Nothing is Exempt From Impermanence

Forest in the window

Forest. Photo by Celia

“Whatever IS will be WAS.”

~ Bhikkhu Ñanamoli

“It would be better, bhikkhus, if an uninstructed ordinary person regarded this body, made of the four great elements, as himself rather than the mind. For what reason? This body is seen to continue for a year, for two years, five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years, and even more. But of that which is called mind, is called thought, is called consciousness, one moment arises and ceases as another continually both day and night.”

~ SN 12.61

“Transient are all compounded things,

Subject to arise and vanish;

Having come into existence they pass away;

Good is the peace when they forever cease.”  ~DN 15, chapter 6, verse 14


Dear Friends,

Happy Memorial Day. For most of us, we enjoy a day off, cookouts and family and friends, but this is a day to celebrate those who gave their lives in military service. Part of our path of practice is to find an end to the reactivity and ignorance that creates the conditions for war—and we begin by becoming mindful citizens capable of creating mindful governments. We know that governments and civilizations are born, continue, change, and fall and just like all composite things they are subject to the truth of anicca [impermanence].

The idea of impermanence is one that we would rather not look at too hard, because it means that not only me but everyone I see and all my relationships have a beginning, a middle and an end—and there is no advisory that details what stage of existence is happening now.

Buddhism is an experiential path. While we intellectually understand concepts and agree with them, in our practice we are asked to do more than that. The Buddha wanted us to integrate these truths into our beings and every cell of our bodies, so we are unsurprised by what is surprising. When we touch anicca and understand it on an experiential level, it becomes the reality we see in all moments—and because all moments are impermanent this also means that change is possible in each moment.

Speaking for my species—we don’t find impermanence comforting or comfortable. We want some firm ground—the people who “never change” and experiences we can consistently rely on. We crave stability and belonging and safety—and we get these vulnerable fleshy bodies that disappoint us, need constant maintenance and protection and at some point, stop working altogether and become an expensive item to dispose of. Indeed, skin cells only last three days and the liver completely regenerates in about a year. Change is a hard thing to depend upon because there is nothing that is exempt.

At the end of his life, the last words of the Buddha are recorded as, “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” (DN 15, chapter 6, v 8). The result of living with conditioned things is that because all things come together, then break apart; we can’t find lasting happiness in them or with them. This is dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness and wanting things to be other than they are.

We believe we are a solid self—an ever-evolving being, separate and distinct who lives independently, but if we ask our cells to confirm this truth—the cells just laugh at the notion of remaining one thing for a lifetime. They know that they come and go. They can become cancer cells or a tree in the next go-round. They understand this truth much more gracefully than I do.

baby fern

Psychiatrist and meditation teacher Mark Epstein wrote about the understanding of anicca that permeated the life of the Venerable Thai Forest monk, Achaan Chaa. ‘“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”’ (pp. 80-81). This is the earned understanding that leads to delight in what we have now and to calm in the face of change because Achaan Chaa understood that impermanence makes no exceptions.

This week, impermanence smacked me upside the head and reminded me of how this teaching weaves through every interaction and relationship in life. Earlier this year, I inherited a former barn cat with brown/black fur and a Siamese profile. Forest proved to be alternately hilarious and annoying with her attempts to climb all vertical surface in the house and by biting the toes of anyone wearing socks. Just out of kittenhood, she was fearless. She hissed at the dogs and taunted the cat-in-residence. For such a big personality she had a tiny meow and slept beneath the covers.

Friday we couldn’t find her at bedtime. We walked outdoors, called and called. I checked the old stable, the attic, my car—no Forest.

I’ve seen a muscular bobcat on the driveway and a well-kept fox walks through the yard each morning making the dogs howl. We have bear and coyotes in the area. There’s a busy road just beyond the woods and I hoped if she did end up on it—it was over fast.

I was up at 5:30 looking for her slim, black form at the door, but nope. I called her name in the woods where I last remembered seeing her. My neighbors probably wondered why I was yelling Forest in an actual forest, but there was no tiny meow or response to all my searching. I was surprised at the sadness I felt. A mourning and loss—she was so young. And the dukkha arose: could I have kept her inside? Could I have taken her indoors earlier that evening? She was too young, not even a year—and this sadness, this mourning and wanting things to be otherwise was painful. And there was a part of me that said—of course—this is the teaching. Her life as abbreviated at it is, is what she got. As I reminded myself about the teaching of impermanence and dukkha and how this is the perfect example, I felt snagged. I had forgotten that even young beings are subject to this law.

