- by Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma
Anicca, impermanence, underlies all Buddhist thought and practice and is
the foundation of Buddhist understanding of reality.
For many centuries most Western people had thought that the universe was a permanent
thing, put into place by a Creator God, with the earth at its center. They reasoned that
such a complex system could not come into existence except through the creation of a
superior intelligence. They named that superior intelligence God and declared his
permanence. They believed that humankind reflected the image of God and contained also an
immortal essence, which they termed soul. So, while things around them might change, they
reasoned, at least they were assured of permanence, an eternal existence after death if
they lived in accordance with God's will.
In India twenty-five centuries ago, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, proclaimed that
there is no permanence anywhere. In his enlightenment experience he witnessed the arising
and disappearing of entire universe systems. He saw very clearly that all things are
impermanent, that they arise, mature and pass away. He recognized that all things are
comprised of conditioned states and that there is no permanent essence to anything. He
also realized that the arising and disappearing of states of existence occurred because of
various conditions. Should any condition change, the object changed or disappeared.
Even those things which appear to be permanent and unchanging also are in a constant
state of change. The mountains appear to be permanent and unchanging, but their very
existence is the result of tectonic forces within the crust and mantle of the earth.
Volcanoes, inactive for many centuries come alive and new ones pop into existence.
Earthquakes build mountain ranges. Ocean becomes land and land becomes ocean. These
changes never cease. All matter itself is alive with constant change. Its very nature is a
mass of constantly moving energy. Rocks may appear to be inert objects, but in actuality,
their very structure is one of constant movement.
The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are impermanent and constantly changing
and that they have no permanent essence. He explained that while we may think of ourselves
as single objects of existence, in fact humans are made up of a collection of five
conditioned, impermanent states: body (rupa), sense contacts and sensations (vedana),
perceptions and conceptions (samjna), volitional actions and karmic tendencies (samskaras)
and basic consciousness (vij˝ana). These collections (skandhas) of things
are the true nature of the person and they are constantly changing. The body grows old,
becomes ill and dies. Sense contacts lead to perception and conception and these are
constantly changing. Our karmic activities never cease and underlying all these is the
basal consciousness, which at death also disappears with all of the other samskaras.
The Buddha explained that we should not become too attached to our bodies and their
sensual experiences and thoughts that arise from them, because the attachment to our
bodies and to life causes us great dukkha, suffering and misery. Sense contact
brings us sense experiences which we then term as desirable or undesirable. From this
judgment arises the desire to re-experience similar sensual experiences, which lead
directly to attachment. This attachment then leads to a great thirst or craving for the
experience. Soon we are entrapped in the need to continue such experiences, for we feel we
need or want them. But all experience is very momentary. Hardly have we grasped onto one,
when it disappears and a new attraction grabs our minds. Soon we are enmeshed in a great,
complex web of desire, all of which is very transitory, and thus unsatisfactory.
The Buddha stated that for us to become free from the constant round of rebirth and
suffering, we would need to realize the changing nature of things in its true perspective,
so that we could free ourselves from the need for certain experiences, attachment to self
and to the illusion of permanence.
One of the major causes of dukkha is our puny attempts to make impermanent
things permanent. We want to amass and hold on to things which please our ego concepts. We
strive to hold on to youth, to wealth, to fame, to romance. All of these experiences are
fleeting. They arise, mature and disintegrate. It is not change itself which causes the
greatest pain, it is our resistance to this change that causes the real dukkha. The
Buddha again and again explained: "Impermanent indeed are all conditioned things;
they are of the nature of arising and passing away. Having come into being, they cease to
exist. Hence their pacification is tranquillity."
He urged his disciples to truly understand the ultimate nature of all things, that is
their impermanence. He had his disciples meditate upon the disintegration of things,
including their own bodies, in order to try to break their inordinate clinging to objects
of all kinds: physical, vocal or mental.
Once the individual truly sees that things cannot be grasped for more than a few
moments, then these unhealthy attachments and aversions can be given up and the
practitioner can be freed from the enslavement he has produced for himself.
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for providing us
with this article