Understanding Impermanence

Change and uncertainty are an unavoidable aspect of life, a point neatly reiterated to those of us living in the UK in yesterday’s announcements that changed Christmas plans for many, myself included. For a lot of people without a practice, constant change is something that they want to stop or to delay as long as they can, but – for Buddhist practitioners at least – the constant change can act as a recurring reminder of the true nature of the world. But even teachings influenced by Buddhism can misconstrue the learning point to be taken from the teachings on anicca (impermanence), sometimes reducing them to little more than glib platitudes about enjoying every moment because everything has to change, or that change means we have the scope to fashion ourselves into whoever we want to be because our personalities and behaviour are not fixed. I even read a very sad account of a person who, as his relationship was ending, was told by his now ex-partner that it was the action of ‘anicca’ that was responsible for their break up. While these ideas do at least accept the changing nature of the world, I personally don’t feel like they are fully utilising the scope of the teachings of anicca to help us to develop the best from our practices.


Even though impermanence is one of the corner stones of Buddhist teaching, I admit I have taken for granted for some time. It was only through listening to some teachings of Ajahn Amaro recently that I put a bit more of my attention on investigating it, but I also realise the irony in my perception of not looking at anicca much when I bear in mind that the lineage of Ajahn Chah that I practice within has always had impermanence at the heart of its teachings. Perhaps anicca is so interwoven with the teachings I hear that I almost forgot that it was there.


It was through my more recent reflections on the subject of anicca that I found that I was using two different ways of thinking about and working with it: one way was to uncover that impermanent, uncertain things weren’t worth the effort that we put into them because they will only ultimately disappoint us; the second way was focused on seeing the mechanism of the five aggregates as being impermanent, and therefore not able to be a site of self. It also gave me a welcome opportunity to reflect with gratitude on the good fortune I have had to have been able to encounter such a rich range of teachings from so many exceptional practitioners, such as Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi to name but a few.


One of the things I reckon from surveying the field of teachings is that it can be useful to have a clear sense in your own mind of what the word anicca means for you, because different interpretations can open up different ways of applying it as a learning point. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that when we are dealing with Pali words it is very rare that only one English word will be enough to convey the full depth of meaning. What this means in real terms is that we often carry a few words in mind when we think about what something like anicca, dukkha, or anatta means, so having input from different teachers can help us to develop a more nuanced meaning. Anicca has quite a rich seam of different angles to take, all of which have their merits. So for instance, Thanissaro Bhikkhu prefers to understand anicca, as meaning inconstant rather than as the more common translation of impermanent. He feels this makes better sense of the way the Three Characteristics interplay with each other, namely that everything conditioned is anicca, which therefore means that it leads to dukkha (suffering), and it is anatta (not self):

“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. “

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/change.html by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Ajahn Chah also echoed some of this sentiment in his own translation of the word anicca as either being transient, or more often as being uncertain. Pure Dhamma website gives us a slightly different take on the meaning of the word, but I think is a useful a way of considering anicca by suggesting it can be understood as: “Nothing in this world can be maintained to one’s satisfaction.”1 which makes a clear connection to why anicca creates dukkha.


These meanings dovetail with how I think about anicca, which is with a focus on it being a characteristic of conditioned existence. Conditioned existence points to anything that relies on any other conditions to exist, such as me writing this blog relying on the myriad of conditions of me being a human, being alive, being able to read and write, having a computer, having electricity, having enough time to do it in, etc. Me being alive also relies on an inordinate amount of conditions such as food, shelter, heat, the right amount of oxygen in the air, the absence of toxins, the correct functioning of millions of bodily functions, and even more etceteras. When something relies on an intricate web of conditions, we understand that it is very, very unlikely that it can either stay the same indefinitely, or that we can confidently state that everything will be present to make it happen at the right time. Anicca is pointing to this unpredictability and instability; we can’t ever be certain of the outcome of any process because it relies on so many supporting conditions, so hanging our hat on it as a source of happiness or reassurance is a very risky undertaking.

