A Buddhist Insight Into Change and Impermanence

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Change is the focal point for Buddhist insight — a fact so well known that it has spawned a familiar sound bite: "Isn't change what Buddhism is all about?" What's less well known is that this focus has a frame, that change is neither where insight begins nor where it ends. Insight begins with a question that evaluates change in light of the desire for true happiness. It ends with a happiness that lies beyond change. When this frame is forgotten, people create their own contexts for the teaching and often assume that the Buddha was operating within those same contexts. Two of the contexts commonly attributed to the Buddha at present are these:

Insight into change teaches us to embrace our experiences without clinging to them — to get the most out of them in the present moment by fully appreciating their intensity, in full knowledge that we will soon have to let them go to embrace whatever comes next.

Insight into change teaches us hope. Because change is built into the nature of things, nothing is inherently fixed, not even our own identity. No matter how bad the situation, anything is possible. We can do whatever we want to do, create whatever world we want to live in, and become whatever we want to be.

The first of these interpretations offers wisdom on how to consume the pleasures of immediate, personal experience when you'd rather they not change; the second, on how to produce change when you want it. Although sometimes presented as complementary insights, these interpretations contain a practical conflict: If experiences are so fleeting and changeable, are they worth the effort needed to produce them? How can we find genuine hope in the prospect of positive change if we can't fully rest in the results when they arrive? Aren't we just setting ourselves up for disappointment?

Or is this just one of the unavoidable paradoxes of life? Ancient folk wisdom from many cultures would suggest so, advising us that we should approach change with cautious joy and stoic equanimity: training ourselves to not to get attached to the results of our actions, and accepting without question the need to keep on producing fleeting pleasures as best we can, for the only alternative would be inaction and despair. This advice, too, is often attributed to the Buddha.

But the Buddha was not the sort of person to accept things without question. His wisdom lay in realizing that the effort that goes into the production of happiness is worthwhile only if the processes of change can be skillfully managed to arrive at a happiness resistant to change. Otherwise, we're life-long prisoners in a forced-labor camp, compelled to keep on producing pleasurable experiences to assuage our hunger, and yet finding them so empty of any real essence that they can never leave us full.

These realizations are implicit in the question that, according to the Buddha, lies at the beginning of insight:

"What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-being and happiness?"

This is a heartfelt question, motivated by the desire behind all conscious action: to attain levels of pleasure worthy of the effort that goes into them. It springs from the realization that life requires effort, and that if we aren't careful whole lifetimes can be lived in vain. This question, together with the realizations and desires behind it, provides the context for the Buddha's perspective on change. If we examine it closely, we find the seeds for all his insights into the production and consumption of change.

The first phrase in the question — "What, when I do it, will lead to ..." — focuses on the issues of production, on the potential effects of human action. Prior to his Awakening, the Buddha had left home and gone into the wilderness to explore precisely this issue: to see how far human action could go, and whether it could lead to a dimension beyond the reach of change. His Awakening was confirmation that it could — if developed to the appropriate level of skillfulness. He thus taught that there are four types of action, corresponding to four levels of skill: three that produce pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed experiences within the cycles of space and time; and a fourth that leads beyond action to a level of happiness transcending the dimensions of space and time, thus eliminating the need to produce any further happiness.

Because the activities of producing and consuming require space and time, a happiness transcending space and time, by its very nature, is neither produced nor consumed. Thus, when the Buddha reached that happiness and stepped outside the modes of producing and consuming, he was able to turn back and see exactly how pervasive a role these activities play in ordinary experience, and how imprisoning they normally are. He saw that our experience of the present is an activity — something fabricated or produced, moment to moment, from the raw material provided by past actions. We even fabricate our identity, our sense of who we are. At the same time, we try to consume any pleasure that can be found in what we've produced — although in our desire to consume pleasure, we often gobble down pain. With every moment, production and consumption are intertwined: We consume experiences as we produce them, and produce them as we consume. The way we consume our pleasures or pains can produce furtherpleasures or pains, now and into the future, depending on how skillful we are.

