The Dharma Door of Change
A teaching common to Buddhist and Hindu Yoga traditions is that avidya, most often translated as "ignorance," is the root cause of suffering (duhkha). It literally means, "not seeing." In his Yoga-Sutra, Patanjali echoes the Buddha when he says, "Ignorance is the seeing of that which is eternal, pure, joyful and the self in that which is ephemeral, impure, sorrowful and not-self." After years of practice, I've come to think of ignorance not merely as a lack of knowledge, but as an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today, we use the term "denial." Let's face it; we know things change. We know we are changing. Yet, in much of our daily lives, we act in ways that seem to be a desperate attempt to deny this reality!
The Buddha encouraged developing insight into change (anicca) because it serves so well as a door into his central teachings: the truth of suffering (duhkha), its causes and its cessation; insight into non-self (anatta) and the realization of the emptiness of a separate self (shunyata); and the understanding of the "thusness" or "suchness" (tathata) of all things. These insights are not meant to be philosophical reflections, but a genuine seeing and experiencing. We are challenged by the Buddha to use impermanence, the reality of change, as the ground of practice.
Often it is said that because of change there is suffering. But suffering doesn't have to be the result of impermanence, nor is it inextricably tied to it. The real cause of our suffering in the face of change is our attachment to what is by nature impermanent, not impermanence itself! And our attachment is based on ignoring - denying - reality as it is. But if we truly wish to affirm and celebrate life, we must be willing to affirm and celebrate impermanence.
One of the practices offered by the Buddha to cultivate awareness and insight into impermanence is "The Five Remembrances." Here is a variation of a version taught by Thich Nhat Hanh that I've practiced with for well over a decade:
The Five Remembrances
- I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.
- I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape ever having ill-health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
If we look at impermanence superficially, we might conclude it is a negative aspect of life. "The Five Remembrances" may seem at first like nothing more than a grim list of things we will lose. But, in fact it is a medicine, perhaps bitter at first, which is a kind, compassionate, truthful reminder of the wonder and miracle of life as it is. Change is inherently neither negative nor positive. It just is. This is the "thusness" of things as they are. Impermanence is not a mere aspect of life, but its very essence! Without change, life would be impossible. "Never changing life" is, and can only ever be, a vacuous concept.
When we use "The Five Remembrances" to look deeply in order to embrace the reality of change in our body-mind, environment, and relationships, we no longer take anything for granted. We begin to loosen our attachments to the ephemeral phenomena we have clung to, and realize the very grasping and clinging are painful in themselves! We come to see for ourselves the problem is not that things change, but that we try to live as if they don't!
As you contemplate "The Five Remembrances," notice in yourself any reactivity they may provoke. Do so without judging, interpreting or suppressing. Let whatever arises rest in awareness until it shifts and passes away. Aversion may arise, and that is okay. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations in your body that accompany the mental and emotional reactivity. You may be surprised to experience a sense of relief as the energy put into denying and hiding from the truth of impermanence is liberated to move through your body-mind, allowing for great ease and spaciousness.
One example of how this practice has informed my relationships is that when I find myself becoming embroiled in conflict, with my partner or a friend for instance, I look at them and imagine how we will both look in 100 years. Immediately, the situation is defused, and a more skillful way to deal with the conflict naturally arises. (Often I just want to hug them!)
If we understand the self to be an entity that persists over time, a deep understanding that all things are in constant transformation will lead to a clearer view that in fact all "things" actually lack such an unchanging, substantiality. Now, when people hear this teaching about non-self, many mistakenly think that the Buddha is saying we do not exist. His meaning is rather that we do not exist in the way we imagine ourselves to exist. Even the consciousness of self we take such pains to bolster and protect is not an independent and separate entity; it is a process in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is also undergoing constant change. This is what is meant by "emptiness" (shunyata). Emptiness is not a "thing" that exists separately either. Emptiness means we, you and I and all phenomena, are part of the ever-changing universal process, not separate solidly enduring "things."
Impermanence also leads us through the Dharma Door of "signlessness." The reality of the thusness of all that exists is beyond the concepts and verbal expressions (or signs) we use to attempt to describe reality. All the categories of thought and expression are signs. They are the models and maps we use to navigate through the world, but they become traps if we forget that this is all they are: maps, and not the territory!
A common analogy used to describe the signless nature of reality is the relationship between the wave and water. Waves can be tall or small, rising and falling; these are all "signs," specific traits of specific phenomena. If we identify with a particular wave, then we will feel happy or sad according to the sign. But if we can touch the nature of the wave - that it is water - then we go beyond the signs. When we touch the signless in our own lives, we go beyond fear, attachment and suffering.
In fact, another name for the "signless" is nirvana, which is the extinguishing of all our notions and ideas about reality. To touch the suchness of water, we must go beyond the sign of the wave. To touch our suchness, we must go beyond attachment to our particular signs. And just as the wave need not add to itself any water - after all, it already is water, we cannot take away or add to the true nature of all that is - we do not need to add or take away anything in ourselves. We do not seek liberation outside ourselves or our experience. For already, just as it is, the awakened nature is fully present. The tenth century Vietnamese Master Thang Hoi was asked by a student, "Where can we touch the world of no-birth and no-death?" He responded, "Right here in the world of birth and death."
Here is the paradox embedded in the practice of "The Five Remembrances." It is only by touching the relative truth of birth, ageing and death that we can enter into the ultimate realm of no-birth and no-death. Because all is in flux, we cannot point to a time when there is an absolute beginning or ending. Birth and death are also signs.
We do not cultivate awareness of impermanence as a practice of grim endurance, but rather so we can free ourselves from the constriction of attachment so we can live fully present in each moment of our life, realizing the freedom and inner peace we all seek is already present here and now.
Finally, for some, the idea of nonattachment may sound cold and unappealing, but this confuses nonattachment with indifference. What is truly lifeless and bitter is the experience of attachment based upon the denial of change, since when we are attached in a clinging and grasping way, what we are attempting is to freeze and hold fast the elements of our life. When we do this, we squeeze the very vitality and juice (rasa) out of life itself. Imagine grasping tightly a marble in your outstretched hand. Squeeze it tightly so you experience the tension throughout your arm and perhaps even in your body, breath and mind. Then, holding your palm upright, open your hand. You are still in contact with the marble, holding it lightly, without clinging. What feels better?
Through our clinging attachments, we create what the English poet William Blake called "mind-forged manacles," binding us to the limiting views of my body, my lover, my family, my possessions, my ideas. When we see, through insight into impermanence, the truth of no-separate-self (emptiness), and that in fact we extend beyond every limit we have created for ourselves (signlessness), we see our life is not really our own, but that we belong to all of life itself (suchness). The impermanence of any particular phenomenon cannot touch the suchness of life, just as the arising and passing of the waves do not affect the existence of the water.
A fitting conclusion is as the Buddha said: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of no-self is established. With the perception of no-self, the conceit of 'I' (asmita) is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."
Frank Jude Boccio
Frank is an Interfaith Miniser, Yoga-Dharma teacher, and author of Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind.
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