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A Complicated Burden (May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 23 of the magazine.

A Complicated Burden

There was nothing SANDY BOUCHER could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet decade after decade, she has carried the burden of guilt. This is a meditation on living with what cannot be undone.

After months of intensive study of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in a class with Pema Chödrön, my classmates and I were invited to take the bodhisattva vow, which is a commitment to dedicate oneself to all beings that is at the very heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. The vow was explained as an aspiration only, not necessarily a strict obligation to future selfless action, and many Buddhists after some consideration do not have any difficulty taking it. But I hesitated, wondering how I could make such a promise. I did not trust my willingness to give or sacrifice for the benefit of others. For decades I had carried with me the question: What could I have done, what sacrifice could I have made, to change my brother’s circumstances so that he would have wanted to go on living?

My brother George—a stocky, dark-haired, handsome man, shyly smiling—shot himself at the age of twenty-eight and disappeared from our lives. Just nineteen at the time, I was so traumatized by his death that I floated solitary and desperately lonely for days and months that stretched into years. In the half a century since he died, I have spent countless hours trying to understand, accept, and mourn his violent exit—grieving for George because apparently he thought he had no other option, and sorry for myself because my precious, only brother disappeared, robbing me of knowing him as he aged and changed.

I believe that George killed himself at least in part to punish our father, with whom he had struggled all his life and who had broken his spirit by constant denigration and occasional physical abuse. Dad was a carpenter, a big, blunt, outspoken man who was king of our house. He was served the first and largest portion at dinner; he held forth at length while my mother and we children kept silent; and he criticized us children with cold contempt. Each night at dinner my father berated George for his dissolute lifestyle. I would watch my brother’s head lower in angry shame as Dad called him a loafer, a ne’er do well, a bum. On the one hand, I agreed with my dad that George seemed disreputable in his grease-stained pants, beer in hand, puffing a fat cigar, and I knew he often acted crudely and carelessly, but, on the other hand, I felt George’s humiliation as the blood rose in his cheeks.

As the youngest child, I was my father’s favorite, identifying with him and loving him deeply. When he held me on his lap, his large workman’s hands clasped my tummy with warm reassurance. When he lifted me in his arms, I knew the world was safe and that I was protected. When I pranced around the living room showing off and he laughed at me, I felt showered with grace. My sister and I loved to watch him and my mother, all dressed up like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, twirling across the floor together at the lodge-hall dances. In the kitchen he demonstrated a wacky Charleston for us, his long legs scissoring out to the side, while we choked with laughter.

As I grew up, I came to understand that my dad had wanted to be a doctor and had even made it through pre-med school at Ohio State, but his hopes had been destroyed by the Great Depression. He was eaten up by the conviction that he had been denied his chance in life, and so he handed to his only son the task of realizing his dream. When George chose to smoke cigars, drink beer, and work on jalopies instead of going to college, my dad vented upon him his relentless, frustrated rage.

My role as daddy’s girl brought with it a complicated burden of confused loyalties. Standing with my father meant I had to denigrate or dismiss my brother and sister and many others in our environment. This pressure caused a creeping discomfort in me and, so, as I grew from child to teenager, I developed a pattern of secret rebellion while offering a smoothly accepting facade to the family. After my brother’s suicide, I escaped my father by leaving my Midwestern home, sacrificing the support of family ties and a connection with my birthplace in order to create a life less distorted by his bitter view of the world.

Yet one never fully escapes one’s family. I still often feel the pull of my relationship with my dad, and also my mom, who are both dead now. I wonder if my brother would have survived if my mother had acted to protect him. I saw her put herself between them only once, when after a shoving match my father lifted my sixteen-year-old brother above his head and, from a landing several steps up the stairway, poised to throw him to the floor. Mom begged my father to put George down, and he did, turning away with trembling arms and a weirdly hangdog look, his fury crumbling into shame.

