ANITYA – IMPERMANENCE
Vol. XLVIII, No. 11



One of, or perhaps the only thing we remember from our days in Dharma School is the word impermanence; the teaching that everything is in a constant and unceasing state of flux. Our teachers thought of ingenious ways to show us the process of change, from growing lima beans and watching them grow, to views of the changing seasons. Anitya or impermanence is one of the fundamental points of the Buddha’s awakening experience. But it is not a terribly exciting idea when we observe change as an exterior event. One begins to wonder what the big deal is about impermanence. That is until you begin to look at impermanence as an interior reality as well.


The lotus flower with a thousand petals is a common image in Mahayana Buddhism. The thousand petals mean a constantly opening lotus, and the lotus is us – what we really are. To be constantly opening and constantly changing means be-ing constantly in the present – a difficult task indeed. Our tradition tells us that only Buddhas live in the present. Buddhists struggle to sense and connect with this ever-changing present and be nurtured by it. Zen speaks of having the “beginner’s mind” when one is learning or doing something for the first time, with no preconceptions of what should be, but only the openness and enthusiasm for what is taking place. Taoism speaks of growth in plants taking place at the soft and supple green parts of the plant. All are examples to be applied to an individual at any age, but especially to those of us who are forty and older when ways and attitudes begin to crystallize and harden – when the green branches begin to harden into stiff bark. This is true of individuals, groups of individuals, and institutions as well. Knowing when to flow with change, knowing when to resist it, with oneself, with ones children, ones community, nation, world, etc, is the difficult trick.

Dynastic China speaks of the dynastic cycle of approximately 400 years. Each Chinese dynasty lasted approximately 400 years. When the Chinese looked back on their own history, they saw a dynastic pattern of four periods of approximately 100 years each. In the first period, the founders of the dynasty were vigorous and sincere in their desire to rule wisely and well. New or reformed institutions were established to bring stability, peace, and prosperity to the empire. The ruler’s children and grandchildren, although born and raised in a privileged palace atmosphere, had the example and discipline of the founder. This first stage is considered the Golden Age of the Dynasty. This is followed by the second 100 years in which the attractions of palace living become more important to the rulers and the daily business of governing is increasingly left to ministers and a growing bureaucracy. It is however still a period strongly influenced by the memory of the first period. The third period sees the entrenchment of the bureaucracy, the consolidation of and exercise of their power, and the increasing corruption of the ruling class. The bureaucracy forgets the original purpose of benefiting the empire and becomes concerned with its own preservation and privileges. The fourth period is the period when both ruling class and ruling bureaucracy fight each other for their own benefits and power to the detriment of the empire. It is a period of dramatic changes, attempts at reform, resistance to reform and change, and finally revolution and the formation of a new dynasty.

This dynastic theory is seen to be applicable not only to empires and nations, but to groups and individuals as well. All of this is set into motion by the ability to see change in everything but myself. The awakening to Anitya (impermanence) then is not so simple and matter-of-fact as we imagine. It is an awakening of immense importance and meaning – one that is the fundamental reason for having a temple in the first place, in spite of the paradox that our temple institutions are plagued with lifetime sinecures and attitudes, of unchanging ways and means. We are truly wise and foolish, clear seeing and blind, good and bad, right and wrong, “like a ring which has no end”. Namanda, Namanda

Gassho, Rev. Mas




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