The Gift of Impermanence
When we read the teaching of the Buddha and he tells us that “Life is suffering,” we may think “Well, duh.” Occasionally, we may rebut with “Well, some of it is, but not all.” Either way, it is quite clear that we are all intimately familiar with what the Buddhists call “dukkha” which is alternatively translated as “suffering” (the more common) or “unsatisfactoriness” (the more accurate). Personally, I like to think of dukkha as discontent, a chronic lack of contentment or comfort with the state of our lives.
As we examine the truth of suffering, we naturally wonder “Where does this suffering come from? Why do we suffer? Why do I suffer?” It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? From the moment we are born, we know suffering. We come out of our mother’s wombs squalling with unhappiness. What in the world did we do to deserve that? We may spend the rest of our lives wondering and rightly so.
The Buddha spoke on this exact topic repeatedly. Indeed, everywhere he went, it was the question of the day and in nearly a half-century of teaching he never exhausted the subject. He saw that we suffer because we are afflicted with craving and desire. And what do we want most? We want the world to be other than what it is. Which begs the question, what is the world? The world, or existence, has three “hallmarks,” according to the Buddha: anicca or impermanence, dukkha or suffering, and annatta or non-self.
The three are interrelated.
The five aggregates [that make up a person], monks, are anicca, impermanent; whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha, unsatisfactory; whatever is dukkha, that is without attaa, self. What is without self, that is not mine, that I am not, that is not my self. Thus should it be seen by perfect wisdom (sammappa~n~naaya) as it really is. Who sees by perfect wisdom, as it really is, his mind, not grasping, is detached from taints; he is liberated. — SN 22.45, Access to Insight
Impermanence and non-self are basic facts of existence. Things are impermanent and do not possess an inherent, unchanging identity that could be called ‘self.’ On a fundamental level, we don’t like this. We desire that it should be otherwise. Thus, we suffer, which becomes another hallmark of our existence.
In his book The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh has restated the three hallmarks of existence as anicca or impermanence, nirvana or bliss, and annatta or non-self in order to show that suffering can be overcome and permanent bliss attained. Impermanence and non-self are not things we can change. What we can do something about is the suffering.
We can do something to end our own suffering not in spite of impermanence and non-self, but rather because of them. Ultimately, they are the gifts of existence that allow us to transcend dissatisfaction, discomfort, and suffering. Now, non-self is a rather abstract and esoteric concept, so let’s leave it be for the moment and talk about impermanence.
Impermanence, like suffering, seems to be one of those “Well, duh,” kinds of subjects. “Things change,” is probably the most cliched and unhelpful form of comfort offered in times of stress and loss. Don’t you really just want to smack people who say things like that? Yet, as true and obvious as it is, we still hate it with a virulent passion. We cling to possessions, youth, health, pleasure, and life with a powerful will. We carry with us a tremendous fear of loosing these things. We cry with the people on television who’ve lost their homes to natural disasters. We spend billions of dollars every year on beauty products and vitamin supplements. We fund gargantuan entertainment and amusement industries. And we seek ever greater medical advancements to prolong the lives of ourselves, our loved ones, and even our pets.
None of these efforts are inherently wrong. They are not themselves the causes of our suffering. What causes our suffering is when we believe that the pursuit of these things can create lasting happiness, satisfaction, and comfort. We deny impermanence or worse, we declare impermanence itself to be evil. We set ourselves up to fight against the very facts of existence. This leads to suffering. As the saying goes: “In you versus the universe, bet on the universe.”
But just think about what would happen if we won that fight. Suddenly, nothing changed. No one aged. No one died. No one lost someone or something they cared for. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Then ask yourself this: which people do we treat worse than any others in our lives? Answer: the ones we aren’t afraid of loosing. We’ve all had the perfectly nice coworker who yelled at their wife or husband or mother on the phone everyday. We’ve all had the bewildered friend who ended up in an abusive relationship because their partner was “so nice in the beginning.” How many times have we heard people regret the harsh words they exchanged with their loved ones moments before the fatal car crash. “If I’d only known,” they lament. When we believe something will last forever, we become incapable of cherishing it.
In this fantastic unchanging world, the good things last forever, but so too do the bad. Those caught in depression or addiction will never find a way out. The ups are always up and the downs are always down.
Exterior change, such as loosing loved ones, aging, and sickness are just the gross forms of impermanence. Far more subtle forms of impermanence exist inside the mind. People dealing with difficult emotions can often take comfort in their transitory nature. But in a world of permanence, samsara or the cycle of suffering is the only possibility. Nirvana or the freedom from suffering brought about with enlightenment becomes impossible.
So we don’t want the permanent, changeless world. But we don’t want the impermanent, ever-changing world either. Are we stuck? The Buddha’s answer was “No.” What needs to change is not the world, but rather ourselves. Because change is possible, we can change from the person who desires the impossible to the one who cherishes the possible. Instead of craving pleasure and fearing pain, we can cherish the good times and take comfort that the bad times will not last forever.
Every time I sit in meditation, my mind begins to whine. I don’t like meditation. It’s boring. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s not permanent and I can remind myself of that. If I want to stop suffering, I must let go of such things. The source of my suffering is the notion that meditation is unsatisfactory because it is not the way I want it to be, not the meditation itself. Meditation is, in fact, the most basic place to start the sea-change within ourselves.
Buddhists practice radical acceptance. The path to freedom from suffering lies in the acceptance of the three hallmarks of existence. Life in impermanent and empty (of self). Accepting that, understanding it, knowing it deep down in our very bones is the source of all freedom and the end of all suffering.
Sometimes, Buddhism has been accused of being passive or nihilistic. How can we accept a world full of genocide, starvation, and suffering? It’s a legitimate question. However, it also comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhist teaching. Change is not only inevitable, it is a gift. Working to create positive change is one of Buddhism’s highest virtues – the expression of compassion. The other virtue is wisdom – seeing the world as it is and thereby understanding the nature of cause and effect. This allows us to choose the best path to create that positive change.
When we regard the opportunity for change as a gift of existence, it creates a fundamental mind-shift within us. Suddenly, we struggle against impermanence a little bit less. We accept it a little bit more. Slowly, inch by desperate inch, we begin to let go of our cravings and desires, to let go of our suffering. We cherish the good without clinging to it. We stand steady against suffering when it comes without adding to it or being overwhelmed. We cultivate equanimity, a stability of character that transcends our transient emotions and thoughts. This alters our behavior so that we create less suffering for ourselves and those around us. It lessen the struggles of an already suffering world. Finally then, it is not the world that becomes changeless, but rather our acceptance of it. When this happens perhaps, just perhaps, we have achieved the nirvana of the Buddha.