Aspects of Impermanence
A Talk Given in Mandarin by Dr. Yutang Lin
on July 25, 2004 at Malin Buddhist Studies Center, Melaka, Malaysia
Tape Recorded and Transcribed by Upasaka Jyh Ching How, Revised by Dr. Lin
Based on the above Chinese Transcript, Written in English by Dr. Lin
The topic is "Aspects of Impermanence"; that means we are going to investigate the various aspects of the concept of Impermanence as taught in Buddhism. Impermanence is a fundamental concept in Buddhist teachings. There was a Tibetan patriarch by the name of Milarepa, and he used to say that Impermanence is the gate through which to enter Dharma. His meaning in saying so should have been that, in order to understand Buddhist teachings thoroughly, one needs to have, first of all, a profound appreciation of the significance of Impermanence, and only then could one significantly engage in the practice of Dharma. We will discuss this topic in the sequential order of "Views, Practices, Activities, and then Fruits."
First, let's consider Impermanence as views. When we talk about this concept of Impermanence I want to bring up first another even more fundamental concept, namely, Dharma basically is teaching us to see what the real situations are. Basically, Dharma is teaching us that, in order to solve problems, one needs to first recognize what the real situations are. This point is essentially different from authoritarian teachings that demand submissive conformity. In cases of authoritarian doctrines, when the theories are invalid or submission is forced upon, all sorts of problems would ensue. The truthful nature of Dharma is such that, it emphasizes that, for something to be correct, we need to let all examine what the real situations are. Therefore, in Buddhism, even though on the one hand we emphasize following the footsteps of Buddha, and yet on the other hand it also teaches that one should rely on the universal teachings instead of relying on persons. In other words, it is a matter of truth. When people have different views what do we rely on? We rely on recognizing the real situation, and this is the goal for us to follow.
Once the above principle is understood, then when we talk about Impermanence the basic meaning is not to urge you that you always need to look at things from the point of view of Impermanence. For example, right now things are fine in your life but Buddhism purposely wants you to think ahead of the sufferings of birth, senility, illness and death. Basically it is not like this at all. The real significance is only to point out to all what the reality of life and world is. In this sense, when we talk about Impermanence, we are just reminding people that all things will change, sooner or later. What then would be the significance of pointing this out? It is to remind people that, whatever you thought of or your views are, could at any moment become not in conformity with the real situations. Hence, it is only to remind one that one needs to remain constantly alert in realizing that reality could possibly not stay the same as one thinks it to be. Therefore, one needs to think of more possibilities to adjust to the possible changes. Basically the significance of pointing out Impermanence should be only like this.
Nevertheless, when we talk about Impermanence in Buddhist discourses we tend to lean toward presenting it as an antidotal concept. For example, when someone is sick, then medications or treatments are given to help cure the illness. When someone is in poor health, then he or she is urged to do exercises or go on special diet so as to remedy the situation. Similarly, in Buddhism when we talk about Impermanence we tend to offer it as a remedial concept to help cure our problems. This is because each and every one of us has more or less sorrows, worries, prejudices, attachments, insistence, and in addition, among people there are many kinds of conflicts. How to solve all such problems? According to Buddhist teachings the root of the problems lies in each one's grasping to his or her views, and the individual views vary and are mostly based on self-centered interests. Such variations are due to different perspectives or selfish greed. Consequently, there are many problems. Aiming at curing such unhealthy states of human affairs and intending to free people from such prejudicial states, Impermanence is taught as a remedy. People are reminded that such prejudicial and selfish practices would not prevail, nor would they bring about lasting peace and prosperity. The reasons being, if you act like that and others do the same, then conflict and fighting are inevitable. As a result, whenever something comes up, people just fight but could not solve the problems. Instead, people should open their minds to realize that the problems may be resolved in many possible ways, and the solution does not lie in how any particular one could have the lion's share, but in joint and impartial sharing of interests. People should share the common understanding that we all have similar needs, and only when we endeavor toward a harmonious solution will the result be good for all of us in the long run. Nevertheless, people are usually under the fixation of current interests to the extent that any lessening of their grasping would seem impossible. Therefore, the teachings need to point out that, whatever you thought to be graspable is in reality ungraspable. Even your dear life could not be grasped for sure. One would not even know when anything would happen! Furthermore, the important point here is that, Impermanence is taught not as a scare tactic but a matter of fact. In daily news we noticed that some events happened here and some incidents occurred there; even at the very instant right before those occurrences how could we know that things are going to turn out like that? When such matters would fall upon us, we had no ideas. Among our friends and relatives, now and then this one encountered this kind of problem and that one encountered that sort of difficulty. Indeed, the real situation is that, no matter how much you hoped or prayed for, there is no guarantee at all; at any minute things could go wrong!
