Understanding Impermanence in Buddhism


What is impermanence in Buddhism?  It is an essential Buddhist teaching that defines our entire practice, yet it can be difficult to understand.

On the United States of America’s “Independence Day” (July 4th), I prefer to give it a Buddhist twist and say, “Happy Impermanence Day!”  In-fact, Happy Impermanence Every-Moment!

Impermanence in Buddhism is always occurring, and that is an exceptionally good thing.  We will get back to America and its Independence Day in a little bit, but first, we need to understand the teaching on “impermanence” (Anicca) in Buddhism and why it is important in progressing along the Buddhist path.

For when we can understand impermanence, we are closer to reaching the ultimate goal:  Nirvana.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  

What is Impermanence?

If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation. ~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

We really want things to be permanent in our life.  But life isn’t like that.  The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are impermanent and change (“Impermanence”).  Further, all conditioned things do not remain the same for two consecutive moments!

The Buddha taught that suffering (Dukkha) is caused by delusions, desires, and attachments (known as the “three poisons”).  What causes these poisons more than our wrong view that things are “permanent”?!  We believe that if things are permanent (even when, deep down, we know they are not) we will be happy, safe, and free.  However, that is not true and never is true.  Without impermanence, we could never grow up, evil dictatorships would not end, hunger would not cease, and life overall would have less meaning.  While we like to think

In the physical form, we know that we are born, grow, get sick, and eventually die.  Our world was born and will eventually die.  The seasons come and go and come back again.  Your thoughts come and go.  Everything changes.  What you think is permanent, is not, which is often an extremely hard truth to come to terms with especially when it comes to people and things we love deeply and are attached to.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we do not suffer due to “impermanence”, but because we cling to the belief in the false view of “permanence”:

If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. when a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away.

On the surface, impermanence sounds like a lot of Dukkha (suffering)!  What a dreary place life must be where everyone dies, things are destroyed, etc.  But in-fact, impermanence teaches us value in our lives.

For example, I didn’t fully want to understand impermanence many years ago, and in a short amount of time, my mother got sick and died.  If I understood impermanence, I would have cherished to an even greater degree in our relationship.  Even after her passing, it was hard to grasp that the feelings I had them were going to be “impermanent”.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains that understanding impermanence can help with these difficult situations in our life:

Properly understood, the concept of impermanence can be a great aid in difficult situations.  If we are poor, impermanence can teach us that our circumstances will not last forever.  If we meet with a setback in our work, it can teach us not to despair.  If we meet with hardship or tragedy, impermanence can teach us that one day, things will change again for the better.  Impermanence tells us that nothing stays the same; it teaches us that things can change for the better if we truly work to better our circumstances.

Impermanence also impacts the Buddhist teaching of “no-self“, which basically means that we do not have a separate independent “self”.

This clinging to the idea of an “independent self” is a contradiction in terms when we are understanding impermanence.  In-fact, this helps us to understand who “we” really are.  “You” are not independent of causes and conditions (just try not to breathe for an hour…you’ll never make it), and you are constantly changing (from your thoughts to even your skin cells are constantly changing).

Just like a wave on the ocean or a lake, it too is impermanent…created by causes and conditions (such as wind, the gravitational forces of the moon, a storm, etc.)…and will eventually cease.

Yet, its “death” or “extinction” is not accurate…it was always “water”, the “wave” was the impermanent thing.  Yet imagine if the wave could think like you and me, and it too would think it was separate from the ocean or lake and that it was (somewhat) permanent.  Yet it’s life, like ours, is fleeting and momentary.

The water in the ocean doesn’t have suffering (Dukkha), and the waves are not it’s natural state.  The wave(s) is impermanent, created and ended by causes and conditions.  Photo by Keith Skelton on Flickr

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explained no-self and impermanence in this way:

Impermanence is looking at reality from the point of view of time. No self is looking at reality from the point of view of space. They are two sides of reality. No self is a manifestation of impermanence and impermanence is a manifestation of no self. If things are impermanent they are without a separate self. If things are without a separate self, it means that they are impermanent. Impermanence means being transformed at every moment. This is reality. And since there is nothing unchanging, how can there be a permanent self, a separate self?

These are notable examples of two wonderful teachers where we can see that everything is impermanent, and that is OK!

Some impermanence happens in moments of time (momentary), and some are in a constant state of change (periodic).  Our thoughts are momentary, constantly changing, and things like our bodies are constantly changing at various times with some happening quickly and others happening over the years or decades.  Yet, both are impermanent…there is nothing permanent.

