October 2016: Impermanence

Of the many concepts Buddhism could direct our attention to, impermanence is at the top of the list. Which is kind of a downer.  I mean, think of the alternatives: love, friendship, compassion, camaraderie, bravery, wisdom.  But no–Buddhism directs our attention to primarily to impermanence, including the ultimate impermanence:  death.

Unlike love, compassion, wisdom, or courage, impermanence is not an aspiration or ideal. It’s not a commandment.  It’s not a should, it’s an is. And impermanence is more than a human truth.  It affects everything.

We Buddhists turn our attention to impermanence because it is true, but mostly because working with this truth helps us as humans. Practicing it helps us in our aspirations toward love, friendship, and wisdom.

The first thing to recognize as impermanent and ever-changing is ourselves. In order to bring order to our world view, we tend to have a fairly fixed idea of ourselves. We are a certain way and other people are a certain way. The world, also, is a certain way. We have our story and we stick with it.

Our practice of zazen tells a different story. We are many things, some we like to admit, and others we don’t.  In addition, when we get quiet, we may realize that we are also our environment.  We are what we experience.  As Walt Whitman writes, “There was a child went forth every day; and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.” As we practice we can feel more fully the ways in which everything is less fixed than we think.

The most troubling aspect of impermanence may be the recognition that we will die.  In Zen there is not even a promise of a permanent afterlife, no promise of the continuation of the individual self after death. It has been argued (by Ernest Becker in the Denial of Death among others) that fear of the ultimate change – our own death – tends us toward reifying ourselves and our environment.  It makes us want to hold on tight, to freeze and solidify.

Zen teachings throughout the ages advise us not to keep still in this way, but to move gracefully through the changes of life.  In his Instructions to the Tenzo, Dogen Zenji encourages his students to cultivate a “vast heart” that “does not follow the sounds of spring or try to nest in a spring garden; it does not darken with the colors of autumn.”  A heart that knows impermanence is one that moves through the phases of life with a light heart, knowing that things change.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re meant to be passive, diffident, happy about or even accepting of all change. We are meant to, born to shape our lives, and to shape the world around us.  An awareness of impermanence can help us to do this work with more grace.

Above all, I believe we were made to move. And I believe that Zen, though a practice of intense stillness, is fundamentally about motion, a particular motion of the mind. Impermanence practice helps us move through the joys and sufferings of life with more composure.  And it helps us move more skillfully toward wisdom, compassion, and other qualities we aspire to in our practice.