This is what I would like to write about for a little while, impermanence.

What is impermanence? At first, it seemed like an easy topic to write about, one that I’ve gotten already (at least enough to talk about). But then, starting out, it gets a little more difficult, because I feel like I have to offer an overview, some kind of large-scale view to start with.

Since I can’t do that, it might be enough to say that the first section of this blog will be about that- about trying to establish a kind of general understanding of what impermanence is.

First, the term is one commonly used in Buddhism.

To say “it is Buddhist” seems less than accurate, both because the word is not only used by Buddhists, and because it is a fact of life, whether you’re Buddhist, a practitioner of some other faith, or non-religious.

But it is commonly used in Buddhism.

It is often taught early on, but, like all teachings, it keeps going and going. You can learn about it early on, and keep learning more about it as you go. It is part of a lot of different teachings, as well, I think. So I will probably touch on impermanence as part of more complex teachings.

In a basic sense, it means change. Things are always changing. It is often presented in the context of death, the fact that human life goes from birth, to death.

This is an interesting point. I often have a bad reaction to this. It seems strange to put these two things together- change and death. Why is that necessary? Change is just change. Why associate it with the death of a living organism? But then, this is a traditional teaching, and I am learning to have some respect for the way things are taught traditionally (which is to say, I’ve been proven wrong enough to see that there’s often something to the traditional way of teaching some things).

So that’s something I’ll come back to. But more generally, change is something that permeates life, and that we’re oddly unaware of. A noted Buddhist teacher said something to the effect of “We’re surprised when we break a cup.” That’s pretty good, I think. Physical things can last a long time, but they can be very short lived. We expect our things to last forever, and it’s somehow surprising when they don’t.

So that is part of the teaching on impermanence too- learning to renounce a sense of security in things, and maybe learning to renounce a certain kind of ownership. The latter is touchy point, so I want to be careful with that. I am probably more offended than most people when someone “steals” my place in line at the store, or if something even more tangible gets taken. So that’s something to work on, too, here: the problems of owning things, and how reasonable you can be in renouncing various kinds of ownership.

Since I’ve titled this one “See you,” I wanted to include something on perception as well. That isn’t very hard in this context, actually. The previous examples of losing something, whether a place in line at the 7-11, or a nice laptop computer, have something to do with perception.

It seems like having someone push in front of you in line is more obviously perception-based: I assumed a line to buy something would work a certain way, and when that changed beyond my expectations, it created a certain panic and reaction. As far as the computer, it’s something more solid, a physical thing, not my understanding of a process in a place. In a sense, it is the same, though. I had an expectation that my thing would work out a specific way (that no one would steal my computer, that it was safe). When the situation revealed otherwise, I was not happy.

Of course, I’m saying neither that owning things is stupid, or that it’s easy to get over an attachment to things. I think there’s something to both sides (there’s something crazy about expecting to have a thing forever, and there’s something too easy about saying that it’s just change, when it can feel so painful and shocking).

On top of that, the perception of things themselves is problematic at a deep level. Things themselves change constantly, breaking down into garbage, or becoming something else. Is it possible that our concepts of things are means to various ends? It’s not hard to prove that things themselves are not solid, that they’re actually decaying before our eyes. Is it possible that the concepts we attach to them should serve a good end, and something more than just the normative idea of thingness (which is so obviously untrue and limiting)?

On one level, it’s about saving yourself some pain in the long run: believing my iPod will last forever will bring me frustration when it breaks. I think it goes beyond that, though. I have some ideas about what that means, but I’ll reserve those for later.

So that is the main body of this first post on impermanence. I’m going to do a little summary, mostly for my own clarity of thought, which you can, of course, skip.

So I’ve talked about:
1. Impermanence- a basic teaching that can also deepen
2. Impermanence- change and death (why death?)
3. Expectations, insecurity and change
4. Physical things and insecurity
5. Physical things as impermanent in their own right
6. Perception and impermanence
7. Concepts of things and the reality of impermanence- perhaps concepts should be a means to a better goal, and not just saving the user some suffering in the long run

That’s all for this time.

Of course, if you’re interested, you can look for examples of change in your own life.


About jakekarlins

Aspiring writer and artist, dharma practitioner, yogi.

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