Now I see that day in the living room—in the stillness after my brother had escaped out the back door and his jalopy had roared out the driveway—as my father’s chance to stop and take a look at himself. My father might have gone out on the porch or into the backyard and pondered what he had done. He might have made a choice, alone or with my mother, to do all in his power to stop himself from continuing the cycle of disrespect and dominance in which he was caught. As an adult, in my own practice, I try to catch myself—I try to stop the forward thrust of anger and pull back into attention. After all, so many times I watched my father start on the path of rage, amp up the feelings, and stoke the conflict until any self-awareness he might have had was consumed by the roar of his emotions. My father never took that opportunity to stop.

Given the family dynamics in our home, I could not help my brother and yet, against all reason, for years I found it difficult to forgive myself for not saving George’s life. I watched my father abuse him and did not speak; while I could not muster the contempt my father expected me to feel for George, I did nothing when my father shamed him; I participated in his being pushed outside our circle. Even now I wonder how I could have acted to show him that he was loved and if that would have helped. How could I have sacrificed my own safety and comfort to secure his? In Buddhism we find many stories of sacrifice, including the dramatic saga of Princess Miao Shan who sacrificed her eyes and hands to save her father’s life and in the process transformed into the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kwan Yin. From one perspective, I can see that her self-sacrifice was an expression of the highest spiritual attainment. She gave up the illusion of a stable self or her “independent position,” you might say. That is, she honored the truth of the interpenetration of all life, so that self-sacrifice became a creative form of participation and action. On the other hand, as a woman, I am leery of the societal expectation that I was put on this earth to serve others, even at the expense of myself. I have, however, found a corrective in Chögyam Trungpa’s definition of compassion as “doing what is appropriate in the moment,” which seems to strip away concepts and identities to place one in the truth of the here and now.

What, as a child, would have been appropriate for me? If I had spoken in George’s defense, would I have sacrificed my favored place as daddy’s girl and been pushed outside the circle of family warmth and approval, as George had been? Eight years younger than my brother, I admired him with all my heart and I maintained a secret relationship with him when my father was not around. While George sometimes acted the loud, pushy big brother, he was often kind to me. He let me sit next to him on the back step while he contemplated the jalopy he was fixing in the driveway, and we rested in companionable silence. Sometimes he teased me with word-games from the boogie-woogie records he listened to. Sometimes he took me with him on errands and I’d sit proudly erect in the rumble seat of his Model T. This makes me unutterably sad to remember, for it brings home my loss.

One day, at a cancer support group I attended, a young man, a Buddhist like me, talked about his suffering as his condition worsened. He was a handsome man with curly dark-brown hair and thick-lashed, sable eyes. I sat next to him at the meeting and after he had told us of his latest bout with pain and despair, I put my arm around his shoulders. Rather than keeping a rigidity or distance as some men might have done, he leaned against me and put his head on my shoulder, surrendering to receive the comfort I offered.

I was inordinately moved, feeling a great rush of tenderness and a sort of relief. It was not until I arrived home that day that I realized it was as if I had been holding and comforting George.

Pondering this experience in the next few days, I remembered the Buddha’s response to a woman who was caught in unbearable grief at the death of her children. He told her that he could not help her with her present predicament; through countless previous lives she had been crying for lost children, her tears enough to fill all the oceans. Hearing him and recognizing that she’d already cried enough, she felt her grief begin to dissipate.

I thought about all the brothers who have died throughout all time and all the siblings who have felt guilty or helpless at their brothers’ death. And I found myself breathing in regret and sorrow, not just for my own situation, but also in solidarity with everyone in the world who has lost a brother. I breathed in all our pain as I’d been taught to do in the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, and breathed out compassion for all of us. As immediately as I had with my cancer friend, I felt the stability of strong human contact steadying me.

Now, when I think about the past and am confronted with my complicity in someone else’s misfortune, I do this practice. The regret doesn’t go away, yet I am returned to the feelings I experienced in the cancer support group. Comforting that young man, I realized that my brother is alive in people who suffer, and while I cannot reach back in time to change his reality, I can aspire to touch him in others, to make myself available to act with delicacy and compassion toward my fellow human beings. Sometimes I cannot manage this brave maneuver, but at other times it is possible.

