In an essay called What Makes You Not a Buddhist Tibetan teacher Dzongsar Khyentse stated that:
If you cannot accept that all compounded or fabricated things are impermanent, if you believe that there is some essential substance or concept that is permanent, then you are not a Buddhist.
Whether you want to be a Buddhist, or not, this is still a good lesson to learn.
If I am admired for my physical prowess, I somehow seek to maintain that even in the face of aging. If my reputation is founded on my beauty, I will try forlornly to hold on to it even as the years strive to take it away.
Perhaps more importantly, if I attach my sense of who I am to this fragile and transient biological host, that is my body, then I will always have a fear of death.
James Ferrier, the nineteenth century metaphysical writer and expert on Greek philosophy wrote:
Suppose yourself gazing on a gorgeous sunset. The whole western heavens are glowing with roseate hues; but you are aware that within half an hour all these glorious tints will have faded away into a dull ashen gray. You see them even now melting away before your eyes, although your eyes cannot place before you the conclusion which your reason draws. And what conclusion is that? That conclusion is that you never, even for the shortest time that can be named or conceived, see any abiding color, any color which truly is. Within the millionth part of a second the whole glory of the painted heavens has undergone an incalculable series of mutations. One shade is supplanted by another with a rapidity which sets all measurements at defiance, but because the process is one to which no measurements apply,… reason refuses to lay an arrestment on any period of the passing scene, or to declare that it is, because in the very act of being it is not; it has given place to something else. It is a series of fleeting colors, no one of which is, because each of them continually vanishes in another.
On the death of the Buddha, Sakka, the chief of the deities, is said to have uttered the following:
“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.”
[The story of the Japanese Buddhist nun, known as Ryonen, is poignant. When young she lived a privileged life being renowned for her beauty and charm. At seventeen she was serving the empress as one of the ladies of the court. However, the empress died suddenly making Ryonen acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. As a result she resolved to study Zen. Unfortunately her relatives would have none of this and insisted she get married. Reluctantly she agreed, but only on the condition that after she bore her husband three children she be allowed to become a nun. By the age of twenty-five she had fulfilled her undertaking and again ignoring the protests of her family, shaved her head and set off on a pilgrimage to find a suitable master. However, she met with no success. The masters she approached told her they could not accept her because her beauty would prove a distraction. Not to be deterred Ryonen took a hot iron and held it against her face thus scarring her. With her beauty thus compromised, the master Hakuo agreed to take her as a pupil. She was wise enough to have eschewed her beauty, which she knew could only be transient, in favour of her spiritual development.]
There is a strong connection between impermanence and what physicists have come to call the arrow of time. The fundamental laws of physics are time symmetric, ie they have no directionality with respect to time. If we had a movie of the earth rotating around the sun and we ran it backwards, we would not be aware of any fundamental laws being violated. If we observe an excited atom decay and emit a photon, that process is no more valid than if we observed a photon being absorbed by an atom and exciting it. Yet our lives are full of irreversible processes. We watch as people age – we never see people resume their youth. Stones are eroded by water in our rivers, they are never built up by the process! Despite the time symmetry of the fundamental laws, decay is all around us. This is captured by the Second Law of Thermodynamics which tells us that the entropy (fundamentally a measure of disorderliness) of the universe must of necessity increase over time.
It is possible to examine discrete parts of the universe and see a decrease in entropy. In fact if you take a living organism, this is the case. Each of us by the mechanism of our DNA forges our own particular order from the universe. But what is true for a part is never true for the whole. The break down of the food I ingest and the emanation of the heat energy from my body all contribute to the increase in entropy overall. In this way, entropy is a result of the interdependence of the various components of the universe.
The physicist Victor Mansfield has argued that the conditions of the universe that lead to ever increasing entropy were set up very soon after the “big Bang”. It has long been known that the energy emitted into deep space from our activities can only radiate into space because the universe is expanding.
He goes on to say:
If I could deeply appreciate that any irreversible process, whether the rotting of carrots or my body, is due to the earliest and largest scale structure of the cosmos, then how much easier it would be to appreciate that my neighbor’s loss or gain is not separate from mine. Then the suffering in one cell of the body of humanity is truly the suffering of all. Perhaps, we could even realize that compassion is actually in our own enlightened self-interest and that the survival of our very planet requires a profound understanding of our co-dependence.
The Buddhist philosophers, far from decrying impermanence, make the case that we benefit from it. Without impermanence there would be no change. Permanence can also only prevail when such things are inherently unchanging and independent of all else. Even though impermanence leads to aging and decay, it also leads to growth, diversity and life. As usual Buddhism points out the inevitability of the polar opposites. If there was no decay there would also be no growth. If there was no death there would also be no life. Again, as we have seen before, our problem arises when we become attached to something inherently impermanent. The quantum physicist, David Bohm, argued that one of the problems of modern society arose from imbuing the false notion of independent existence.
It is proposed that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and “broken up” into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.
But we know this is not possible. There interdependence between all the elements of the universe so they can never be “self-existent”. Psychologically, denial of this fact is the phenomenon that leads to ego and separation and a host of other problems that I explored in the blog, “Nationalism – The Infantile Disease.” It is the Atman – Brahman dichotomy all over again.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to Thich Nhat Hahn the Vietnamese Buddhist and peace activist.
Nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. Heraclitus said we can never bathe twice in the same river. Confucius, while looking at a stream, said, “It is always flowing, day and night.” 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.