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