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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.

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