Already Broken: Impermanence

I would like to start our dharma discussion today with a story told by Mark Epstein one of the first therapists to integrate psychotherapy and buddhism- about an interaction he had with his teacher Ajahn Chah some years ago. Someone was asking the master how can there be real happiness in a world that is constantly changing, where nothing stays the same and where loss and sorrow are so much apart of our lives. Where do we find security and peace in such a world? Ajahn Chah, smiling held up a glass that he had been drinking water from and said the following,

“You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just as it is, and nothing need be otherwise.”

Poems to Live by.

I really appreciate the lines, “when i understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it precious. ”

Now, I just love this about Buddhist thought – every moment with a simple drinking glass can be meaningful when we understand the insight of impermanence. So how more when we can apply this understanding to the relationships in our lives, from our families, our friends and our communities. Even the driver that is driving 30 in a 45.

Last Sunday we touched on this when we were sharing about the first mark of existence, anitya or Impermanence. Today I would like to delve a little deeper into this important truth of the Buddha’s awakening.

The Buddha is called by many different names one of them is the Great Physician and his approach is much like that, he diagnoses the problem and then shares the medicine that will cure the illness, the pain the dis -ease. That is what his teachings are, a way out of suffering and ignorance.

The Buddha was well aware of the condition from his own experience as a human. Before he was Buddha he was Siddhartha Gautama a man and he was even more aware of the struggles of being a human as he set out on his journey to find the answer to suffering, death and endless cycle of rebirth. After six long years of practice and many half ways and dead ends he finally had his awakening experience when he discovered the middle way. At the heart of this experience was the realization of what is called pratityasamupada, which is translated as dependent co-arising. This key principle in Buddhist teachings, states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon other phenomena: “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist”

This is the heart of impermanence of all things – because all things, all phenomena arise out of conditions and when the conditions that causes it to arise ceases, then that which arose, vanishes or transforms into something different. That is way the Buddha says,

All conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,”

Many scholars believe that this was the first lesson that the buddha taught and not the more detailed 4 noble truths and eight fold path. It is important to see why this is important

The Buddha discovered that at the heart of reality was anitya, this constant arising and fading, appearing and vanishing, this state of constantly becoming as Gyomay Kubose so beautifully puts it in his book Everyday Suchness.

The Buddha, as the Great Physician, saw that one of the reasons that we suffer is that we do not understand this truth at the root of existence. We see it all around us, the change of seasons, the ebb and flow of likes and dislikes of loves and hates, growing old and dying all of existence is teaching us this eternal law of nature and we acknowledge it intellectually but our relationship is not an intimate one. We keep the reality of impermanence at arm’s length, we fight against it and we are good at keeping it abstract, keeping it out there somewhere, until the death of a loved one or the brokenheartedness that comes at the end of a marriage or love affair brings her into our hearts.

And yet, many times, even with this reality we somehow we think we can somehow be outside of this eternal law. If we work hard enough, do the right thing, say the right thing, control are selves and those around us; We calculate, we scheme, we formulate, we live in a cloak of denial believing that all we need to be safe and free is for things to be permanent, unchanging and secure. We go through our lives trying to control change.

We misperceive reality as solid the Buddha realized that there is nothing solid in reality, just the appearance of solidity. Continuity is not the same as permanence. Solidity is an illusion that keeps us stuck and suffering. Here are some great lines from ― Mu Soeng in his book, he Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World

Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity… there is only the dance.”

he Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World page 44

And I love this quote from David Barash in his book Buddhist Biology, quoted in The Biology of Anitya

Even inanimate objects that appear solid and persistent are revealed by modern physics to be in a constant state of flux. An iron bar is mostly empty space, and even the ostensibly solid, sub-atomic particles occupying that space are either moving so rapidly as to be unimaginable or, alternately, exist as clouds of probability rather than as stationary monuments to permanence.

The Biology of Anitya

So we learn from the Buddha’s awakening that the nature of existence is change, but not just change of life and death but the continual change of every moment and every breath again from Barash,

“New” atoms are incorporated into our bodies at every moment, and “old” ones are rearranged, while some are pushed out. Every few days we essentially recycle ourselves, reminiscent of an old advertising jingle for milk, “There’s a new you coming every day!” Except it’s more like every hour, minute, second, instant.

Over Time, Buddhism and Science Agree – David Barash

We think we are solid, we want things to be static, the same, controllable, consistent, stable. We think we will finally be happy when we achieve stasis but stasis is an illusion also. We fight against impermanence. Not just the impermanence of life itself but of everything, as a species and as individuals.

When we argue with reality, with how things are instead of how we think they are supposed to be, we are arguing with impermanence – we are arguing with how things are, how foolish we are. We do this with even the smallest of things. Everything changes, even the flow of traffic on our way to work is of the nature to change. When traffic suddenly slows down or stops we get angry, frustrated, we suffer because we are denying change.