The three parts of the latter phrase in the Buddha's question — "my / long-term / well-being and happiness" — provide standards for gauging the level of our skill in approaching true pleasure or happiness. (The Pali word, here — sukha — can be translated as pleasure, happiness, ease, or bliss.) We apply these standards to the experiences we consume: if they aren't long-term, then no matter how pleasant they might be, they aren't true happiness. If they're not true happiness, there's no reason to claim them as "mine."

This insight forms the basis for the Three Characteristics that the Buddha taught for inducing a sense of dispassion for normal time- and space-bound experience. Anicca, the first of the three, is pivotal. Anicca applies to everything that changes. Often translated as "impermanent," it's actually the negative of nicca, which means constant or dependable. Everything that changes is inconstant. Now, the difference between "impermanent" and "inconstant" may seem semantic, but it's crucial to the way anicca functions in the Buddha's teachings. As the early texts state repeatedly, if something is anicca then the other two characteristics automatically follow: it's dukkha (stressful) and anatta (not-self), i.e., not worthy to be claimed as me or mine.

If we translate anicca as impermanent, the connection among these Three Characteristics might seem debatable. But if we translate it as inconstant, and consider the Three Characteristics in light of the Buddha's original question, the connection is clear. If you're seeking a dependable basis for long-term happiness and ease, anything inconstant is obviously a stressful place to pin your hopes — like trying to relax in an unstable chair whose legs are liable to break at any time. If you understand that your sense of self is something willed and fabricated — that you choose to create it — there's no compelling reason to keep creating a "me" or "mine" around any experience that's inconstant and stressful. You want something better. You don't want to make that experience the goal of your practice.

So what do you do with experiences that are inconstant and stressful? You could treat them as worthless and throw them away, but that would be wasteful. After all, you went to the trouble to fabricate them in the first place; and, as it turns out, the only way you can reach the goal is by utilizing experiences of just this sort. So you can learn how to use them as means to the goal; and the role they can play in serving that purpose is determined by the type of activity that went into producing them: the type that produces a pleasure conducive to the goal, or the type that doesn't. Those that do, the Buddha labeled the "path." These activities include acts of generosity, acts of virtue, and the practice of mental absorption, or concentration. Even though they fall under the Three Characteristics, these activities produce a sense of pleasure relatively stable and secure, more deeply gratifying and nourishing than the act of producing and consuming ordinary sensual pleasures. So if you're aiming at happiness within the cycles of change, you should look to generosity, virtue, and mental absorption to produce that happiness. But if you'd rather aim for a happiness going beyond change, these same activities can still help you by fostering the clarity of mind needed for Awakening. Either way, they're worth mastering as skills. They're your basic set of tools, so you want to keep them in good shape and ready to hand.

As for other pleasures and pains — such as those involved in sensual pursuits and in simply having a body and mind — these can serve as the objects you fashion with your tools, as raw materials for the discernment leading to Awakening. By carefully examining them in light of their Three Characteristics — to see exactly how they're inconstant, stressful, and not-self — you become less inclined to keep on producing and consuming them. You see that your addictive compulsion to fabricate them comes entirely from the hunger and ignorance embodied in states of passion, aversion, and delusion. When these realizations give rise to dispassion both for fabricated experiences and for the processes of fabrication, you enter the path of the fourth kind of kamma, leading to the Deathless.

This path contains two important turns. The first comes when all passion and aversion for sensual pleasures and pains has been abandoned, and your only remaining attachment is to the pleasure of concentration. At this point, you turn and examine the pleasure of concentration in terms of the same Three Characteristics you used to contemplate sensual experiences. The difficulty here is that you've come to rely so strongly on the solidity of your concentration that you'd rather not look for its drawbacks. At the same time, the inconstancy of a concentrated mind is much more subtle than that of sensual experiences. But once you overcome your unwillingness to look for that inconstancy, the day is sure to come when you detect it. And then the mind can be inclined to the Deathless.