The key thing to remember is that by understanding impermanence allows us to change suffering into joy.  We know that bad things can change to good, and that allows us to understand that we need to cherish and love in the present moment.

Through understanding impermanence, we progress along the path towards Nirvana, we appreciate our time on Earth, and we live a good and meaningful life.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explained that understanding impermanence can give us “confidence, peace, and joy”.

He hit it home with the following example.  If want to be happy and not suffer in life, we need to get over impermanence (pun intended):

The Buddha gave the example of a dog that was hit by a stone and got angry at the stone.  it is not impermanence that makes us suffer.  What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

The Impermanent States of America

Statue of Liberty (CC0 Photo via Pixbay)

On July 4th, 1776, the 13 British colonies in America (they were not officially “united” yet) declared its independence from the mighty British Empire. This started a chain of events, and the resulting Revolutionary War, which ended with America becoming its own sovereign nation: The United States of America.

America is a remarkably interesting country, and not because it is a “superpower”, but because it is an experiment.

While we may think of it as a geographical “location”, America (referring to the USA, not the “Americas” geographically) is an ideal..set on values and is ever-changing in many ways.  Things that we think are fixed, like the Constitution, have been “amended” by the people through their legislators, and “interpreted” by the Supreme Court.

This makes for an overly exciting experiment in freedom and democracy, but also a sometimes scary, uneasy, and sometimes downright evil one.  America is truly impermanent in many ways.  I love thinking of America this way…the “geographic” portion of it is fine, but that is not what America is all about.  The millions of immigrants who came to America over the history of America came here for the American ideal, and not for the physical place they would live.

The impermanence of America is truly what should be celebrated on July 4th, and not the declaration of independence from Britain (or blowing up fireworks until 1 A.M. in the morning…can we place call it a night at 10 P.M. please?).  That is ancient history.

This is why I like to say “Happy Impermanence Day!”

CC0 Photo via Pixabay

The impermanence tells of a much grander and wonderful narrative that can give everyone not only hope but joy.  It is also a wonderful way to learn about impermanence on such a large level and a long time.

For those of you who do not live in America, please write your own story of the country you live in.  Find the impermanence in your nation’s history.  Knowing the history of several countries, I can find impermanence everywhere.  It’s a good thing!

Even now, many people in America and other countries wish for “permanence” on some things and many can’t wait for “impermanence” to hurry up on other things.  While many things look sad and depressing, the fact is they were impermanent and led to another change.  Things are created due to causes and conditions.  If the causes and conditions are ripe, they grow.  If they are not, they die.

Impermanence is the way towards a better way of life.

How has America grown better from “impermanence”?   The fact that America went from colonies under British control to an independent country is the greatest example.  However we can look at the long struggles for slavery to be abolished (thanks to the bloody Civil War), the end of segregation by the Southern state’s after the Civil War through the Civil Rights Act, the prohibition against alcoholic drinks (which actually was a Constitutional amendment, and had a subsequent Constitutional amendment overturning it), the suffrage movement for women to have the right to vote, are all some examples of the impermanence America has seen.

Of course, there are countless other events that we can file in our “impermanence” file cabinet for America, and for other countries as well.

Look at where America, or your country, is now.  History is filled with how, through impermanence, a country is slowly is crafted into what it is now.  Impermanence is what can bring us joy and a better country to live in.

Don’t like your politician?  Then campaign against them.  Don’t like a law that is unjust?  They work to change it.

Impermanence is not suffering.  When understood, it is what can even bring a country we live in joy, peace, and liberty for all.

An Impermanence Practice

Tibetan prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom to all beings. (CC0 photo via Pixbay)

So how can we “practice” impermanence so we can get rid of this Dukkha?  There are a few ways!

Eat Your Way to Impermanence

My favorite way to practice recognizing impermanence is with food.  Yes, food!

Many years ago, I wanted to give up drinking soda, which I loved.  Although it was challenging, eventually my desire to have a soda was gone.  Many years later I tried a sip of soda and could not stand it.  Impermanence has won.

For a more recent practice, I am working on chocolate and anything sweet (now this is a challenge).  Every time I eat a cookie or something with a bit too much sugar in it, I mindfully eat it…recognizing the texture, taste, and pleasure it gives.  But as soon as I’m done, and the flavor begins to leave my mouth, the impermanence of that cookie is all too apparent.  We want MORE.  This is the attachment that causes my personal Dukkha now.

However, as I practice the above, I consciously remind myself as I am eating that the cookie is impermanent, that the enjoyment will be quickly over, and what do I gain from it?  Healthy eating?  Not at all.  While I am slowly practicing this now, I am already “rewiring” my brain to move on from this food as well.  I know impermanence will win, and I am working on speeding it along.