Recently, after several days of practice with the Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, I and others were invited to take the Bodhisattva vow with her. This I did, experiencing it as the continuation of what I had been doing with tonglen and a support for further explorations. I breathe in guilt and sorrow and breathe out peace.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Inside the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine Print

Inside the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine:

Embrace Change: Eleven teachers and writers on life’s central challenge and the key to the Buddhist path. Plus, the inspiring life of Thich Nhat Hanh’s closest collaborator, running with the mind of meditation, how thoughts can free us (rather than control us) and much more.

Click on titles below to view full articles, excerpts, and related web exclusives. Click here to order a copy of this issue.

this issue's editorial:

Embracing Change, We Discover the Changeless

By Shambhala Sun Editor-in-Chief Melvin McLeod.


Path of Peace: The Life and Teachings of Sister Chan Khong

She's Thich Nhat Hanh’s invaluable collaborator, and a dedicated activist and gifted teacher in her own right. Andrea Miller tells her extraordinary story.

The Teacher-Student Relationship

We continue our presentation of never-before-published teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of this magazine. In this issue: how our relationship with the teacher evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.


The Teachings of Chögyam Trungpa

Tsokyni Rinpoche on how to experience two of mind's most profound qualities; Michael Stone on the uncle who helped him to think in new ways.

special section: embrace change

Impermanence is Buddha Nature

Zoketsu Norman Fischer starts our special section with an overview of Buddhism’s unique approach to this universal challenge and reality. Change, he says, isn’t just a fact of life we have to work with. It’s enlightenment itself, manifesting moment by moment in time.

Plus ten other leading Buddhist teachers and writers offer personal stories, teachings, and meditations to touch our hearts, open our minds, and help us embrace the change in our own lives:

Judy Lief: This Morning  Joan Sutherland: Seasons of Awakening
Elaine Smookler: Blindsided Cyndi Lee: Never Too Old Melissa Myozen Blacker: The Joyful Leap Barry Boyce: Bon Voyage Sylvia Boorstein: How Many Copies? Lodro Rinzler: Intentional Change Noah Levine: Already Broken Shozan Jack Haubner: Where Is the True Place?

other voices

Running Into Meditation

Meditating and running go hand in hand, says Sakyong Mipham. Exercise can be a support for meditation, and meditation can be a support for exercise.


Sakyong Mipham: His best from the Shambhala Sun

A Complicated Burden

There was nothing Sandy Boucher could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet decade after decade, she has carried the burden of guilt. This is a meditation on living with what can not be undone.

The Beautiful Energy of Thoughts

Working with our thoughts is the greatest challenge in meditation — maybe in life. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche tells us how we can experience them as freedom and not imprisonment.

Degrading Our Children

Whether they get an F or an A+, most kids can't separate their grades from their self-worth. Kyo Maclear on eliminating grades so children can focus on what really matters in life.

the mindful society

A Real Education

Barry Boyce on the latest thinking about how and why kindness, caring, empathy, and other mindful values might be brought into our children's classrooms, and the people who are leading the way for it to happen.


Thinking Beyond Fast and Slow

John Tarrant reviews Thinking Fast and Slow  by Daniel Kahneman.

Books in Brief

Andrea Miller reviews The Huston Smith Reader, Making Space by Thich Nhat Hanh, Moh Hardin's Little Book of Live, and five other new titles worth your while.

about a poem

Daniel Ladinsky on Hafiz's "Know the True Nature"

Shambhala Sun, March 2012, Volume Twenty, Number 5. 

To order a trial subscription to Shambhala Sun, click here.

ON THE COVER: The waxing gibbous moon; photo by Kenneth Williamson.

Books in Brief (May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 83 of the magazine.

Books in Brief


Leaning Into Sharp Points:
Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers

By Stan Goldberg
New World Library 2012; 232 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The man’s wife was hooked up to an oxygen regulator. “How do I do this?” he whispered to hospice volunteer Stan Goldberg. “We’ve been married for forty years, but God help me, I don’t know what I should be doing.” This, says Goldberg, is a question that millions of people ask every day when they find themselves thrust into the role of caregiver for someone with a chronic or terminal illness, and for just this reason he offers Leaning Into Sharp Points. Among other important topics, this book addresses how to begin talking about what your loved one has meant to you and how much they will be missed; how to balance your needs against theirs; and how to deal with any abuse or negative behavior they may direct at you due to their illness. Goldberg, whose writing appeared in The Best Buddhist Writing 2010, is also the author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life.