Turkey vultures were circling in the yard and I hoped it wasn’t Forest…and it wasn’t. I found her shut up in my closet, oddly subdued and quiet. And I am delighted and more aware that the cup can break at any moment, whether I am ready—or not.

Comprehending impermanence comes through breaking the bonds of convention and going to the place that knows, the cellular level that understands this constant flickering life beyond an intellectual understanding. The Buddha knew the freedom that comes from dispensing with life expectancies and expiration dates and being unsurprised by loss and change. We all have lost people, have mourned, and we all have more to lose. No political party, no nation, no body, organization, civilization, and species are immune from impermanence. Hearing this, the cells laugh because they do know. It’s the me who is typing this who has a hard time keeping this reality from getting too solid and thinking it will go on forever.

May we all trust our light,


The miracle is to be alive


Marl Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1995) pp, 80-81.



Finding Love in the Laundry

Orange Moon

Orange Moon, Photo by Celia

“No one is more worthy of your kindness and compassion than you are.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness,

however small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama


Dear Friends,

It is really spring here in CT. Schools are ending; people are getting things done; everywhere there is evidence of change and movement. Spring does not feel restful. In fact, it feels like a big to-do list. The lawn which has recently begun to grow is made up of plantain leaves and patches of thatch. There are invasive plants encroaching on the driveway and a myriad array of windows to find screens for in my 134-year-old house. A pipe sprung a leak and there’s no water, but the basement always has water. Doctor’s appointments, Lyme’s disease—graduations, summer plans, workshops to schedule, it’s all happening now. The dog has arthritis, argh. I want order, ritual, and not more than three events that require my attention per day.

And yet amid all of this quicksand of a schedule, which is my life, there’s the reminder that this is all temporary. Finding the quiet in the midst of the chaos can only happen when the struggle ceases and we release the desire to have things another way. When we give ourselves over to what is unfolding, as unwelcome and hectic as it, only then can we find the space in ourselves to rest while life tumbles and twists around us. Coming back to remembering that even what seems so massive and important has a beginning, a middle and an end, and this too will change.

Last week in Sangha we spoke about doing things mindfully—one action at a time. I was reminded of a poem I wrote years ago about the practice of Laundry Metta. This is a way to bring the first Brahmavihara [Loving Kindness] into our daily lives and connect with those we often overlook. This poem tells us about the power to create community and engage in the world, even when we feel isolated and too busy to make a grand gesture of kindness and compassion. When we wholeheartedly engage in our lives–yes even folding our laundry, we can nurture the loving kindness in ourselves. Please give this laundry folding practice a try, even if it’s just for a few items. I guarantee you will never look at your laundry the same way.

abstract cloth colors cotton

Photo by Digital Buggu on

Small Works

There is so much helping that needs doing. And always the wonder and the worry—how do I begin to do the extraordinary

And heal the world when I have this pile of laundry keeping me from sainthood, from fulfilling my big destiny? I must start in this ordinary life with its teeth to brush and moldy lentils to toss out.

So I begin the work of my life.

I lift my son’s small green shirt into my hands.

Made in Bangladesh the label says.

I close my eyes and see hands darker than mine cutting green cloth, hands setting down the foot-press of the sewing machine. May you be paid fairly for your work.  May you have clean water for you and your family, I say as my hands fold the same fabric.

A gray sweatshirt lies in my lap. Made in Cambodia. I watch hands smoothing the thick material on a table, tracing the pattern.  May you not have to choose between food and medicine.  May your life be easy.

There’s a tee-shirt from China.

May you be free to speak the truth.  May you live without fear.

I add the folded tee-shirt to my pile.

My daughter’s camisole comes from Vietnam. I think of tired hands holding the edging and carefully stitching the lace.  May your children be safe and healthy.  May you rest when you need to.

I lift a towel, Made in the USA.

There were hands paler than mine folding this white cloth.  May you not be lonely.  May you have someone to love you. 

My laundry is folded as my prayers travel around the world offering my small service.

Each day, I wear the labor of unknown hands. The work of tired eyelashes and the longings for ease and beauty. This clothing, birthed amidst the blistering buzz of sewing machine armies, traveled through your life.

Sat on your cutting table and flew over your needle plate with the rat-tat-tat of a rifle fast stitch.

For you, who dresses this body each day,

I weave for you, this garment made of kindness wished and folded socks.