An Impermanent Gatha

Buddha on his deathbed surrounded by grieving disciples. Photo by Alan Peto at the British Museum, London, UK.

Shortly before the Buddha passed into Parinirvana at his death, he spoke this verse (Ekottara Agama 18).

All conditioned things are impermanent.

They are phenomena, subject to birth and death.

When birth and death no longer are,

the complete silencing is joy.

So simply expressed, the Buddha told us that all this are impermanent, and are subject to birth and death (rising and ceasing).  But in the last two lines, he says that when birth and death (and are views of them) cease, we can finally experience joy.

The Five Remembrances

A practice followed by nearly all Buddhists is reciting the “Five Remembrances”, which the Buddha recommended.  My belief is that when we recite them, we should do it not simply to “recite” mindlessly but to instead mindfully hear them so we are not ignorant, to meditate on them in order to gain wisdom and to incorporate this knowledge of impermanence into your daily life.  Eliminating your false views of permanence, and embracing impermanence, means you can have greater joy in your life at a minimum.  The false views no longer have control over you like they once did.

The Five Remembrances are:

  1. I am of the nature to grow old.  There is no way to escape growing old.
  2. I am of the nature to have ill-health.  There is no way to escape having ill-health.
  3. I am of the nature to die.  There is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.  There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings.  I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  My actions are the ground on which I stand.

The Five Remembrances are a wonderful practice because, as Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, it is a “relative” (or worldly) truth (samvriti satya) that helps us make friends with our fears which are growing old, getting sick, being abandoned, and dying.   However, in the “absolute” truth (paramartha satya), there actually is no such thing as “birth and death” as explained by Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra (see my example of the “wave” earlier on in this article).

Even the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhist teaching, is “relative” truth for the purpose of helping us begin our practice and start on the path.  This is because the Buddha’s deeper teachings, as Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra explains is that the “absolute” truth is that suffering (Dukkha) is made up entirely of things that are not suffering!

The Five Remembrances are a way, in relative truth, to live a life of mindfulness in the here and now.  By really understanding things are impermanent and making peace with that, we can truly love the here and now.  This includes everything from a deeper more honest love of those in our lives, appreciating the wonder of our world instead of blinding rushing through it, and expanding our love towards all other sentient beings.

Meditate on Impermanence

The most traditional, and important, way to practice impermanence is meditation.  By meditating on impermanence, you are creating an “antidote” to attachment.

Like in my “intro” to Buddhism article, we describe the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as a Doctor would.  Suffering (Dukkha) is the sickness, Delusions, Desires, and Attachments are the reason (the poison).  Just like a poison in your system, an antidote is needed to counteract it.  Meditation does this.

If you are deeply attached to looks in people, meditate on the impermanence of their looks.  Know that weeks, months, and years from now they will not be the same.  Buddhist monks sometimes used to meditate in graveyards to help them recognize the impermanence of the human body so they would end that level of attachment!

An attachment we all have, with “ourselves”, is another one.  Primarily, we don’t want to die, but of course, we will.  By meditating on the five remembrances and knowing we are constantly changing moment by moment, and even long term throughout the years most of our body has undergone massive changes, we know “we” are impermanent.

Other Ways

Here are some ways to practice valuing impermanence in your “relative” daily life:

  • If you are healthy, continue to take care of yourself.  Knowing that if you continue to eat bad things, or not treat your body well, your “impermanence” may come more quickly!
  • If you have loved ones, realize that they may not always be there in your life.  Sickness and death will always occur, and sometimes it happens when you least expect it.  Spending time and truly appreciating your loved ones is something to always be mindful of.  I never expected to lose my mother so quickly, and of course there is no way to go back to make up for more time and love to be given.
  • If you are upset at some politician, government regulations, or something else “outside your control”, know that it too is impermanent.

When Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh talked about during the Vietnam war, he said that impermanence was discussed in his monastic community.  Of course, the war would come to an end one day, but that did not mean you had to passively wait for it.  We can all take action to “speed up” impermanence!  Even for those who are sick, we can take medicine and allow our bodies to heal to speed up the impermanence of the disease.  Yet, as we are all too familiar with, impermanence does not always go the way we want, and we may not get the change we want.  Regardless, eventually, everything…everything…will cease or change.  It is only a matter of time.

For us, in our truly short lives here on earth, we can better accept the impermanence in our lives by living mindfully.  This is truly a practice we should all follow and deepen our understanding of to bring joy in our lives and progress on the Buddhist path!


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