Usually, we observe impermanence through external phenomena. The impermanence we observe often is on the surface or from a distance. In helping us to understand the deep teachings, the Buddha often used explanations that are easy to grasp. He used the changes that happen rapidly in the worldly phenomena to describe impermanence. For instance, a bubble breaks up quickly in the air, the lightening passes in a few seconds, and the morning dew evaporates in sunlight… This is why in the Platform Sutra, there are verses as “…Like a bubble in a dream, like morning dew or lightening…” We can see these changes in everyday living.
However, when we observe impermanence at a more subtle level, we need a certain depth of concentration or meditation. If our mind is not still, the observation cannot perceive in subtleness but only remains on the coarse form or surface.
When we see a person who dies at eighty years old, we might feel that impermanence is a long time. If we see a child who died a few days after birth, we would feel impermanence is quite brief. However, these situations occur infrequently in our lives. Some people have a brother or a sister in the family who died not long after birth. Because they were young when it happened, they did not feel the loss so strongly. Even if they did, after awhile, the feelings fade and they forget about impermanence. As “I” still exists, the feeling of “permanence” is often the case.
We have read that the Buddha asked his disciples, “In between what does life exist?” His disciples had various opinions and gave different answers. Finally, one of them said, “Life is between breaths”. The Buddha praised him for having wisdom. To most people, it is understood that if one cannot breathe in after breathing out, that person is dead.
When we breathe in, the body is tense. When we breathe out, it does not require much of effort. This is why, in the practice of “counting breath”, it is beneficial to count the breath when exhaling. If we practice well enough, when it happens that we cannot breathe in and therefore pass out or die, at least we can be in stillness or a state of samadhi.
For some people, it is not easy to perceive that life is between breaths, for they cannot even “find” (not clearly aware of) their breath. However, through practice, one can slowly see what “breath” is, and then further observe every inhalation and exhalation while it arises and ceases, from coarse or surface to the more subtle forms.
There are two functions in practicing concentration and contemplation. One is helping us settle the mind and enter into concentrated state or samadhi. The other is that, from observing inhaling and exhaling, we can observe the phenomenon of arising and ceasing and contemplate on impermanence. This practice also helps overcome drowsiness. When we feel sleepy in sitting meditation, we can use the method of observing changes in the breaths. By seeing breath slowly going in and out, the mind is focused only on the breath and is kept alert. Sometimes we may see long inhalation and short exhalation; other times we may see the opposite. This change of rhythm is itself impermanence.
However, to observe the changes in worldly phenomenon, there are stages in observation of arising and ceasing and impermanence. In order to have clarity in observation, we need to have some basic understanding about impermanence. Then, when we observe at subtler levels, we would be able to understand the meaning or experience it more directly.
It seems, in Buddhism, impermanence is an idea with passive notion. Actually, Impermanence or Emptiness itself is not passive or active. The Buddha was just telling us the truth of worldly phenomenon, letting us know the reality that we live in. With the understanding of reality, wisdom can then arise and manifest. Our willingness or aspiration will impact how we choose to live our lives.
In the long cycle of human existence, we have been accustomed to establishing an attitude towards life from a negative point of view. For example, we see that life is suffering. Therefore, when we encounter impermanence, we want to quickly end it, stopping the cycle of birth and death. Because we know the cycle is endless, we are weary of birth and rebirth and wish to exit from life.
We might feel transmigration from life to life is simply repeating itself. Looking from the point view of impermanence, there is no single occurrence that is repetition. Even when we recall the same occurrence, it is different. We may forget some episodes, or we may add new elements to the memory. Impermanence is just like this, constantly changing. We can only say that something similar happened, but never quite the same.
Many teachers face the same students in classroom every day. Everyday, although it may seem to be the same, the emotions of students are not the same. It is true with teachers. If the teachers can look at things from the point view of impermanence, they will discover that everyday is brand new, not knowing what might happen in that day. For instance, if a teacher perceives things with fixed opinions, feelings of headache may arise by just thinking about dealing with the same most naughty students in the class again. When the teacher enters the classroom with such an attitude or expectation, and the classroom is empty without any students, the teacher might feel happy since there will be no class. Or, it may happen that the teacher enters the classroom and sees that all students sitting quietly with the eyes of obedience, not knowing what is happening until the teacher realize that the Principal of the school is sitting in the classroom!
It is the same with sitting meditation. Do not look at your experiences with the eyes of permanence.
(Excerption from Dharma Talks given at intensive Chan retreat. Published in 《練心功夫》”Cultivating the Mind” by Dharma Drum Publications in 2011)