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  • Dharma Talk with Seishu John Wiley : Impermanence

Dharma Talk with Seishu John Wiley : Impermanence

  • Thursday, December 14, 2023

Seishu John Wiley offers a reflection on one of the three marks of our human existence, impermanence.

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John's talk notes:

​​I am going to talk mostly about impermanence tonight, although I will start out with the 3 marks of existence. This topic, according to the Pali Canon, was the second discourse given by the Buddha--right after the 4 noble truths. He said that all phenomena--including thoughts, emotions and experiences --are marked by 3 characteristics --impermanence (anicca), suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). Understanding and appreciating the 3 marks of existence is an essential part of practice.

Impermanence: all things arise and cease. That is their nature. They come into being and they pass away. The definition of anicca is "seeing the arising and passing away of phenomena." The second mark--dukkha--can be translated as suffering, or dissatisfaction, or unreliability. I prefer dissatisfaction. "Life is dukkha" as the Buddha said, does not mean that life is only pain, disappointment and suffering. It means that the joys and beauty of life-a nice vacation, love, the natural world, a new car, or loved family members and pets--don't last because they are impermanent.  The vacation ends, the new car loses it's shine, a close relationship can become strained or. distant, or a loved one dies. To depend on them and cling to them leads to pain. Nothing is permanent--including our lives. The third mark-not self (anatta) is the hardest to understand and to experience or see in our day to day life. Since every existence depends on things outside of itself for survival, there is no such thing as a separate, independent, unchanging self.  What we call self is a set of physical, mental and sensory processes that are interdependent and constantly moving and changing. Because the 3rd mark is so hard to comprehend or explain, and all three are interrelated, it is recommended that practicing first with impermanence and dissatisfaction can eventually help with approaching not self.  So now, on with impermanence. 

In an article on this topic, Norman Fischer--former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation and Red Cedar's founding teacher said: "As far as classical Buddhism is concerned, impermanence is the #1 inescapable and essentially painful fact of life. It is the singular existential problem that the whole edifice of Buddhist practice is meant to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels) and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. In the same article he quotes Dogen --13th century Japanese priest considered to be the founder of Soto Zen--ho said "impermanence itself is Buddha nature." This means that impermanence isn't a problem to be overcome on the path.  It is the path. Practice isn't the way to cope with or overcome impermanence. It is the way to fully appreciate it and live it. Another teacher--Gil Fronsdal—-who teaches in the insight meditation tradition said that "Buddhism is one big contemplation about impermanence." Of course, impermanence has been talked about in other traditions. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said "you can't step in the same river twice" and "there is nothing permanent except change."

In almost all of the reading I did preparing this talk, there was an emphasis on practicing with impermanence --noticing it in your day to day life and noticing your reaction to it. In our daily life, there is weather, day and night, our moods --all the changes in nature --plants growing and dying, the lawn needs mowing again, the movement of the seasons, traffic at different times of day. There is an endless number of examples of change in our day to day life. Can you spend a little time each day open to noticing the movement of things around you? I recommend looking at the sky a few times a day. There are usually clouds to enjoy.

One of the best places to pay attention to this is in your daily meditation practice. How each inhalation and exhalation starts and ends. Changes in how the body feels over time. Your nose itches and if you can notice it and leave it alone, it eventually stops itching, or another feeling grabs your attention. And of course, there is the steady arising and passing away of thoughts, feelings, memories or fears, sounds, and sights that we can notice if we don't get caught up in one of them. In one of his talks, Gil Fronsdal said that we are living in a world that is very different than our mind constructs. When we add our ideas, our stories, our projections and and desires and past experiences to the people and things we encounter, we create a virtual reality that is very different than what is actually right here, right now. Fixed ideas become a filter through which we see life. An example of this "virtual reality" we create happened at our 7-day Samish sesshin a few years ago. During 3 or 4 of those nights, I didn't sleep well so l was tired during the day. I don't like being tired during a sesshin and I told myself I was in for a long, hard day and I would be tired all day, etc. etc. and it started out that way. After awhile, I was able to drop the storyline and just notice my experience. And, what a surprise -it was different than I predicted. I noticed periods of being sleepy, followed by periods of being alert (which I didn't expect) followed by more periods of being sleepy then alert. Also, once l dropped being upset about being sleepy, and accepted it, things were ok. The worst part about it was my prediction of a bad day. Reality was much different than my forecast. I don't look forward to long airplane trips and when we have one coming up, I have to be careful not to create a story of discomfort and inconvenience. Usually the flights are not nearly as uncomfortable as I fear.

The mind often holds onto things long after they have happened. An encounter, a conversation, the outcome of some event that didn't turn out the way you wanted. That clinging not only creates suffering, but it makes things seem more permanent that they are, makes the world seem more solid than it is. Imagine being able to release and let go of a difficult conversation with someone and be open to whatever happens next time instead of going over and over the conversation in your mind and assuming the next encounter will be the same. Which response creates less suffering for yourself and others? A regular meditation practice can be a very helpful tool in recognizing impermanence and figuring out how best to respond to whatever arises in our lives. Learning over time to come back to our body and our breath again and again and observe what is arising after being caught by a thought or feeling or storyline helps establish a calm, solid center. Imagine being able to encounter and respond to impermanence with a stable, quiet mind. From a grounded place. It might also help to make some lifestyle adjustments off the cushion, like making time for a regular meditation practice, having a more relaxed daily schedule if possible, or making time for a few quiet breaks during the day. Something for each of us to consider.

Impermanence isn't always a problem, or unwelcome. A stressful period of work is over, A return to good health after an illness or accident. Sometimes an unexpected job loss results in a better job or the painful end of a relationship eventually leads to a better one. My mother lived to be almost 103. She was active and healthy until her mid to late 90's, but the last few years were really tough. She as almost deaf and almost blind. She couldn't hear what people were saying and couldn't recognize faces, so she couldn't socialize. She couldn't read, watch television or listen to recordings. She handled all this well, but very much wanted to die. She would often ask my sister (who was a doctor) to get her a pill so she could die. It was really painful to see her struggle. I think she was relieved and as much as we loved her, the rest of the family was relieved when she died. I don't know what happens after death, but it seems that her suffering had ended.

I want to make sure and be clear that working with impermanence and accepting it does not mean being passive or unfeeling about the losses in our lives. It does not mean being "above"or avoiding the pain. In the same article I mentioned earlier, Norman Fischer said "The happiness that spiritual practice promises s not endless bliss, endless joy and soaring transcendence. Who would want that in a world in which there is so much injustice and so much tragedy and so much unhappiness, illness and death? To feel the scourge of impermanence and loss and to appreciate it at the same time profoundly as the beautiful essence of what it means to be at all--this is the deep truth I hear reverberating in the Buddha's last words: Everything vanishes. Practice goes on.

I will finish this talk with one more quote. This is from a talk by Marjolein Janssen.  She is a vipassana teacher and she quoted a Sri Lankan monk and I couldn't understand her pronunciation of his name. He said "Everything in the world changes, but there is something innocent in these changes. Impermanence is innocuous in itself. We say it is innocuous because it means no harm to anyone. It is simply the nature of the world. It can do us harm only when we grasp."

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