Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Law, Tolerance and Society
A Buddhistic Contemplation of Impermanence from Death Row
Shawn Harte on a fleeting dream.
“Everything subject to origination is subject also to dissolution,” warns the Buddha, insightfully foreshadowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the ineluctable tendency of a system towards disorder) in a way whose simplicity would impress even a modern physicist. This law of anitya, or ‘impermanence’, proclaims that all contingent existence is transitory. Everything is in an interminable state of flux, continuously transforming into something else, eternally decaying and rearranging, and nothing endures forever. Material objects are merely momentary configurations of causes, effects, parts, processes, conditions, forms, names, functions. Continuously reconfiguring, nothing is in the exact state it was in the previous instant. Nothing is even static, let alone permanent, irrevocably engaged in a never-ending seductive dance of becoming, an indefinite process of evolution which never leads to unchanging being. Despite how tenaciously desire compels us to see reality as stable, impermanence prevails, mercilessly dispatching the assassin of time to take away all things. As the popular Heraclitean epigram states, change is the only constant.
The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence must not be mistaken for nihilism. The existence of the world itself is not in question; but due to the cosmos’ constant protean metamorphosis, the law of anitya renders impossible any enduringly accurate, and thus meaningful description of individual phenomena. An illusion is conjured when we take an instantaneous ‘photograph’ of the world, erroneously suggesting a continuity of form and essence, when in fact the only continuity is the kaleidoscopic process of alteration. The instant we analyze something, formulating a verbal description or mental representation of it, time has already invalidated this phantasmic conceptualization. Thus a description or a label captures not a meaningful fragment of reality, but rather imposes a distortion upon our view and understanding of the process. The world as we know it – or as we think we know it – is little more than a simplification sequestered within our fallible memories – a painting which idealistically attempts to capture a semblance of permanency from the ephemeral, if only for a brief instant. Knowledge, therefore, is our repertory of approximate conceptualizations: a photo album containing our representations of reality, all outdated. Wisdom, contrarily, is not derived from knowledge of any particular state, but rather from an understanding of the process of change.
The Buddha’s law of impermanence is ubiquitous, governing all scales of existence: the molecular, the geological, and even the cosmological. In time, powerful oceans pulverize adamantine rocks into the finest sand; delicate rivers incise canyons deep into the earth’s crust. Even the gargantuan Himalayas are not immune to the effects of anitya, withering away by a millimeter each year, unable to withstand the relentless abrasion of the elements. In this way do mountain ranges transform into soil, becoming the nourishment of vegetation, itself the sustenance of herbivores, who are then consumed by predators – all of whom will perish, eventually returning to their source, reabsorbed by the plants and reincarnating as vegetation once again, forever participating in the cycle of growth.
The thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Rumi poetically contemplates the existential implications of this process:
I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
But even our sun, the provider of the energy which sustains this cycle, will eventually exhaust its nuclear fuel, terminating the process of regeneration. And larger stars await even more spectacular fates, cooling and rapidly collapsing in on themselves only to violently explode as supernovae, selflessly distributing their flesh into the vacuousness of space, unhesitatingly yielding the heavy elements which will ultimately give birth to yet more planets, asteroids and nebulae. “A child in the womb,” writes Kahlil Gibran, “no sooner born than returned to the earth – such is the fate of man, the fate of nations and of the sun, the moon, and the stars.” And thus, as the Daoists solemnly assert, do we live in a “world of dust” where all will eventually disintegrate and blow away to nothingness. As the Teacher (Jesus) in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene declares: “All that is born, all that is created, all that is composed, shall be decomposed.” The Buddhist Diamond Sutra offers this thoughtful meditation:
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud:
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
But such a contemplation of ephemerality terrifies us, as we recognize that we too are subject to the unforgiving law of anitya. With this horrifying realization of our vulnerability, life becomes uncomfortable, uneasy, because it brings to the surface a truth with which we are all innately familiar: the dreadful fact that everything we have acquired and earned and accomplished, all of our precious possessions, our material idols and artefacts, everyone we know, our most intimate and cherished relationships, everyone we love – even ourselves – will inevitably succumb to time, will deteriorate, dissolve, end, cease, perish, die. We are all painfully acquainted with the knowledge that life is fragile and finite, that precious existence is but a flash of lightning, a dream:
“Just as a dew drop on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long; even so is human life like a dew drop. It is short, limited, and brief; it is full of suffering, full of tribulation …none who is born can escape death.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words, p.206)
Here in the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha has candidly described the universal predicament with a sentiment hauntingly reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes, who in his celebrated Leviathan denotes the life of man as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Similarly the brother of Jesus asks: “What is your life? You are but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
Clearly, the problem of impermanence is nothing new. Its unrelenting nature is salient in literature reaching back over three millennia, as we see from Utnapishtim’s lamentation in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh:
But man’s life is short; at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman –
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death’s face or heard
death’s voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young.
“How can we ever feel secure,” cries Ashvagosha in the Buddhacharita, “when from the womb onwards death follows us like a murderer with sword raised?”
