Understanding Impermanence Brings Peace To Our Everyday Lives
by Thich Nhat Hanh
A tragedy in Vermont deeply touched my friend and his community when a wrong-way driver killed five bright, happy, loved teenagers. How can we heal from such a loss? Pondering this brought me to the beautiful writings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh from his book, No Death, No Fear : Comforting Wisdom for Life. His insightful words have lightened my heart.
Love, Robin Johnson
The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent — flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent.
Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving flowers. In fact, we are able to love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality.
When we study impermanence, we have to ask, “Is there anything in this teaching that has to do with my daily life, my daily difficulties, my suffering?” If we see impermanence as merely a philosophy, it is not the Buddha’s teaching. Every time we look or listen, the object of our perception can reveal to us the nature of impermanence. We have to nourish our insight into impermanence all day long.
When we look deeply into impermanence, we see that things change because causes and conditions change. When we look deeply into non-self, we see that the existence of every single thing is possible only because of the existence of everything else. We see everything else is the cause and condition for its existence. We see that everything else is in it.
From the point of view of time, we say “impermanence”, and from the point of view of space, we say “non-self”. Things cannot remain themselves for two consecutive moments, therefore, there is nothing that can be called a permanent “self”. Before you entered this room, you were different physically and mentally. Looking deeply at impermanence, you see non-self. Looking deeply at non-self, you see impermanence. We can say, “I can accept impermanence, but nonself is too difficult”. They are the same.
Understanding impermanence can give us confidence, peace and joy.
Impermanence does not necessarily lead us to suffering. Without impermanence, life could not be. Without impermanence, your daughter could not grow into a beautiful young lady. Without impermanence, oppressive political regimes would never change. We think impermanence makes us suffer. The Buddha gave the example of a dog that was hit by a stone and got angry at the stone. It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.
We need to learn to appreciate the value of impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving.
Looking deeply can become a way of life.
We can practice conscious breathing to help us be in touch with things and to look deeply at their impermanent nature. This practice will keep us from complaining that everything is impermanent and therefore not worth living for. Impermanence is what makes transformation possible. We should learn to say, “Long live impermanence”. Thanks to impermanence, we can change sufferings into joy.
If we practice the art of mindful living, when things change, we won’t have any regrets. We can smile, because we have done our best to enjoy every moment of our life and to make others happy. When you get into an argument with someone you love, please close your eyes and visualize yourselves three hundred years from now. When you open your eyes, you will only want to take each other in your arms and acknowledge how precious each of you is. The teaching of impermanence helps us appreciate fully what is there, without attachment or forgetfulness.
We have to nourish our insight into impermanence every day. If we do, we will live more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life more. Living deeply, we will touch the foundation of reality, nirvana, the world of no-birth and no-death. Touching impermanence deeply, we touch the world beyond permanence and impermanence. We touch the ground of being and see that which we have called being and non-being are just notions. Nothing is ever lost. Nothing is ever gained.
About THICH NHAT HANH
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace. He is the man Martin Luther King called “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence.” His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world.