Written by: Venerable Guan Cheng
Translated by: Andrew Yang
Edited and revised by: Venerable Hong Ci
Impermanence, or anitya in Sanskrit, is a universal truth. In Buddhism, it refers to everything in the world that arises and passes from karmic causes and conditions. According to Volume 43 of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra (or Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom), there are two kinds of impermanence: gradual and momentary.
Gradual impermanence is progressive change that can be observed in the passing of time. This includes the human phases of birth, aging, sickness and death, and the natural cycle of creation, growth, decay and extinction of all things. Gradual change is easily observable on a macro scale. Buddhists often use the term “Kalpa” as the unit of measurement for extremely long periods of time. There are small, medium and large kalpas: a small kalpa is approximately 17 million years, a medium kalpa consists of twenty small kalpas, and a large kalpa is made up of four medium kalpas.
Momentary impermanence is sudden change, just as thoughts rise and fall in an instant or a brief flash in time. This form of impermanence is barely observable, occurring in an infinitesimally small fraction of time, equal to approximately one-seventy-fifth of a second.
To view all things as changing and impermanent is a powerful antidote for extinguishing our cravings. The Buddha’s doctrine of impermanence is often regarded as the first major gateway to entering the Dharma. Since ancient times, it has been used by enlightened Buddhist monks and sages to overcome delusion and to nurture their bodhi minds.
For beginners on the path, there are many methods to cultivate a view of impermanence. For example, viewing the human body and its constituent parts as impermanent can be used to overcome attachment to our bodies and to the opposite sex. Various sutras teach practitioners to contemplate the arising and cessation of all phenomena, to see their impermanent nature as a dream or fantasy, a bubble, morning dew, a flash of thunder or lightning, the moon’s reflection in water, flowers reflected on a mirror, floating clouds, or a void of emptiness.
The most effective contemplation of impermanence for me came from two classic Chinese ci poems (see Note 1) I used to recite in junior high school: “River Fairy” by Yang Shen (1488-1559) and “Water Tune” by Su Dongpo (1037-1101).
Here are the two poems translated into English:
“The gushing Yangtze runs east, washing away heroes.
Right and wrong, win or lose, in a flash all is gone.
Yet mountains are still green, after many a sunset.
On sandy banks a grey-haired fisherman and a wood cutter
Watch the autumn moon and spring breeze.
Happy as they are, they meet over a pot of cheap wine.
Things old and new are nothing but food for repartee.”
Luo Guanzhong, the author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, quoted this poem at the very beginning of his historical novel, apparently because it not only makes a bold statement with expressive diction, but also conveys a mood about the impermanence of the human world in the past and present.
“The gushing Yangtze runs east, washing away heroes.” The Yangtze River flows endlessly eastward. Over the ages, its raging waters have metaphorically washed over numerous heroes and their deeds. For the sake of their own interests, dynasty after dynasty, emperors and imperial concubines, eunuchs, heroes as well as villains have waged wars and killed innocent people. However, notwithstanding all the struggles they have mounted, their deeds, good and evil, are invariably gone and washed away.
“Right and wrong, win or lose, in a flash all is gone. / Yet mountains are still green, after many a sunset.” Right and wrong comes from attachment to the self and others. Firstly, the body and mind of sentient beings result from the five skandhas, that is, form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. Form makes up the body’s physical existence. The others are the composite functions of their mental existence. Both physical and mental functions combine into the five aggregates to form the self, which comes into being as karma gathers and dissolves as karma is extinguished.
However, when one persists in viewing the self as reality, not aware of its impermanence and the idea that karma arises out of emptiness, it gives rise to the four fundamental afflictions of self-love, self-view, arrogance and delusion.
Owing to the conditional necessity of self and other, attachment to the self naturally produces attachment to others. The more intense this attachment, the wider the rift grows between right and wrong. All day long, people may work hard to benefit themselves at the expense of other people. Yet, as the Sutra on The Buddha’s Bequeathed Teaching says, “One does not bring a penny at birth, nor does he take one with him at death.” When the worldly seek fame and fortune, they end up with nothing but empty hands.
The so-called “heroes” in history have, one after another, reflected the good and bad in human nature. The rewards and punishments of their karma, constructed upon on their dualistic perceptions of “right and wrong” and “win or lose”, are seldom inconsequential. Take the unofficial folk history of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as an example. Cao Cao, the antihero, invoked his personal philosophy that “I would rather betray all in the world than let one in the world betray me.” Cruel, cunning and treacherous, out of suspicion, he framed Hua Tuo, the master physician, and due to jealousy, beheaded the talented Kong Rong. After Cao Cao died of illness, his son Cao Pi succeeded his throne, and his sons and grandsons ruled for four decades. But in the end, a courtier named Sima Yi and his sons and grandsons conspired successfully to usurp their power. Descendants of the Cao family were beheaded. In the end, the unscrupulous villain rightfully received the retributions for his wrongdoings.
In contrast, Liu Bei, a hero, was kind and virtuous. His moral principle was “Do not perform evil even if trifling; do not neglect doing good even if insignificant.” He loved his people and was loved in return. Zhuge Liang, another protagonist, followed a maxim to “dutifully do one’s best until death strikes”. Guan Yu, still another major character in the novel, was loyal and upright, resisting invitations to treachery and indecency. He became a symbol of righteousness and has earned both respect and admiration for generations.
In spite of these differences, the waves of time have washed away all that is good and evil, and all the victories and defeats of the past. How many times has darkness ensued after the falling sun graced its last rays over the mountains and rivers? Yet mountains are still green, and rivers still flow, although in the infinite universe of space and time, even oceans will eventually turn into mulberry fields, let alone mountains and rivers.
