What is Impermanence and how does it relate to Buddhism?
You’ve probably heard the expression that the only thing constant is change or that nothing lasts forever. Formal Buddhist teachings call this “impermanence,” which can have an abstract or technical tone to us novice Buddhists. Uncertainty better describes the feeling in the heart when once is faced with change.
The truth is that uncertainty is always with us, right from birth. Wanting things and life to be unchanging or permanent is impossible. Put another way, the world is a passing phenomenon.
Every written word, every carved stone, every painted picture, ever civilization and every generation of human beings will eventually vanish away like the leaves and flowers after summer.
This law of change or uncertainty isn’t even limited to the plant earth, everything in the universe is subject to the law of impermanency. It may sound confusing as first but contemplate the following: What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exist.
Yet we want the impossible it to be true. We crave it to be true. Whenever you cling to this falsehood, you will suffer with inner conflict and will not be at peace. The solution is to recognize that nothing can be permanently satisfying and that everything is always changing. We are all on the wheel of endless change.
If we are to find inner peace, we can’t waste all of our time and effort fighting the natural law of change. For example, even though we may own land, vehicles and other property, we don’t have to have to cling to them to the extent that they become a burden, weighing down and tormenting the mind. We don’t have to have greedy feelings about them.
If you can see that all things are transient, uncertain and impermanent, then your mind will be at ease. Contemplation of impermanence is the bridge to wisdom. Once you’re able to see the uncertainty of things, you’ll see the unchanging reality of them.
How many times have you taken the trouble and expense to buy something new and beautiful? Then in a few months, you are tired of it. If you know uncertainty, then you will let go of things and not grasp onto them. How is this so? If we see all things (like pens, watches, etc.) as uncertain, then their value fades away. All things become less significant and we come to realize that we shouldn’t hold on to things that don’t have any real value. The wisdom that all things and mental states are impermanent should be known at all times whether we are standing, walking, sitting or lying down.
Contemplation of change can be done at any time whether relaxing at home, at work or in any other situation. For example, just going for a walk and seeing dead leaves under a tree can provide an opportunity to contemplate impermanence. We are the same as leaves: when we get old, we shrivel up and die. While it may seem counter-intuitive, if you can accept and contemplate the truth of constant change and impermanence, you will gain peace.
What in the World Does Not-Self Mean?
Once we have an understanding of impermanence, we can move on to the concept of ‘not-self’, i.e., this is not myself and this does not belong to me. This concept is summarized in the expression, “There’s no such thing as yours or mine in all the universe.”
The concept of not-self is directly related to impermanence but people often resist its teaching because they have been attached to the idea of self since birth. It is this attachment that is a cause of suffering.
Buddha taught that there is no better way to overcome suffering than to see that ‘this is not myself’ and ‘this is not mine.’ This is the greatest method to end suffering but we don’t usually pay much attention to it. Me, Myself, Mine, Yours and Ours are simply man-made conventions. These conventions must not be confused with the natural, universal law of impermanence.
If we realize in the present moment the truth of impermanence, then we will be at peace with them when they fall part or we lose them. This is because we realize that they don’t have a real owner anyways. They are merely the elements of earth, water, wind and fire. (See When it Comes to Old Age, Sickness and Death – We are All in the Same Boat for further discussion).
The Buddha taught that the body is not substantial or a real being, but rather an object void of substance. But we refuse to listen and stubbornly cling to it. If our bodies could talk, they would be telling us all day and night: “You’re not my owner, you know.” If we can let go of what we are not, then the nature of what is real comes clear. Think about when we have a headache or stomach ache – the body never asks us permission first, it just follows its natural course. This shows that the body doesn’t have an owner.
While this is a difficult concept to grasp, it’s not beyond our ability, and the reward is peace and contentment. When we see everybody and everything as simply earth, water wind and fire, there is no need or room for anger, greed and delusion. We must let go of our opinions and pride regardless of whether we are wealthy businessmen, doctors, college graduates, government officials or have some other high rank in the community. If you think, “I am smart, I am wealthy, I am important, I understand all about Buddhism,” then you do not understand not-self and will suffer as a result.
There really is nothing more to anything or anyone other than these four elements. When we clearly known that everything of every kind is impermanent and not-self, we can be said to know the path to inner peace in its entirety.