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From Impermanence to Liberation

Bhante Gunaratana

     Note: This article is also available for download in two formats from the Buddhist Publication Society in their 2010 Newsletter (NL 064).

Buddha’s contemporaries like Heraclites saw the impermanence of everything and said that one cannot step into the same river twice. We don’t really know anything else they may have said about impermanence, nor do we know what they did with their knowledge of impermanence. Mere theoretical knowledge of impermanence does not do anything for us, unless it is used for some purpose. The ancient Greeks seem to have stopped right there, apparently without knowing what to do with this knowledge.

When I was in the Buddhist Vihara in Washington D.C. there was a little baby boy. He was only ten days old. His father brought him to the Vihara very often. This very tiny little baby appeared to be very happy to see me. When he began to crawl he crawled towards me and affectionately stretched his hands towards me to be lifted and be carried. He grew up like my own child. One day, when he was almost ten years old, and I returned to the Vihara from one of my trips, he came to me and wanted to hug me. I told him, “You are big, and you are unhuggable.” The boy said, “Bhante, let us face facts. Everything is impermanent. I am grown up and you cannot hug me any more.”

Not only philosophers and scientists but also even this little boy knows that everything is impermanent.


Almost twenty-five or thirty years ago a very good friend of mine took a walk with me. He was a very serious meditator. So, whenever he and I were together, we would discuss something related to meditation. During this particular walk I said to him that everything is impermanent. Being a mathematician he asked me, “What about mathematics? Is mathematics impermanent too?”

I was quiet for a while, thinking how best to answer his question, when he said, “I don’t think of mathematics as impermanent.”

Ever since then, I have been thinking about it. I always thought he was right. “Yes, mathematics is something permanent.”

Then one day this thought occurred to me again during my meditation paying attention to impermanence. I saw that impermanence does not exist in isolation by itself. There must be some thing to be impermanent. If there is nothing there is no impermanence. In the absence of anything, impermanence does not make any sense. Then I asked myself “How about mathematics? Can mathematics exist by itself without any object to work with?”

Just as impermanence does not make any sense without any object, mathematics does not make any sense if there are no objects in the entire universe for the mathematics or mathematicians to work with. If there are no beings to make use of the application of mathematics, then all the theories of mathematics don’t make any sense.

As long as objects exist, impermanence exists. Similarly, as long as objects exist, mathematics exists. Because the objects are impermanent, the mathematics that uses those impermanent objects is also impermanent. So, from that perspective, mathematics cannot be permanent.

We can all understand impermanence superficially. But deep down in our subconscious mind a sense of permanence is lurking. So we keep patching up our broken teeth, wrinkled dry skin, brittle nails, grey hair, hunched backs, weak eyes, impaired hearing, becoming sick, breaking bones and many other things caused by impermanence in this fragile body. Similarly our moods, our feelings, our thoughts, our perceptions, and our memories all go through many changes in every moment. We take medicines, see mental health specialists, and do many other things, including meditation, to correct our minds. While we are doing all this, impermanence is still going on crushing everything inside our body and mind very systematically. While all the organs, all the cells, nervous system, quality of blood, capacity of oxygen content in the lungs and the bone structure are going through this very rapid and unmistakable change, no matter how much we patch up on the surface and beneath the skin, impermanence is working its course very consistently underground or inside the body and mind. Nothing on earth, no science, no technology, no magic can help to stop this change. It keeps burning everything systematically.

Seeing impermanence is the key that opens our mind to see suffering, and non-self. The moment we understand this very clearly, our mind opens to the fact that things change without leaving a trace behind to trace the path that impermanence has taken. This is called signlessness. This awareness evaporates the desire for anything impermanent. It also evaporates our hatred or resentment from our mind. Then naturally, this clean mind becomes fully aware of not having any immovable mover, which sometimes is called self or soul by some people. This element of Dhamma, this steady intrinsic nature of all, this law of Dhamma is known in Buddhism as emptiness of self. Seeing impermanence with wisdom is the key to nonattachment, cessation and abandonment.

