Impermanence

By | Wednesday, January 23, 2019 Leave a Comment


Recently I attended a Buddhist meditation event. As part of the day there was a “dharma talk” – a talk about Buddhist philosophy. The talk was on impermanence (anicca), one of the three marks of existence (the other two, unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā), were touched on briefly.) The notion is that all things are impermanent, and that clinging to things (or grasping or thirsting)  brings suffering. Accepting that everything is impermanent is necessary for the end to dukkha.

After the formal talk, the speaker opened it up for discussion. There were a couple questions and comments, then I shared what was going through my mind. Sometimes things go badly in my life, or I am hurt or sad, and I “want my mommy.” My mother is still alive. I speak to her regularly on the phone. But “my mommy” doesn’t exist anymore. My mother is now the person that I take care of. She doesn’t take care of me. Our roles have reversed. I said that I find it strange to realize that I still have my mother, but my mommy is gone. My mommy was impermanent, and moreover, she was less permanent than my mother is.

I also spoke of how strange I find it that, once upon a time, I wanted to get up early on Sunday mornings to watch cartoons on TV. There used to be a “me” that watched The Flintstones, My Favorite Martian, Captain Kangaroo, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Now that person is gone. Where did he go? He was impermanent.

Thinking about it later, I realized that not only is the boy who watched cartoons gone, but that there have been version upon version of “me” that are gone. In a way, I have committed suicide over and over again. Each previous iteration of “me” was killed to allow for the next “me” to arise. The Hindu god Shiva dances the dance of creation and destruction, destroying the world so that it can be created anew. I am not the same person that I was as a child, nor the same person that I was in high school, nor the college student, nor 20 years ago, 10 years ago, nor even 5 years ago. Because of the health problems I have recently had, and the death of my father last year, I am not even the same person I was 18 months ago. I am impermanent.

People in the East seem to have less trouble with this idea than those of us in the West. In Japan, temples and shrines are periodically torn down and rebuilt from scratch. The Japanese will point to a temple and say that it is 800 years old, though it may have been torn down and rebuilt numerous times. A westerner would be likely to say that the temple now standing is a copy of the original – that it is only as old as its most recent rebuilding. So, what about me? Am I 57 years old, or 18 months old?

It is said that “you can never step in the same river twice.” Is this true? The molecules of water, the silt, the fish, the other chemicals and inhabitants of the river, move and change constantly. But what of the banks and bed of the river? From our viewpoint they stay pretty much the same from one moment to the next, changing only over longer periods of time. Is the “river” its bed and banks, or is it the water? Is the “river” actually our conception of “riverness”, rather than anything solid? Can we step in the same river twice?

What am I? Am I the container or the contents? Am I the river bed and banks or the water – or am instead I the concept of “Andrew”? Am I the constantly changing contents, or the slowly changing body, or some longer lived “Andrew-ness”?
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