130 - Practicing with Fear in Buddhism
132 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 1

Buddhism’s central point is nothing other than impermanence, or the “Great Matter of Life-and-Death.” Our practice goes far beyond platitudes or beliefs meant to make you feel better about the whole affair. Instead, our practice is about a direct and personal exploration of the experience and implications of being alive in a world where there is absolutely nothing for us to hold on to. Except, of course, that very fact, and the fact that being fully alive means we don’t hold on to anything at all.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Buddhism, Impermanence, Life, and Death
From the Beginning: Buddha’s Spiritual Search
The Buddha’s Insight about Impermanence
Our Direct and Personal Exploration of Impermanence
Embracing Times When Impermanence and Death Seem Close at Hand

 

As I post this, it’s March 25th, 2020. Because of the global coronavirus pandemic, we’re brought face-to-face with the strong possibility of the premature death of hundreds of thousands of people; widespread physical, emotional, and economic suffering; and the breakdown of many of the social systems on which we all depend. The impermanence and fragility of the day-to-day status quo of our lives has become much more evident than it usually is, at least for those of us used to living in relatively fortunate circumstances. When all the things we usually count on are taken away, or put into a state of great uncertainty, what do we do? Is there a way to think of our existence that preserves some sense of meaning and order? What can we rely on for strength and inspiration when the ground beneath our feet is shifting constantly?

Buddhism, Impermanence, Life, and Death

Fortunately, Buddhism is all about impermanence, which we also refer to as the Great Matter of Life and Death. You might think of the Buddhist “Great Matter of Life and Death” as being hyphenated: Life-and-Death. We’re concerned about the experience of life in the context of inevitable death, and death as being an often unwelcome but absolutely essential aspect of life. And Buddhism’s focus isn’t limited to the relationship between physical life and physical death, by any means. Impermanence is something we face moment by moment, day by day, year by year. The fact that everything changes, without exception, is the source of all human suffering.

In this episode I’ll talk about how Buddhism’s central point is nothing other than the Great Matter of Life-and-Death, and how our practice goes far beyond platitudes or beliefs meant to make you feel better about the whole affair. Instead, the essence of our practice is a direct and personal exploration of the experience and implications of being alive in a world where there is absolutely nothing unchanging for us to hold on to. Except, of course, that very fact, and the fact that being fully alive means we don’t hold on to anything at all.

I’ll also talk about how we can embrace times when impermanence and death seem close at hand, because these are ideal times for Buddhist practice. Not because we’re scared or in pain and practicing will help us cope, although that may be the case. Instead, our practice comes alive when we’re face-to-face with the reality of impermanence because that’s when we’re actually awake. The truth of impermanence has been there all along.

When things are peaceful and stable, we all get complacent and operate with the assumption we’ve got plenty of time, and the conditional things we rely on for happiness will last. When we’re complacent, it’s hard to practice with the sense of dedication and urgency that’s required for real transformation and insight. Alternatively, when the apparent solidity of our lives starts to seem fragile or ephemeral, we may be inspired to explore the Great Matter of Life-and-Death as if our lives depended on it.

From the Beginning: Buddha’s Spiritual Search

The issue of impermanence has been at the center of Buddhism since the beginning.

Before he awakened and become known as the “Buddha,” or “awakened one,” Siddhartha Gautama lived a comfortable and privileged life as a member of the ruling class. According to the traditional stories, his father was worried Siddhartha would leave home to become a spiritual seeker, so he made sure his son was distracted by sensual pleasures and lacked for nothing. Siddhartha become dissatisfied anyway. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha describes his luxurious life as a youth, and then says:

“Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I — who am subject to aging, not beyond aging — were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the [typical] young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.”[i]

The Buddha goes on to say he experienced similar insights around illness and death, and therefore his intoxication with health and life also dropped away. As a consequence, Siddhartha left home to pursue full-time spiritual practice as a mendicant. In the process, he subjected himself to incredible ascetic practices, at one point practically starving himself to death.

Eventually, the Buddha decided to practice the Middle Way between the extremes of sensual indulgence and asceticism, but his willingness to risk his life in his spiritual search is deeply significant. From the beginning, the Buddha was looking for some way to address the issue of Life-and-Death head on. Is our happiness completely dependent on conditional, impermanent things like good fortune, health, youth, love, status, and life? Is there anything we can do besides cling to fortunate circumstances as long as we can, and tumble into despair when we inevitably lose everything? For the Buddha, addressing the issue of Life-and-Death was itself a Life-or-Death matter.

The Buddha’s Insight about Impermanence

So, what did the Buddha find in his search? Did he gain access to some kind of unconditional happiness, or at least equanimity? Something that won’t disappear when all the lovely things in your life fall apart?

The Buddha did awaken to a way of being that’s beyond the cruel winds of fate. His answer’s a little tricky, though, so bear with me.