And thus we find ourselves enslaved, mercilessly tortured by the cruel reality that nothing lasts forever:
“One must die… What rational being, who knows of old age, death and sickness, could stand or sit down at his ease or sleep, far less laugh?… remembering that the world is transitory, my mind cannot find pleasure in [hedonism]. Old age, disease, and death – if these things did not exist, I too should find my enjoyment in the objects that please the mind.”
(Abraham Eraly, The Gem in the Lotus, p.207)
This soliloquy enshrines perhaps the existential inquiry most responsible for the Buddha’s own arduous philosophical journey. What could be more existentially challenging to confront than death – to acknowledge that every living entity is in the irreversible process of dying the instant it is born? Life is a fateful one-way journey towards the oblivion of an inexorable destiny – bleakly captured in Heidegger’s summary of the human condition as being-to-death.
The Human Condition
Transience and mortality are remorseless demons which pervasively harass and traumatize the psyche. They are the twin fundamental problems of the human condition, because we know that not only will life one day abruptly come to an unceremonious halt, but that we are equally unable to attain any permanency of pleasure or security in life. In this way our present suffering, not just our mortality, is inextricably intertwined with the law of impermanence, for even when we immerse ourselves in the pleasure of a euphoric moment, our imaginations peek into the future, which results in an anxiety (even if only subtle or unconscious) robbing us of our intrinsic joy of the here and now by taunting us with the ever-present threat of transformation.
To say that anitya imbues life with suffering is not tantamount to declaring that every facet of life or every one of our experiences is miserable. Buddhism readily acknowledges that life is replete with pleasures and delights of infinite variety. Rather, the Buddha’s doctrine explains that suffering unavoidably arises when we employ our desires in an attempt to ignore or negate anitya. He says our ability to extract enjoyment from the moment is severely attenuated because we are too consumed with our struggle to grasp and cling onto things, overwhelmed with our compulsive attempts to hoard all that we value, already worrying about losing what we have just recently acquired. As Kahlil Gibran asks, “For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?”
William Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves,
the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword,
are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
We are simply incapable of dealing with the ruthlessness of reality, Blake concludes; and so we engage in a Sisyphean rebellion, a futile yet perpetual struggle against impermanence: a Wille zur Macht, as Friedrich Nietzsche termed it – a ‘will to power’. The will to power is the irrepressible impulse to actively master our environment by imposing on it order and an ostensive permanency – albeit an order that is conditional, and therefore illusory. Twentieth-century French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault concurred with this last assessment, seeing the will to power as an impetus to make permanent the impermanent: a desperate and pathetic propensity to cling onto and capture that whose change or loss would cause us misery. While Nietzsche identified the will to power as the central underlying drive for all human endeavor, psychologist Alfred Adler – much like the Buddha – on the contrary implicated it as a neurotic impulse resulting from the sense of inferiority and helplessness engendered from residing in a universe beyond our control, in which time slowly but inevitably disintegrates all.
Freedom In Unchanging Truth
Understanding impermanence and our emotional and existential relationship to it is a vital step in emancipating ourselves from the seemingly interminable cycle of suffering. Stubbornly refusing to confront anitya is simply not a viable option: this tactic will not negate the truth of impermanence, and in our procrastination we will only find ourselves a little less prepared to deal with the incalculable cruelties of life. Even if ignorance and hedonism seem to provide us with an existential aegis for a little time, and we safely encapsulate ourselves within the perimeter of an ornate palace of pleasure, we will sooner or later have to venture beyond the protective confines of its walls and experience the reality of life – as eventually did Prince Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha.
The capricious law of anitya inflexibly mandates that we experience both the alluring and the objectionable, the favorable and the offensive. “Verily all things move within your being in constant half-embrace,” Kahlil Gibran informs us: “the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.” Unless we embrace both sides of reality with equal affection, never will we live contentedly or peacefully. Instead we will discover ourselves endlessly running away from one thing and compulsively pursuing another, helplessly enslaved by our reactions to our ever-fluctuating circumstances. Accordingly, the Buddha prudently advises us to not become either too infatuated with, or too distraught by, any set of conditions, be they bliss or blight – for another turn of fortune’s wheel is only moments away.
We simply cannot eradicate one extreme without sacrificing the other – there can be no notion of compassion without its antithesis of cruelty; no conception of wisdom absent of folly; no understanding of goodness without the contrast of evil. These pairs depend on one another for their very existence: both poles are necessary for the conceptual fabric of reality – hatred and despair define love and happiness; the bitterness of loss makes sweet the joy of gain; failure’s disappointment makes us intimate with the satisfaction of success; boredom gives birth to excitement; our wanting introduces us to our contentment; and it is our loathsome and fragile mortality that makes seductive the beauty of living.
It is only when we indifferently accept the inescapable law of impermanence that we can begin to appreciate the totality of experience. For without the excruciating miseries that life so copiously pours onto us, its cherished pleasures would be utterly devoid of value, reduced to mere banality. “He who has not looked on Sorrow,” Gibran delicately reminds us, “will never see Joy.”
© Shawn Harte 2010
Shawn Harte is an inmate on Death Row in Nevada. He regularly contemplates impermanence.