“On sandy banks a grey-haired fisherman and a wood cutter / Watch the autumn moon and spring breeze.” For thousands of years, even fishermen and wood cleavers along the Yangtze River have been accustomed to events in the country’s tumultuous history. Today, old friends who rarely see each other meet over a flask of home-made wine, being happy to celebrate. Since ancient times, so many things from history, whether victory or defeat, have served as material for mere wit and banter while drinking. Therefore, “Happy as they are, they meet over a pot of cheap wine. / Things old and new are nothing but food for repartee.”
Next, let us examine the notions of impermanence in the Ci poem by Su Dongpo (Su Shi), who had a very close relationship with his younger brother, Su Che. On the full moon evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival on August 15th, an emotional Su Dongpo drinks until dawn, while reminiscing about his brother who has been demoted to the far north. In his famous “Water Tune”, he writes:
“Since when has there been a full moon?
Raising a cup of wine, I ask the sky,
Wondering, in the celestial palace,
What occasion is tonight?
I want to ride the wind home,
Yet fear the crystal palace high up
Would be too cold to bear.
So I dance and watch my own shadow.
What could compare to this mortal world?
Gradually the moon moves round the red chambers
Through low-hanging silk drapery,
Shining on those still awake.
With no grudge, how is it always round
At times of separation?
Happy or sad, people meet and they part.
Bright or dark, the moon will wax and wane.
Perfection has been hard to achieve since ancient times.
Wishing that life were long,
And tonight’s moon be enjoyed by those thousands of miles apart.”
“Since when has there been a full moon? / Raising a cup of wine, I ask the sky.” Holding up his cup of wine towards the blue sky, the poet wonders about the onset of the first full moon. Buddhist scriptures say that all the world’s dharmas have no beginning. All dharmas are born from causes and conditions, and they end with causes and conditions. The Buddha says “no beginning”, which is an alternate expression for causality. If there is a “beginning”, then there is a first cause. If there is a first cause, then it need not itself be derived from a cause, thus violating the truth of causality. (For more on this dialectical point, refer to Chapter 1, “Analysis of Conditions” in the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.) Therefore, the bright moon has existed because of causes and conditions, and its beginning is simply not traceable.
When posing his question to the moon, Su Dongpu, a lay Buddhist, reveals his candor, but deep in his heart, there is still sadness about the impermanence of human life. Since ancient times, countless people have admired the full moon, while projecting onto it their joys and sorrows. However, thousands of years later, the moon remains but those watching it are no longer here. Who then, is the lone, cold moon shining over now? Under the ever-glittering bright moonlight, human life is but a flash in the continuum of time.
“Wondering, in the celestial palace, / What occasion is tonight?” In the palace of gods and devas, what time and occasion is it for them this evening? Five hundred years in the human world is but a day and night in the Trayastriṃsa heaven, and five hundred years in the Trayastrimsa heaven is but a day and night in the Yama heaven. Based on this calculation, a day in human life is not even a second in the Yama heaven. Conversely, a second in human life may equal a day and night in the life of the short-lived mayfly. Thus, we see that in the measurement of time, there is really no one standard. A long or short life is illusory and without true reality.
“I want to ride the wind home, / Yet fear the crystal palace high up / Would be too cold to bear.” Looking at the boundless sky, the poet wishes to follow the wind and ascend to the heavens, but fears it is too high up and he will not be able to bear the wintry chills.
“So I dance and watch my own shadow. / What could compare to this mortal world?” The poet chooses to dance with his shadow under the crystal moonlight. The joy he obtains is heavenly.
“Gradually the moon moves round the red chamber / Through low-hanging silk drapery, / Shining on those still awake.“ Late at night, he returns to his bedchamber, watching the moonlight slowly turn around a red pavilion, gently shine through the delicate window, and then onto his sleepless self.
“With no grudge, how is it always round / At times of separation?” There should not be any resentment against the beauty of nature, but why does the moon always seem more perfectly round when family and friends separate, only to torture them watching such a splendid sight?
“Happy or sad, people meet and they part. / Bright or dark, the moon will wax and wane.” The joys and sorrows, separation and reunion of human life are compared here to the different phases of the moon, which have existed since time immemorial. Happiness is not something that lasts forever. As long as we are safe and live long enough, even if we are thousands of miles away from each other, tonight we can still enjoy the full moon together, with no regret. Therefore, “Perfection has been hard to achieve since ancient times. / Wishing that life were long, / And tonight’s moon be enjoyed by those thousands of miles apart.”
Friends, everything in this world is fleeting and impermanent, just as water in a flowing river. Humans live between heaven and earth, after bygone generations and before those yet to come. The present is the most precious, yet even that is unattainable, for it passes in an instant, as the Diamond Sutra states, “There is no one dharma that is attainable.”
Since there is no one dharma that is attainable, then what is the true meaning of life? Why are humans born into this world? Why do they experience the joys and sorrows of meeting and parting, and the pains of birth, aging, sickness and death? The Buddha says that when you are enlightened to the true mind in you, all doubts and suffering in your life will be eliminated.
True mind lies deep within your heart. Buddhist sutras call it the truth of all phenomena , the true mind, Buddha nature, or the wisdom (prajna) of truth. It awaits you to discover, explore and awaken to. Let us look deeply, treasure its existence and uncover the inconceivable powers it holds within all of us.
Note 1: Ci is a type of lyric poetry in classical Chinese literature, with typical rhythmic and tonal patterns. The number of characters in each ci and in each of its lines and their arrangement of tones are determined by the particular pattern chosen. Unlike classical Chinese poems, which usually fall into a half dozen patterns, ci has over 1,000 patterns to choose from, each with a distinct title called “tune”, as they were originally composed for singing. Hence the meaning of the title or tune may or may not have to do with the actual content of a ci poem.