That's where the second turn occurs. As the texts point out, when the mind encounters the Deathless it can treat it as a mind-object — a dhamma — and then produce a feeling of passion and delight for it. The fabricated sense of the self that's producing and consuming this passion and delight thus gets in the way of full Awakening. So at this point the logic of the Three Characteristics has to take a new turn. Their original logic — "Whatever is inconstant is stressful; whatever is stressful is not-self" — leaves open the possibility that whatever is constant could be (1) easeful and (2) self. The first possibility is in fact the case: whatever is constant is easeful; the Deathless is actually the ultimate ease. But the second possibility isn't a skillful way of regarding what's constant: if you latch onto what's constant as self, you're stuck on your attachment. To go beyond space and time, you have to go beyond fabricating the producing and consuming self, which is why the concluding insight of the path is: "All dhammas" — constant or not — "are not-self."

When this insight has done its work in overcoming any passion or delight for the Deathless, full Awakening occurs. And at that point, even the path is relinquished, and the Deathless remains, although no longer as an object of the mind. It's simply there, radically prior to and separate from the fabrication of space and time. All consuming and producing for the sake of your own happiness comes to an end, for a timeless well-being has been found. And because all mind-objects are abandoned in this happiness, questions of constant or inconstant, stress or ease, self or not-self are no longer an issue.

This, then, is the context of Buddhist insight into change: an approach that takes seriously both the potential effects of human effort and the basic human desire that effort not go to waste, that change have the potential to lead to a happiness beyond the reach of change. This insight is focused on developing the skills that lead to the production of genuine happiness. It employs the Three Characteristics — of inconstancy, stress, and not-self — not as abstract statements about existence, but as inducement for mastering those skills and as guidelines for measuring your progress along the way. When used in this way, the Three Characteristics lead to a happiness transcending the Three Characteristics, the activities of producing and consuming, and space and time as a whole.

When we understand this context for the Three Characteristics, we can clearly see the half-truths contained in the insights on the production and consumption of change that are commonly misattributed to the Buddha. With regard to production: Although it may be true that, with enough patience and persistence, we can produce just about anything, including an amazing array of self-identities, from the raw material of the present moment, the question is: what's worth producing? We've imprisoned ourselves with our obsession for producing and consuming changeable pleasures and changeable selves, and yet there's the possibility of using change to escape from this prison to the freedom of a happiness transcending time and space. Do we want to take advantage of that possibility, or would we rather spend our spare time blowing bubbles in the sunlight coming through our prison windows and trying to derive happiness from their swirling patterns before they burst?

This question ties in with wisdom on consumption: Getting the most out of our changing experiences doesn't mean embracing them or milking them of their intensity. Instead it means learning to approach the pleasures and pains they offer, not as fleeting ends in themselves, but as tools for Awakening. With every moment we're supplied with raw materials — some of them attractive, some of them not. Instead of embracing them in delight or throwing them away in disgust, we can learn how to use them to produce the keys that will unlock our prison doors.

And as for the wisdom of non-attachment to the results of our actions: in the Buddha's context, this notion can make sense only if we care deeply about the results of our actions and want to master the processes of cause and effect that lead to genuine freedom. In other words, we don't demand childishly that our actions — skillful or not — always result in immediate happiness, that everything we stick into the lock will automatically unlatch the door. If what we have done has been unskillful and led to undesirable results, we want to admit our mistakes and find out why they were mistakes so that we can learn how to correct them the next time around. Only when we have the patience to look objectively at the results of our actions will we be able to learn, by studying the keys that don't unlock the doors, how finally to make the right keys that do.

With this attitude we can make the most of the processes of change to develop the skill that releases us from the prison of endless producing and consuming. With release, we plunge into the freedom of a happiness so true that it transcends the terms of the original question that led us there. There's nothing further we have to do; our sense of "my" and "mine" is discarded; and even the "long-term," which implies time, is erased by the timeless. The happiness remaining lies radically beyond the range of our time- and space-bound conceptions of happiness. Totally independent of mind-objects, it's unadulterated and unalterable, unlimited and pure. As the texts tell us, it even lies beyond the range of "totality" and "the All."

And that's what Buddhist practice is all about.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: Copyright © 2004 Thanissaro Bhikkhu Access to Insight edition © 2004 For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.

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