An easy way to understand Buddhism, is to see that the Buddha divided existence into 2 realms:
- The conditioned
- The unconditioned
If you can understand BOTH of these things, it will give you an excellent foundation to understanding the Buddha’s teaching.
Because it will tell you why the Buddha taught impermanence. You will also understand how impermanence is only half of the story – there is the other, more important half that most Buddhists may not even have heard of, let alone understand.
The Pattern of Impermanence
These days, you’ll see Buddhists nearly everywhere saying, “Impermanence – absolutely everything is impermanent! That’s Buddhism! That’s what the Buddha taught!” as if the Buddha proclaimed that as a permanent truth! But if you look back into the Suttas/Sutras you will find 1 important distinction that the Buddha made. He did NOT say that absolutely everything is impermanent – what the Buddha DID say was all “conditioned/compounded” things are impermanent. For example, this verse of Dhammapada 277 is often chanted at funerals in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition:
Impermanent, alas, are all compounded things,
They are of the nature to arise and fall.
Having been arisen, they eventually cease.
Bringing them to an end is true happiness.
What’s a “conditioned thing”?
It is anything that is born, anything that is created, anything that is compounded, anything that is formed. The key to notice here is that:
- All that arises will eventually cease
- All that is created will eventually be destroyed
- All that is compounded will eventually undergo dissolution
- All that is formed will eventually undergo breakup of that formation
Let’s look at it slightly differently:
- Anything that undergoes integration will someday undergo dis-integration
- Anything that is produced will someday get extinguished
- Anything that comes together will someday, eventually fall apart
- Anything that is born will eventually die
All of these examples illustrate the same pattern – the pattern of impermanence – the pattern that ALL conditioned things undergo during their life cycle – all that arises, ceases. It’s important to recognize this because this pattern applies to ALL of the conditioned world – it applies to everything in the compounded world – the world where things are created, where things are born. Now usually, in everyday life, this is all we know – the conditioned world.
The Purpose behind the Buddha’s Quest
Why did the Buddha initially leave his riches and family behind in the royal palace and set off on his quest?
Because he wanted to find the answer to the big question – is there a solution, is there an escape from old age, sickness and death? When the Buddha opened his enlightenment, he had found the answer – freedom over birth and death. He had found something that was deathless – something that was eternal.
So why is it that, even though the Buddha’s body died, did he say that he found something eternal? To answer this, one needs to understand the conditioned vs the unconditioned – the ephemeral vs the eternal.
In the Udana 8.3 (3), the Buddha declared this:
- There is the conditioned realm… and
- There is the unconditioned realm.
If the unconditioned didn’t exist, then escape from the conditioned would NOT be possible. But because the unconditioned exists, therefore escape from the conditioned is possible.
In other words:
- There is the realm where things are born and die – having been born, they have to die at some stage.
- There is also a realm where things are not born and so, they do not die – a deathless realm.
Now if this deathless, unconditioned realm didn’t exist, then there would be no escape from the ravages of old age, sickness and death. But because this deathless realm of Nirvana does exist, therefore we can escape old age, sickness and death.
The Conditioned World – the World of Compounded Things
There is a very simple pattern to recognize in things which are born/created. Why? Because anything that is born or created will follow this pattern of impermanence:
Birth -> Arising (growth) -> Reaching a peak -> Decay (getting old) -> Death
– We are born, grow up, reach the prime of life where we are happy, vibrant and strong – this is the peak of our lives. Then the body starts to age and one day, eventually the body dies.
So this is the pattern of impermanence as applied to the body.
Consider one of the most beautiful flowers in the world – the rose. It starts budding (birth), starts blossoming (growth), reaches the peak of its beauty (peak), and after that, it starts to wither off (decay) and eventually falls apart (death).
How long can we enjoy the beauty of a rose?
Usually just for a few days before it starts to die off.
This illustrates that in the conditioned world, in the world where things are born – there is a limitation as to how much beauty and pleasure we can get in this world. And so, the pleasure and beauty that we can get from this world is not ultimate.
With the rose, it can start blossoming and then reaches the peak of its beauty. But once it reaches its peak, becoming the most beautiful it can ever be, it can’t possibly keep getting even more beautiful. Once something arises and reaches its peak, it just can’t possibly keep arising. Nature dictates after things reach their peak, they will start to decay and eventually die. So there’s this limit to how beautiful something can be.
