The Top 10 Myths about Buddhism
That Absolutely Everything is Impermanent
These days, people say, “Everything’s impermanent. Cos the Buddha said so!” – and they run around declaring this dogma, beating others over the head with it – as if this the complete story of what the Buddha taught. The problem with this view is that it basically trashes the fundamental reason why the Buddha set off on his spiritual quest – to find a way to escape impermanence – to find a way out of old age, sickness and death.
“Sabbe dhamma anicca” – people will say as proof of their point, which means, “All things are impermanent”.
But it’s not really true that absolutely everything is impermanent. More correctly, it should be “All conditioned things are impermanent” because in this context, the word “dhamma” only refers to conditioned things – things which are born and die, things which are created and destroyed. It does NOT refer to the unconditioned – things that are not created.
How do we know that not everything is impermanent and that it’s only conditioned, compounded things that are impermanent? The Buddha elaborates on this point in another verse in the Theragatha:
Impermanent alas, are all conditioned things
Arising and passing away
Having arisen, they are of the nature to pass away
The calming of these conditions is true happiness.
I have outlined this when I talked about the ephemeral vs the eternal.
Why did the Buddha teach about impermanence? To help us let go of impermanent things – so that they don’t infatuate and overwhelm us anymore. Anything impermanent may be beautiful, lovely, strong – but it has this drawback – they change. And when the beauty fades, when the strength wanes, when our minds are not as sharp – we will be beset with worry:
- “Oh no, my beauty is fading! I never used to look like this! My skin used to be nice and smooth… I’m developing wrinkles! What’s happening to me?” or
- “What’s happened to my strength?! I used to be able to life this without even trying!” or
- “What’s happening to my memory?! I never used to forget things like that!”
- “What’s happened to our relationship? It never used to be like this. We used to be totally in love, but now, I don’t even feel like I even love them anymore”.
It’s because impermanent things change.
- Once they reach a peak of intensity, they start to decay and fade out.
- Eventually, these impermanent things will all die and cease to be.
So the Buddha saw this imperfection, he saw this drawback of impermanent things – they all decay and die. So he wanted to find a solution to this.
So, many Buddhists these days mistakenly think, “Impermanence – that’s the Buddha’s teaching”.
Well, that’s only half the story. The Buddha taught impermanence and permanence – he taught both sides of the story. He taught BOTH the conditioned (sankhata dhamma) and the unconditioned (asankhata dhamma).
Notice how the Buddha teaches the 3 characteristics of fabricated/created things vs the 3 characteristics of not-fabricated/not-created things in the Sankhata Sutta:
“Monks, these three are fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated. Which three?
1. Arising is discernible,
2. Passing away is discernible,
3. Alteration (literally, other-ness) while staying is discernible.
“These are three fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated.
“Now these three are unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated. Which three?
1. No arising is discernible,
2. No passing away is discernible,
3. No alteration while staying is discernible.
“These are three unfabricated characteristics of what is unfabricated.”
The Noble Search
So he asked himself the question in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Majjihima Nikaya 26). He asked himself:
Why when I am subject to old age, sickness and death, do I also seek happinesses that are also subject to old age sickness and death?
In other words – why does he keep seeking impermanent happiness which you can only enjoy for a short time before they change and die out?
Why don’t I seek happiness that does not get old, does not get sick and does not die? I shall seek that! I shall seek the eternal, everlasting happiness.
So he called them the 2 types of searches:
– The Inferior Search – The Not Noble Search. Seeking for impermanent happiness.
– The Superior Search – The Noble Search. Seeking for eternal, everlasting happiness that does not change, does not fade out and does not die out.
And the Buddha found it when he realized enlightenment – he called this eternal, everlasting happiness Nirvana, Enlightenment, the Deathless.
“Nibbanam paramam sukham!”
said the Buddha. Nirvana is the Highest happiness! Nirvana is bliss supreme!