A Little Book of Love:
Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World

By Moh Hardin
Shambhala Publications 2011; 160 pp., $15.95 (cloth)

It is said that all the Buddha’s teachings can be divided into two broad categories: skillful means and wisdom. The wisdom teachings offer insight into the nature of reality, while the skillful means teachings offer instruction for practices. In that vein, Moh Hardin presents both skillful means and wisdom teachings in A Little Book of Love. And—whether he’s addressing listening and speaking with love or building trust or letting go—he always has practical and transformative suggestions. “This is a little book about a big word: love,” Hardin writes in the introduction. “Love is not just a feeling we have toward our spouse, our family, or our friends. It includes these relationships, of course, but love is a way of being present and awake in the world altogether.”

A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction:
A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust and Restore Intimacy

By Paldrom Catharine Collins and George N. Collins
Adams Media 2011; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)

A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction is by husband and wife team Paldrom Catharine Collins and George N. Collins. Paldrom is a former Buddhist nun who helps couples work through sexual addiction through Compulsion Solutions counseling in California. George, a recovering sex addict, is the author of Breaking the Cycle. According to the authors, sex addiction is a compulsive urge to engage in sexual activity, be it having affairs, using prostitutes, or excessively viewing pornography. For the addict, sex is an escape or a balm in a way that is detrimental to the individual, their family, their friends, and/or their work. This book is for couples who have decided to stay together and work through breaches in their relationship caused by sexually compulsive behavior. Part one explores how to come to terms with the shock, hurt, fear, and shame surrounding addiction; part two unpacks the skills required to rebuild the partnership; and part three deals with ways of deepening emotional and sexual intimacy.

The Huston Smith Reader
Edited by Jeffery Paine
University of California Press 2012; 280 pp., $29.95 (cloth)

There was no such thing as comparative religion; if you knew someone of another faith, you ignored them, persecuted them, or tried to convert them. Then, with his 1958 classic, The Religions of Man, Huston Smith showed America another way. He was born in 1919 to missionary parents in China, and he planned to become a missionary himself. Instead, he became what was considered an eccentric college professor. He discovered Hinduism and threw himself into it not just by studying it, but by practicing it for ten years. After that, he spent a decade immersed in Buddhism and another immersed in Islam. Smith’s writing, which spans six decades, is renowned for being highly accessible, and this newly published reader offers a fascinating selection of his work.

Man Seeks God:
My Flirtations With the Divine
By Eric Weiner
Twelve Publications 2011; 368 pp., $26.99 (cloth)

Doubled over in pain one evening, Eric Weiner found himself in the emergency room terrified that he had cancer or some unimaginable illness worse than cancer. The nurse, smelling his fear, leaned in to draw blood. “Have you found your God yet?” she asked. As it turns out, the only illness Weiner had was bad indigestion and it quickly passed. The nurse’s question, however, lingered on, eventually evolving into Man Seeks God—an open-minded, if irreverent, exploration of eight different religions. To tackle Buddhism, the wisecracking spiritual seeker traveled to Nepal, where he had a semiprivate audience with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche; tried to meditate but mostly fixated on the nail clippers he’d forgotten to pack; and circumambulated the stupa of Boudhanath, or in his words, “walked around the Giant Marshmallow.” In the end, Weiner didn’t convert to Buddhism or any other faith; instead, he constructed his own God. The foundation is Judaism, he says, but the support beams are Buddhist.

Making Space:
Creating a Home Meditation Practice
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2011; 96 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Peaceful places create peace in our minds and bodies. “That is the intention of sacred space,” it says in the introduction of this new release. “But we don’t need to wait until we can find a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, or other space designed for sacred contemplation… If we make a space for contemplation and meditation right in our own homes, then peace and joy are always available to us.” In Making Space, Thich Nhat Hanh begins with the how-tos of stopping, breathing, and sitting. Then he delves into the importance of creating a “breathing room” or “breathing corner,” a calm place at home that you can go to when you’re feeling uneasy, sad, or angry, and thereby come back to yourself. Later chapters explore topics such as how to invite the bell, how to make an altar, and how to make your bed a real place of rest and relaxation.