The only thing that would guarantee that we all would have peace and happiness is the clear understanding that only when all are living in relationships that are mutually supportive and considerate can benefits be assured. Nevertheless, this is something in theory. In daily life changes are always slow to take place, and one would return to one's old patterns of haggling and fighting. What should we do under such circumstances? What we had discussed so far are only theoretical views. We had learned that when Dharma teaches us about Impermanence the point is for us to look at real situations, instead of to remain circling within the sphere of our wishful planning. Simply look back three years and you would realize that many forethoughts then were completely mistaken. Once we had learned the concept of Impermanence, we could use it as an antidote to release our habitual and variegated grasping. Each one of us has certain prejudices and partialities that are results of grasping, and knowing Impermanence could help free us from prejudices and partialities. As I talked about all this in theory, it might sound easy. Later as soon as you step out this hall, you would probably forget about all this talk because in your daily life you have your interests and views that you would not relinquish. So, how could one manage for the notion of Impermanence to gradually imbue one's mind to the extent that when some things come up one would really handle it from the point of view of Impermanence? In other words, you would then be capable of handling matters in a more realistic manner. How could one cultivate this? Some would say that one need to think often about how much sentient beings are suffering, and how ephemeral human lives are, etc. Such thoughts are indeed helpful; nevertheless, people are forgetful. Even matters that caused much suffering, as soon as they are over, people would soon forget much about them. Therefore, one needs to adopt some practices to cultivate one's sense and appreciation of Impermanence.
Many years ago I designed a very good practice that I have been doing since then. It is to keep a "Record of Impermanence." Whenever we talked about Impermanence it was just a very abstract concept. Even though daily on television and in newspapers there are reports of many incidents and many sudden deaths, since we had no acquaintance with those people, to us they are merely words or images, and hence the impressions could not be profound. Now in keeping a "Record of Impermanence" I began to put down the names or descriptions of all deceased persons that I had actually met, even though it was just a brief encounter. That night, after I began to do this, as I was lying down to sleep suddenly I felt that death would come to my turn. When I did not feel that death was so real, it used to be felt like it was only others' matter and no thought ever occurred to me that death would also come my way. And then another thought arose, that all would have to be given up upon death. If one is not used to this reality, how difficult would it be for one to face it upon death, especially considering the fact that it will not be up to the dying one to decide. There was an inspirational occurrence related to this practice. That night, after I had put down as many names of deceased ones as I could remember, I placed the notebook in front of the statue of Green Tara, a transformation of Guan Yin, on my altar, and then I lit an incense stick to pray for the deceased. The next morning I found the whole incense stick burned but unbroken, and furthermore, it wound toward the right hand of Green Tara that is in the gesture of giving salvation to sentient beings. The burned incense stick remained so for days. I wrote a report on this practice and the inspirational event with a photo attached there to show it to people, with the hope that people would realize that this is a helpful and effective practice that could enable one to realize that Impermanence is as close to one as the breathing in and out. A few years later, a Buddhist of Chinese descent in Indonesia downloaded this report from our website, www.yogichen.org, and read it on his computer screen. Right then he suddenly smelled sandalwood incense even though none was burned nearby. He was moved by this inspirational experience to have translated the report into Indonesian. This Indonesian version is also posted at our website now. I hope that this inspirational incident would also help you realize that this practice is really a significant one.
Besides the method mentioned above another way to realize Impermanence is to become acquainted with death. Strictly speaking, Impermanence does not apply only to death, but to us humans life and death is the matter of greatest concern, hence realizing death could imbue the alertness of Impermanence into our daily life. Since I live near a cemetery I used to take a walk there while chanting the holy name of Amitabha Buddha. In America cemeteries are as beautiful as parks. While strolling there I would go from tomb to tomb to take a closer look at the tombstones. What would be the benefit of so doing? Usually when I came out from the cemetery after about forty-minute stroll, I would feel much lighter inside. Why was it like this? Because usually we are constantly preoccupied with personal worries, just as the Chinese proverb goes, "Every family has a Sutra that is difficult to recite," and it is also seemingly endless. Nevertheless, when you read the tombstones, "Born on such and such a day, month and year, Died on such and such a day, month and year," you realize that so many matters in life that seemed so important, in the end would just vanish into void, and only these two lines would remain for some indefinite time. Sometimes you would see only one date on a tombstone, it could signify a stillbirth or a life lasted no more than a day. Even though there were only two lines, many stories could be inferred from them. After I strolled there daily for over four months, I wrote my reflections and sentiments into poems and entitled them "Learning from the Dead." These poems are all related to Impermanence, and I hope that you would read them. They are also posted at our website.