Take the human body and how strong, powerful and skilful it can get.
If we look at elite sports people – usually they reach their peak at around the ages of late teens to early or mid twenties. And if we look at the absolute best in the world, the World Champions, the Olympic Champions, the World No. 1’s – when they are at these ages, they’re breaking world records like nothing else, setting new standards for the rest of the field. These people are amazing! When they are breaking world record after world record – you’re asking yourself, “How far can this guy go? How high can he set the standard? Can anyone even beat him?” and you literally can’t even comprehend how they can be defeated. But, over time, things change – and they start slipping. And one loss becomes several losses – and they gradually start to lose their aura of invincibility. This is just nature, taking its course over time.
So this is the pattern of impermanence that the Buddha recognized in all conditioned things – birth, arising, peak, decay, death. The conditioned, compounded world has limits to how much pleasure, strength, happiness that it can provide us. And because of this impermanence found in the conditioned world, the Buddha said that this world is dukkha – unsatisfactory. In other words, it is not ultimate. It can only provide us with temporary satisfaction – it’s good for a time and then it’s gone.
Why Did the Buddha Teach Impermanence?
To teach us how to let go of things. Because we keep holding on to things that we don’t want to let go of, thereby causing ourselves unnecessary suffering.
The problem that we have is that we keep looking to impermanent things to permanently satisfy us. Because to seek something that will permanently satisfy us within that which is inherently impermanent – is foolish and we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
So we seek happiness and pleasures in the world, thinking that they will last forever. We grasp at them and hold on tight to these things. They feel great when we ride the good feelings of the wave on the way up. They’re still good when these happinesses and pleasures reach a peak. But when we still try to hold on tight to them when they start dissipating and fading away – hoping and wishing that they were the way before – then we set ourselves up to suffer.
Now it’s not the case that we shouldn’t seek things that make up happy – because a lot of good can come from many, many worldly endeavours. We just realize that these things satisfy us just so much and then they go. Pleasures of the world, happinesses of the world – they come, they go. And when we are still holding on to them tightly whilst those pleasures are fading away – this will cause us to suffer – so it’s wise to let go of them.
So the Buddha taught us to reflect:
1. Is that which we are seeking permanent or impermanent?
2. And if something is impermanent – then is it satisfactory or unsatisfactory? i.e., will it permanently satisfy us?
3. If it can’t really satisfy us, then is that happiness or is that suffering?
The Unconditioned Realm of Nirvana
The Buddha taught about the conditioned world – it all undergoes the pattern of impermanence. He ALSO said something else which is even more important – “There is the unconditioned” – Nirvana.
So we know that:
- “All that arises, ceases”
- The reverse is also true “That which does not arise, does not cease”.
Read that again – all that arises, ceases BUT that which does not arise will never cease. In other words, things which do not undergo birth naturally will also never undergo death – these things are “Deathless”.
You’re probably thinking, “How can something not be born? If something is not born, does it even exist?!” So you’re asking, “How can something exist if it’s not even created?”
The Analogy of Empty Space
In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha uses the analogy of empty space.
Empty space is not created, i.e., nothing comes together to form empty space – so empty space is not born, it is not created.
You can’t say that empty space doesn’t exist can you! So that’s an example of how something is not born, i.e., it didn’t undergo birth, yet still exists.
And because it wasn’t born, it will never die. Death only comes after birth. Birth is a necessary condition to happen first before death can occur. But if something was not even born, how can it die? If something wasn’t even created, how can it be destroyed? It can’t be – and so, it is death-less. And if something is deathless, then it is also eternal.
The Buddha said that Nirvana has this aspect of being not-born, not-created, not-formed. Now the difference between empty space and Nirvana is that empty space lacks awareness. Whatever lacks awareness is not the Buddha’s Nirvana.
So because the Buddha was able to discover his own Bodhi Nirvana – this is the escape from old age, sickness and death. Even though the Buddha’s body died (because whatever is subject to birth is also subject to death. His body was born and so, still had to obey the laws of nature and so even the Buddha’s physical body decayed and eventually died). But because Nirvana is not born, does not age and does not die – then this is the escape from birth, old age and death. This unconditioned realm of Nirvana that the Buddha discovered in himself, is the escape from birth, old age and death.