Active Hope:
How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy
By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
New World Library 2012; 256 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Extreme weather events, a mushrooming population, and dwindling resources—the world’s problems are so big that many of us feel powerless. We do not believe in our ability to change things, so we don’t even try. Yet in this new release, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone argue that we don’t need to be optimistic to make positive change. Instead of weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we can instead be guided by our intentions. This is a three-step practice, which the authors call Active Hope. First, we take in a clear view of reality. Second, we identify what we hope for. And third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. Activist Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Chris Johnstone, author of Find Your Power, teaches on resilience, happiness, and positive change.

Ten Poems to Say Goodbye
By Roger Housden
Harmony Books 2012; 125 pp., $16 (cloth)

Roger Housden’s new release is the perfect poetic accompaniment for this issue’s special section on embracing change. It features ten poems by ten poets, and to accompany each poem Housden offers a thoughtful, lyrical essay. The theme throughout is impermanence, personal loss. Yet the lens is wide and takes in not just grief and sorrow, but also healing and joy. “A goodbye,” says Housden in the introduction, “is an opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately for love and a deepening acceptance of life as it is instead of what it was or what we may have wanted it to be.” Ten Poems to Say Goodbye stands strongly on its own. That said, it is the final volume in a series of six by Housden, the first being Ten Poems to Change Your Life, which was published a decade ago. The poets featured in Ten Poems to Say Goodbye include Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Buddhist practitioners Leonard Cohen and Jane Hirshfield.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Impermanence is Buddha Nature (Embrace Change/May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 50 of the magazine.


Impermanence is Buddha Nature

Change isn’t just a fact of life we have to accept and work with, says NORMAN FISCHER.

The scene of the Buddha’s passing, as told in the Pali canon’s Mahaparinibbana Sutta, is starkly beautiful. The Buddha, having previously “renounced the life force” and announced the time and place of his passing, is surrounded by his disciples. He asks them if they have any last questions or doubts, and through their silence (and his clairvoyance), he realizes that they are all well established in awakening. He then pronounces his final words to them and to all subsequent generations of practitioners: “Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing. Keep on diligently with your practice!” Then the Buddha journeys back and forth through the various meditation states, finally passing from this life. Those monks not yet fully awakened “tore their hair, raised their arms, threw themselves down twisting and turning, and cried out in their extreme grief, ‘Too soon! Too soon!’” But the fully awakened monastics remained mindful, saying, “All compound things are impermanent. What’s the use of crying?”

Practitioners have always understood impermanence as the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings and practice. All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts. Therefore nothing can be grasped or held onto. When we don’t fully appreciate this simple but profound truth we suffer, as did the monks who descended into misery and despair at the Buddha’s passing. When we do, we have real peace and understanding, as did the monks who remained fully mindful and calm.

As far as classical Buddhism is concerned, impermanence is the number one inescapable, and essentially painful, fact of life. It is the singular existential problem that the whole edifice of Buddhist practice is meant to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing the path with diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.

A while ago I had a dream that has stayed with me. In a hazy grotto, my mother-in-law and I, coming from opposite directions, are trying to squeeze through a dim doorway. Both of us are fairly large people and the space is small, so for a moment we are stuck together in the doorway. Finally we press through, she to her side (formerly mine), I to mine (formerly hers).

It’s not that surprising to me that I would dream about my mother-in-law. Her situation is often on my mind. My mother-in- law is nearing ninety. She has many health problems. She is usually in pain, can’t walk or sleep at night, and is losing the use of her hands to neuropathy. She lives with her husband of more than sixty years, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, can’t speak a coherent sentence, and doesn’t know who or where he is. Despite all this, my mother-in-law affirms life 100 percent, as she always has. She never entertains the idea of death, as far as I know. All she wants and hopes for is a good and pleasant life. Since she doesn’t have this right now (though she hasn’t given up hope for it), she is fairly miserable, as anyone in her situation would be.

