Freedom through impermanence


Freedom through impermanence

The concepts of Buddhadharma are a very important part of our practice. It is necessary to understand that right views are one side and methods are the other side; the two have to go together. If we only practice our meditation methods but are not familiar with Buddhist concepts and right views, we may derive some benefit but it won’t be the true Buddhadharma, and it won’t be true Chan.

On the other hand if we only study Buddhadharma and Chan, becoming very familiar with Buddhist philosophy without using any methods, it is like counting other people’s treasure. This knowledge won’t really be our’s. Without actual experience gained through the methods, this knowledge will always remain merely knowledge. It will not be transformed into wisdom. Only through practice and personal experience can we transform knowledge into wisdom, which is then our own. For this reason, the right views of the Buddhadharma on the one hand and the methods of the Buddhadharma on the other, must go together. 

As Master Sheng Yen once said, it is like traveling and having a map. If you just travel without really knowing where you’re at and where you want to go, it can take you anywhere. But if we have a map, if we know exactly where we are and what our destination is, then there is a certainty we will arrive there. The right views are really like signposts giving us direction in our practice. By using them, we can clear all eventual misunderstandings and obstacles in the course of our practice. For this reason they are very useful, and we must integrate them into our practice. They have to be somewhere at the back when we are using the method. That doesn’t mean that as we are actually using the method we will think about and analyze right views. It means that this knowledge is so complete that it is at the background of our practice, guiding us without any necessity of bringing the concepts forward to think about.

The Dharma Seals

So what are these right views? Well, the four inverted views, or upside down views, show how we are deluded about the reality in which we live: In what is impure, we see purity; in what is suffering we see happiness; in what is not self we see self; and in what is impermanent we see permanence. This is completely opposite from the nature of reality in which we actually live, whereas the right views describe the nature of reality.

There is another teaching in Buddhism, almost the same thing, called the three Dharma seals, which are actually a description of the nature of reality. The Dharma seals are: all phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are selfless, and nirvana is a final peace. Sometimes you find in the literature a fourth seal which is: all impermanent things lead to suffering. But in Mahayana this is not really understood as a seal, because it is not universal. There is of course suffering, but we can be without suffering as well. So usually in the Mahayana schools there are these three seals.

So, all phenomena are impermanent; all phenomena are selfless; and nirvana is a final peace. These are the three Dharma seals. Why are they called seals? Because they prove that something is authentic Buddhadharma. If any teaching has impermanence as a principal, selflessness as a principal, and nirvana as a goal, we can say that it is Buddhadharma. This is beneficial because sometimes we hear some kind of teaching but we don’t know where that teaching is coming from. Some teachings use the Buddha’s terminology and are presented in a way almost as if it is Buddhism. But if we know the Dharma seals, then we can check whether this teaching is really in accordance with Buddhadharma or not.

The first Dharma seal is: all phenomena are impermanent. “All phenomena” means all phenomena of the mind, all physical phenomena, and all phenomena in our environment. Actually it includes everything. This first Dharma seal is telling us that all these phenomena are impermanent. From the smallest thing in the universe, from the atom or even the parts of the atom, up to the biggest celestial bodies in the universe, they are all impermanent. They are all in the process of arising and ceasing. You can’t find any phenomenon which is actually not impermanent – there is no such thing; all phenomena are impermanent.

Avoiding Impermanence

Impermanence is usually something we don’t like to think about. It’s scary somehow; we are getting older and we can see that. Of course as we are getting older we are getting closer to our death. Impermanence is always reminding us of death, and that is terrifying from the perspective of ego, it’s definitely not good news. We would of course like to always remain young and beautiful and healthy, and live forever. But that’s completely opposite to the nature of reality. For that reason we don’t like to think about impermanence; we actually avoid the idea in all possible ways.

That doesn’t mean that we are not aware of it. Of course we know that days are going by and the seasons are changing and one year is passing after another. We know intellectually that impermanence is there. We know that our bodies are changing, that our personalities are changing as well. We know, but somehow we don’t believe in it. We don’t accept it. It seems that that there is something there which is not changing. After all, this is “me.” I know myself. Ten years ago, and fifteen years ago, this is all the time “me”. This creates an illusion that we are not changing. Also when you look every day at yourself in the mirror, you don‘t really see the change. With photography it’s a different story – when you look at your photos from a year ago or three years ago, you see, wow, things are changing! We could say that bodies change so slowly that it leaves the impression of permanence. On the other hand we could say that the mind is changing so fast that again it leaves the impression that it doesn’t change. But actually our bodies and personalities are changing all the time, as well as our environment. Everything is changing all the time.

