The Path to Impermanence
This week the conversation both online and on the street has been around Impermanence. The ‘idea’ of impermanence is one that every person has at some point – realistically many times in their life. And yet the Buddha highlights it and returns to it again and again in his teachings. Clearly not a mere idea is intended but a profound and paradigm-altering depth of realization. What could this insight be, and how do we as practitioners get there?
Everything is already Impermanent, already changing all around us, so this is not something we need to do or add to our experience. Buddhism is not about adorning ourselves with a bunch of fancy philosophical ideas about how things come and go. If we were to take the most precise and eloquent reflection of impermanence and add it to our current state, that’s all we would be – a mass of everyday thoughts plus one more thought. As it turns out, that’s already what we’re getting nearly every single day. People are talking about change, singing about change, acting it out in theater and on a billion screens. Constantly talking about aging, about loss, about growth …
We already think about impermanence a lot. The only problem is that they are just thoughts, and a fraction of a second after we have these thoughts … they change too.
We could grab a string of mala beads to chant “Impermanent, Impermanent,” a million times, and we would get no wiser. Impermanence is not in the words or ideas. That’s not where it lives. It’s in the objects and circumstances of our lives, and that’s where we must look for it. To see impermanence we must find this quality in the things we love and hate, and that’s why the deeper insight stays mostly hidden to us, because by our nature that’s the last place we want to look for it.
Are there things in our lives we don’t want to change? Are there things we feel couldn’t change fast enough? Both help reflect to us what this contemplation is really for. Whether or not we understand Impermanence, still all things that arise will cease. But its the fact that we struggle with this change, that we get burned by loss or refuse to tolerate something’s existence – that is why we contemplate.
Take something dear to you and say, “Will it change?” Then, “In what way?” “Will I feel differently about it later?” “Is the change inevitable?” “How do I try to force or resist this change?”
On the subject of deeper realization, this is perhaps a place to illuminate the terms in Buddhism we call Path and Fruit – or Magga and Phala. Both are powerful alterations in the process of thought, often initiated by a profound insight, which occur only in those who have sincerely and personally undertaken spiritual practice.
Before Path arises, we are of the mass of beings roaming saṃsara, the round of existence. Even if we become religious figures, or poets, or philosophers, and even if we see that things are arising, changing, and ceasing, still we don’t know what to do about it. We are like stargazers taking in the vastness of the cosmos above only to be humbled and dumbfounded.
True Magga, or Path, arises as a response to suffering. It’s not merely that we see something change – we see our reaction to it. We see pain, hesitation, and fear. We follow these emotions to their source and we realize with a gasp that the suffering we are experiencing has attachment as its source. We don’t want things to change, and because they will despite our feelings on the matter our protest itself is the burning we feel.
Path arises in that moment if we alter the script. Impermanence is real, it’s universal, it’s natural even if it can be vexing. We decide to embrace it and to abandon the attachment instead. If impermanence isn’t going anywhere, we determine to find a way to be at peace with it (or even like it!). There will be some work involved, but we know what has to be done and we get to it.
So what is Fruit? What is the goal, the attainment of this profound insight, in pursuit of which we start analyzing and dissecting every aspect of our lives to reveal attachment and abandon it? The curious thing about the Fruit of practice is that it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the exact nature of the work that was done. It’s not about addition. Fruit isn’t a matter of Person plus the perception of impermanence. It’s about Person minus the delusion of permanence. When that delusion is gone and a person is freed, they love fully and let go in the same breath. They buy a new car knowing it will fail them someday, or wash and tune an old car glad it might get them to work even one more time. They look in the mirror not aghast to see wrinkles and gray hairs, but fascinated by the new face that is continuously looking back at them.
This is the curious trajectory we are following in doing this work of contemplating impermanence. Before we begin there is no work, just wandering and suffering. Then there is Path, and we know the work and get to it. We try hard to understand, and each breakthrough powers us onward. Then, with the attainment of Fruit, there is no longer any suffering, and no longer any work.
After all, the work is not coming from Impermanence but from our suffering and the attachment that generates it. It is our own delusion that creates the work, and is the work, and is the obstacle to work. If we seek an end to the work we must seek an end to the delusion. When we have found the refuge at the end of that path, however, what is left is just us. Loving, living, letting go. Whether we have the ‘idea’ of Impermanence or not, it will be there with us every breath.