The Truth of Impermanence
Whether it is the Sacred Path or the Pure Land Path, we should take “suffering, emptiness, impermanence, and no-self” as the foundation in studying and practicing Buddhism. If we do not include “suffering, emptiness, impermanence, and no-self”, we will not be studying Buddhism. Though some may think they are studying Buddhism, they have reduced it to a mere philosophy and knowledge.
A person who is scrupulous in learning and practicing Buddhism must have an important foundation, which is a strong sense of “sudden death”. This means, “The matter of birth-and-death is great, and can come at any moment”. This doesn’t mean that those who are aged or dealing with a critical illness should constantly think of death; or, that young healthy people should feel that death is always approaching.
They must learn and practice Buddhism with a positive attitude. If they are not vigorous enough, it will not be possible for them to progress, not to mention anticipating and resolving the great matter of birth-and-death in this life. For these reasons, one should know the importance of the sense of sudden death.
“Don’t say you’ll learn the Way when you get old. Take note of how many young people are buried in isolated tombs”. We always think we will die when we get old or after we get sick. It is not necessarily the case. We die when conditions ripen, regardless of our health or age.
A person who has a strong sense of death is likely to be a scrupulous Buddhist, because this sense can motivate him to work hard. Even though no one encourages or urges him, he is self-motivated to find a teaching that can liberate him in this lifetime.
If a person’s sense of the nearness of death is weak, he will be carefree, and drift from one teaching to another. If death comes suddenly, he will be totally unprepared.
Parents and children, friends and groups in our life, are a kind of karmic retribution. When karmic conditions ripen, we gather together. However, when the conditions vanish, we depart from each other. All four kinds of sacred beings and six kinds of ordinary beings are the same. This is the law and truth related to impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and no-self.
There is an ancient saying, “There is no family that is not broken. There is no nation that is invincible. There is no person that does not die.” It also says, “There is no banquet that never disperses.”
Because this world is impermanent, all aspects of it are comprised of suffering and emptiness. It is like a dream or a play. Some people are actors on the stage, and some are members of the audience. Sometimes they are dreaming, but sometimes they are awake. Such is the nature of our life.
However, we must have a sense of the need for awakening, and then pursue the “truth”. In this kind of life, one day we may be awakened. If not we may continue to dream, one life of impermanence, suffering and emptiness to another, in an endless cycle.
All existences in this world are impermanent, not eternal or constant. “All existences” includes everything. When referring to all existences in the universe, it is generally understood to be tangible physical matters that can be seen by the eyes and heard by the ears.
Furthermore, there are other kinds of existences which are intangible spiritual ones. These would include: thoughts, concepts, knowledge, and perceptions. These are also not everlasting but constantly change. Our thinking mind is ever changing in every instant. Though we may have some fixed concepts or values, they may change because other conditions or concepts change, as they belong to the intangible, abstract, and impermanent.
Anything that is not within our minds, such as our bodies, belong to the impermanent physical realm. They are composed of cells, which are constantly dying and being replaced. Thus, we can see how our bodies are clearly impermanent.
Our body changes from a new-born baby, to a child, a teenager, an adult and declines as we age. It deteriorates with illness and eventually dies. All of the things in our environment such as: a table, a chair, a field, a house, or other consumable items, decay all the time. They cannot remain in the same form and shape forever. This is known as “producing, developing, changing, and extinguishing” in the physical world.
All things, including mountains, rivers, the Earth, the Solar Systems, the Milky Way, and even the entire universe, constantly change in every moment. Eventually they will be extinguished. This is a process of “formation, development, decay, and emptiness.
Above all, whether in the physical or spiritual realm, all things are impermanent. People eventually die, and all matter will finally vanish. This is the Law of Impermanence.
The sense of impermanence (death) varies with people.
The first kind – he realizes life is impermanent by watching the flowers blossom and wither, or he becomes aware that the matter of birth-and-death is great when he sees the smoke coming out from the cremation furnace.
The second kind – he realizes he will also die one day, when he attends a funeral service, or sees a carriage bearing a coffin pass by.
The third kind – he realizes it will soon be his turn, as he sees his neighbors or friends die, or attends their funeral services.
The fourth kind – Not until his closest, most cared for, most loved ones, like parents or siblings die, does he realize he will also soon die.
