The Truth of Impermanence

National Headquarters  |  March 22, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

The notion of impermanence (Sanskrit: anityatā) as a fundamental truth about the nature of everything that exists in this world is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. In fact, this initial insight was a catalyst that set Prince Siddhartha – who would achieve enlightenment to become the Buddha – on a spiritual quest for liberation from the suffering that all sentient beings endure in life. After his full awakening, the Buddha stressed the inescapable reality of this universal principle when he taught.

With his wisdom, the Buddha explained to us that everything – be it the material things of this world, the human body, or the mind – is undergoing constant change; never permanent, fixed, or in stasis. All matter goes through phases of formation and growth, followed by deterioration and eventual destruction. The human body also goes through similar phases in the form of birth, aging, illness, and death. The mind is likewise ever-changing as thoughts constantly arise, abide, change, and disappear. This change is the reality underlying all things.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

The Buddha pointed out that the things that are “appealing, singled out, considered valuable, pleasant, and highly appreciated by everyone” are good health, youth, prosperity, and life. However, upon careful observation, we can come to realize that they’re all essentially impermanent. And so, the Buddha led his disciples to reflect:

Good health is impermanent, youth does not last.
Prosperity is impermanent, and life, too, does not last.
How can beings, afflicted as they are by impermanence,
take delight in desirable things like these?

Passage from the 'Sutra on Impermanence' (Sanskrit: Anityatāsūtra)

Still, when one is young, healthy, and full of dreams, it’s easy to ignore the possibility of illness, inevitable approach of aging and death, and vicissitudes of fortune, and to neglect spiritual cultivation while pursuing life’s hopes and pleasures.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen refers to the “Agama Sutra” to highlight how the Buddha never misses a moment to teach his disciples about impermanence, reminding them that change comes fast and can’t be stopped, so we should make the best use of what time we have:

Don’t count on being young and healthy; we may be young and healthy now, but that’s impermanent; time will keep passing. When we think we’re young and healthy, we’re not in a hurry to cultivate, and as we begin to procrastinate, we lose both precious time and opportunities to develop our wisdom-life. We have to let go of such thinking by cultivating diligently toward liberation.

Passage from the 'Agama Sutra'

Just as the Buddha counsels in the sutras, in her teaching, Master Cheng Yen also consistently reminds everyone to heed the truth of impermanence and to live accordingly:

People often say, ‘I should have…,’ ‘I could have…,’ or ‘I would have…’ to express their sense of regret. By the time those thoughts are formed, it’s already too late as we can’t go back in time for a do-over, just as it’s too late to repair a boat in the middle of the lake. Before sailing, the boat needs to be mended, repaired, and maintained regularly. Likewise, we must be mindful in choosing what we do with our time, cherish each day, and live our life to the fullest.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

However, she is also aware of how difficult this is to do, as while life is impermanent and it’s beyond our ability to predict the future, just an intellectual understanding of the fact that time is always slipping through our fingers, and we don’t know what may happen in the very next moment, often isn’t enough:

Impermanence can’t be described with words, but ought to be experienced.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

This realization is, in fact, based on Master Cheng Yen’s own experience. In our next blog, discover how her father’s sudden death – when she was “hit by the deep shock of impermanence and compelled to know the answers to life” – was a turning point that changed the trajectory of her life.

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