Impermanence is one of the most important topics Buddha taught.
In the Dhammapada it states this:
‘All conditioned things are impermanent’
‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’
‘All things are nonself’
…when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.
So, what things are impermanent? Buddha said this:
‘You may well take hold of a possession, monks, that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition. But do you see, monks, any such possession?’—‘No, Buddha’.—‘Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such possession that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition’.
So, it is clear from this stanza that nothing remains without change. Why is that? Well, all phenomena are made up of two or more parts and come into existence through a series of causes and conditions.
Buddha taught that there is no phenomenon that exists from its own side—that is, there are no phenomena that are not compounded.
Things do not just come into existence by sheer magic or by some superior power, such as a god. It is through causes and conditions, the joining together of things, that phenomena come into existence.
Everything is dependent on other things. When we fill a jug with water, it is not the first drop that fills it, nor the last drop; it is each drop individually coming together that fills the jug.
When we plant a seed in the ground, it will not just miraculously grow. It needs water, sun, nutrients from the soil and so on, or it will not grow. It grows when these causes and conditions come into play. We came into being when sperm meets with an egg. We don’t just miraculously appear or are made by some so called higher being; it is through various causes and conditions.
When things come together, something comes into being. They last a while, even though they are constantly changing, and then they disintegrate. This is the true nature of all phenomena, and it is because of this everything is impermanent.
Let’s look at some examples of what is impermanent. The universe is impermanent. Planets explode and black holes keep forming—all this is a display of impermanence.
Let’s look closer to home, to the earth. We are all aware of how the earth is changing, mainly because of our own actions. A thousand years ago the earth was a very different place. Innumerable species of animals have since become extinct, other species have evolved, forests have disappeared, and lakes have dried up, while so-called human civilisation grows dramatically. This is due to impermanence.
The weather changes constantly, and time does, too. Seasons change and, quite importantly, so do our thoughts and feelings. Absolutely everything around us is changing. Impermanence is a far-reaching factor in our lives. So, why do we find it so hard to embrace it?
Even though we nearly all understand impermanence on an intellectual level, we choose to ignore it. It is much nicer to believe things will last forever. But this simply isn’t the case and all we are doing is setting ourselves up for future suffering.
We struggle against impermanence because we get too attached to things, get so involved and wrapped up in them. We fool ourselves into believing that something we like will last forever. When it doesn’t, we are surprised and start suffering. But this idea that things will last forever is a delusion.
Let’s look at an example of our attachments to something and how it makes us suffer.
Imagine you see an advertisement for the latest smartphone. You then search the Internet to check out the specifications. Your excitement grows. Your anticipation is high. When the product arrives in the shops, you rush to buy it. One hour later it’s in your hands and you are playing with it. The more you look at it, the more you see how indispensable it is, and you become convinced that it is the one thing that can bring you true happiness. You can’t think of anything else, and you wonder how you ever lived without it. You spend the next few weeks proudly showing it to your friends, who envy you for having it. Every time you look at it, a sense of pride fills you. You are so happy—your life seems complete.
Then the inevitable happens: a newer, faster, smaller, and more powerful version comes out. You hold the smartphone in your hand, but your happiness has turned to discontent. Why is that? Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including those fashionable, technical gadgets, are impermanent. There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects. When our thoughts toward the object change, or the object changes itself, the suffering kicks in.
That is the type of impermanence we do not like. On the other hand, if we are experiencing hard times, we are only too glad that things change. We may have gone out last night and this morning we have a headache. That will eventually go, and we will start to feel better. We may have had a serious illness, but things change, and we survived it and we are happy. Perhaps we have just separated from our loved one and are now going through a bad time; when that ends, we will be more than happy. If we have just lost our job and are now facing financial hardship, we will of course be extremely pleased to find new employment. So, impermanence is not all bad news.
Our view of impermanence can become quite selective. We don’t seem to fully understand the nature of impermanence and seem not to even spend time thinking about it. We need to make the understanding of impermanence a part of our lives and our very way of thinking. To do this we must reflect on it, but before we can do that, we need to understand why Buddha taught this and what the benefits are.
