The reality of impermanence

by Vipassana Research Institute

Every existing thing is impermanent.
When you begin to observe this
with deep understanding and direct experience,
then you remain detached from suffering:
this is the path of purification.

Dhammapada, XX (277)

In order to explain in a broader and more detailed way the important concept of anicca, impermanence, we propose this article written by the Vipassana Research Institute.

Anicca, impermanence
Change is inherent in all phenomenal existence. There is nothing in the animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic field that we can define as permanent, and even if we were to give this designation to something, it would inevitably be destined to change, to undergo some metamorphosis. Having understood this fundamental fact through direct experience within himself, the Buddha declared:

Whether or not there is a fully enlightened person in the world, nevertheless there remains one firm condition, one immutable fact, and one fixed law: all physical and mental formations are impermanent, subject to suffering, and devoid of substance.

Anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (inconsistency of the self) are the three characteristics common to all conscious existence. Of these, the most important in Vipassana practice is anicca. As meditators we are faced with the impermanence of ourselves. This allows us to understand that we have no control over this phenomenon, and that any attempt to manipulate it creates nothing but suffering for us. We then learn to develop detachment and acceptance of this fact, openness to change, thus allowing us to live happily among the vicissitudes of life. Therefore the Buddha said:

Meditators, to the one who perceives impermanence, the perception of inconsistency and lack of an I is clearly manifested. And in the one who perceives this inconsistency, egoism is destroyed. And, as a result, he gets liberation even in this very life. The understanding of anicca automatically leads to the understanding of anatta and dukkha, whoever realizes these facts is naturally on the path that leads out of suffering.

Given the crucial importance of anicca, it is not surprising that the Buddha repeatedly stressed its important significance for those seeking liberation. In the Maha-Satjpatthana Suttanta, the main text in which Vipassana meditation is explained, he described the different stages of the practice, which must in each case lead to the following experience:

The meditator pauses to observe the phenomenon of rising...pauses to observe the phenomenon of passing...pauses to observe the phenomenon of rising and passing.

We must learn to recognize the fact of impermanence not only in its easily recognizable aspect, around and within ourselves. Beyond that, we must learn to see the subtle reality that we ourselves are changing every moment, that the self with which we are so infatuated is a phenomenon in constant flux, constantly changing. With this experience we can easily emerge from selfishness and thus from suffering. In other circumstances the Buddha said:

The eye, O meditators, is impermanent. And that which is impermanent is unsatisfactory. That which is unsatisfactory is without substance. And that which is without substance is not "mine," is not "I," is not "myself." This is how to observe the eye wisely, as it really is.

The same thing is repeated for the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, for all the bases of sensory experience, for every aspect of the human being. The Buddha thus continued:

Seeing this, O meditators, the well-educated meditator has had enough of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Being now satiated he no longer feels passion for them. Being without passion for these senses, he feels free. In this freedom comes the understanding that he is liberated.

In this passage the Buddha makes a clear distinction between knowing by hearsay and personal understanding due to direct experience. One can listen to numerous discourses and accept them by faith or even intellectually. However, this acceptance is insufficient to free us from the cycle of suffering. To achieve liberation each person must see and experience the truth for himself, within himself. This is what Vipassana allows us to do.

If we are to understand the Buddha's exceptional contribution, we must keep this distinction well in mind. The truths of which he spoke were known even before him, and were common in the India of his day. He did not invent the concepts of impermanence, suffering, and the inconsistency of the self. His uniqueness and peculiarity consists in having found a way to move from discourses on truth to the direct experience of truth. A text in which we find the attention to this particular aspect of the Buddha's teaching is the Bahiya Sutta, which is found in the group of discourses of the Samyutta Nikaya. In it, the Buddha's encounter with Bahiya, a seeker of the spiritual path, is described. Although he was not a disciple of the Buddha, Bahiya asked him to be his guide in his search. The Buddha responded by asking him questions:

What do you think, Bahiya: is the eye permanent or impermanent?
Impermanent, sir.
And is that which is impermanent the cause of suffering or happiness?
Of suffering, sir.
Now, does it seem right to you to consider that which is impermanent, the cause of suffering and by nature changeable, as "mine," "I,"" myself?
Certainly not, sir.

The Buddha continued to ask Bahiya the same questions about objects of sight, eye consciousness, and eye contact. The man always agreed: they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, without an "I". He did not claim to be a follower of the Buddha's teaching, and yet he accepted the reality of anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Of course, the explanation is that for Bahiya and others like him, the concepts of impermanence, suffering, and the inconsistency of the self were simply opinions. To these people the Buddha showed a way to go beyond beliefs and philosophies, and directly experience their nature as impermanent, as suffering and without an ego. In what, then, does this way that he showed consist? In the Brahamajala Suttanta, another discourse, the Buddha offers an answer. He makes a list of all the beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints of his time, and then claims to know something far beyond all those viewpoints:

Having experienced what the arising and passing of sensations, the attachment to them, the danger inherent in them, and the detachment from them really are, the Enlightened One, or meditators, has become detached and liberated.

Here the Buddha very simply states that he became enlightened by observing physical sensations as manifestations of impermanence. And he invites anyone who wants to follow the Buddha's teaching to do the same. Impermanence is the central fact that we must understand in order to come out of our suffering; and the immediate way to experience impermanence is to observe our physical, bodily sensations. Again the Buddha said:

There are three kinds of sensations, or meditators, and all are impermanent, compound, and arise from a cause, destined not to last, and by nature to pass away, disappear, cease.

The sensations within ourselves are the most palpable expression of anicca's characteristic, impermanence. By observing them, we become able to accept this reality, not only by faith or intellectual conviction, but by our own direct experience. In this way we progress from hearing only the truth to experiencing it within ourselves. And truth, when we encounter it face to face, is destined to transform us radically. Thus the Buddha said:

When a meditator remains aware with correct understanding, diligent, ardent, and with full self-control, when pleasant bodily sensations arise in his body, he then understands that this pleasant bodily sensation has arisen, but it is dependent on a cause, not independent. Dependent on what? On this body. But this body is impermanent, compound, conditioned. Now, how could these pleasant bodily sensations be permanent since they depend on this compound, impermanent body, and which is itself conditioned?

The meditator experiences the impermanence of sensations in the body, their arising, passing, and ceasing, and thus the diminishing of attachment to them. As he does this, his subterranean conditioning of craving is abandoned. Similarly, when he experiences unpleasant sensations in the body, his subterranean conditioning of aversion is abandoned; and when he experiences neutral sensations in the body, his subterranean conditioning of ignorance is abandoned. In this way, by observing the impermanence of bodily sensations, a meditator comes closer and closer to the goal of the unconditioned stage of nibbana, beyond sensory experiences. After reaching that goal, Kondañña, the first person who became liberated through the Buddha's teaching, declared:

Everything that has the nature of arising also has the nature of ceasing.

Only by experiencing in a total way the reality of anicca was he able to experience a reality that does not arise and does not pass away. His declaration is a clear signal on the path to future seekers of truth, it indicates the way they must follow to reach the goal. At the end of his life the Buddha declared:

Every existing thing is impermanent.

In his last moments he wanted to reintroduce the great theme he had spoken about so often during his years of teaching. And then he added:

Strive diligently.

But for what purpose, we must ask ourselves, must we strive? Surely these words, the last spoken by the Buddha, can only refer to the previous sentence. The Buddha's precious message to the world is the understanding of anicca, the understanding by direct experience of the impermanence of every physical and mental phenomenon, as a means to liberation. We must strive to attain impermanence within ourselves; only by doing so can we be said to have understood his final exhortation and teaching.

To top