Discovering impermanence the Buddha, independently, without anybody’s support, went a few steps further and with his profound wisdom he saw that not only is it impossible for a man to step into the same river twice, but he also saw clearly that the same man cannot step into the same river twice. And yet, even this knowledge doesn’t do any service to us.

The Buddha is the only one who saw the connection between impermanence and suffering and the elimination of suffering. He did not try to stop impermanence by attaining enlightenment. He knew that it is an impossible and unattainable goal. So, the Buddha not only saw that everything is impermanent, he also realized that impermanence has a very direct relationship with suffering. It is not impermanence itself that causes suffering, but the clinging to impermanent things that causes suffering, and by not clinging to impermanent things that suffering can finally be brought to an end.

It is not simply because things are impermanent that we suffer, but it is because of our attachment to impermanent things that we suffer. The Buddha points out in Mahāsuññata Sutta that suffering arises from the attachment to impermanent things.

“I do not see even a single kind of form, Ānanda, from the change and alteration of which there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who lusts for it and takes delight in it.” (Majjhima Nikaya, 122)

This passage clearly states that suffering arises from the attachment to form not because the form is impermanent but because we are attached to impermanent form. When we attain full enlightenment we do not suffer. This happens not because we make any impermanent thing permanent. This happens only when we give up our attachment to impermanent things. Impermanent things continue to be impermanent whether we attain enlightenment or not. We don’t stop their impermanent nature that exists whether the Buddhas come into existence or not. If impermanence itself causes suffering even after attainment of enlightenment, the enlightened individual would continue to suffer because he or she has not been able to stop impermanence being impermanent. Suffering can be stopped by not being attached to impermanent things, but it is impossible to make impermanent objects permanent.

The nature of the Dhamma

“Bhikkhus, whether Tathāgatas appear or do not appear, there is this established element of Dhamma, this fixed law of Dhamma. All that is conditioned is impermanent. To this a Tathāgata fully awakens and fully understands. So awakened and thus understanding, he announces, points out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains, classifies and clarifies it: all that is conditioned is impermanent.

“Bhikkhus, whether Tathāgatas appear or do not appear, there is this established condition of Dhamma, this fixed law of Dhamma. All that is conditioned is unsatisfactory. To this a Tathāgata fully awakens and fully understands. So awakened and thus understanding, he announces, points out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains, and clarifies it: all that is conditioned is unsatisfactory.

“Bhikkhus, whether Tathāgatas appear or do not appear, there is this established condition of Dhamma, this fixed law of Dhamma. All dhammas are without self. To this a Tathāgata fully awakens and fully understands. So awakened and understanding, he announces, points out, declares, establishes, expounds, explains, and clarifies it: all dhammas are without self.” (A I 286)

“Seeing thus, impermanence, suffering and selflessness of all conditioned things, one becomes disenchanted with everything. Disenchantment leads to dispassion towards everything. With a dispassionate mind one sees cessation of everything. With this insight or wisdom one lets go of attachment. This is how one becomes insightful into reality. Alternately being dispassionate, he liberates himself from suffering. Being liberated, he knows that he is liberated, has ended birth, has lived the noble life, has done what was to be done, and there is nothing more to be done. This means attaining full liberation from suffering begins with perfect awareness of impermanence.

Here we must remember that disenchantment does not mean anything negative. It is the positive and mature attitude of someone who is spiritually grown into spiritual adulthood. The Buddha has given a very meaningful simile of children playing with sand castles on beaches. While making castles and playing with them children imagine that they are real castles. After a while, they grow tired of playing with these castles. Then they break them and scatter them here and there. Adults watching them playing with the sand castles are amused, reflecting on the nature of the children’s minds. Neither the adults nor children are disgusted or disappointed with the sand castles. They simply let the castles go.

Likewise, the attachment to impermanent objects (feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness) is the cause of suffering. Because things are changing without any prior notice, unsatisfactoriness arises. Since there is nothing to stop or control impermanence, the realization arises that there is no self. Seeing with wisdom this entire process, mindful meditators are disenchanted with all conditioned things.

So the Buddha used the knowledge of impermanence to gain liberation from suffering and attain permanent peace. Other philosophers saw impermanence and yet still stayed in saṃsāra. They did not know what to do with the knowledge of impermanence.

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