Insight is the main aim of all dharma practice and its purpose is to help everyone. That it how to live in harmony with the teachings of all buddhas. That is also how Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche has taught since he began teaching. As the author of this article, excerpted from Indisputable Truth, he encourages to stop up and think about life and ponder this timeless truth.
All the teachings of the Buddha are embodied in four short sentences known as the four seals of the Dharma:
Everything conditioned is impermanent.
Everything defiling is painful.
All phenomena are empty and devoid of self.
Nirvana is peace.
The word conditioned in the first sentence means anything dependent upon causes and circumstances. All our experiences—visible forms, sounds, scents, what we taste and the textures we feel, in short, the whole world—are conditioned. Even the tiniest atom is conditioned. The entire universe is first created, it remains, it disintegrates, and becomes void. Everything that comes into being—mountains, plants, trees, flowers, sentient or insentient —is impermanent; there is nothing that lasts. Everything is impermanent; that is a fact. The Tibetan word for impermanence, mitagpa, ‘not lasting,’ means subject to change, perishable, fleeting, passing—like a bubble on the water. The Buddha said that when we look at a bubble in the water it looks like it is there, like it exists, but then the next moment it is gone. Everything is like that; every single moment is changing.
Most people never question their day-to-day experiences. They accept whatever is felt and perceived as real. Without examining anything we will never penetrate beyond this illusion to see the actual state of affairs. Instead, we will regard everything that is impermanent as being permanent, what is unreal as being real. What an unfortunate, superficial and mistaken way of perceiving things! Actually, the whole world, all the people and beings, and on an inner level what we feel and think, all our pleasure, pain and indifference, is changing every single instant. It never remains constant. This is a fact; this is truly how it is. To regard something that is impermanent to be permanent is to be mistaken. To acknowledge what doesn’t last is to be unmistaken. The frame of mind that apprehends things to be permanent while they are not is confused. It is an incorrect attitude. All phenomena by their very nature are impermanent, unreal and illusory. To simply acknowledge that is to be undeluded. To briefly sum up the difference between these two viewpoints, the former is faulty, defective, incorrect, wrong. The latter, that does not regard things as being real and permanent, is correct, flawless and genuine.
When we understand that all conditioned things are impermanent, we feel at a loss to find anything that we can hold on to. We feel we can’t find anything that is a reliable support. Therefore, our habitual fixation on things as being permanent and real starts to fall apart, and this falling apart of fixation leaves room for being unmistaken. So in short, if something is conditioned it is impermanent.
Moreover, whoever is born will also die. Meeting is followed by separation. Everything gathered will eventually be used up, spent. In the same way anything fabricated or made, anything achieved like a good reputation, fame or fortune will sooner or later be used up, disappear, vanish. In short, it is impossible to find anything conditioned that will last.
We have this foolish habit of believing that things last and are real. But things are neither permanent nor real, so our idea is mistaken. It does not relate to how things are. Things in themselves are impermanent and unreal. Through analysis we can understand that everything is impermanent. Apply this to everything, including yourself.
Good health is impermanent, we can get sick anytime. Sickness is also impermanent; we can recover. Life is obviously impermanent. The worst thing is that death is certain. Death has a nasty name and a nasty meaning. There is nothing worse than to tell somebody “Drop dead!” People find nothing more repulsive than a dead body. A very important or good-looking person who is getting close to death is really pitiful. Dying or dead, the body is really disgusting. And it is one hundred percent sure that this will happen to us.
What will help at the moment of dying and after death? We should be really clear about this, as it’s already our habit to prepare for the future. Don’t we devote our thoughts, words and deeds to ensure that later on we will have a comfortable situation? Don’t we employ ourselves as servants in the aim of comfort, pleasure, and happiness, to being secure later on?
