Introduction to Buddhism 002: Impermanence

Speaker: Venerable Zhixing

Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, Los Angeles

I. Recap: Dependent Origination

Auspicious greeting to all friends from around the World! This is Venerable Zhixing from Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, United States. Thank you for joining our online English Dharma service. It is nice to share the Dharma with you all again.

Last time, I talked about dependent origination, a very important teaching in Buddhism. All phenomena arise from causes and conditions. Because they arise from causes and conditions, they are subject to change, meaning their nature is dynamic. We called this “impermanence”. This is true for all beings and material objects.

II. Impermanence

We can observe these changes everywhere and all the time. We see how a seed grow into plant. We see how season change from spring to summer to autumn to winter and continue on. We see how water turn to ice when we freeze it or how it turns to steam as we boil it. We can also observe this on our body. We all grow from a baby to a child to teenager to young adult to an adult to an old person. This truth applies to as large scale as the universe. Abraham Loeb, chair of the astronomy department of Harvard University once wrote, “The Only Thing That Remains Constant Is Change. What’s true for our own lives is also true for the universe” in the magazine “Scientific America”. He said that, “Astronomers quickly realized that not only the universe and its galaxies but also the stars in them must have been born and eventually will die.

Example of the Peppered Moths

Everything that is fabricated, is subjected to change as the conditions change. A very good example is the evolution of the famous peppered moths in Britain. Before the Industrial revolution, the peppered moths were gray in color so that it camouflaged well on the tree truck. However, after industrial revolution, the gray peppered moths slowly died off because it became an easy prey for bird when it rested on the tree trucks which were dark in color due to the pollution from the factories. At the time, the black peppered moth, which had a DNA mutation that made their wings black, started to rise in number because they now camouflaged well on the dark tree truck. From this evolution study, we can see that as conditions in our surrounding changes, it would affect the relative outcomes as well. In this case, increase in pollution from surrounding factories darkened the color of the tree trucks. This change in turn affected the survival rate of grey and black peppered moths.

In addition to changes in our outside world, our inner world is also subjected to changes as well. Our feelings are changing all the time as well. I remember when I was young, I used to like to drink a specific brand of soy milk. I would drink a lot whenever my grandmother bought it for me. I felt happy when I got to drink it. This continued until one year, I suddenly developed an allergic reaction to it. Whenever I drank a bottle, my stomach would hurt. After a few times, whenever I saw the soy milk, the happy feeling that I once felt was all gone. All I felt was a reminder of stomachache after drinking it. I am sure all of us more or less have similar experience. Our feelings for things or for people are changing all the time based on our experience with them. We might have a special fondness to a food that we ate when we were young. However, the feeling from eating the food changed when we ate the same food many years after.

Perception is Subjected to Change

Aside from feeling, our perception on different things whether it’s as an individual or as a society as a whole is also subjected to changes. Perception on beauty is very subjective. However, we can see changes in the society’s perception of beauty from past to the present. In the past, standard of beauty had been associated with class and wealth in many societies around the world. Thus, at the time, ladies who were curvier and heavier were considered beautiful as it was an evidence of wealth and fertility. Those in lower class would need to perform physical labor to survive, thus they were thin and muscular. The standard of beauty started to change around the sixties. If we looked at fashion model or idols on TV, we can see that having a slim figure is considered beautiful.

In the Maha-Parinirvana Sutra (DN16), the Buddha said, “Impermanent are all component things, They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away, Release from them is bliss supreme.” From this passage, we can see that if we can really understand and realize that all phenomena are impermanence, we can find happiness in life. Why would this be so?

If we reflect back to our life, on our sub-consciousness level, we don’t really believe that everything are changing all the time. We tend to believe that we will be healthy with no major sickness, our families and friends will always be with us, our career will go on the way that we want, and life will go on as it usually does. This is why when there is a sudden major change like my doctor told me that I have cancer or a loved one suddenly passed away, or a natural disaster that took away everything we have, we would be devastated. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people suffered from the virus, and they are struggling with their fear from the negative changes in their bodies and that their life is coming to an end. Does it mean that changes are bad as we tend to want to live in our comfort zone and reject changes?

Impermanence should not be viewed as negative. Instead, it implies that there would always be hope; it teaches us to appreciate and seize the present moment, and it teaches us to view everything with a calm mind.