I remember one evening talk by Master Sheng Yen [Shifu], on a retreat here in this place. It was soon after this place was completed, the construction was finished we were using this Chan Hall and everything was new and beautiful. Shifu said “This place was already once in ruin and then we brought it to this present condition, and in the future it will go again into ruin.” And he said. “I am now teaching here, but in the future I will be gone too.” You know, it seems to us that things are just as they are. We take them for granted; we have this whole center, we have teachers talking about the Dharma. It seems that everything is somehow fixed and stable and it won’t change. When Shifu said what he did, some people felt he was exaggerating a little bit. But you know, things are changing, and that is very important to realize.

Facing Impermanence

From the one side impermanence is something which is terrifying – we don’t like to think about it, we avoid it in all possible ways. But if we have enough courage to face impermanence, we can actually start to experience the enormous benefits it can bring to us. The first positive effect impermanence has in our life is that it makes us think: What’s the purpose of life? Why am I here in the first place? If everything is impermanent, what is the meaning of all of this? That is the first positive effect that impermanence can have on us. We begin to search for the meaning, for the path, and that’s very, very important.

After we start to contemplate and become familiar with impermanence, the second positive effect is in lessening our attachment to things. There is no real need to be attached to things which are impermanent. When we can clearly see that being attached to something impermanent only brings suffering, our attachment lessens. By being attached to something, we can’t make the thing last longer or last forever, and it can’t make us happy. If it is another person, we can’t make another person happy by being attached to that person. So what attachment does to us becomes very clear. But, not being attached does not mean not being in a relationship. It does not mean not being responsible. It does not mean not feeling love and compassion and everything else. In our mind, what we consider to be love is usually a very possessive kind of feeling of owning someone. So contemplating impermanence can actually help us to free ourselves from attachments.

The more we contemplate impermanence, the freer and happier we are. Which seems contradictory from what we mentioned in the beginning, that first of all it’s terrifying. We run away from impermanence, but if we turn ourselves towards it, if we face and contemplate impermanence, we can gain an enormous amount of benefit. We start to appreciate every single thing which is a part of our experience. Especially the so-called ordinary, unimportant things, suddenly gain completely new meaning. Our life does not consist of big things – we might have big plans, big goals and so on, but our life from moment to moment consists of very small, ordinary, everyday things. If we don’t appreciate those small things, if we don’t see their uniqueness and their impermanent nature, then we won’t be able to to live harmoniously and happily. For this reason, contemplating impermanence is a very important thing. It changes the way we live, and the way we understand things. It changes the way we relate to and experience things, all for our own benefit as well as the benefit of other people.

The Most Important Teaching

Impermanence is probably the most important teaching of the Buddha. All other teachings are teaching about permanence. For example, in Hinduism there is an idea that this world is maya, which is Sanskrit for illusion, or illusory world. They teach that to be attached to this illusory world only brings suffering. So they were looking for something permanent behind this illusory world. They found it in meditation, in the state of samadhi where the atman, the individual self, joins with brahman, or universal self, or God, and that was a solution for them. But then the problem remains of all this diversity which is still illusory, in relation to that one thing which is permanent. It’s a difficult philosophical situation because this duality is not overcome, is not really solved.

This is a Hindu teaching and the Buddha, at the beginning, was practicing the methods of meditation and the paths which existed at the time he was alive in India. He experienced this unity of atman and brahman, and he wasn’t satisfied with that. For the time in which you are in samadhi, in which you are one, things are fine and everything is okay. But when you get out of it, things go back to where they were before. Not entirely of course, but suffering is still there because attachment is still there, because self is still there. So instead of looking for permanence, the Buddha turned to everyday, moment to moment experience. Actually he started to contemplate impermanence. And he found freedom through impermanence, not through something which is eternal, unchanging, and permanent.

The Buddha turned himself and faced impermanence, something everybody was running away from. Everybody was looking for a constancy – something permanent and fixed. They saw the permanent, fixed reality hidden behind this illusory reality which we are aware of in our everyday life. But is this reality one, or are there many realities? In Buddhism, in the Heart Sutra there is this line: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is precisely emptiness, and emptiness is precisely form.” There is no second reality. This very form IS emptiness, and emptiness IS form. There are not two realities; there is one reality. Therefore there is no conflict between the appearances and the truth about the appearances. Between the phenomena and the truth about these phenomena. Okay? In Buddhism, they are one.