Some people they feel that if they can just have a good reputation it does not matter in the slightest whether they are poor or have delicious food. Then when their fame is destroyed, they have a heart attack and die. Each individual has some kind of vision of happiness. Some people aim at being appreciated by others, others at having material luxury. Nobody needs to learn or acquire these tendencies; they come naturally. We are happy with material gain, being praised by others, having a good name and pleasure. We are unhappy when the opposites of these four occur. These are called the eight worldly concerns. Most people are totally under the power of these eight worldly concerns for their entire lives. They employ themselves one-pointedly and with great perseverance in the service of these eight worldly concerns. During this lifetime they never seem to be able to go beyond this hope and fear. The drive to achieve something that is lasting and real is based on the idea that things last and are real. This mistaken idea makes us grab after something hollow and illusory. No matter what we try to achieve, it will never last.
We try to be in charge of our situation, to take control of our sense pleasures, reputation, and material possessions. The result of all this effort is that we are never really in control. In the end, we can’t even take charge of our own body. Ultimately, fire or water will take it or insects will eat it. Forget about everything else—money, enjoyments, clothes, good name—there are no exceptions here. It is not that some people can succeed in controlling these and others can’t. The situation is the same for everyone.
There are problems in this life, things that don’t work out exactly as we want them to, and we may complain quite a bit. Yet we do have a lot of freedom. Maybe we can’t say we have one hundred percent free will, but we do have a lot of choice as to how we act. This kind of freedom will continue until our last breath. When we die, however, there is no certainty as to where and how we will be reborn. What assumes control then is our previous karma, our disturbing emotions and habitual tendencies. The situation after death is not like right now, when we can decide where to go and what to do. It is not sure at all where we will be after we die, how many arms and legs we will have, and what we will eat. The only thing that will help us then is something we have the ability to do right now, at the present moment. Right now we are able to understand and identify the difference between what is good and evil. We can understand and gain some clarity about our disturbing emotions and what we do, and we are able to change and overcome our negative tendencies to some degree. We have a certain amount of control and power right now. If we don’t use this power now, while we have it, then the situation will definitely be more difficult when we are powerless.
There is an old saying: “Life runs out while we are preparing to live, so better prepare for the next life.” What this means is that it is human nature to always arrange to be happy and comfortable in the future. We spend our whole life trying to do that, but while trying to prepare for later, our life runs out and we die. Our preparations are all left behind; they are never finished. So if you want to engage in preparations, it makes much more sense to prepare for your future life.
When, where and under which circumstance we will die are totally unpredictable. It is well known that people die from being sad, but some people even die from being too happy. Of course people die from being poisoned, but some also die from medicine. People die from starvation, but some people die from overeating. Some people die in miserable circumstances, but others die while everything is going very well, while enjoying themselves. Some people die in mountaineering accidents, falling from great heights, while others die from falling down just two or three steps. How and when we die is completely unsure.
The Buddha taught that the one billion worlds contained in this portion of the universe are all impermanent. All the people and animals who are together right now on this planet are just like a flock of birds who have temporarily landed in the same tree. This world we are in now was first formed within space. Having remained for some time, it will eventually disintegrate, until finally it is totally void, without even a single atom remaining. Traditionally it is said that the world is destroyed by the ‘seven suns and the one water’. The Abhidharma Kosha explains how long it takes for the world’s oceans to dry out, depending upon how deep they are. Plants and trees dry out almost instantaneously, but the ocean takes a long time to dry out. The end result is that nothing is left behind whatsoever, only utterly void space. By then, all the sentient beings living here will have transmigrated to other universes.
The Buddha couldn’t show us anything conditioned that lasts, nor can we find such a thing. We speak about different kinds of impermanence, coarse and subtle. Coarse impermanence involves the four stages of formation, subsistence, disintegration and voidness of the universe. There is also a more subtle type of impermanence which, being subtle, is harder to understand. For example, people won’t say we have aged before a lot of wrinkles have collected on our face. Actually at every moment the wrinkles are sneaking in, increasing slowly but steadily. But until they all show, people don’t call us old. That’s why we don’t acknowledge that a youthful, vibrant person is aging. We don’t say “Wow, you are really aging, you don’t look young any more.” We wouldn’t like to hear that said to ourselves. It is unavoidable and somehow we all know it. So we try to avoid aging; we rub cream and lotions on our faces to make sure it does not happen too quickly. We don’t want to age; we don’t like impermanence. However, whether the shape or surface of the skin changes or not, our bodies are in fact still deteriorating. We cannot change the fact that our life span is slowly running out. To merely attempt to alter the surface is hollow. The fact that we like youthfulness and we dislike aging is due to our aversion towards the fact of impermanence.