Whenever you have the opportunity to visit a cemetery, on the one hand you should recite the holy name of Amitabha Buddha or Guan Yin so as to establish Dharma connection for the deceased there, and on the other hand you should read some tombstones there, and it would be helpful to you. You would realize that so many things that you used to deem as of great importance are indeed of no consequences. As one looks back at life from the juncture of life and death it would be easier to attain certain awakening; otherwise, one would tend to haggle all the time over minor matters. If all your life is spent over minor matters, what would be the significance of such a life? It does not make much sense. If you could reflect on life as if from the juncture of life and death, then it would become possible for you to try not to waste this life; how much time is still left, no one knows. The tiny bit of remaining time, if you could use it to accomplish a few things that is beneficial to others and yourself, then this life could become meaningful. Otherwise, it will be just eating and sleeping, and there would be no peace and happiness inside.
Some people would seem to be having no problems on the surface but are actually suffering from chronic depression because they could not find meaning for life and a goal for sincere efforts. If we could realize that all of us are about the same in that we all have many worries and much suffering, and then look at things with such understanding and attempt to find solutions, then the subsequent lives would be meaningful and not wasted. The greatness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas lies in their teaching us a road to liberation from sufferings and worries. Following such a path we would be able to help sentient beings to some extent, attain peace and happiness of mind, and help others to attain the same.
Between practicing Buddhist teachings and engaging in usual charitable services there is a fundamental and distant difference. Cultivating oneself to become a good person through charitable services is of course superb; nevertheless, there is no end to such services because new problems would keep arising. Even if one could provide for and meet all worldly needs of others, that would still be no guarantee for their happiness. No matter how hard you have tried, what could be attained would remain very limited. And yet, if you comprehended the Buddhist teachings and practiced accordingly, then you would gradually attain peace of mind, and feel the spiritual strength that naturally arises from an open mind. Furthermore, then you could teach others about the Dharma and its practices, and thereby gradually help others to find peace and spiritual strength. Even more important than these is that, after long-term devotion and sincere practice one would then realize the reality of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; it is not just a system of theories or teachings based on memorized theories. Gradually one would comprehend that Impermanence is a fundamental concept that does not mean that, since nothing can be grasped so we can act in whatever way that we like. The correct meaning is that, as one realized there is nothing that is graspable, and hence ceased grasping, then one would be liberated from the preoccupation with one's self. Ordinarily we are constantly grasping on many tiny things; when one could stop grasping one would gradually experience the purity of mind. Just as a while back before this talk started the assembly were chanting Amitabha in a state of purity, when such purity grows deep and strong it would be possible to return to limitless oneness. In other words, in our ordinary experiences what we understand through our sensual organs are full of distinctions, and so we make and are used to distinctions of countries, families and individuals. Nevertheless, when one's mind has been thoroughly purified through Dharma practices one would then realize that all such distinctions were consequences of grasping and attachment. When grasping had ceased one would experience a state that is indescribable and limitless. Such a limitless state is not a void. How do we know this? For advanced practitioners now and then it is possible to know about matters that happened in distant past or will happen in the future. This shows transcendence over Time, as we usually understood it. Sometimes when people encountered difficulties of all sorts they would ask advanced practitioners to help through prayers, granting of blessings, and other Dharma activities to generate merits. Such blessings would work even though the recipients were total strangers in distant places. This shows transcendence over Space, as we usually understood it. In life there are many matters that have no satisfactory solutions. Illness in the hands of physicians need not be cured, and could turn worse. When one is at the juncture of, as a Chinese proverb goes, "Calling Heaven without response and calling Earth without effects" prayers could help. For example, when people encounter the presence of ghosts, how could one solve such a problem? The fundamental solution to such problems is to deliver such beings from Samsara to Buddha's Pureland through Dharma practices. Then the problem would be no more. Ghosts are also in suffering, and as long as such suffering found no relief they tried to get human beings to help; that is why they bother people. Why is it that such problems will be resolved only when merits are accumulated on their behalves? That is because only what Dharma taught can ultimately solve such fundamental problems that we had no idea of how to handle. Do not think that what Dharma could help is only limited to problems of ghosts. Some people were in intensive care units, and their friends or relatives who knew me would contact me and asked me to pray for them. Even though they were total strangers to me, all I needed were their names and a brief description of their problems, and then the prayers would yield immediate help that they could sense on their side, even though they were on another continent. Thus, they would spread the information to their friends and relatives, and then when they had other problems, they would call me for help through prayers again. This demonstrated that when Dharma practice is well done the limitless oneness realized is not an ineffectual void, but instead a state of complete freedom from artificial concepts such that the strength of prayer would render help, beyond spatial and temporal limits, to others. Such help is not due to the power of any individual human being but expressions of transcendental powers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. When praying for the benefit of others with a pure mind such a function would arise. Any one could do this; Dharma is truth, and hence no one could have monopoly over it. One just needs to engage in Dharma practices for long time with pure mind, free from any considerations and regardless of human relationships, but just pray for all equally, then gradually the effects will become obvious.