What I feel was unique about Ajahn Chah’s take on anicca was how he was able to take what can be at times an obscure technical point about the functioning of the universe and harness it as a source of practice and potential for insight in every moment. For example when exploring the body he advised using reflections on anicca in this way:

“So you needn’t worry about anything because this isn’t your real home, it’s only a temporary shelter. Having come into this world you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that’s still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? They aren’t the same, are they? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. In this world there is nothing to rely on, it’s an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasure and pain. There’s no peace.”

p152 The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah

A practice like this can really focus our minds onto the obvious lack of self to be found in the body. Like the paradox of the ship of Theseus, Ajahn Chah invites us to see for ourselves that we too have been replaced bit by bit from the moment we were born, so where then can a consistent self be located in these parts of ourselves that we commonly consider to be ‘me’ and ‘mine’?
He also used anicca to give a more profound teaching on the enmeshed nature of reality through his famous investigation that ‘the glass is already broken’:

“You say, ”Don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? If it doesn’t break now it will break later on. If you don’t break it, someone else will. If someone else doesn’t break it, one of the chickens will! The Buddha says to accept this. He penetrated the truth of these things, seeing that this glass is already broken. Whenever you use this glass you should reflect that it’s already broken. Do you understand this? The Buddha’s understanding was like this. He saw the broken glass within the unbroken one. Whenever its time is up it will break. Develop this kind of understanding. Use the glass, look after it, until when, one day, it slips out of your hand… ”Smash!”… no problem. Why is there no problem? Because you saw its brokenness before it broke!”

https://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Still_Flowing_Water1.php

He seemed to have a gift for finding ways to use the change and uncertainty of the world to show us again and again the pointlessness of trying to hold onto something, be it an idea, an object, or even a sense of our self. No discussion of Ajahn Chah and anicca can leave his most famous teaching out though – the constant asking ourselves if something is a sure thing or not:

“You must allow your mind to fully experience things, allow them to flow and consider their nature. How should you consider them? See them as transient, imperfect and ownerless. It’s all uncertain. ”This is so beautiful, I really must have it.” That’s not a sure thing. ”I don’t like this at all”… tell yourself right there, ”Not sure!” Is this true? Absolutely, no mistake. But just try taking things for real… ”I’m going to get this thing for sure”… You’ve gone off the track already. Don’t do this. No matter how much you like something, you should reflect that it’s uncertain.
Some kinds of food seem so delicious, but still you should reflect that it’s not a sure thing. It may seem so sure, it’s so delicious, but still you must tell yourself, ”Not sure!” If you want to test out whether it’s sure or not, try eating your favorite food every day. Every single day, mind you. Eventually you’ll complain, ”This doesn’t taste so good anymore.” Eventually you’ll think, ”Actually I prefer that kind of food.” That’s not a sure thing either!”

https://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Still_Flowing_Water1.php

Although Ajahn Chah’s approach seems to mostly fall into the using anicca to see that the energy you expend on uncertain things is not worth the effort, in some ways this constant questioning of our thoughts approach also fits into the other aspect of anicca, which is the uncovering of impermanence in the five aggregates, or khandas in Pali. In AN 9.20 the Buddha somewhat cryptically states that a fingersnap of the perception of inconstancy would be more fruitful than any number of acts of generosity towards the sangha, and this seems to be pointing towards the role of anicca in coming to understand anatta (not self). In Ud 4.1, the Buddha gives a little more explanation of what he meant:

“…the perception of impermanence should be cultivated for the removal of the conceit ‘I am.’ For when one perceives impermanence, Meghiya, the perception of not-self is established. When one perceives not-self one reaches the removal of the conceit ‘I am,’ which is called Nibbana here and now.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.4.01.irel.html trans. John D. Ireland

What the Buddha seems to be referring to specifically is seeing impermanence in the five aggregates, which are commonly translated as form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness:

“According to Buddhist texts, the entire universe, including the individual, is made up of different phenomena, which Buddhism classifies into different categories: what we conventionally call a “person” can be understood in terms of five aggregates, the sum of which must not be taken for a permanent entity, since beings are nothing but an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena.”