Although we don’t want to die, we are still unable to avoid it. At the moment of death we cannot bring anything with us; our mind travels on by itself. Our consciousness will then depend on its good and evil tendencies. If a mind has only a little negative karma and disturbing emotions, then it is called a pure mind, a noble mind. If it has a lot of disturbing emotions and negative karma then it is called an evil mind. An evil mind produces a lot of misery. A pure mind does not suffer much. Isn’t it true that if we have a very enjoyable, pleasant day, we have quite undisturbed dreams as well? Whereas if we have a lot of anxiety and fighting in the daytime, then our dreams can be really troublesome at night. That is called the creation of habitual tendencies. Our disturbing emotions and actions create a habitual imprint in the all-ground, the basic consciousness. This disturbed frame of mind must be quickly purified, because everything is impermanent, there is nothing that is stable or sure. We can tell ourselves “I will quiet down my busy mind tomorrow or later,” but there are different types of tomorrow. One kind of tomorrow looks quite a lot like what we experience right now. Another tomorrow is to find ourselves in a completely different place after having died during the night.
The statement, everything conditioned is impermanent, is a fact we need to acknowledge. There is some benefit from this. When we understand that nothing composite lasts, our normal tendency to be obsessed with material gain, pleasures, fame, and praise loosens. When the fixation on things as being lasting and real becomes less intense, our mind becomes more free and easy. It’s true that the more desperate the attitude, the stronger or tighter this obsession with things as being lasting and real is, the more misery a person has. The less grasping we have, the less busy and speedy we become.
As our attachment and clinging to the pleasures of this life decrease, we start to gain some taste for understanding the real nature of things, which in Buddhism is called ultimate truth. Hence we will begin to engage in spiritual practice. We will be interested in the Dharma and will acquire a taste for it through learning, reflection and meditation—not merely engendering a fickle minor interest, but a strong interest. A real understanding of impermanence ensures that we become unshakable; we will never turn back from Dharma practice. Our disturbing emotions, our anger and desire, all diminish, because we begin to think, “What is the use, nothing lasts anyway, so why bother.” We start to have the idea that nothing mundane is really worth striving for, since it is all pointless and futile. This kind of attitude will gain force over time and is very beneficial for realizing ultimate truth. So, reflecting on impermanence has many purposes. First, through it we develop some taste for the Dharma. Then strong interest in the Dharma arises and we really start to practice. Finally it is the best tool to use to perfect the practice.
I have just explained the first of the four maxims or indisputable truths of the Buddha: “Everything conditioned is impermanent.” Reading this is the learning aspect. Next, you should ponder it by asking yourself, “Is everything impermanent or not? What does it mean?” This is the process of reflection. Finally, the meditation aspect is to apply the recognition of impermanence to ourselves personally. The result of this is that we start to feel acutely “I don’t have that much time to waste!” People have at most eighty or ninety years, but even that is not sure—we can die any time. When not giving much consideration to the fact of impermanence, one procrastinates. When clearly seeing the fact of impermanence it becomes completely impossible to postpone spiritual practice. The traditional examples given to illustrate this point involve a coward who sees a snake in his lap and a vain girl who discovers that her hair has caught fire—both will jump up immediately, without the slightest hesitation. I can not stress how important the understanding of impermanence is, although admittedly it doesn’t sound nice. It sounds much better to say everything is permanent, everlasting, that there is no death, there is no sickness, no pain. That sounds great, exceedingly pleasant, but unfortunately it’s completely false. We do get sick; we get hurt and suffer; we die. If something is conditioned, it follows that it is impermanent. Think about this. If you find something that is both conditioned and permanent, please tell me.
Spoken by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Published in Indisputable Truth.
Picture of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche unknown.
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