Change is a fundamental part of life. Our bodies, our thoughts, the events and objects we encounter and experience, all are subject to change. Understanding and managing change is important to our personal, financial, and social well-being.
From the Buddhist perspective, all compounded phenomena are subject to change—impermanence; there is no permanent “self” who experiences an ever-lasting external world. We are hardly the “masters” of our “selves,” let alone masters of the external world. This is because even our sense of identity is dependently arising—birth, decay, aging, and death are not only natural but inevitable. Our identity on its own, or in relation to our work or family, is subject to all the constituent factors, which are also subject to arising and cessation.
Failing to understand change as part of life fixates us to the status quo that we like or dislike. We fail to tolerate the fact that not only the “object” changes, the subject (“we”), who experiences, is also constantly changing. Rarely will someone despise a new job or personal relationship when it begins, yet our attitudes toward our workplace or other people can easily change over time because people and situations evolve, and our own perspectives and perceptions also change. Even more alarmingly, we can be deceived by the calm before the storm and realities are often multifaceted, complex, and unstable.
A silver lining of impermanence, perhaps, is that no unpleasant, dissatisfactory, or “bad-luck” experience will last forever. If we catch a cold or a fever, we may feel the discomfort in our body with such intensity that we think it might last forever. Yet, sooner or later, our body recovers and heals. For sure there are circumstances in which we feel stuck and hopeless as if the world is collapsing upon us, or all of society is working against us—sometimes, even the weather seems to be mocking us. But the good news is that the bad news will eventually become old news.
The Buddhist scholar Karunadasa explained the nature of impermanence thus: “Only when there is change, there is possibility of changeability.” In the Buddhist teachings, the human personality is “something plastic and pliable and therefore wieldable and amenable to change,” hence the possibility to “descend” or “transcend.” The Buddha said that even if a portion as small as a pinch of dust defies change in the psychophysical personality of a human being, then practicing the higher life is of no avail. Similarly, the state of our mental health, just like our physical health, is not permanent; it can be affected by major life events and trivial incidents alike. When we encounter challenges to our mental state, we should address them like any other health condition: get rest, seek professional help, and find support. We shouldn’t take our mental health for granted, nor should we worry excessively about the tough times.
In the face of life’s challenges, we have a choice: to cultivate the serenity to accept our circumstances, to find the courage to change our circumstances, and to cultivate the wisdom to know what can or cannot be changed.* From the Buddhist perspective, serenity, courage, and wisdom can be cultivated within each of us, and through practice we can become more serene, courageous, and wise in the change-management process.
Chan master Sheng Yen (1931–2009) proposed that in dealing with circumstances, and difficulties in particular, we can choose to face them, embrace them, deal with them, and let them go (面對它、接受它、處理它、放下它).** The key wisdom is to appreciate the Middle Way between what we can and what we cannot do. What we can do is to face them intellectually, physically, and psychologically. There are always people, subjects, and circumstances we like and dislike, yet we need to embrace them and deal with them. We can make an effort to be part of the change process, patiently and relentlessly, but we must also understand that immediate desirable goals may not be achievable here and now. We must appreciate that for meaningful, sustainable change to materialize requires many favorable conditions over a long period.
In response to the collective action required to drive change for better environmental protection, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that “we need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” (The Guardian).
This real awakening is to move beyond talking about humans and the environment, or in another context, opposing conceptualizations of you and me, high-income and low-income, individuals and society, and so forth, because these polarized mindsets lead people to think of two separate confronting entities. It is only possible to deliver change when we transcend these dichotomic views and see the two as one and the same.
With this understanding of interbeing, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we don’t have to sink into despair. Instead, urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. We all desire to live in peace and harmony in a sustainable environment. We have the wisdom and the Dharma. The missing links are “concrete ways of making our commitment to sustainable living a reality in our daily lives. We haven’t organized ourselves.” Instead of blaming our governments and corporations:
It’s time for each of us to wake up and take action in our own lives. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. If we awaken to our true situation, there will be a change in our collective consciousness. We have to do something to wake people up. (Thich Nhat Hanh 2010)
In our daily lives, there are always changes we want to see to improve our personal and work situations. There is no doubt that the way we interact with our environment is not sustainable. We are convinced that there are better initiatives to leverage the strength of market institutions to better serve human well-being. While many of us are eager to make changes in the workplace and in society, we may end up being frustrated by entrenched thinking and rigidity in established institutions of vested interests and bureaucracies.
Incumbents may also be disappointed by change-makers for their lack of appreciation of complex and historical contexts. These conflicts of thought and generation seem to be a conflict of serenity and courage, but they also represent a divide in wisdom; in understanding each other’s perspective, in appreciating the dependent arising nature of all phenomena, and appreciating how, together, we can be the change we wish to see. We do not realize that we are the environment and we are the market.
Sustainable change cannot be achieved through superficial action on the spur of the moment. It requires a fundamental change of values; a change of heart and mindset. Though a firework-like movement may look colorful, the unshaken compassion and wisdom of determined practitioners can move mountains.
* Adapted from the Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Karunadasa, Yakupitiyage. 2013. “Non-self and the Putative Over Self.” In Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, pp 35–50. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong. Reprint, Second 2015.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2010. “The Bells of Mindfulness.” In Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. Edited by Kathleen D. Moore and Michael P. Nelson. pp 79–81. Texas: Trinity University Press.
Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth (The Guardian)