I, on the other hand, am fairly healthy, with no expectation of dying anytime soon. Yet from childhood I have been thinking about death, and the fact of death has probably been the main motivator in my life. (Why else would I have devoted myself full time to Buddhist practice from an early age?) Consequently, almost all my talking and writing, and much of my thinking, is in one way or another in reference to death, absence, disappearing.

So this dream intrigues and confuses me. Is my mother-in-law about to pass over from life to death, though temporarily stuck in the crowded doorway? If that’s the logic of the dream, then I must be dead, stuck in that same doorway as I try to pass through to life. Of course this makes no sense! But then, the longer I contemplate life and death, the less sense they make. Sometimes I wonder whether life and death isn’t merely a conceptual framework we confuse ourselves with. Of course people do seem to disappear, and, this having been the case generally with others, it seems reasonable to assume that it will be the case for us at some point. But how to understand this? And how to account for the many anomalies that appear when you look closely, such as reported appearances of ghosts and other visitations from the dead, reincarnation, and so on.

It is very telling that some religions refer to death as “eternal life,” and that in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha doesn’t die. He enters parinirvana, full extinction, which is something other than death. In Buddhism generally, death isn’t death—it’s a staging area for further life. So there are many respectable and less respectable reasons to wonder about the question of death.

There are a lot of older people in the Buddhist communities in which I practice. Some are in their seventies and eighties, others in their sixties, like me. Because of this, the theme of death and impermanence is always on our minds and seems to come up again and again in the teachings we study. All conditioned things pass away. Nothing remains as it was. The body changes and weakens as it ages. In response to this, and to a lifetime’s experience, the mind changes as well. The way one thinks of, views, and feels about life and the world is different. Even the same thoughts one had in youth or midlife take on a different flavor when held in older age. The other day a friend about my age, who in her youth studied Zen with the great master Song Sa Nim, told me, “He always said, ‘Soon dead!’ I understood the words then as being true: very Zen, and almost funny. Now they seem personal and poignant.”

“All conditioned things have the nature of vanishing.” What is impermanence after all? When we’re young we know that death is coming, but it will probably come later, so we don’t have to be so concerned with it now. And even if we are concerned with it in youth, as I was, the concern is philosophical. When we are older we know death is coming sooner rather than later, so we take it more personally. But do we really know what we are talking about?

Death may be the ultimate loss, the ultimate impermanence, but even on a lesser, everyday scale, impermanence and the loss it entails still happens more or less “later.” Something is here now in a particular way; later it will not be. I am or have something now; later I will not. But “later” is the safest of all time frames. It can be safely ignored because it’s not now—it’s later, and later never comes. And even if it does, we don’t have to worry about it now. We can worry about it later. For most of us most of the time, impermanence seems irrelevant.

But in truth, impermanence isn’t later; it’s now. “All conditioned things have the nature of vanishing.” Right now, as they appear before us, they have that nature. It’s not that something vanishes later. Right now, everything is in some way—though we don’t understand in what way—vanishing before our very eyes. Squeezing uncomfortably through the narrow doorway of now, we don’t know whether we are coming or going. Impermanence may be a deeper thought than we at first appreciate.

Impermanence is not only loss; it is also change, and change can be refreshing, renewing. In fact, change is always both good and bad, because change, even when it is refreshing, always entails loss. Nothing new appears unless something old ceases. As they say on New Year’s Eve, “Out with the old, in with the new,” a happy and a sad occasion. As with the scene in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, there’s despair and equanimity at the same time. Impermanence is both.

In one of his most important essays, the great twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen writes, “Impermanence is itself Buddha Nature.” This seems quite different from the classical Buddhist notion of impermanence, which emphasizes the loss side of the loss/ change/renewal equation. For Dogen, impermanence isn’t a problem to be overcome with diligent effort on the path. Impermanence is the path. Practice isn’t the way to cope with or overcome impermanence. It is the way to fully appreciate and live it.

