When I think of the Third Noble Truth, I think of that wonderful George Harrison song, “All Things Must Pass”.
That’s really the message of this truth. All things come and go. And this includes our suffering. Our suffering is impermanent. And if we have a rational understanding of our suffering, then we know this. It’s like that trite self help line “This too shall pass”.
Everything we perceive is always coming and going. Enlightenment is really just seeing this nature of things intuitively, seeing our situation as it is. We think of ourselves as individual beings who came into existence and will some day die. The Buddha described human beings as a stream. We came into being, but so many aspects of ourselves are just a continuation of other things. The whole universe is this way. When did you really begin? With your birth? With your conception? With your parents birth?
So, what do we do?
We manage our craving by not feeding it, letting go of our neurotic patterns so we don’t make all our problems worse and make enemies out of everything all the time. Waking up to our true nature of interdependence yields freedom.
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“Like a vanishing dew, a passing apparition or sudden flash of lightning – already gone- thus should one regard one’s self.”
He was echoing the Diamond Sutra, which is a foundational Zen text. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says,
“All composed things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning. That is how to meditate on them, this is how to observe them.”
Ikkyu was taking that concept from the Diamond Sutra, that all things are like a flash of lightning, and reminding us that this applies to the self as well as all other things. It’s important to remember that we are impermanent and conditioned, just as much as everything else is.
I think we have an easy time learning, on the path, that all things are compounded and impermanent. But sometimes we make the mistake of not extending that all the way.
It’s easy to see that my car is a collection of parts. It has an engine and a battery and tires and a gas tank and many many other parts that combine to make a car. And over time parts will be replaced.
It’s easy to see that my car is a compounded thing, that it’s a collection of parts rather than being one thing. A lot of things had to come together to create my car. It’s also easy to see that my car is impermanent. Everyone knows that over time more and more parts wear out and sooner or later the car just isn’t worth fixing anymore. Eventually repairing the car becomes more expensive and difficult than buying a new car. This is because the car is impermanent.
Everything is compounded and impermanent.
And if we just pay attention, we can see this.
But what about us. What about you and I? That’s where we struggle.
We are compounded and impermanent too. Many different things came together to create YOU. Not only your parents, but also the environment you grew up in shaped both your personality and, in ways we may not fully understand, your physical body as well.
Even if we just focus on your mind, a lot goes in to who you are. You have your natural intelligence, your knowledge, your experiences that color the way you see things, your attention to detail, your emotional well-being, and many many other factors. All of these things come together to make you.
And everything about you changes over time.
There are probably plenty of things we hope will change about ourselves. And some things that we hope won’t. But the point is that all things are changing.
If we are just a collection of things, like parts of a car, then our self is less significant than we think it is.
So, what are the implications of this?
Well, feelings of greed and jealousy become insignificant if we aren’t so focused on ourselves. We have this tendency to think in terms of “I, Me, Mine” most of the time and that often doesn’t serve us well. I think everyone agrees that the world would be a better place with less selfishness. Recognizing ourselves as part of a context rather than thinking we are some separate independent being can go a long way toward fixing many of the problems in the world.
Because of selfishness we are greedy. Because of selfishness we are jealous of others and we tend to get upset if we don’t have everything that we think we deserve. Because of selfishness we take others for granted, which can greatly damage our relationships. Selfishness is at the root of many of our human problems.
A lot of our anger is motivated by selfishness as well. When we get mad or upset that things aren’t the way we want them to be, or that others aren’t behaving in the way we think they should.
It can make us want to help them instead—and ultimately, helping others is really important in Buddhism.
When we recognize that we are everything, it can be easy to forgive everything—or at least accept everything.
The Prajnaparamita Hridyam Sutra is a short text; it is about the length of a page.
But it’s a very deep text. It’s title means The Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, but we usually just shorten it to Heart Sutra.
It’s part of the Prajnaparamita school of texts, along with the Diamond Sutra and a few others. These are called the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ texts and they are considered by many to be the greatest works of the Mahayana.
Prajnaparamita means Transcendent Wisdom of the Other Shore. The Prajnaparamita School presented a new goal for Buddhist practice: achieving Buddhahood, rather than simply attaining Nirvana and escaping the wheel of birth and death. This is the ideal of the Bodhisattva instead of that of the Arhat. This is enlightenment in the midst of the world, rather than escaping it. Prajna is considered the highest virtue.
Prajna teachings are based on wisdom and emptiness.
This Sutra challenges us, in our meditation practice, to face duality, profound and relative truths, impermanence and emptiness.
It’s a beloved text and can be used as a guide of advanced meditation practices. It’s considered such an important sutra that it’s chanted in Zen temples every day all over the world.
It’s a dialogue, as a lot of sutras are. In this Sutra Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is giving teachings to a monk named Shariputra.
Here is the text (1):
The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling
and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.”
Just meditation on this text can blow our minds wide open.
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
This challenges our notion of duality. Our minds like to put things into nice neat little categories that don’t often match reality. This Sutra challenges the idea that even existence and non-existence are two separate and distinct things.
No attainment and nothing to attain
Buddhist sutras remind us over and over that we’re walking the path in order to penetrate our delusion, not to attain something. Enlightenment isn’t something we gain. It’s our true nature, we just have to uncover it.
But the text also tells us that these teachings can take us to enlightenment. It tells us to “take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind.” Cultivating this transcendent wisdom is a path to enlightenment.
A lot is made of that last line, which is usually left untranslated because it’s a mantra and we usually chant mantras in the original language.
