It is extremely important to explain the teaching on impermanence. If not seen the way it really is, and if not properly understood, this becomes the root cause of ignorance (Pali: avijja).
The first of the three characteristics of existence is impermanence (Pali: anicca).
The Buddha said of impermanence—which is sometimes translated as transience—that the way to deliverance, and away from attachment to worldly mind objects and false delusions of self, is to see “the impermanence of all compounded things.”
It is the Buddha who teaches us to see “the impermanence of all compounded things.”
Whatever has arisen and become is already in the process of passing away. At the core of insight meditation is the realization that man himself is a compound of psycho-physical elements and conditions that are constantly arising, coming together, and passing away, with no lasting corporeality or reality.
In one of the books that I proofread for the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, 15 years ago, titled The Thee Signata, Dr. O. H. de A. Wijesekera, former professor of Sanskrit at the University of Ceylon, writes in the Buddhist Publication Society Wheel Series, No. 20:
That is to say that material form, sensations, perceptions and dynamic processes and consciousness are merely mental-physical perceptions, in the moment, that are in the process of arising and passing away. Everything is—in a state of becoming—in a process of passing away.
This means that even every impression, whether strong or weak, is only the result of changing dependent factors that will continue changing, so that any arising impression of any mind object will in turn be impermanent and pass away.
In the words of the Buddha:
All compounded things, indeed, are subject to arising and passing away; what is born comes to an end, and blessed is the end of becoming on the path to peace.
There is no state of being that exists as a permanent thing. What we experience as a seemingly fixed form in corporeal psychophysical perception is just a mental over-simplification of the complex world of appearances based on commonly accepted linguistic conventions and mutually shared conventional behavioral patterns and norms regarding self-preservation and expected individual self-satisfaction. These arise out of the dependent conditions of wishful thinking and comforting self-deception.
Whatever has origination is subject to cessation.
The Buddha has said:
There is no materiality. O monks, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness. There is nothing that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, changeless, identically abiding forever.
Then, the blessed one took a bit of cow-dung in his fingernail and spoke thus: “Monks, if even that much of permanent, changeless, individual selfhood, identically abiding forever could be found, then, this living a life of purity for the complete eradication of suffering would not be feasible.” (M.56)
And elsewhere, the Buddha says:
Here, O Monks, feelings and perceptions and thoughts are known to him as they appear, present, and as they disappear. Cultivation of this kind . . . conduces to mindfulness and awareness. (A.VII, 62)
This goes to the core of Buddhist meditation.
We will always keep coming back to an analysis of the impermanence of consciousness and the problem of the six senses. But now, let’s explain more about how the fact of impermanence serves as a cause leading to an unsatisfactory effect due to a wrong view—of anticipation and expectation, leading to irritation in the common, everyday, human being’s undeveloped, uncultivated mind.
If what the Buddha says about impermanence is true, then it follows that our tenacious insistence upon attachment, and our dependence on self and its wishes, will result in anxiety, mental stress, and tension the moment they are threatened. This is due to an apparent contradiction between what we want but do not get—due to an apparent paradox between what we want to believe and what is actually true—“the way it is” in terms of the Buddhadhamma.
Anxiety, mental stress, and tension will always show themselves in the arising and experiencing of disappointed anticipation and expectation. This ultimately results in a pattern or process, leading through frustration, irritation, and suffering, which in Pali is called dukkha.
Ironically, seen against the background of the larger picture, how we feel about the existence and importance of our own puny supposed-selves is actually insignificant, because not only are human consciousness and the four basic elements impermanent—the whole world as we conceive it is impermanent:
“A time will come,” the Buddha said, “when the watery element will rise in fury, and when that happens, the earthly element will disappear, unmistakably revealing itself as transient and subject to ruin, destruction and vicissitude . . .
“A time will come when the watery element will dry and no water is left in the ocean that will cover just one joint of a finger.
“On that day, the watery element will unmistakably reveal itself as transient and subject to ruin, destruction and vicissitude.
“A time will come when the fiery element will rage furiously and devour the whole surface of the Earth, ceasing only when there is nothing more to devour. On that day, the fiery element will unmistakably reveal itself as transient and subject to destruction.
“A time will come when the airy element will rage in fury and carry away village and town and everything on this Earth . . . till it exhausts itself completely.
“On that day, this great airy element will unmistakably reveal itself as subject to transience and itself subject to ruin, destruction and all vicissitude.” (M.I.187)
Thus everything that is composed of the four elements, including this Earth, shows itself as transient and subject to the law of impermanence. And this is as true for the four elements, within the makeup of the body—matter, liquid, heat and air—as it is true for any other body on this Earth. This is a natural fact. This is the law of the Dhamma.
Everything that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing. And so we should not take it personally. The body is born and lives and dies in a process that is accompanied by physical pain at birth, during illness, and suffering in life, and—unless we happen to pass away peacefully in our sleep—there is pain at the moment of death.
Moreover, in life, in addition to physical pain, there is also the mental pain of anxiety, tension, and stress. It is not only the components of our individuality, which are based on the body and its organs, which are impermanent.
The Buddha says:
“The corporeal form, Brethren, is transient and what underlies the arising of corporeal form—that too is transient. As it is arisen from that which is transient, how could corporeal form be permanent?”
The elements of the psychophysical components of our body are also transient. We know that we must die and are therefore somehow transient. But this realization for most of us is too painful to view, so we shove it aside and ignore it for most of our lives, suffering all the while unconsciously resultant from knowing that we are actually hiding something from ourselves.
Wijesekera, Dr. O. H. de A. 1960. The Three Signata: Anicca, Dukkha, Anattá (With extracts from the Buddha’s discourses). Wheel Publication 20. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.