How much more dysfunctional is our relationships with impermanence and the more meaningful things of our lives? Impermanence is important for us and our relationship with existence,

Yoshida Kenko (c.1283-c.1350), observed in his classic Essays on Idleness:If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us!’.

One of the most important things that all the Buddha ancestors have been trying to teach us is the ephemeral nature of what we think is reality, they are calling all of us to wake up and become Buddhas but before we can we need to be dive into and experience the reality of impermanence not just of ourselves but of all things – From the Diamond Sutra

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.

Diamond Sutra page 432

Or Dogen the father of Japanese Zen when responding to the question of what the world is,

The world? Moonlit drops
From the cranes bill.


Also from Dogen

“One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.”

Primer of Soto Zen pg 39

And this from ― Ilyas Kassam

“To know yourself you must know the transience of your self.”

In Japan this intimacy with impermanence is captured in the phrase Mono no aware – which an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera” It ia an awareness of the impermanence of things. nd both a transient gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life and even more so, the

Awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty, and meaning.

Without an intimacy with impermanence our whole lives are spent in what we can do or will do and need to do tomorrow and not in the here and now. We think we have time but we don’t. Our lives become lives lacking in a deep transformative gratitude and subtle but stifling entitlement. Somehow we think that we are entitled to tomorrow. You are not. In the Zendo of a zen monastery there is a thing called a Han a square piece of wood inscribed with Kanji

When this is struck, the monks know that the time is come for them to get up or to retire to bed or that a teishō is to take place, etc. The characters read:

Great is the matter of birth and death
Life flows quickly by
Time waits for no one
Wake up! Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment!”

The Sound Instruments in the Zen Monastery

Without this realization impermanence our misperceived notion of time can steal our days and our energy. Dogen,

“Why does that passage of time steal your endeavor? What kind of enemy is the passage of time? How regrettable to was your time because of distraction. If you do not know yourself, you will not be able to be your own ally on the great undertaking.”

The Essential Teachings of Dogen

As we realize impermanence we are able to let go

The interesting thing is that as we cultivate and experience a deeper awareness and relationship with impermanence. Something happens – we become more compassionate and moved by existence itself. We gain a deeper appreciation for everything, especially aware of the flow of now and more present within it. We need impermanence for life to have real meaning or we squander what time we have.

So how do we cultivate a more intimate relationship with impermeance? We become willing students of her lessons and to do that we will need to meet face to face. I love this from Alan Watts.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

What I am learning about impermanence is that life is continual change, movement, flow, even who and what we think we are is not a thing but a process, not an island but a river.

In my own practice the teachings of Gyomay Kubose Sensei of impermanence as continual becoming is helping me develop a more intimate relationship with impermanence. In his book everyday suchness in the chapter, The Life of Becoming. The truth of impermanence our continual change is constantly revealing itself to us – From Gyomay Sensei,

Life is changing. All things are changing all conditions are changing so let things go! All abuse, anger, criticism. Let them come and let them go whatever we do we should do sincerely honestly and with full strength when it is done it is done

Everyday Suchness

Many people get attached to the past or the future and neglect the important present must live the best now with full responsibility

What do you think that means, with full responsibility?

One of the ways we can take full responsibility to is recite the Five remembrances daily – It is a part of my practice.

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape 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.

I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become the heir.[2]

The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”)

With this understanding we can be present with life in the flow of now. Our action is to be present and intimate with the becoming.

As Gyomay Sensei writes,

When the sun shines enjoy it and it rains enjoy it all things in life let them come and let them go .

Real happiness always in the state of becoming because truth is always in the becoming in the be coming there is freedom and naturalness no artificiality. Happiness is in the present and only by living in the present is real happiness achieved. The truth of life is in the becoming, that everything is becoming; the truth and beauty are in this change. Trees and flowers are beautiful because they change.

Real happiness is in the embrace and appreciation of impermanence. Profound joy and gratitude are born in this awareness, the power and beauty of the flow of now is revealed.

I want to close with these words from Paul Flesschman

[ impermanence ] is what we run from; [ impermanence ] is what we fear; anicca is what we join forces against and attempt to smash. impermanence is the destruction of our personal power, the loss of our world as we know it.

But the experience of anicca [ impermanence ], a precious and fortunate opportunity into which one develops slowly —it is said, over lifetimes— the actual direct experience, as opposed to our images, bugaboos, and sideways glance—the experience of impermanence is a simple, clear, fact, like the wind.

The experience of anicca [ impermanence ] leaves one floating on the exfoliating, impersonal truth, the ocean of life. The flood of life need not drown us; it can instead buoy us up if we learn how to swim. The experience of impermanence is the place to plunge in and be turned into a fish, a wave, a fleck of foam on the surging expanse of life-itself.

The Experience of Impermanence

Namu Amida Butsu.

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