Sunday, March 31, 2013

'Anicca' or 'Impermanence'

Image by Bhikkhu Samahita on
Give an account of the word “impermanent”.

The word “impermanent” is not, of itself, difficult to understand. For example, it may be defined in the dictionary as “not lasting or durable; inconstant; not permanent; not indefinitely remaining unchanged”.

Our commonsense experience of the world illustrates this phenomenon regularly - we age, we get sick, objects we purchase breakdown, food turns rotten, friends move, jobs are lost, and so on. Nothing we seem to experience remains unchanged or permanent. This is often the source of our dissatisfaction with the world, as we try desperately to hold on to something permanent, something giving lasting pleasure, or we catch a glimpse of the possibility that we ourselves are also impermanent.

However, it is in Buddhist teaching that the word “impermanent” (anicca) takes on a deeper, more significant meaning. Here it represents one of the three features of existence, or the world of experience. In Buddhism, anicca is basic to all conditioned phenomena, a natural law. It does not involve metaphysics or mysticism, but is an empirical theory which can be investigated and analysed in an unbiased way. Anicca is the basis of the whole of Buddhist philosophy and ethics.

The Buddha gives us this explanation: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded things; they are of the nature of arising and passing away. Having come into being, they cease to exist. Hence their pacification is tranquillity.”

This law indicates that it is the nature of all compounded things to arise (come into existence), decay or change constantly, and to pass away (dissolve or cease). Further, behind the arising and ceasing there is no unchanging substance. This shows a link with anatta (no-self) previously discussed. Since there is no satisfaction to be had in clinging to impermanent things, there is a further link to dukkha (suffering), the third mark of existence. If you're seeking a dependable basis for long-term happiness and ease, anything inconstant will obviously be stressful - like trying to relax in an unstable chair whose legs could break at any time.

Before we conclude that anicca simply provides further evidence of a pessimistic approach to life by Buddhism, there are three additional aspects which should be considered.

Firstly, our goal for emancipation, nibbana, is actually unconditioned, unlike all compounded things. This means that it is beyond both permanency and impermanency.

Secondly, we can meditate on anicca as part of the process of changing and perfecting ourselves and our actions. If we were incapable of change, we would have no way to improve or reach nibbana. By carefully examining our desires and cravings in light of the three characteristics - to see exactly how they're inconstant, stressful, and not-self - we become less inclined to keep on producing and consuming them.

Finally, change can be a positive thing. It can promote growth, progress and creativity. Knowing that life is impermanent provides the opportunity to make peace and remove pride; knowing poverty is impermanent makes us rich; and knowing sickness and all other difficulties are impermanent means there will be recovery.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)