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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.

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