Impermanence: The Only Thing Constant is Change
What is the Buddhist concept of impermanence?
As we discussed in Step 4: The Universal Truths of Existence, understanding the concept of impermanence is critical to Buddhism and thus deserves to be explained in plenty of detail.
You’ve probably heard the expression that the only thing constant is change or that nothing lasts forever.
Formal Buddhist teachings call this “impermanence,” which can have an abstract or technical tone to us novice Buddhists.
Uncertainty better describes the feeling in the heart when once is faced with change.
The truth is that uncertainty is always with us, right from birth. Wanting things and life to be unchanging or permanent is impossible.
Put another way, the world is a passing phenomenon. Every written word, every carved stone, every painted picture, ever civilization and every generation of human beings will eventually vanish away like the leaves and flowers after summer.
The law of change applies to everything in the universe
This law of change or uncertainty isn’t even limited to the plant earth, everything in the universe is subject to the law of impermanency.
It may sound confusing as first but contemplate the following: What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exist.
Yet we want the impossible it to be true. We crave it to be true.
Buddha explained that our minds seek a permanent existence but life creates an impermanent physical body.
Without insight, we are unable to reconcile this is our minds and suffering results. Without insight, we create fictions of permanency.
Refusing to accept the law of change will cause you suffering
Whenever you cling to this falsehood, you will suffer with inner conflict and will not be at peace. The solution is to recognize that nothing can be permanently satisfying and that everything is always changing. We are all on the wheel of endless change.
If we are to find inner peace, we can’t waste all of our time and effort fighting the natural law of change.
For example, even though we may own land, vehicles and other property, we don’t have to have to cling to them to the extent that they become a burden, weighing down and tormenting the mind.
We don’t have to have greedy feelings about them.
Remember the ‘be careful with my glass” example
Let’s take a look at a specific example that you can apply to anything. Let’s pretend that as a gift you receive a very expensive and very high end set of drinking glasses.
If you have not properly trained your mind, then you will say to yourself, “I love these glasses. They are wonderful and I hope that they never break.”
Your friend remarks, “That glass is very high end so please be careful not to break it.” The trained mind will realize that you can’t prevent something that is breakable from eventually breaking.
Sure, you should be careful with your friends glass.
But if you don’t accidentally break it this time, someone or something eventually will break it. Buddha’s teachings say that we should accept this fact.
If we understand the law of change, then we will see that the glass is in fact already broken.
If we see the true nature of the glass, then we’ll see that the broken glass within the unbroken one. When we drink from the glass, we should reflect that it’s already broken.
Eventually the glass’s time will be up and it will break. This is the type of insight and understanding that will lead you to inner peace.
While the glass is unbroken, we should take good care of it until one day it slips out of your hand and breaks into a million pieces.
If you have contemplated and understand that this is inevitable then you will not be upset or angry when the glass does finally break.
You’ll simply move on unaffected because you saw its brokenness before it broke.
An understanding of impermanence can put your mind at ease
If you can see that all things are transient, uncertain and impermanent, then your mind will be at ease.
Contemplation of impermanence is the bridge to wisdom.
Once you’re able to see the uncertainty of things, you’ll see the unchanging reality of them.
How many times have you taken the trouble and expense to buy something new and beautiful?
Then in a few months, you are tired of it. If you know uncertainty, then you will let go of things and not grasp onto them.
How is this so?
If we see all things (like pens, watches, etc.) as uncertain, then their value fades away.
All things become less significant and we come to realize that we shouldn’t hold on to things that don’t have any real value. The wisdom that all things and mental states are impermanent should be known at all times whether we are standing, walking, sitting or lying down.
Contemplation of change can be done at any time whether relaxing at home, at work or in any other situation.
For example, just going for a walk and seeing dead leaves under a tree can provide an opportunity to contemplate impermanence. We are the same as leaves: when we get old, we shrivel up and die.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, if you can accept and contemplate the truth of constant change and impermanence, you will gain peace.