The Buddhist Heaven Realm – one of the Six Realms

First, it’s important to know that the Buddha’s peace isn’t dependent on the idea of heaven, a wonderful place we’ll go after death. Actually, heaven is part of Buddhist cosmology, and it’s described as being amazingly blissful at a spiritual as well as sensual level. However, Buddhist heaven isn’t permanent. (Didn’t I say Buddhism was all about impermanence?) According to Buddhism, your stay in the heaven realm might last a really long time, but eventually the good karma that got you there will run out. When it does, you’ll be reborn in another realm of existence, and all the realms other than heaven involve suffering. Sometimes a lot. Plus, according to Buddhist mythology, the loss of heaven is the most excruciating form of suffering there is!

It’s not necessary to believe literally in rebirth or other realms in order to appreciate this teaching. For example, many of us in highly developed, industrialized nations are living, more or less, in a heaven realm. We’re not terribly motivated to confront the Great Matter of Life-and-Death when we have so many pleasurable things to do. When we do contemplate the end of our comfortable and happy circumstances, it can be terrifying.

So, what is the nature of the Buddha’s answer to impermanence, if it’s not looking forward to the promise of permanent bliss in another realm? Basically, the Buddha realized that there was nothing whatsoever to be done about impermanence itself. It’s part of the nature of existence, and he called it anicca. What the Buddha also saw was that it’s not impermanence itself that causes us suffering, it’s our resistance to it.

We want things to last (at least, the things we identify with, care about, and depend on). We want to stay alive, and we have a sense of self which seems central to that happening. We build up and protect our sense of self, along with all of the things and relationships we see as being part of that self. In the form of the cyclical process of Life-and-Death, and in the inevitability of change and loss, impermanence seems like our mortal enemy. Even when things are great, we experience a certain level of stress, because we’re aware of the possibility – the inevitability, really – that they’ll eventually change for the worse.

If we give up our resistance to impermanence, we are freed from suffering. We gain access to peace when we stop grasping things in order to shore up our sense of self. We experience a kind of calm joy and gratitude when we manage to accept, at a deep level, that everything will change. We think our happiness and life are dependent on certain things remaining constant and present, but in actuality our existence is a flow of causes and conditions. Each moment can be approached as a miracle. Even in the midst of pain and loss, giving up resistance to impermanence brings relief. In fact, when things are difficult, reminding ourselves of impermanence can be a great source of strength and solace.

Our Direct and Personal Exploration of Impermanence

Of course, it’s not at all easy to give up our resistance to impermanence. It’s doesn’t come naturally to most human beings to experience calm joy when faced with the gritty reality of old age, disease, loss, and death. The instinct to self-preservation, including the preservation of the beings and things we love and identify with, seems to present an insurmountable obstacle to the kind of peace the Buddha attained. Our habitual way of thinking is dualistic: Valuing, appreciating, and taking care of our life seems to contradict a wholehearted embrace of the fact that it’s impermanent. Energetically protecting and preserving life – for example, in the face of a pandemic – seems to contradict giving up resistance to the fact that death is inevitable for all of us.

However, the actual experience of embracing impermanence is not what most of us think it is. Even in the midst of activity to preserve and appreciate life, it’s possible to appreciate the wonder of existence that’s manifested as much in death as it is in life. Viewed through the lens of impermanence, life can seem even more precious. When we’re not grasping after things to hold on to, we open up to a much greater intimacy with everything.

Embracing impermanence isn’t about a viewpoint or belief we adopt. This isn’t about saying to ourselves, or others, “Oh well, everything is impermanent! No big deal if a bunch of people die from disease much sooner than they otherwise would.” Such thoughts may temporarily give us strength, but when things get really tough, our supports will evaporate as long as they’re merely intellectual, or even emotional.

Through Buddhist practice we aim at a direct and personal exploration of the experience and implications of being alive in a world where there is absolutely nothing unchanging for us to hold on to. We do this, frankly, by confronting our own impermanence. In our meditation, we watch everything we could possibly identify as “self” change: Our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. When we age, grow ill, or suffer an injury, we contemplate the impermanence of our own body. If we’re emotionally strong enough, we contemplate our own death. A highly recommended place for Buddhist monks to meditate at the Buddha’s time as a charnel ground, where corpses were sent to be burned.

The Buddha taught the following verses, which are chanted by Buddhists the world over as the “Five Remembrances:”

“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness…”

“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death…”

“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me…”

“‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’”[ii]

As we contemplate our own impermanence, what exactly are we doing? Are we just sitting around morbidly dwelling on all the awful things that could happen to us and our loved ones? Surely that’s not an answer; plenty of us toss and turn at night thinking like that, and it only leads to anxiety.