So, all phenomena are impermanent; that was the first Dharma seal. I hope you can see in what way it is beneficial to contemplate impermanence, and how important this Buddhist teaching is. Because out of impermanence come these other teachings about no self and about emptiness. It’s a logical progression. The deeper insight tells us that actually, because all phenomena are impermanent, they are selfless. There is no core, there is no self, in ANY phenomena. 

If we go further than that, we actually find out that all phenomena are empty as well. There is a lot of confusion about that. When we say phenomena are empty, people wonder, what does it mean? Everything is emptiness, phenomena are empty, it means they don’t exist? Is it nonexistence? It’s nothingness? It seems like some kind of nihilistic view. Actually “phenomena are empty” means that every phenomenon is empty of independent existence. Every phenomenon is empty – empty of what? Always ask: empty of what? Of being independent, of existing separately from other phenomena. This is the truth and the meaning of emptiness – that in a positive way we can say that everything is interconnected. All phenomena are interconnected; they don’t exist separately. That insight into emptiness, and also into no self, is what uproots the ignorance in ourselves. Because ignorance is understood as a belief in having a separate self, having a separate existence.

Emptiness is Nirvana

The experience of emptiness is what nirvana is. When you have a complete experience of emptiness you are experiencing nirvana. We can regard these three teachings as layers of the true nature of reality. At the first layer we come in contact with impermanence; usually we run away from it so we never go deeper into it. But if we contemplate impermanence we can touch this deeper truth of selflessness. If we contemplate selflessness and develop insight into it, we touch the even deeper truth of emptiness, of interconnectedness. In every one of these layers, our freedom becomes deeper and deeper. Every one of these layers is liberating us from our misconceptions, from our misunderstanding and ignorance, and making us more free. So these are the Dharma seals. 

There is one part of a famous poem which says:

All phenomena are impermanent, they are all subject to arising and ceasing.

Whatever arises has to cease.

When arising and ceasing stop, that is the bliss of nirvana.

There is a story connected with these famous lines; it is about Buddha in one of his previous lives as an ascetic practitioner in the Himalayas. The god Indra was aware of Buddha being really serious in his practice, and wanted to test him. So he made Buddha hear this first line “all phenomena are impermanent, they are all subject to arising and ceasing,” and then Indra stopped there. Buddha heard this teaching and he wanted to learn more about it. Then Indra appeared in front of the Buddha as a rakshasha, a monster. Buddha realized that it was this rakshasha who’d said the lines he’d heard, and he asked him to say the rest of the teaching. The rakshasha said “Well, I can tell you, but I’m terribly hungry and I feed myself with human flesh. So what deal can we make?”

The Buddha said, “Well I have to know the other part of this teaching. This is the most important thing, this is why I am practicing. I have to know, so what can I do?”

The rakshasha said “Well, if I eat you, how can you hear my teaching? And if I’m telling you the teaching, I’m not eating you – then you have a benefit but I don’t have any benefit. So what deal we can make?

They finally came to an agreement. The rakshasha was a huge monster with a huge mouth and he said to Buddha “You climb up on that rock. I will open my mouth and when you jump in the air I will tell the other line of the teaching, so you will hear it before you fall into my mouth” and the Buddha agreed. He climbed up the rock and made ready to jump, and as he jumped the rakshasha spoke the other line “when arising and ceasing ceases, that is the bliss of nirvana.” At that moment when the Buddha jumped into the mouth of the rakshasha, the rakshasha suddenly turned into Indra and caught Buddha in his arms. That’s a beautiful story. It is telling us how serious the practitioner has to be in relation to the Dharma: wanting to hear, wanting to know, wanting to learn, wanting to practice.

We can use this first Dharma seal in our practice now by simply looking at everything which appears in the light of impermanence. Whatever appears, just be aware that it is impermanent. Pain in the knees can be impermanence. Wandering thoughts, impermanence. Everything, whatever you are experiencing, try to look at it in the light of impermanence, and practice with this strong idea in the background that everything there is, is impermanent. You will see how helpful that can be. We struggle with our pain precisely because we see pain as permanent. Whenever we are stuck on something, we are stuck because we see that thing as permanent. Seeing everything in the light of impermanence, is freeing ourselves. Therefore it is very beneficial and very helpful in our practice.

Introductory talk by Chan master Žarko Andričević given at DDRC Intensive Chan Retreat June 2018.
Edited by Buffe Maggie Laffey