Impermanence – A Gateway to Liberation

The worlds longest stretch of prayer wheels. The inner kora at Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, China.

Anitya or impermanence is a very powerful and profound teaching of the Buddha. We can define Anitya as; 

…the constant, basic universal truth of change. Impermanence is both a process of continual loss, in which things exist and then disappear, and it is also a process of continuous rebirth or creativity, in which things that do not exist suddenly appear.’ – Joseph Goldstein, American Theravada Buddhist teacher. 

Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh describes impermanence as ‘What makes transformation possible. We should learn to say, ‘Long live impermanence.’ Thanks to impermanence, we can change suffering into joy.

We can observe impermanence very easily, especially in meditation, but also in our daily activities. In meditation, if we become aware of our breathing cycles, each inhalation is like a mini birth and each exhalation, a mini death. The impermanence of each breath, becomes obvious. This insight, that everything that arises, falls away brings a great sense of peace into being. The recognition of impermanence is simple, remembering to maintain an awareness of it is more challenging. 

In Vipassana meditation retreats, orchestrated by S. N. Goenka, retreat participants focus on the impermanence of physical sensations as a way of realising that mind and body are in a constant process of change.

This is a very powerful technique that can bring an increased perception of anitya. As we become more aware of the impermanence of whatever we perceive, we begin to free ourselves from old tendencies and habitual patterns. We no longer attach ourselves to feelings, emotions, thoughts. We realise that as soon as a thought is born, it dies. The thought, ‘I am not worthy’ becomes just another thought rather than a belief. 

Long live impermanence.’

A bhikkhu on the path.

Impermanence does not mean complacency however. We remain responsive and responsible to our surroundings but we do so, with the freedom and understanding that everything is in flux. 

With this understanding arises nitya, permanence or eternity. Nitya is Absolute Consciousness, that which never changes, the unmanifest. All manifestation arises from this depth and anything that manifests is impermanent. Whatever is born must die. When we become aware of nitya, we connect to a reality beyond our limited self. We connect to a part of ourselves that is unborn. Free from death, fear, suffering and anxiety. 

Sally Tisdale, author of ‘Women of the Way’, describes the experience of an 18th century Japenese Zen nun, Teijitsu. She describes Teijitsu’s journey from her recognition of anitya, impermanence to becoming one with nitya, eternity.

She saw that arising arose, abided, and fell away.… She saw that knowing this arose, abided, and fell away. Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground, nothing to lean on stronger than the cane she held, nothing to lean upon at all, and no one leaning, and she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go and fell into the midst of everything.’

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