In the last post I mentioned unawareness. So, what are the things we are unaware of? Usually, in Buddhism, they talk about three main things, namely suffering, not-self and impermanence.
I have covered suffering in the post entitled ‘Buddha’s First Truth,’ and not-self was covered in the post called ‘How We Experience the World.’ So, I will talk about the third one, impermanence, in this post.
Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die.
Whatever is stored up is impermanent and is bound to run out.
Whatever comes together is impermanent and is bound to come apart.
Whatever is built is impermanent and is bound to collapse.
Whatever rises up is impermanent and is bound to fall down.
So also, friendship and enmity, fortune and sorrow, good and evil,
All the thoughts that run through your mind – everything is always changing.
(Patrul Rinpoche – Words of My Perfect Teacher)
In Tibetan Buddhism there are Four Seals, and the first seal is ‘All compounded things are impermanent.’ Now, at first glance that seems a tad depressing. However, if we look closely and contemplate the meaning it turns out to be a breath of fresh air.
The definition of compounded is ‘something that consists of two or more things combined together.’ All phenomena are compounded, and that includes you and me. Just think for a moment, is there anything in this universe that isn’t compounded? As of yet we haven’t found anything.
The point Buddha was making here is that anything that is made up of a combination of other things will eventually fall apart. It will come into being when the various causes and conditions are right, it will exist for a certain amount of time, and then it will disintegrate – this is the nature of all things, this is impermanence. It is an undeniable and inescapable fact of life.
Impermanence isn’t a word we readily warm to, and it would be much nicer for us to believe that everything is permanent. But this simply isn’t true, and in order to stop our suffering, we need to acknowledge this fact. The reason we do not like to hear about impermanence is because it brings up visions of sickness, pain, disintegration and death. We get a horrible sick feeling in our stomachs because we equate impermanence with loss – loss of a loved one, loss of our friends or even loss of something as trivial as our iPhone. So, it is vitally important for all of us to understand impermanence.
Why is it important? What are the benefits of understanding it? It means we will achieve freedom from fear, freedom from suffering and freedom from panic, because when we know things are not going to last, we are free any fear, agony or pain of losing something or someone.
Our mistaken belief is that things come into existence on their own, and last forever. This kind of mistaken belief causes us to cling to worldly possessions, such as material objects, the search for pleasure, recognition, honour and so on. It causes pride, attachment, aversion and arrogance to grow within us because we truly believe things are here to stay. We grow completely attached to the concerns of this life.
So, it’s a relief when we finally understand that everything is impermanent and we can’t do a thing to change that fact. We can now let go and relax our grip on things – that’s a real breath of fresh air!
Impermanence is not only true for pleasurable things, but for painful things as well. Maybe someone you care for has died or left you, and you are sad and lonely. These emotions are also impermanent and so will, after time, also change. All the things we have aversion towards will only last a short time. Like the morning dew, it will all soon change and disappear.
Like the dew that remains for a moment or two
On the tips of the grass and then melts with the dawn.
The pleasures we find in the course of our lives
last only an instant, they cannot endure.
(Thogme Zangpo – Thirty-Seven Practices of All Buddha’s Sons)