Pressed between the moments of tiredness and fluorescent lights, I send a whisper of care to touch your skin and tell you, I know you are there.

May we all trust our light,


leaf calligraphy




The Making of a Mother

Ricky on retreat

The Buddha and friend. Photo by Celia

“By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others).

(Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others;

and looking after others, one looks after oneself.” ~SN 47.19

“Those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct & good mental conduct have themselves protected. Even though neither a squadron of elephant troops, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, nor a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they have themselves protected. Why is that? Because that’s an internal protection, not an external one. Therefore, they have themselves protected.” ~SN 3.5

“Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned.” ~MN 62

Dear Friends,

It’s Mother’s Day in the U.S. and it is also the time of year to celebrate Vesak, the birth of the Buddha. The qualities of a mother in the Buddhist tradition incorporate protection, compassion, and love. For some of us, we may have been blessed with loving nurturing mothers and caregivers we felt safe with. For others, this is far from our experience. Today, if you have a loving mother to celebrate, you are a fortunate being! If you have a complicated relationship, perhaps there is some mourning for the childhood you wanted but did not have. When the mourning is enough, we can move on to looking deeply into the causes and conditions that created our mother and her relationships. When we have understanding, it is the first building block of love.

The wonderful qualities we long for in our caregivers are not dispensed on the day a child is born; they are created from lifetimes of intergenerational transference. The Buddha taught that all things arise because of the interconnected web of causes and conditions. This is described as Dependent Origination. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “With the arising of this, that arises. When this is not, neither is that. With the cessation of this, that ceases” (S.II.28,65). Insight meditation teacher Christina Feldman speaks about “paṭicca-samuppāda,” (Pali) as the understanding “that there is nothing separate, nothing standing alone. Everything effects everything else. We are part of this system. We are part of this process of dependent origination—causal relationships effected by everything that happens around us and, in turn, effecting the kind of world that we all live in in­wardly and outwardly.” This system is described by Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in the word Interbeing.

We can see Interbeing in all of us.  We can see the results of genetics, of our upbringing and how our lives have marked us. Not one of us can create ourselves or our environment. Like it or not, we are continuously influenced and influencing our environment and relationships.

Tulip Tree Flower

A mother is not a static, constant identity. Being a mother is a process made of conditions. For a mother to be loving, there needs to be the experience of being loved and understanding what love means to oneself and to another. Loving someone else also requires that we do not put our experience on the other person, who may have a very different understanding of love than we do. This is the Buddhist teaching on the equality complex or conceit. Perhaps we have had an experience of loving someone who is very different from ourselves. The quality of Metta, loving-kindness, does not insist that someone accept love as we would like it to be. Some people connect love with gifts, with touch, with words, food, or compliments but true love is formless; it transmits through presence and intention. True love transcends simple form.

Another aspect of motherhood is patience. Patience is much more accessible for one who understands the teaching of impermanence (Anicca) and that what seems so solid and important will change and adapt. If we longed for more patience from our caretakers, what conditions would have supported that–enough sleep, enough money? Is it possible to trace the lack of patience as a continuation of ancestral conditioning and to see how it shows up in our daily life? If we were lucky enough to have been given the gift of patience, how did it develop in our caretakers? How do we offer this gift to others in our lives?

The foundation of compassion is said to occur when loving kindness encounters suffering and the natural desire and ability arises to remove the suffering from our beloved. To do this, one must have presence and calm enough to be near the suffering of another without fear or aversion. One must possess equanimity. Compassion also requires the knowledge of how to relieve suffering and the competence to do so. True compassion requires bravery. For a parent working 60 hours a week and uncertain they can pay the mortgage, how likely is it that this sort of calm presence is available?

In the Discourse on Love is exhorts the Buddha’s followers to protect their own willingness to love all beings just as a “mother protects with her life Her child, her only child. So, with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings” (Sn 1.8). To protect another one needs confidence, clarity, and a firm resolve in the goodness of their actions. We protect that which we value and especially those who are unable to protect themselves. The conditions that instill protection come from the recognition of what is wholesome linked with the wisdom to use one’s energy and power for the good. Parents who have known protection and care in their lives are much better equipped to protect their children without violence and aggression. Understanding an adult’s responsibility and power are also part of creating safety for vulnerable children. Protection creates a safe home where trust and ease can grow. The guidelines of sila [virtue] offer these protections for ourselves and for our children to ensure we all can live with integrity and safety.