No: When we meditate on our own impermanence, we’re not thinking about the future. Instead, we’re trying stay in the present moment, right here, right now, embodied. In this moment, the truth of impermanence is closer than our own nose, if we’re willing to look. We breathe and ask ourselves, “What is being alive in the midst of impermanence? What is the nature of this experience, which will inevitably come to an end? What makes this existence precious, despite old age, disease, loss, and death?” Philosophical answers may occur to us as we do this, but the truly transformative insight is beyond words. When we’re directly experiencing this moment, without estimating its value in comparison with anything else, life appears before us, naked and real. We know for ourselves that being fully alive means we don’t hold on to anything at all.

Embracing Times When Impermanence and Death Seem Close at Hand

When impermanence and death seem close at hand, we have the ideal opportunity for Buddhist practice. When our lives are comfortable and pleasant, and seem like they’re going to stay that way for the foreseeable future, it’s difficult for us grasp how ephemeral and impermanent everything actually is. Those of us blessed with health think we’re going to live forever, and are shocked when an aged face peers back at us from the mirror. Sure, we know intellectually we’re not going to live forever, but it’s human nature to disbelieve impermanence applies to us until we confronted with that fact physically. Few of us wake up to reality of our situation until change, loss, and death manifests literally in our bodies, the bodies of those we love, and the concrete details of our daily lives.

The Human Realm – one of the Six Realms; including birth, old age, disease, sorrow, and death, but also spiritual practice (a meditating person)

In the Buddhist cosmology of the six realms, which I mentioned earlier, the human realm is considered the best place to be born if you want to progress in spiritual practice. The heaven realm is so nice you just spend eons there in complacency, without the slightest inclination to practice. Once you see the end of your time in heaven approaching, you’ve wasted a lot of time. The other six realms – again, you can just view these metaphorically – are the realms of jealous demigods, beasts, hungry ghosts, and hell. When we’re in these four realms, there’s too much strife, suffering, or stupidity for us to focus on spiritual practice. It’s only in the human realm that we have just the right blend of discomfort and good fortune to make serious practice possible.

The primary characteristic of the human realm is – you guessed it – impermanence. Sometimes things are wonderful, and we’re filled with excitement and desire, but then things change and we’re devastated. Sometimes things are miserable, but we know they might get better so we don’t give up hope. The obvious transience of everything in our lives inspires spiritual questions: Who am I? What is this all about? What can I rely on? How do I find meaning?

Therefore, while all-consuming pain or strife can be an obstacle in Buddhist practice, the experience of impermanence itself is not. Coming face-to-face with the fragility of our bodies and lives isn’t usually pleasant or comfortable, but it’s an opportunity to awaken from a deluded dream that we have all the time in the world, and happiness dependent on conditional, impermanent things is good enough.

Thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen, like many great spiritual leaders throughout time, was inspired to devote himself to practice because of an early loss. It’s believed that his father was of noble rank, but Dogen was illegitimate so his father wasn’t in the picture. Then, when he was only seven, Dogen’s beloved mother died. Shortly afterwards, Dogen became a Buddhist monk. In his essay “Gakudo Yojinshu,” or “Points to Watch in Practicing the Way,” Dogen wrote:

“The mind that aspires to enlightenment is known by many names, but they all refer to one mind. The ancestral master Nagarjuna said, ‘The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying and recognizes the impermanent nature of the world is also known as the mind that aspires to enlightenment.’ Should we then call this mind as the mind that aspires to enlightenment? When the transient nature of the world is recognized, the ordinary, selfish mind does not arise; neither does the mind that seeks fame and profit. Fearing the swift passage of time, practice the Way as though saving your head from fire.”[iii]

As we allow impermanence to inspire our practice, we should take care of ourselves, always watching the results of our actions of body, speech, and mind. Contemplation of the ephemeral and fragile nature of life needs to be done in the right way – ideally with the support of other people, and within a strong spiritual tradition. Without others encouraging us that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, facing down the visceral reality of impermanence may simply inspire fear, depression, or despair.

Fortunately, the Buddha forged new territory in his direct and personal exploration of the experience and implications of being alive in a world where there is absolutely nothing unchanging for us to hold on to. He emerged from the forest with good news: There is a way to practice so we can let go of our resistance to impermanence, including death, and thereby attain peace and liberation. The practice isn’t easy. Few of us can leap to unconditional equanimity and calm joy overnight. But the Buddha and all the Buddhist teachers who have come after him assure us that, ultimately, any one of us can find liberation – and not by escaping impermanence, but by facing it directly.

 


Endnotes

[i] AN 3.38 Sukhamala Sutta: Refinement. Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html
[ii] “Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html .
[iii] Hotsu Bodaishin (Arousing the Aspiration for Enlightenment). Commentary by Rev. Tairyu Tsunoda, Komazawa University. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/library/key_terms/pdf/key_terms19.pdf

 

130 - Practicing with Fear in Buddhism
132 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 1
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