of all that is moving within and without.

To end this not-so-clear post, here are some good words from Thich Nhat Hanh, the master of teaching impermanence in such breath-takingly simple ways:

The Buddha implored us not just to talk about impermanence, but to use it as an instrument to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain liberating insight. We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering. But the Buddha encouraged us to look again. Without impermanence, life is not possible. How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent? How can our daughter grow up into a beautiful young lady? How can the situation in the world improve? We need impermanence for social justice and for hope.

If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.

If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation. (Found here)

As always, I hope you are well; and thank you for reading.

We'll never be the same again.

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