When we see our upbringing in a wider lens that connects us to the past and the future, we can understand the conditions that have contributed to creating our mothers and ourselves. When we can look with understanding and see how the law of cause and effect has shaped our lives, we can learn to give gratitude for the kindness we have known and forgiveness for what we may have received but didn’t want.

May we all trust our light,














The Calm Horse and the Racehorse

Calm water

Calm water, Photo by Celia

“Calm is his thought, calm his speech, and calm his deed, who, truly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly tranquil and wise.”

 ~Dhammapada 70, Arahantavagga: The Arahant or Perfected One

“They do not grieve over the past,

Nor do they yearn for the future;

They live only in the present

— That is why their face is so calm.”

 ~SN 1.10, Arañña Sutta: A Face So Calm

“Like a deep lake,

clear, unruffled, & calm:

so the wise become clear, calm,

on hearing words of the Dhamma.”

~Dhammapada 82, Panditavagga: The Wise

Dear Friends,

I hear there was added excitement during this year’s Kentucky Derby. I didn’t see the race. In fact, I’ve only seen one. Five years ago, I was invited to a viewing party and I remember two things about that gathering. The first was that I wore a hat. The second memory has greater significance and has remained with me. That day, I watched one of the racehorses being led toward the starting gate. I saw another horse, clearly not a racehorse walk next to the racer. They seemed to have a connection and a comradery between them. “What are they doing?”  I asked someone who knew about these things. “That’s the calm horse.” She told me. “The racehorse is all wired and knows he’s got to run. They’d never get him into the gate without the calm horse.”  I had to take that in. The transference of calm presence is felt between animals. I know I’ve experienced in my own life. More and more as I deepen my commitment to practice, I am the calm horse.

I don’t know much about racehorses and their lives, but from where I stand, the life of an animal that is bred and conditioned solely to run fast and to win it seems like an unwholesome way to live. It’s easy to see the parallel between an animal that is rewarded for what it can do, is valued for performance with our societal values. The calm horse is not rewarded for doing, but rather, for being. It is the ability to transfer presence and ease, that is valued in this other horse. The path of practice and the commitment to presence and compassion is a way to create calm horses out of racehorses.

A few years ago, I had surgery. A kind nurse walked me into the operating room. As I entered the bright room, I felt the cold air and saw the eyes of the doctors and support people looking at me expectantly above their masks. Every cell in my body wanted to bolt while the nurse spoke to me gently, telling me where to go and what was going to happen. I was clearly the racehorse at that moment and was so grateful for another’s calm presence.

I invite you to reflect on the times that you’ve been the racehorse and encountered a calm presence—and the times when you’ve been that calming presence for others. This ability to stay calm and centered in the face of other’s pain comes from the work of being present and transforming our own anxiety, fear, and distress. Calm presence is not just a nice way to be, it is a way to diffuse violence and aggression. We know that reactivity can provoke more reactivity. Responding to provocation with hatred, greed, or ignorance are ways to keep the cycle of war and suffering alive. We are called upon to transform our reactivity through our willingness to sit with what is arising and recognize our own impatience, disappointment, and hurt, that fuels our own reactivity.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that our willingness to do the difficult work of transformation is not only for ourselves. It is a communal responsibility. “Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.” The more we are able to meet ourselves where we are without running, the greater ability we have to give this gift of non-fear to others.


In Dharma talks and in his books, Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of the Vietnamese refugees who escaped after the fall of Saigon. Just as today, there were many deaths from too many people escaping violence and death in unsafe boats. Thich Nhat Hanh observes that in extreme stress “if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.” When others are in distress, anxious, or touching their suffering, our ability to be calm and unafraid of emotions is itself a gift.

This week you may like to notice the dynamic transference of calm that is going on around you and in you. We all have experienced being “whipped up,” by other’s agitation, can we remember and embody the felt experience of calm we have received? Perhaps we access calm through meditation, breath awareness, slow walking, chanting, or the awareness of ourselves as the whole, loving person that is our true self. Whatever way we have experienced calm in our lives, how do we bring it to the world? How does calm live in our daily life? Does it vanish when we are triggered by someone with different views, or in pain? Who are the people we receive calm from? I know in my life; I deeply enjoy being around those who infuse their lives with calm. Their calm nourishes mine. My wish for us all is that each day, we can nourish the calm in one other person. We can become the calm horse for all the racehorses in our lives.

May we all trust our light,