The Myth of Permanence
by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
Human beings always want something. We are continually looking for pleasure and we are rarely satisfied with what we have. Even being able to afford a great vacation is not what we thought it was going to be, because when we arrive at our destination, we want a better room or better weather. We are unable to be content. This basic characteristic is related to impermanence and suffering.
The Buddha did not present suffering as the first noble truth just because he had figured out that everybody has a hard time in life. He said that there is something much deeper going on. We suffer because we are projecting the myth of permanence upon a situation that is actually conditioned, selfless, and constantly changing. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is nothing substantial and separate that we can lean upon. Samsara, “the cycle of suffering,” is a direct result of our desire for permanence.
In contemplating impermanence, we can see samsara for what it is. Its conditioned quality produces an unstable environment. Our response to that instability is grasping and the solidification of a “self.” The result is suffering, because we are relating to appearances as if they were independent and permanent, when in fact they are exactly the opposite. We are habitually fooled by phenomena in this way.
For example, making a car is conditioned by having iron ore, technology, and workers. When these conditions come together, we have a new car. We are proud of this car. It is comfortable. It has air-conditioning. The windows work and the colour is nice. People think we are a better person because we have this car, which makes us feel good. The car brings us pleasure. However, because it is conditioned, it is, by nature, impermanent. It is not going to last. Yet even though we know it is going to rust and get old, somehow the car is real to us. Every time we get a scratch on the car, we get upset. If somebody says they don’t like the colour of the car, we feel angry or hurt. This car that was a source of pleasure has become a source of pain.
The reason we contemplate the truth of impermanence is that we don’t quite believe it. Looking at our relationship with the car, the Buddha would say that we don’t understand how karma — causes and conditions — works. If we understood karma, we would realise that it’s the nature of things to come together and fall apart. But even die-hard Buddhists are in the habit of looking at the world from the reference point of a solid and unchanging self. No matter how clear impermanence may be to our intellect, we tend to put ourselves into a trance, thinking things are permanent. Contemplation helps us understand profound truths that we rarely consider, even though our life is contained by them.
When we contemplate impermanence, it’s as if the teachings grab us by the collar, saying, “Just stop for a second and look at what’s really going on.” As we reflect on what is happening, we begin to realise that we are not lords of our own situation. If we were, we could make life happen the way we want. We would have control over phenomena. But that isn’t the case. Every time we get what we want, it eventually dissolves. The meal at the fancy new restaurant gives us a stomachache. The cute baby becomes a surly adolescent. We suffer pain because we organise our life around the concept of an enduring self in a solid world, even though all of it is simply ideas and forms coming in and out of existence. That’s the truth of our situation.
As we continue to contemplate the conditioned nature of phenomena, we ask ourselves, “What do I think is real? Can I prove it is real? If that anger is real, it will be here tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. If that building is real, it will be here today and in ten billion lifetimes.” Our assumptions of permanence melt in the glare of the truth. Nothing in the phenomenal world is permanent. If the body were permanent, there would be no birth and death. We would not need to eat because we would never be hungry. If feelings were permanent, we would not go from misery to elation in the course of an hour or a day. If the tranquility and steadiness we feel in meditation were permanent, we would never suffer the agitation of our mind bouncing around continuously, wanting more entertainment and stimulation.
We can contemplate the self in the same way. We regard ourselves as real; we nourish this belief in one another. When the five skandhas, or “heaps” — form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness — come together, we think that this body and mind are “me” and “mine.” We have layers and layers of opinions and preferences, and we mistake them for a self. If somebody tells us about selflessness or impermanence, we are immediately insulted: “How dare you question my being!” Without a second thought, we assume that we are who we think we are.
Selflessness is too subtle to see directly, so to get a glimpse, we look at what we can already see. The quietness of meditation offers an opportunity to witness how the entity of “me” comes into being. We produce thoughts, which hook together to solidify into an experience that we call real. But what we are experiencing is dependent on many causes and conditions. We experience one mood for a while, it dissolves, and then another mood arises. These different states of mind create the illusion of a single self. It’s the same on the outer level: we get dressed, put on our coat, and comb our hair, bringing together certain elements to create an image and an identity. When we get sick, we say, “I don’t feel like myself today.” So where did the self we usually feel like go?
Contemplation is a process of “bringing to mind.” Most of the time we are engaged in bringing to mind our desire for permanence, pleasure, and getting what we want. We wake up with that contemplation and it becomes our meditation — we hold it in our mind all day. But by changing our habit and bringing to mind the interdependence of phenomena, we begin to see the conditioned, impermanent, and selfless nature of everything. As these truths begin to penetrate us, our perspective gradually shifts. This is how we develop prajna, transcendental knowledge. What do we transcend? We transcend duality and mundane mind.
After practicing contemplation in the morning, we can use whatever happens to us throughout the day to reflect on how we are holding our mind. We may realise that we are continuing to gather things, believing that they’re going to stay together. Perhaps we are able to catch our mind falling into the samsaric pursuit of pleasure and getting what we want. We might notice how the aggression we feel is coming from belief in a self that needs to be protected. If we can flip our habitual mind and see the impermanence and unsteadiness of thoughts, emotions, relationships, and events, our actions will begin to change. Our priorities will begin to shift. Our faith in the teachings will increase, and we will be lighter hearted, because we have less fixation and less pain.
These are signs that the meaning of our contemplation has penetrated our being: we begin to see the truth and experience it. Contemplating impermanence brings freedom and appreciation for what we have, because it allows us to relax and enjoy the ebb and flow of life.