Next we will talk about Activities, i.e., after we had trained ourselves in the practices mentioned above how to apply Impermanence in daily life activities so that the actions and inaction are in congruence with the teachings on Impermanence. For example, before I came to give this talk, I did not prepare a transcript. A few months earlier they asked me to offer a few topics for my coming talks in Malaysia, so I thought about it and offered a few. Do you think that I could still remember what I wanted to say then? But then, for such an important matter, why didn't I prepare a lecture in writing? This is because I am practicing Impermanence in all my activities. Any moment I am ready to go and face the situation as I am, without carrying a backpack. To let go of grasping, one need to let go of theories as well. I just tell you what is in my mind, no need to arrange some kind of sayings. This is how I live. The words you are listening to are pouring out naturally from my mind; besides these there is no other thoughts or planning. The framework of "Views, Practices, Activities, and then Fruits" for this talk came to my mind after dinner tonight while I was in the restroom of the restaurant. For one who is really living in accordance with Dharma a Dharma talk is just an outpouring of what one really knows and actually does. This is applying Impermanence in daily life. Of course, it is not true that everyone can do like this at once. Nevertheless, you could dwell on this and consider how to apply Impermanence in your daily life. For example, before you left home you were thinking about bring this and bring that with you, but once you were outside you then realized that you had forgotten to bring this or that. Similarly, when you die it could very well like this. Hence, you need to be ready to be without anything. When nothing could indeed be brought along, what are you preparing?
To prepare for the juncture of life and death the only things that are helpful are Dharma practices such as chanting Buddha's name and Dharma services done in our daily life now. When you had done these things in your life then at the time of death you would feel much relaxed. Key to Dharma practices is purity of mind. Bodhicitta is most important. Bodhicitta, in a few words, is to wish all sentient beings to attain full enlightenment sooner. To advance on the path to enlightenment one's intentions should stem from Bodhicitta at all times. One should not constantly limit one's intentions around a small circle of matters such as, I wish my son to be so and so, I wish my daughter to be such and such, etc. When you think of all sentient beings, all these relatives or friends are naturally included, and even you yourself is included. You should realize that all sentient beings include those you dislike, or harmed by you, or imperceptible to your senses, and are of all varieties. You regard them with the understanding that all are basically the same, as sentient beings with sorrows and in suffering, and that all wish to escape suffering and attain lasting happiness. From such a perspective you wish them full enlightenment and ultimate liberation from suffering. Such a wish goes beyond worldly wishes that might aim at the resolution of certain problems but could not prevent them from recurring or other problems from forthcoming. Furthermore, we wish all to attain full enlightenment sooner. "Sooner" is where our efforts in Dharma practices and services apply to. We do not stop at merely wishing full enlightenment to all beings; instead we make all efforts with the hope that thereby sentient beings would reach full enlightenment sooner. Therefore, whatever helps sentient beings need in making progress in Dharma we would try to provide at our best. Consequently, with Bodhicitta we have a goal in life to live for. If you can persevere in Dharma practices and services with a pure mind and solid activities, gradually you will experience the benefits. You would no longer be bothered by trivial matters and unable to escape from sorrowful worries. You would gradually realize that, as life goes on, sooner or later each and every one would run into some difficulties. When someone encounters problems, the only ones that could really help out are those that did not in the first place contribute to those entanglements in worldly haggling. Only those that had transcended worldly entanglements could give guidance and inspire the suffering ones, and render substantial help through prayers. Therefore, when you devote yourself to Dharma practices and services you are on the path of true love for all beings that would have the opportunity to run into contact with you.
Finally, what would be the Fruits of Impermanence? Phenomena indeed are constantly evolving and could not be grasped as absolutely substantial. Seeing this, there are no real problems. Comprehending Impermanence thoroughly, life and death are also very natural. Just as a river is constantly flowing, which drop are you going to grasp? Each one of us is like a drip or a grain of sand in the river flow, what do you want to grasp? It is just a flowing; where are the problems? Conforming to Impermanence thoroughly in mind and action, the fruit attained is liberation. Right now you are grasping to this, grasping to that, grasping to something in all matters, and hence you encounter problems in all matters. This is unsatisfactory, that is also unsatisfactory; this I dislike, that I could not be satisfied. But if you could enlarge your views and open your mind, then you would feel that this is fine and that is also fine. To others there are all sorts of problems, but to one that finds them not objectionable, there are simply no problems.
Written in Chinese on September 9, 2004
Translated on October 6, 2004
El Cerrito, California
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