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Monday, October 20, 2008

A Little Illustration of Impermanence

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

I'm sitting in the train when, through the crowd of standing passengers, I see a lovely face. Not young-young, but younger than me. Maybe 35, classic, almond-eyed, pug-nosed, pouty-lipped, well-taken-care-of. She's holding hands with someone, but I can't see who.

(Not that it matters. I'm happily married. But that doesn't stop me from appreciating a pretty face when I see one. I once knew a Thai Buddhist abbot who would occasionally mention that a girl was "pretty." Whenever I scolded him, he'd say in his sing-song English, "When I see beauty, I say beauty." I loved that guy.)

Anyway, the ride continues, and at one station most of the crowd empties out like air rushing from a balloon, and I can see who she's holding hands with.

It's her mother.

Same features, but, like, 70 years old. Or at least she looks it. Now, I'm no spring chicken; even a cursory glance at the pictures in my banner above will show that I'm not nearly as cute as I used to think I was. So, would it be indelicate of me to suggest that the whole vintage package wasn't nearly as attractive as the younger model?

What it is, is a visual reminder of impermanence. This is one of Buddhism's "Three Marks of Existence," the shared traits of everything in "this" world (as opposed to "that," which equals Buddhist Nirvana [not really a "world" at all], Christian Heaven, etc.) The other two Marks are: dukkha, often translated "suffering," but better "unsatisfactoriness"--the idea that nothing in this world is quite enough; and "non-self," an indication that everything is connected, to the point where nothing has its own independent existence.

Buddhism has something called the "cemetery meditation." This meditation was sometimes assigned to monks who were having problems with sensuality. In it, the meditator sits in a cemetery observing the decomposition of a body over time. Disgusting? Yeah. But the oft-stated maxim "I am not my body" would thus be brought home in a grim and poignant way. Seeing the pretty woman and her mom is a far less repugnant, but no less obvious, reminder of the same thing.

OK, we're a long way from pretty women on trains. But that's just part of "The Path": learning to see lessons like this in even the most mundane things. As Pacino roared in Scent of a Woman, "I'm just gettin' started!"



Great post James. I think of this with looking at my grandfather, father, son, and myself. (though we're not as nice looking [well, maybe my son, I think he's a vision of perfection, but I'm also admittedly biased] as the women on the train)

Visions of impermanence:

- seeing similar to what I was (son)

- seeing what I'm quickly becoming (father)

- seeing what my future holds (grandfather)

- seeing my present moment in the mirror

Call me strange, but one of the main teachings that brought me to Buddhism is the truth of impermanence. It's direct, but it's oh so honest, and I find comfort in that.



My Reply:

Hi, Kris!

Yeah, I found impermanence attractive too. It makes hard times easier to bear, and good times easier to appreciate, if you know they're going to be gone sometime!

And Impermanence is a good connection to the other two marks: Dukkha occurs because things change, and there is "no self" because a self would have to be permanent. So in many ways, it's at the heart of the dharma.

Thanks for commenting. I hope to bring my wife to L.A. early next year; it would be great to see you and the family at the temple.



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