The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology By Mathieu Boisvert

So the insight into the impermanence of the five aggregates is of particular importance because when we otherwise treat these phenomena as having some kind of fixity, it can lead us to believe that there must be ‘someone’ who keeps experiencing them across time, leading to the assumption that there must be a ‘self’. The constant arising and ceasing of sensation doesn’t require anyone to be sitting in the driving seat, it just happens on its own. The mistake we make is conceiving that there must be ‘someone’ watching, because these individual sensations appear as part of a consistent flow of consciousness to us.


It was this aspect that I felt like I got more of an understanding of when I was following Ajahn Amaro’s suggestions for what to focus on in a walking meditation session. He said to just look for change all the time, not only externally but also to examine ‘who’ or what could see that change. As I observed, I reflected on the fragmentary nature of sense consciousness, and I saw that there was no ‘who’ that was consistent from one moment to the next. Each ‘who’, each moment of noticing, was an entirely new consciousness. The experience I had echoed the way that Ajahn Brahm talks about feeling that we have of a continuous flow of consciousness:

“’Knowing’ is like the particles of sand on a beach. From a distance it looks like there is no gap, no space, between those grains of sand. Then one goes closer and closer and closer and sees that there are just grains of sand, and in between those grains there is nothing. Nothing runs through those grains of sand. Like water in a stream. It looks like there is a continuous flow. However, once one gets closer with a microscope, an electron microscope, one can see that between the water molecules there is nothing, just space. One can then see the granular nature of consciousness. One consciousness arises and then another disappears.”

https://www.dhammatalks.net/Books3/Ajahn_Brahm_ANATTA.htm

This is also seen in Ajahn Chah’s deconstruction of direct experience in the examples above – our body parts are not the same ones we were born with, the feeling of consistency only comes from our mind; our thoughts about whether we like a certain food or not are separate occurrences, the feeling that these disparate thoughts all come from the same person is only a concept. For me the insight into not self wasn’t activated by the observation of the transient and fragmented nature of the experience of the aggregates themselves, but on the understanding that because these events were all separate from each other that there can’t be any way for them to support a stable, consistent self across time. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

“When we recognize that the things we identify as our self are impermanent and bound up with suffering, we realize that they lack the essential marks of authentic selfhood and we thereby stop identifying with them.”

p309 In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi

So that fingersnap of the perception of inconstancy is so fruitful because it has the potential to unlock not only our mistaken view of the self, but to open our eyes to all of our delusions and lead to the final realisation of nibbana. And it is here that I can now appreciate the genius of Ajahn Chah’s simple and practical teachings on anicca, because they gave ordinary people the opportunity to work directly with this most important of teachings in every moment of their lives. Understanding the technicalities of the five aggregates, or the mechanisms of fragmentary consciousness can go over the heads of many, and even those who can follow the complexities of it have no guarantee of translating that intellectual understanding into direct knowledge. But Ajahn Chah cut through it all by just directing us to look for anicca in every moment because it is always there, that is the nature of a conditioned world. Through this process of repetition eventually we gain the fruits of our insight into anicca:

“Now this is the important point. If you know that all things are impermanent, all your thinking will gradually unwind. When you reflect on the uncertainty of everything that passes, you’ll see that all things go the same way. Whenever anything arises, all you need to say is, ”Oh, another one!”

https://www.ajahnchah.org/book/Still_Flowing_Water1.php

1 https://puredhamma.net/key-dhamma-concepts/anicca-dukkha-anatta-2/anicca-dukkha-anatta/

Image by Tommy Takacs from Pixabay

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