For Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the nature of suffering was the essential question facing all human beings. It was something that afflicted rich or poor, the powerful or the powerless, men or women. How the Buddha came to understand this is the foundational story of the Buddhist religion.
As a young man, the Buddha lived in luxury as a prince of the realm, confined by his father Suddhodana in a palace in northern India and surrounded by numerous riches and pleasurable diversions. One day, however, while riding in his coach through the city, he glanced out of the window and saw an old man, hunched over, leaning on a cane, making his way home. Questioning his charioteer as to what was wrong with the man, the young prince was told that the man was merely old, a condition that comes to us all. On another day, the prince saw a man who appeared very sick, and, on asking what he saw, was told by his charioteer that the individual was indeed sick and that we too are all subject to sickness. On yet another journey, the young man saw a dead body, and the charioteer reminded him that we all die. Finally, the Buddha saw a man robed in yellow with no hair on his head and was told this was a sanyasin, an ascetic who had renounced the wealth of the world and wandered through it seeking serenity.
The young man went home to the palace, leaving behind his wife and child and ceding them all his possessions, shaved his head, and became a sanyasin. He visited many teachers and practiced many disciplines, including extreme asceticism. Finding that such asceticism had not brought him to the Truth, the renunciate rested underneath a bodhi tree and, sitting cross—legged, decided that he would not get up until he had achieved Enlightenment. After being tormented by the demon, Mara—who attempted to distract him with false hopes and desires—Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment, and became the Enlightened One, or Buddha.
The consequences of the Buddha’s enlightenment were his realization of the Four Noble Truths. Theses truths form the core of Buddhist teachings. They are, first, that all existence is suffering; secondly, that this suffering has a cause; thirdly, that suffering can be overcome; and, fourthly, that there is a way to bring about the end of suffering. Contemplating how to bring about release from suffering, the Buddha realized the Eightfold Path. These principles are: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In sum, these principles are as follows: Once we understand the causes of suffering and cultivate action based on correct thinking and thoughtful speech, if we also live correctly and with mindfulness and practice meditation, then the path is open to overcome the suffering inherent in being alive.
Buddhism, therefore, is a very practical religion. It is concerned with finding solutions to pressing needs. Already as a young man in his chariot, the Buddha saw how our life is full of suffering—sickness, old age, and death—and he was shocked by it. What the wealthy, sheltered, perhaps almost willfully naïve young man realized is that these central events in our life were no longer abstractions or the experience of only the poor; they were inevitable and came to everyone, even this wealthy, handsome prince, who had it all. The central purpose of the Buddha’s life then became trying to find a way to understand and then overcome suffering.
When something terrible happens we tend to ask the same questions: Why did it have to happen? Why did so many good people have to die, and die so horribly? Where was God? What should be the correct response? How can we stop this happening again? How do we grieve? How do we move on?
Beyond the practical answers of providing succor and help, shipping in medical or food supplies, mobilizing emergency services, considering the best means to respond politically or developmentally, offering financial or personal support, these questions point to larger, more metaphysical issues that require a more internal reckoning, one starker and perhaps more difficult to contemplate. For, if there is one thing that terrible events such as earthquakes or tsunamis, plane crashes or building collapses, fires or bombings prove, it is that everything is impermanent. That a place or a group of people could be present in one moment and then destroyed by a wave or be a mass of smoke and human debris the next teaches us better than any sutra, or religious saying, that our lives are desperately fragile. Even the strongest structure or the fittest and most capable individual cannot escape impermanence.
Impermanence is the direct consequence of the fact that humans, like all things, are conditioned: We come into being, we stay for a while and flourish, we decay or vanish, and the cycle starts again. As the Mahanirvana Sutra states: “All phenomena and matter are subject to impermanence.” This truth is of fundamental importance in understanding Buddhism’s view of the world. So important is it that the Buddha’s last words are reported to have been on this very matter: “Subject to change are all things, strive on with diligence.”
