Impermanence is a Practice, Not an Abstract Principle
by Caitríona Reed
In Buddhist teaching impermanence (anicca) is one of the three universal characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Three Marks of Existence, along with no-self (anata) and suffering (dukkha).
It is important to remember that the Buddha emphasized practical tools for change, and steered away from metaphysics and theoretical speculation. “I teach one thing.” he said, “suffering and freedom from suffering.” In addition, he recommended that we question and test received beliefs and teachings-including the ones that came from him.
In the West, however, we are not used to challenging beliefs, especially in a religious context. Despite many signs to the contrary, we have a deeply conformist tendency. Challenging authority is still associated with heresy. So teachings that are intended as practical instructions become inadvertently turned into fixed principles.
This distinction may seem subtle, but it is an important one. It is not hard to understand that everything does indeed change, and that everything is impermanent. But when you turn Impermanence into a fixed principle you limit your ability to actually assess your experience of impermanence, and you miss some important distinctions.
Impermanence might be more usefully understood as a process. Turning impermanence into a principle makes it into a thing, an unquestioned abstraction removed from scrutiny or actual experience.
For example, within the cycles of history, or within the cycles of your own life-journey, some events are fleeting phenomena, while others may be relatively consistent components of repeating patterns.
Another example is in the pervasive notions that we hold, collectively or individually, about such things as race, gender, sex, class, and money. We may have certain inherited points of view, and we may have perspectives that we have become so identified with over time that we can’t imagine challenging them.
Notions are continually changing, to be sure, and in many ways. Yet it may be useful to look at how we hold onto certain attitudes, prejudices, and points of view. It is also useful to know the difference between the fleeting sort of change, and the kind that is cyclic.
There’s a relativity to this too. Everything changes, yes. But what changes for a mountain or a forest may seem very fixed from the perspective of an ant or a human-being. What seems endless to a three year old may be a momentary instant to their parents.
It is true that at the core, beyond objective and subjective, there are no distinctions to be made-no gender,no race, no class, no otherness. And yet, we live in a world of complex distinctions. If we are to navigate with skill, it serves us to differentiate between what changes all too fast, what lingers, what might change but does not, and what we can rely on to be consistent.
Caitríona Reed is a Dharma Teacher and Group Facilitator who has led retreats and workshops in Buddhism, Deep Ecology, and Social Responsibility in the U.S. and Europe since 1981.