Changes in all phenomena told us that there will always be hope. There is a lot of up and down in our life. We are happy when life goes the way that we want. However, there bounded to be times when we fail or encounter obstacles. Because conditions can be changed, there will always be hope. 
Shake it Off and Step UpJust like the farmer’s donkey that fell into a well. The animal cried for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided to buried the donkey in the well as the monkey was old. He shoveled dirt into the well. The donkey cried terribly at first, but it slowly quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off again and take another a step up. Pretty soon, the donkey was able to stepped up over the edge of the well and ran off. 
Life is going to shovel dirt on us. The most important thing is we should create the conditions to help ourselves to get out of the well. Things will never be the same. They will change. Thus, as long as we don’t give up, we can get out of the deepest well in our life. Just like the current COVID -19 pandemic, it will also come to pass. We are in this together. As long as we work together and do our part, we can make it.

III. Impermanence as a Lesson in Appreciation

Aside from giving us hope, impermanence also taught us to appreciate and seize the present moment. In the final admonition of the Buddha, he told his disciples, “Impermanent, subject to change, are component things. Strive on with heedfulness!

Once there is a wealthy man who went to an island for vacation. He hired a boat man to take him around. As the wealthy man was sitting on the boat, he started to chatted with the boat man. He said, “I have spent five year to get marry and build my family. I then spent ten years in establishing my career and another ten years to build and strengthen my business. Once I made lots of money, I will pass it to my son and retired. Then, I will buy an island and start to relax and enjoy life!” After hearing the man’s comment, the boat man replied, “I don’t need to wait 25 years! I am enjoying my life at the present moment and do what I want to do.”

Most of us are probably like the wealthy man in the story, working hard in building our career and in making money, and planning to wait till retirement to enjoy life. If we reflect upon our life, how often do we busy ourselves with work and life that we forget to enjoy the beauty around or to enjoy quality time with our family? We will never know what would happen to us the next moment. Whether we want to or not, our body, our life, our surrounding are changing all the time. The flower that blooms today might wither tomorrow. Thus, enjoy and appreciate what you currently possess, whether it’s your loved one or your possession. Take a moment to just relax and appreciate the beauty around you. As we don’t know what would happen the next moment, we should also seize time to practice the three acts of goodness, do good deeds, say good words and think good thoughts, and to cultivate good conditions.

IV. Impermanence as a Lesson to Maintain a Calm Mind

Impermanence also taught us to maintain a calm mind. Everything is uncertain. It may not be bad even if things look bad. It may not be good even if things look good. 

The Lost Horse

Once, there is a man who owned a horse. One day, the horse went off. The neighbor came over and told the father of the man how unfortunate it was that the man lost his horse. The father said, “It may not be good, but it may not be bad either.” 

A few days later, the man horse ran back home and brought another horse with it. The neighbor came over again to congratulate the father of the man on this turn of event. The father only said, “It may not be good, but it may not be bad either.” 

A week later, the man felt off his horse when he went on ridding and left him crippled. The neighbor came by again and expressed how sorry he was hearing this news. The father of the man again said, “it may not be good, but it may not be bad either.” 

Not long after, war broke out. The country enlisted all young man to be soldier to fight in war. All young man in the village went off to war except for the crippled man and most of them died in war. 

From this story, we can see at each turn of event, the outcomes are uncertain. It may be bad, but it may also be good. Even if it seems bad, but it may also be the best outcome. Just the man in the story, it seems bad when he broke his leg and became crippled. For most people, it would be unbearable. However, it is also because he became crippled that he has a chance to live in war time. So what is bad? What is good? We should not be too quick in making judgement because causes and conditions are changing all the time. Thus, next time, when you are faced with difficulties or things didn’t go the way that you plan, change your perspective and think that this current causes and conditions is always the best one for you. It may not be good, but it may not be bad either. If we can think in this way, we can always view all the events and occurrence in our life with a calm mind. 

V. Conclusion

To conclude, I hope that we can all take some times to contemplate about impermanence and observe how all that are fabricated are changing all the time. If we really understand about impermanence, we will see that it will give us hope, it will enable us to appreciate and seize the current moment and to always observe all occurrences in our life with a calm mind. We will learn not to become attach, and if we don’t become attach, we will not think in terms of having or lacking, thus, we can live fully and happily.

Last, but not least, thank you for joining us in this cultivation session. May Buddhas and Bodhisattvas bless everyone with happiness and peace. May everyone be safe and well. Omitofo.

Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple 1

In today’s Buddhist sphere, numerous claims have been made on what the Buddha has taught. However, were they truly spoken by the Buddha? The Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple series is an exploration of over 300 topics, where Venerable Master Hsing Yun clarifies the Buddha’s teachings in a way that is accessible and relevant to modern readers. Erroneous Buddhist views should be corrected, the true meaning of the Dharma must be preserved in order to hold true to the original intents of the Buddha.

Published by: Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

Read it here