So why did Buddha teach us this? To stop us from grasping at things. If we understand that phenomena only come together through causes and conditions, and thus do not exist by themselves, we will not get attached to our friends, family, or belongings. If we are not attached to them, it follows that we are not going to suffer once they have changed or gone.
What is the benefit of knowing about impermanence? There are many, but a major one is that it helps us focus on our lives and on setting goals, so we don’t waste the precious little time we have on this earth. This is using impermanence as a motivational tool. If we just stop and think for a moment, how much time do we waste in a day? We manage to waste time in so many different ways. Without knowing it, the days turn to months, the months into years and before we know it, we will be on our deathbeds full of regret.
Impermanence helps us realise that we and all our friends and family will eventually die. We don’t know how, where, and when, but we do know it will happen. If we are not attached to them, we are not going to suffer once they depart.
If we understand impermanence, knowing the thing we hold dear is going to change, we are less likely to get attached to it, and if we are not attached, when it changes, we will not suffer.
I will let Buddha have the last word. This is how he spoke about impermanence:
‘Nothing in the world is permanent or lasting; everything is changing and momentary and unpredictable. But people are ignorant and selfish and are concerned only with the desires and suffering of the passing moment. They do not listen to the good teachings, nor do they try to understand them; they simply give themselves up to the present interest, to wealth and lust’.
Before we finish I want to teach you reflection practices that I think are going to help you come to terms with impermanence.
I have been traditionally trained in Buddhism, and one thing I was taught to do was reflect upon death. Now I know this may sound morbid and even a little strange, but I can tell you from my own experience that it really works. It works on so many levels. First, you understand impermanence and start to let go of your clinging attachment to things. Second, you become motivated to make the best of this life. And third, you will not be fretting about death. In the West, talking about death is such a no-no. Why is that? We can learn so much from reflecting upon it.
Here are four reflections on different aspects of death. Please do not get distressed; just work through them slowly. These are taken from the traditional Buddhist practice and may be too much for you to reflect on. If that’s the case, I suggest you look at why that is.
1—Think that nothing lasts
Think that this year will soon be gone; last year has already gone; each year departs so quickly. Think about the world and all its inhabitants, and how they are impermanent. Think about how you have gone from a baby to a child to an adult and realise that you are heading towards death. Think of how every day, week, month, and year brings you closer to your death. Reflect upon these points. This is not to depress you; it is to make you understand that everything is impermanent and the time to try and reduce your suffering is now.
2—Think about how many other people have died
Think about all the people you have known who have died. Some have been older, some younger and some the same age. There have been so many! Think about how most people, even though they are surrounded by impermanence, have died unprepared. Think of the times that you have been shocked to find out about someone dying, even though you are surrounded by impermanence. Read the papers and watch the news, count how many people have died or been killed today. Reflect on these points and understand that death is all around us, and let this fact motivate you to be a better person.
3—Think of the many causes of death
Think of the numerous circumstances that can bring about death: heart attack, illnesses, accidents, falling down the stairs, being hit by lightning—the list is endless. We do not know when, where and how we are going to die. What we know is that death will come. As we don’t know our fate, we should spend the precious time we have engaging in practice. Reflect on these points and don’t let your death be a surprise.
4—Reflect what will happen at the time of death
If you have misused your life and spent most of it indulging in unhelpful actions and being consumed by clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness, at the time of death you may be terrified. You are not going to be able to calm your mind, and it will run riot. It may be that you imagine all kinds of scary situations and will be afraid of losing your family and friends. You may even worry about the money you are leaving behind. It is not possible to relive your life once you reach death, even if you are full of regret and remorse, so don’t allow yourself to get to that point.
Spend some time reflecting on these points, as they will help you understand impermanence and let go of your clinging attachments.
This blog is based on my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path’- available from Amazon and Kindle.