“If you want to understand Buddha Nature,” Dogen writes, “you should intimately observe cause and effect over time. When the time is ripe, Buddha Nature manifests.” In explaining this teaching, Dogen, in his usual inside-out, upside-down way (Dogen is unique among Zen Masters in his intricately detailed literary style, which usually involves very counterconceptual ways of understanding typical concepts), writes that practice isn’t so much a matter of changing or improving the conditions of your inner or outer life, as a way of fully embracing and appreciating those conditions, especially the condition of impermanence and loss. When you practice, “the time becomes ripe.” While this phrase naturally implies a “later” (something unripe ripens in time), Dogen understands it is the opposite way: Time is always ripe. Buddha Nature always manifests in time, because time is always impermanence.

Of course time is impermanence and impermanence is time! Time is change, development, loss. Present time is ungraspable: as soon as it occurs it immediately falls into the past. As soon as I am here, I am gone. If this were not so, how could the me of this moment ever give way to the me of the following moment? Unless the first me disappears, clearing the way, the second me cannot appear. So my being here is thanks to my not being here. If I were not not here I couldn’t be here!

In words, this becomes very quickly paradoxical and absurd, but in living, it seems to be exactly the case. Logically it must be so, and once in a while (especially in a long meditation retreat) you can actually, viscerally, feel it. Nothing appears unless it appears in time. And whatever appears in time appears and vanishes at once, just as the Buddha said on his deathbed. Time is existence, impermanence, change, loss, growth, development—the best and the worst news at once. Dogen calls this strange immense process Buddha Nature. “Buddha Nature is no other than all are, because all are is Buddha Nature,” he writes. The phrase all are is telling. Are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change. All are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change is never lonely; it is always all-inclusive. We’re all always in this together.

The other day I was talking to an old friend, an experienced Zen practitioner, about her practice. She told me she was beginning to notice that the persistent feeling of dissatisfaction she always felt in relation to others, to the world, and to the circumstances of her inner and outer life, was probably not about others, the world, or inner and outer circumstances, but instead was about her deepest inmost self itself. Dissatisfaction, she said, seems in some way to be herself, to be fundamentally engrained in her. Before realizing this, she went on, she’d assumed her dissatisfaction was due in some way to a personal failing on her part—a failing that she had hoped to correct with her Zen practice. But now she could see that it was far worse than that! The dissatisfaction was not about her, and therefore correctable; it was built into her, it was essential to her self!

This seems to be exactly what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the basic shakiness of our sense of subjectivity in the famous doctrine of anatta, or nonself. Though we all need healthy egos to operate normally in the world, the essential grounding of ego is the false notion of permanence, a notion that we unthinkingly subscribe to, even though, deep in our hearts, we know it’s untrue. I am me, I have been me, I will be me. I can change, and I want to change, but I am always here, always me, and have never known any other experience. But this ignores the reality that “all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,” and are vanishing constantly, as a condition of their existing in time, whose nature is vanishing.

No wonder we feel, as my friend felt, a constant nagging sense of dissatisfaction and disjunction that we might well interpret as coming from a chronic personal failing (that is, once we’d gotten over the even more faulty belief that others were responsible for it). On the other hand, “all are is Buddha Nature.” This means that the self is not, as we imagine, an improvable permanent isolated entity we and we alone are responsible for; instead it is impermanence itself, which is never alone, never isolated, constantly flowing, and immense: Buddha Nature itself.

Dogen writes “Impermanence itself is Buddha Nature.” And adds, “Permanence is the mind that discriminates the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of all things.” Permanence!? Impermanence seems to be (as Dogen himself writes elsewhere) an “unshakable teaching” in buddhadharma. How does “permanence” manage to worm its way into Dogen’s discourse?

I come back to my dream of being stuck in the doorway between life and death with my mother-in-law: which side is which, and who is going where? Impermanence and permanence may simply be balancing concepts—words, feelings, and thoughts that support one another in helping us grope toward an understanding (and a misunderstanding) of our lives. For Dogen, “permanence” is practice: having the wisdom and the commitment to see the difference between what we commit ourselves to pursuing in this human lifetime, and what we commit ourselves to letting go of. The good news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that we can finally let ourselves off the hook: we can let go of the great and endless chore of improving ourselves, of being stellar accomplished people, inwardly or in our external lives. This is no small thing, because we are all subject to this kind of brutal inner pressure to be and do more today than we have been and done yesterday—and more than someone else has been and done today and tomorrow.