Certain people have no feelings even as their family members die. They only worry about death when they get old or have a serious illness. These kinds of people are regarded as insensitive to death. If they don’t feel the urgency of death even when they experience a serious illness, they are regarded as having no feelings about death.
Comparatively, those without any sense of death, lack the temperament for religion. They do not seek religious faith or practice further.
All existence, whether spiritual, physical, tangible or intangible, are unreal in substance, because they are produced through the harmonization of causes and conditions, and extinguished through the dispersion of causes and conditions. Thus, they are empty of self-nature, and there is no matter or living being that are everlasting.
Without the knowledge of the Law of No-Birth, ordinary beings remain ignorant and deluded. This creates our various mental afflictions and discriminations that are the cause of our continued reincarnation within the Three Domains and Six Realms.
All buddhas in the ten directions realize the Real Mark of various Dharmas, which is the nature of no-production and no-extinction. This allows their minds to dwell peacefully within the Real Mark. Their minds never develop the various afflictions due to discrimination, such as right or wrong, good or bad. As a result, they will not have the retribution of birth and death, governed by “wholesome” and “unwholesome” karma in the future.
Our bodies are composed of the four elements of Earth, Water, Fire (Energy) and Air. However, their nature is “suffering and emptiness”. With this body, we all suffer from gradual aging and various kinds of illness. With our last breath we experience the suffering of death, the realization that our body does not exist forever, and we return to emptiness. This is why it is said that “the Four Elements are suffering and emptiness.”
All phenomena, whether it is as big as the boundless universe or as small as mind and body of each individual, are the harmonization of causal conditions.
Moreover, the casual conditions change momentarily, and will disperse and extinguish eventually. So, it is produced when the conditions come together, and is extinguished when the conditions disappear. This is the law of universe and life.
Though there is an existence in what we see at this moment, it is just a momentary harmonization of causes and karmic conditions. As it is conditional, whether it is wholesome or unwholesome, good or bad, it must eventually depart and disperse.
Once it vanishes, it instantly becomes emptiness and has no more existence.
Everyone has his own karma. Because of this karma, we meet and gather together, become spouses, fathers, sons, and friends. However, when the karmic conditions end, we separate and continue to bear our individual karma from the past. We receive different retributions and continue in the endless cycle of reincarnation. Thus, nothing is unchanged.
We should be mindful of impermanence, understand that all phenomena are unreal and exist only momentarily. We should remember these truths and try to practice non-attachment.
The Diamond Sutra says, “All conditioned Dharma is like a dream, a bubble, dew, and lightning. We should visualize it as such.” What does “all conditioned dharma” mean? As small as our bodies, as large as our: spirits, land, mountains, rivers, the Earth, the Sun, the Galaxy and the entire universe. All are known as conditioned Dharma. From the point of view of the Buddha, they are as unreal as a dream, an illusion, or a bubble. They are as temporary as dew or a bolt of lightning.
We think a hundred billion years is a very long time; however, it is as temporary as a dewdrop or a bolt of lightning from the Buddha’s point of view. This is because, as long as it conditioned, its existence is bound to a finite framework of time and space.
As it is bound to time and space, it is finite and temporary, no matter how long it is, unless you can transcend time and space.
So, though we may live for a hundred or ten thousand years, it is still regarded as a short lifespan. As compared with the nearest heaven (the Heaven of the Four Kings), the average lifespan of heavenly beings is 500 years, and one day in that heaven is equivalent to 50 years in our human world. Though its scale is much “larger”, their lifespans are as short as dew and lightning from the Buddha’s point of view.
We live in a world of anxiety and fragility; so, it is natural to feel insecure and horrified. However, these forms of suffering are considered less severe because they only last for one lifetime. The greater kinds of suffering are those that continue through many lifetimes within the Three Domains and the Six Realms.
In the Lotus Sutra, it says, “The Three Domains contain no lasting peace. They are like a burning house filled with terrible suffering.” Reincarnation is the fundamental catastrophe. However, the Land of Bliss has no suffering. Those who are born there enjoy all kinds of happiness. So, whenever a Buddha is born, he must introduce the Pure Land teaching, and advise and guide sentient beings to recite Amitabha’s Name to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Death always awaits us. So, it doesn’t matter if we know nothing about the afterlife; but, it matters if we cannot be reborn in the Pure Land of Bliss. Above all, rebirth should be our top priority.
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings