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.

10 Replies to “Impermanence”

  1. In time the Rockies may crumble,
    Gibraltar may tumble,
    They’re only made of clay.
    Our Love is here to stay.

    Ira Gershwin.

  2. Impermanence, time and objects it seems are related. Without time the world would be static. Movement by definition is measured using time. If nothing can move relative to anything else nothing can exist as a separate entity or object. We enjoy our perceived world of objects and time and to me it seems like it would be a pretty dull place without them.

    Impermanence though seems a little more complex. I see no immediately obvious reason why increasing entropy (randomness) and associated decay of all objects and death of all organisms should be part of our perceived universe. It would again though be a pretty dull place without it. Imagine a world that was not decaying.

    One additional possibility as to why we have impermanence could be an escape route for consciousness. If we perceive a world of time, objects and entropy created by our collective consciousness and as a result have become fearful in this world would it not be smart for the collective consciousness to build in an escape route. Perhaps impermanence or entropy is that escape route.

  3. I most enjoy your columns when they take threads of thought from such diverse sources (ie physicists and Buddist philosophers)and weave them together in such a coherent and thoughtful way.

    The comment I would like to make relates only obliquely to the topic of impermanence, but I hope you will see a relevance.

    I often wonder if the enlightment many achieve in various forms as individuals is somehow building in our collective consciousness. Can we – considering our “oneness” – deepen this pool. By this I do not mean by sharing knowledge in this life or collecting it in manuscripts etc that can be passed on. I mean more like an underlying spiritual stream that deepens and builds in power.

    It is a fancy I have. Although I feel that many of the things you have written about re time and impermanence point against such a phenomenon.

    Does even those most shining level of spiritual insight blink out like a spark with the mortal who reached it, leaving only a small phosphorescent trail (their writings, remembered teachings) in an otherwise murky ocean. Or does it somehow live on in the common consciousness – what do you think?

    Is enlightment/spirituality/universal love something we can deepen, or is it more an unchanging sort of “energy” that the wise can tap into at will?

  4. I think it sad that Ryonen must burn her own face due to the distraction her superficial physical beauty would cause other students. Are not these students devoted to disciplines of the mind? To mastering the ego? Shouldn’t they view her beauty only as they would the beauty of the flame on the altar or the lotus in bloom? If not and if eros comes into play, surely that should be viewed as a challenge for them to overcome as they strive to better themselves rather than a fault on Ryonen’s part.

    I mention this to highlight the fact that while many traditional spiritual writings espouse “oneness”, it often seems they are written from a male point of view that seems unable to overcome an attitude of “other” towards the feminine half of our race.

    Sorry to focus on such an obscure point in your wonderful text. It is simply a topic of interest to me, though admittedly quite irrelevant to the main point you were making by quoting this parable.

  5. Belinda, your comments (as I would have expected) are insightful. Let’s address your first comment to begin with. You have asked a question that neither I nor anyone else can be sure of answering.

    If you read the works of the determinists, (and some of them, like Daniel Dennet, are very persuasive) they would have you believe that mind and consciousness are a manifestation of the brain – that somehow matter (albeit very complex matter) is the source of mind – and therefore consciousness.

    I can’t believe that. My belief, essentially, is that the real stuff of the universe is mind, and that consequently, matter is actually a manifestation of consciousness.

    When I read about quantum theory, I learn that, certainly at the level of the quanta nothing can exist in any concrete way without the presence of an observer. Without such a presence, such phenomena are smeared across the universe in a probabilistic way. Thus it seems to me, that for there ever to have been a concrete world with distinct phenomena, there must have always have been consciousness (acting as an observer).

    This initial, continuing and all-encompassing consciousness is the “Ground of Being”. Some might call it God. But, I believe, there is only one consciousness. For whatever reason, this Consciousness has manifested itself in the universe also as matter. But it also has distributed itself among sentient beings such that the consciousness that you and I have is but a spark of that all-encompassing consciousness. The more enlightened of us have somehow gained greater access to it than the rest of us.

    There can be no question of enhancing this consciousness because when all is said and done it is complete in itself and is, as I said above “the Ground of all Being”. The more enlightened of us, I suspect, as mentioned above, access more of it than the rest of us.

    Those that are most enlightened therefore, don’t raise the level of consciousness, as you suggested, but demonstrate to the rest of us ways of accessing more of it.

    My good friend, Dr Phil Harker, has raised the possibility that the physical universe is analagous to a dream or a thought that the collective consciousness is having. (Some quantum theorists have likened the universe more to a thought than something substantial in physical terms.)This reverses our normal perception about what is real. We normally give greater credence to physical reality over thoughts or dreams!

    So reading between the lines of your question, those that gain enlightenment (whatever that might mean) don’t augment the collective consciousness but blaze the trails that enable the rest of us to access it more easily.

    Your concern about the sacrifice of Ryonen raises some interesting questions. In a perfect world, and indeed with enlightened masters, such a sacrifice should never have been necessary. Her greatness is underpinned by her willingness to make such a sacrifice thus affirming that superficial beauty is not of great worth.

    You rightly suggest that the reponse of her prospective teachers was not very enlightened and this is certainly true. There is a lot of literature supporting the thesis that so-called gurus have many weaknesses. Some teachers I am sure are, and were, well-intentioned and quite ethical in how they dealt with their pupils. On the other hand those that seek to promote themselves as gurus inevitably have problems with ego and this colours their judgment in many areas.

    Ryonen lived in 19th century Japan. This was a male dominated misogynist society and we should applaud her for succeeding in the face of that. Probably she would not have received a more welcoming response in any of the contemporary western societies either.

    Our modern egalitarian ideals are certainly more moral and more supportive of women, as they should be. But she lived at a time when even western women hadn’t achieved suffrage and eastern women were treated like chattels.

    Despite all this she must have made strong impression for there are few references to women as role models in traditional Buddhist writings.

    On her death bed she was reputed to have written the following poem:

    Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing

    scene of autumn

    I have said enough about moonlight,

    Ask no more.

    Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no

    wind stirs.

    Your point is well made – but if you accept that human behaviour is greatly influenced by socialisation, we are all victims of our culture. It is only when we can be secure enough to challenge the concepts of our peers that we can overcome this deficiency – and such courage and self-confidence is indeed rare – even among gurus!

  6. Father Robin in response to your question:

    Escape from what? Reality?

    Quite the opposite. If reality is what those enlightened few have reportedly glimpsed then the human race in the main does not perceive reality. I am suggesting that entropy, impermanence, death is a built in escape mechanism from our dream world of Objects and Time to reality (oneness of the collective consciousness). The gurus will tell us it does not require death to perceive reality but if we fail in life it seems we surely succeed in death and no matter how we learn to cheat death with science, entropy will always catch us in the end because it is built into the fabric of the Universe itself.

  7. Greg.

    If you can accept the following changes in puctuation, we basically agree.

    If Reality is what those enlightened few have reportedly glimpsed then the human race in the main does not perceive Reality. I am suggesting that entropy, impermanence, death is a built in escape mechanism from our dream world of objects and time to Reality (oneness of the collective consciousness). The gurus will tell us it does not require death to perceive Reality but if we fail in life it seems we surely succeed in death and no matter how we learn to cheat death with science, entropy will always catch us in the end because it is built into the fabric of the universe itself.

  8. I never was big on punctuation 🙂

    Ted was right misinterpretation of objects, time, words and now it seems punctuation 🙂

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