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, Bodhi svaha.”
“Gone, gone, gone beyond, fully gone beyond, enlightened so be it.”
- Porter, Bill. The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary. (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Books, 2004)
The loss of my parents will always be a part of who I am.
I always had anxiety problems as a kid. I worried about things. I didn’t know how to make friends. I actually had a fear, even as a very young child, that girls would never like me. (And even as a very young child I liked girls a lot).
There are a lot of kids with anxiety problems who outgrow them. Plenty of people are shy as children and become outgoing as adults. But that wasn’t what happened to me.
When my dad got sick my anxiety exploded.
At the beginning of my teenage years I became the most withdrawn I have ever been. And then a few years later my mother became sick. At the age of 19, I was alone—an orphan.
My parents were in their 50s when they passed and it has always been in the back of my mind—the knowledge of how old my kids will be when I’m in my 50s. That being said, I hate it when people feel sorry for me, so please don’t.
This isn’t a story about how things got bad, but about how they got better.
I was lost and broken and I made my fair share of bad choices. I didn’t deal with their deaths very well and I ended up suffering from terrible anxiety and depression.
I withdrew into myself and started avoiding social situations. I just wanted to be alone and feel sorry for myself so I pushed away everyone that cared about me. This is something that a lot of people do when they’re dealing with a loss, I think.
I drifted through life like a cloud. I was in college and I couldn’t choose a major. I didn’t have any direction in my life. I wasn’t sad, I was numb. I felt emptiness.
Now, I don’t wanted to suggest that I conquered my anxiety problems. That would be untrue. I still have anxiety problems.
I’m an introvert. I don’t do small talk. I don’t really start conversations. I try to avoid crowded places and I’ve been told that getting to know me isn’t easy.
But, all of that being said, I’ve come very far. I’ve grown a lot as a person in my adult life and I learned how to manage it.
It was meditation practice that helped me. It’s the only thing that’s really ever helped me.
Why does it help?
Meditation is a practice of mental and spiritual development.
Meditation practice expects us to turn inward; to understand ourselves and our interconnectedness to the world around us. It helps us see the truth—that there’s no reason to be anxious because the truth is we are all one, not nearly as separate as we think we are.
It could help you too.
Losing my parents broke me, but it’s through meditation and serious spiritual development that I put myself back together.
“With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
We recognize that nothing lasts forever, this is an obvious part of our existence just from the simple fact that we get older. But most of the time we think of that as an unpleasant fact that we would prefer to ignore.
We look at the world around us, and most of it seems solid and fixed. We tend to stay in places we find comfortable and safe, and we don’t want them to change.
We also think we are permanent, the same person continuing from birth to death, and maybe beyond that.
The truth is that impermanence is a fundamental part of existence. Everything is always changing. A caterpillar creates a cocoon. Then it goes inside the cocoon and slowly transforms into a butterfly. Ultimately that butterfly dies. Is it the same being through those changes? It’s hard to say because so much of it’s body has changed.
I’ve heard it said that because of the way our cells reproduce and develop, every seven years we are composed of entirely different matter than we were before. It’s important to note that we are impermanent. Not just because we will some day die, but also because we are always changing. Am I the same person today that I was ten years ago? Or five years ago? Or a moment ago? I don’t know. This might seem scary, but really it’s liberating.
We don’t need to be held down by our past. In Buddhism we talk a lot about how ‘this moment’ is reality. Because I’m in this moment, not in some other one.
We can use our awareness of impermanence to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain insight. We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering. But the Buddha encouraged us to look again. We don’t suffer because things are impermanent. We suffer because we want things to last forever or, even worse, we expect things to last forever.
But, impermanence isn’t a bad thing in itself. That is just a value that we apply to it. Without impermanence, life is not possible.
How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent?
How can the situation in the world improve?
We need impermanence for hope.
“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves”
I sometimes wonder if losing my parents when I was a teenager has been a contributing factor in my interest in Buddhism. The realities of suffering and impermanence are important concepts in Buddhism. I experienced those realities firsthand as a teenager. I watched each of my parents die slow and painful deaths. That could be why I started thinking about deep questions regarding suffering and the causes of suffering.
The Buddha didn’t experience anything like that, of course. If anything, his experience was the opposite. He was shielded from all kinds of suffering by his protective father. He had every possible joy available to him for his entire life. That’s not something most of us can relate to very well.
The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen, on the other hand, had an entirely different experience from the Buddha. He was inspired by personal tragedy and I find his story to be something I can relate to and understand. He lost his father at the age of 2 and his mother at the age of 7. He became a young orphan and that is how he learned the realities of suffering and impermanence, just as I did as a teenager. I lost my father when I was 15 and my mother when I was 19. Not nearly as young as Dogen, but certainly before I was ready to become a full adult. I think any child suffers a great deal when their parents pass before their time.
On her deathbed, Dogen’s mother recognized the purity of her son’s heart. She told him to devote his life to benefiting others. My mother told me the same thing on her deathbed. She said to me, “Always be a good person. Be kind to others.”
Dogen’s experience of great suffering inspired him to become a Buddhist monk. He devoted his life to understanding suffering, just as the Buddha had 1800 years earlier. He developed great compassion and an inquiring mind. I developed these as well. Was it the result of personal tragedy? I suppose there’s no way to tell, but his story really speaks to me on a personal level.
Dogen went on to become a very important figure in Zen Buddhism, even founding his own sect. I don’t truly want to compare myself to him. I only wanted to say that I find parallels between his story and my own.