My comments: This is the first part of two. The modern Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh expounds in a concise and everyday manner a basic understanding of Buddha’s teachings. This first part focuses on the first of the three Dharma Seals that the Buddha passed on to us: the teaching of impermanence. Thay gives us simple examples of how to practice this in our daily life. He makes it clear how understanding and practicing impermanence gives us a basis for clarity and a way of living with strong ethics. I find this essay so timely for each of us to support us in being part of the new earth that is emerging now. Enjoy part one!
THE PRACTICE OF LOOKING DEEPLY
“All authentic practices of the Buddha carry within themselves three essential teachings called the Dharma Seals. These three teachings of the Buddha are impermanence, no self and nirvana. Just as all important legal documents have the mark or signature of a witness, all genuine practices of the Buddha bear the mark of these three teachings.
“If we look into the first Dharma Seal, impermanence, we see that it doesn’t just mean that everything changes. By looking into the nature of things, we can see that nothing remains the same for even two consecutive moments. Because nothing remains unchanged from moment to moment, it therefore has no fixed identity or permanent self. So in the teaching of impermanence we always see the lack of an unchanging self. We call this “no self” It is because things are always transforming and have no self that freedom is possible.
“The third Dharma Seal is nirvana. This means solidity and freedom, freedom from all ideas and notions. The word “nirvana” literally means “the extinction of all concepts.”
“Looking deeply into impermanence leads to the discovery of no self. The discovery of no self leads to nirvana. Nirvana is the Kingdom of God.
“The practice and understanding of impermanence is not just another description of reality. It is a tool that helps us in our transformation, healing and emancipation. Impermanence means that everything changes and that nothing remains the same in any consecutive moments. And although things change every moment, they still cannot be accurately described as the same or as different from what they were a moment ago. When we bathe in the river today that we bathed in yesterday, is it the same river? Heraclitus said that we couldn’t step into the same river twice. He was right. The water in the river today is completely different from the water we bathed in yesterday. Yet it is the same river. When Confucius was standing on the bank of a river watching it flow by, he said: “Oh, it flows like that day and night, never ending.”
“The insight of impermanence helps us to go beyond all concepts. It helps us to go beyond same and different and coming and going. It helps us to see that the river is not the same river but is also not different either. It shows us that the flame we lit on our bedside candle before we went to bed is not the same flame that is burning the next morning. The flame on the table is not two flames, but it is not one flame either.
Impermanence Makes Everything Possible
“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible.
“If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.
“Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.
“All of us can understand impermanence with our intellect, but this is not yet true understanding. Our intellect alone will not lead us to freedom. It will not lead us to enlightenment. When we are solid and we concentrate, we can practice looking deeply. And when we look deeply and see the nature of impermanence, we can then be concentrated on this deep insight. This is how the insight of impermanence becomes part of our being. It becomes our daily experience. We have to maintain the insight of impermanence in order to be able to see and live impermanence all the time. If we can use impermanence as an object of our meditation, we will nourish the understanding of impermanence in such a way that it will live in us every day. With this practice, impermanence becomes a key that opens the door of reality.
“We also cannot uncover the insight into impermanence for only a moment and then cover it up and see everything as permanent again. Most of the time we behave with our children as though they will always be at home with us. We never think that in three or four years’ time they will leave us to marry and have their own families. Therefore we do not value the moments our children are with us. I know many parents whose children, when they are eighteen or nineteen years old, leave home and live on their own. The parents lose their children and feel very sorry for themselves. Yet the parents did not value the moments they had with their children. The same is true of husbands and wives. You think that your spouse will be there for the whole of your life, but how can you be so sure? We really have no idea where our partners will be in twenty or thirty years’ time or even tomorrow. It is very important to remember every day the practice of impermanence.
Seeing Emotions Through the Eyes of Impermanence
“When somebody says something that makes you angry and you wish they would go away, please look deeply with the eyes of impermanence. If he or she were gone, what wouldyou really feel? Would you be happy or would you weep? Practicing this insight can be very helpful. There is a gatha, or poem, that we can use to help us:
Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
Where will you be and where shall I be?
“When we are angry, what do we usually do? We shout, scream, and try to blame someone else for our problems. But looking at anger with the eyes of impermanence, we can stop and breathe. Angry at each other in the ultimate dimension, we close our eyes and look deeply. We try to see three hundred years into the future. What will you be like? What will I be like? Where will you be? Where will I be? We need only to breathe in and out, look at our future and at the other person’s future. We do not need to look as far as three hundred years. It could be fifty or sixty years from now when we have both passed away.
“Looking at the future, we see that the other person is very precious to us. When we know we can lose them at any moment, we are no longer angry. We want to embrace her or him and say: “How wonderful, you are still alive. I am so happy. How could I be angry with you? Both of us have to die someday, and while we are still alive and together it is foolish to be angry at each other.”
“The reason we are foolish enough to make ourselves suffer and make the other person suffer is that we forget that we and the other person are impermanent. Someday when we die we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything. Our freedom, peace and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have. But without an awakened understanding of impermanence, it is not possible to be happy.
“Some people do not even want to look at a person when the person is alive, but when the person dies they write eloquent obituaries and make offerings of flowers. At that point the person has died and cannot really enjoy the fragrance of the flowers anymore. If we really understood and remembered that life was impermanent, we would do everything we could to make the other person happy right here and right now. If we spend twenty-four hours being angry at our beloved, it is because we are ignorant of impermanence.
“‘Angry in the ultimate dimension/I close my eyes.’ I close my eyes in order to practice visualization of my beloved one hundred or three hundred years from now. When you visualize yourself and your beloved in three hundred years’ time, you just feel so happy that you are alive today and that your dearest is alive today. You open your eyes and all your anger has gone. You open your arms to embrace the other person and you practice: “Breathing in you are alive, breathing out I am so happy.” When you close your eyes to visualize yourself and the other person in three hundred years’ time, you are practicing the meditation on impermanence. In the ultimate dimension, anger does not exist.
“Hatred is also impermanent. Although we may be consumed with hatred at this moment, if we know that hatred is impermanent, we can do something to change it. A practitioner can take resentment and hatred and help it to disappear.
“Just like with anger, we close our eyes and think, Where will we be in three hundred years? With the understanding of hatred in the ultimate dimension, it can evaporate in an instant.
Let Impermanence Nurture Love
“Because we are ignorant and forget about impermanence, we don’t nurture our love properly. When we first married, our love was great. We thought that if we did not have each other we would not be able to live one more day. Because we did not know how to practice impermanence, after one or two years our love changed to frustration and anger. Now we wonder how we can survive one more day if we have to remain with the person we once loved so much. We decide there is no alternative: we want a divorce. If we live with the understanding of impermanence, we will cultivate and nurture our love. Only then will it last. You have to nourish and look after your love for it to grow.”
source (PDF): Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear, Part Three