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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?”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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,
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.