Impermanence

“Look at a waterfall,” said the monk who was giving a Dhamma talk to a crowd of six at his temple in Anuradhapura. Our three wheel driver tugged us in his tuk-tuk along a narrow road through jungle and the remains of ancient civilizations – by us I mean me and Bhikkhu Anaruddha, the easy going and smiling disciple of the head monk who invited me to stay with him.

“We see a waterfall, but in fact the waterfall we see one moment is a different one the next.” He wasn’t speaking Sinhala but, fortunately for me, his words were being translated to me by a Colombo businessman. It was slightly odd – speaking through an intermediary—and it often felt like he was an interpreter, not a translator. Despite the problems in such a discussion, I was happy to communicate with this monk. A friend from Colombo recommended I seek him out and so I have come here, to one of the holiest Buddhist cities in the world.

The subject was not unfamiliar. The monk was explaining the concept of impermanence and the elusive power of our mind to assume permanence. We see a waterfall and we think, “waterfall”. The concept is complete in our mind as a static entity, and it conceals the ever-changing nature of the waterfall. No water that flows down will flow down it again, just as each breath we take will never be repeated. We may believe one breath is the same as another, but that does not mean it is so.

Death is contained in life; life is contained in death. This is the realization of impermanence. In birth, death becomes eminent and in death, life becomes eminent. That is, until we free ourselves from the kammic cycle of death and rebirth.

Through realizing the true impermanent nature of things we naturally develop detachment. We find we are able to accept, without anger, when something beautiful like a flower has died. A flower may give us pleasure so we try to grasp it, to hold on to that image and retain the happiness it has elicited.  Instead we can enjoy the flower’s beauty while seeing its true nature – namely, that one day it will perish.

The sunrise on the drive out of Jaffna to Anuradhapura

A photograph is most instructive here. We see a beautiful sight and reach for our cameras. With the sharp click of the shutter the image is captured, to be recalled at will by looking at an album. There is that vast lake and the distant trees, and the sun which has awakened to hover in the horizon. We see the photo years later and our hearts still feel soft. One day we may decide to return to that site, but it will be a place hardly resembling the photo. We long to hold onto the beauty of the scene but we cannot. A photo will freeze the image and temporarily mask the reality of the scene, as if it could escape the state of decay it is constantly experiencing. Can we afford to convolute reality with illusion?

What are the consequences of this illusion?