On the other hand, the bad news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that it’s so big there isn’t much we can do with it. It can’t be enough simply to repeat the phrase to ourselves. And if we are not striving to accomplish the Great Awakening, the Ultimate Improvement, what would we do, and why would we do it? Dogen asserts a way and a motivation. If impermanence is the worm at the heart of the apple of self, making suffering a built-in factor of human life, then permanence is the petal emerging from the sepal of the flower of impermanence. It makes happiness possible. Impermanence is permanent, the ongoing process of living and dying and time. Permanence is nirvana, bliss, cessation, relief—the never-ending, everchanging, and growing field of practice.

In the Buddha’s final scene as told in the sutra, the contrast between the monastics who tore their hair, raised their arms, and threw themselves down in their grief, and those who received the Buddha’s passing with equanimity couldn’t be greater. The sutra seems to imply disapproval of the former and approval of the latter. Or perhaps the approval and disapproval are in our reading. For if impermanence is permanence is Buddha Nature, then loss is loss is also happiness, and both sets of monastics are to be approved. Impermanence is not only to be overcome and conquered. It is also to be lived and appreciated, because it reflects the all are side of our human nature. The weeping and wailing monastics were expressing not only their attachment; they were also expressing their immersion in this human life, and their love for someone they revered.

I have experienced this more than once at times of great loss. While I may not tear my hair and throw myself down in my grieving, I have experienced extreme sadness and loss, feeling the whole world weeping and dark with the fresh absence of someone I love. At the same time I have felt some appreciation and equanimity, because loss, searing as it can be, is also beautiful, sad and beautiful. My tears, my sadness, are beautiful because they are the consequence of love, and my grieving makes me love the world and life all the more. Every loss I have ever experienced, every personal and emotional teaching of impermanence that life has been kind enough to offer me, has deepened my ability to love.

The happiness that spiritual practice promises is not endless bliss, endless joy, and soaring transcendence. Who would want that in a world in which there is so much injustice, so much tragedy, so much unhappiness, illness, and death? To feel the scourge of impermanence and loss and to appreciate it at the same time profoundly as the beautiful essence of what it means to be at all—this is the deep truth I hear reverberating in the Buddha’s last words. Everything vanishes. Practice goes on.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and poet. He is the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, whose mission is to open and broaden Zen practice through “engaged renunciation.”

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

This Morning (Embrace Change/May 2012) Print

Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 55 of the magazine.


This Morning


I woke up this morning, and my sleeping died. I stood up, and my lying down died. I brushed my teeth, and the toothbrushing came to an end. My coffee was in the mug, and then it wasn’t. I thought about what I had on my schedule, and then I thought about something else, and the first thought was gone. I sat down to meditate, and a feeling of virtue arose. Then that feeling died and changed to a feeling of restlessness. I shifted position and then I was still. There was a gap and I disappeared, but then I noticed my breath. A thought arose—where was I? And then another—what time is it? I thought—what changes and what stays the same? I thought—be present now. But now kept slipping into the past. Then I noticed that the instant it was past, the more solid and gone it felt. Then I felt some kind of force pushing me in the direction of old age and death. A thought occurred—what lies ahead? A flurry of fantasies and possibilities arose as fleeting thoughts. Those thoughts spontaneously dissolved and there was a gap. Something noticed the gap and destroyed it. Then I tried to get it back. A memory arose of my teacher saying, Don’t alter your experience or try to make anything happen. Then I tried to not try to make anything happen. A strong feeling arose of—what a joke. It occurred to me that I was fighting something. I felt frustrated and my shoulders got tight. Then I saw an opening and I went for it. It was as if the arising and falling and the noticing what was arising and falling and the struggling with what was arising and falling collapsed under its own complexity. Then there was a feeling of stillness and simplicity. But that changed too.

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the author of Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.

From the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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