When people unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings think of impermanence, they tend to think such a doctrine is very pessimistic—everything and everyone fades and dies, nothing and no one lasts. However, I believe that the concept is neither pessimistic nor optimistic; it is simply realistic. The Buddha discerned it with the old man, the sick individual, and the dead body: they had once been young, healthy, and alive like him. And we don’t have to be the man who became the Buddha to see these things. The real world constantly reveals to us that change is constant, and change doesn’t always happen in ways that match our perceptions or internal desires. I’m sure a thousand examples come to your mind: a friend who practices a healthy lifestyle suddenly dies in a car crash or gets cancer; the partner of a relative who’s just married and looks forward to a long life passes away from a heart attack; the young man who promised so much dies of leukemia or comes down with schizophrenia or becomes addicted to drugs; the job we like at the company we care about vanishes as the business files for bankruptcy; the house we buy springs a leak and its walls crack.
What the Buddha realized is that it is through clinging to the idea of permanence that suffering occurs. By attaching ourselves to permanence and filling it full of values of worth and goodness, we make the inevitable changes that our life undergoes painful. By not always keeping in mind the inevitability of mutability, we’re always surprised and challenged by that change, and this leads to suffering.
For most of us, impermanence is a terrifying concept. Because of impermanence, good things go bad. Our possessions break or stop working. We lose our livelihoods. We die. Impermanence does not appear a good thing. Consequently, we all desire its opposite. When I was young, I hoped I’d look more mature than my years. Now I am nearly fifty, however, I don’t want people to remind me of how old I am! Like many of us, I’d like to be young forever. I don’t want to face having to grow old. Permanence is deeply desirable.
This view of impermanence, however, depends on understanding the self as a defined, absolute identity. For those of us in the West, obsessed as we are with the concept of self, the radicalism of Buddhism’s observation on impermanence is what makes Buddhism so challenging. We believe we are absolute entities; we are proud of our personalities; we identify with them and refuse to change. But we can change. We can get better, move on, try again. This is also a condition of impermanence—that we can be free to change, attempt to correct the former mistakes we’ve made, challenge ourselves to throw off the shackles of fate or poor health and economic disadvantage and change them all for the better. After all, if we couldn’t do this, what would be the point of education? We should remember that the Buddha in his last words not only recognized impermanence but he also exhorted his followers to “strive on with diligence.” Recognizing impermanence doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t achieve anything, or that change only happens for the worse. This is another essential lesson of Buddhism. I will talk about the personal sense of impermanence later on in the book.
I realize that always keeping in mind the fact that everything is impermanent isn’t easy to do. Yet if we carry in our minds the idea that everything is going to change—that even though we may live with someone for sixty, seventy, even eighty years, our loved ones or we ourselves will die, or that they and we may perhaps go in an instant—then that change becomes a little easier to tolerate. Furthermore, the very transience of life and its vulnerability, the knowledge that the world is fragile and delicate, can help us cherish the moments when we are together with our loved ones and honor and enjoy the short amount of time we are allotted in each lifetime.
Indeed, the death of something can bring about the birth of something else. It is a fundamental law of the natural world that the decomposition of matter allows other things to grow and develop. When a forest burns, there is not only the regeneration of new life, but sometimes it emerges in even greater profusion and variety. Some forests even require fire for their regeneration. When an animal dies in the ecosystem, other animals feed on, and life forms grow out of, the dead body. In this way, the world is kept fresh and recharged. This doctrine of impermanence also offers hope to everyone living under tyranny or oppression. Even the most despotic of tyrants will die; even the greatest of empires will inevitably come to an end; even the most intractable and irreducible of problems can be changed over time. The world is littered with the remnants of enormous statues to the powerful rulers of past ages that have crumbled into the desert to be dispersed by the winds or washed away by the tide.
The recognition of the neutrality of impermanence—an understanding that death is neither good nor bad, but merely a fact—is one of Buddhism’s great gifts. It helps us grasp that the reason why we are afraid of death and suffering is not because they’re too present to us but, to the contrary, because, in our fear, we refuse to admit they’re with us. Paradoxically, only by grasping on to suffering and death will be given the insight and wisdom that will help us recover a degree of equanimity.
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