Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemplating Impermanence

There are many passages where “the buddha” encourages the contemplation of the inexorable reality of change: impermanence. One such practice is the contemplation on the decomposition of a corpse while reflecting on the fact that this too will be the fate of your body. Another is called “the five remembrances.” The first three, briefly, are that you, I, and all beings are of the nature to age, experience illness, and die and that there is no way to avoid these realities. The fourth reminds us that everything we treasure and all whom we love are of the nature to change and there is no way to avoid being separated from them. And the fifth states that we are the heirs of our actions and there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

One practice that the Tibetan tradition offers, "the four reminders," also called "the four reversals" as in the four thoughts that turn the mind, are often presented in such a way that the world-denying and escapist metaphysical tenets of some Tibetan Buddhisms become clear. As Andrew Holecek writes in his article on the four reminders in the Winter, 2013 Tricycle: “These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out the their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification – which can only be found within.”

Among other things, this notion that awareness might “prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects” posits awareness as yet another subtle atman despite the rejection of atman by “the buddha.” Awareness arises in relation to some phenomena; positing an awareness independent of all causes and conditions is no different than positing a soul/self/atman! I find it striking that so many contemporary buddhists have such a difficult time seeing this! Also, common to some forms of Tibetan Buddhism is an idealism that can become a form of solipsism that seems to be rearing it’s ugly face here in the disparagement of “outwardly appearing objects.” Research on happiness seems to suggest that happiness comes from both within and without and that learning the proper balanced ratio is what is necessary; not to discount one or the other.

That this life only has value in terms of the “afterlife” is made overtly clear when he adds: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room; what’s the point?” This emphasis on “reincarnation” which is only seen in Tibetan Buddhism (yes other forms of buddhism teach rebirth, not the same thing and equally wrong when taken as the rebirth of some atomistic entity, one even as nebulous as a specific ‘stream of consciousness’) is another aspect of this life-denying tendency and is very selfish. Taken literally, this statement equating life to time spent in a hotel, and thus there being no point in redecorating it, could lead one to wonder why we should bother to confront structural forms of oppression, catastrophic climate change, or systemic economic inequities; if this life is no more than a hotel, what’s the point? 

Holecek quotes B. Alan Wallace: “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Now, I practice the five remembrances regularly, and emphasize to my students that we should never forget impermanence. The “gatha of encouragement,” which begins our daily practice, reminds us: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Impermanence permeates us. Be awake each moment. Do not squander your life.” But as a naturalist, this isn’t a practice designed to create revulsion for this life, it isn’t a mere “investment in future lives” (other than the metaphorical “lives” we live throughout this one life that we know exists and the equally important lives of those who will come after, as our actions now will definitely impact them) but it’s a practice to awaken us from our complacency; indeed it can be seen as a fierce compassionate shattering of the placid denial we too easily fall prey to, taking this life for granted. And no mistake, that can be a brutal awakening!

To me, though I agree desire for "wealth, luxury and praise" hold little value and may derail our attention from what is of real value, it’s sad that Wallace feels affection and the human need for relationship is “ultimately worthless,” literally “worth nothing” just because we all die! It is the fact that we will die, that we will be separated from all we love that makes my time with my loved ones so very precious; so precious that I don’t want to take one moment with them for granted. Ideally. And through this contemplation, who "loved ones" are becomes vast and ever more inclusive. And that’s why constant contemplation and remembrance of impermanence is important and can be so thoroughly a “turning of the mind,” because the default seems to lull me – us – into a kind of somnolent, zombie-like walking through life. Beyond this, I think it’s intellectually and morally dishonest because I somewhat doubt Wallace, and those who teach this life-denying perspective actually live with the full implications of what they are saying.

So yes, contemplate the fact of impermanence in order to live life fully, intimately, to come to see its absolute value in its ephemeral nature. Practice in order to avoid living this precious human life grasping at impermanent objects or experiences, and not ignoring them either, but savoring the good, and working to change what you can that is harmful to yourself and other real living beings who are also precious because also mortal. Don’t waste this life as if it were some dress rehearsal for future lives or some transcendent state of being. Immerse yourself in the world because you really are of it!

Here’s something I've written about the five remembrances if you’re interested…

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth; a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the five remembrances, "the buddha's" teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, "Isn't this just negative thinking?" On the contrary, I would argue that the five remembrances is what "the buddha" offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate an appreciation for living, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you'll lose, but a reminder of the existential situation of the human. When you accept impermanence as more than merely a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can relax and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don't.
To work with the five remembrances below, it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without immediately analyzing or interpreting them or your experience; that can and should come later. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience dread at the thought of any or all of these realities.  You may experience huge relief as the energy you've spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body. Who knows what you'll experience until you try it?
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it was easier to consider that I'm aging and will die, than it was that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I had believed that if my practice were "good" enough, I wouldn't get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the second remembrance, I've grown more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease even while ill so that I don’t needlessly suffer my illness. What this has shown me is that there is indeed a difference between disease and dis-ease.
Another way of practicing the five remembrances in relationship is through  hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the fourth remembrance: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them." If you're having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the fifth remembrance: "I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions." None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness rather than simply from conditioned reactivity.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture has become challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn't changed! As I post this today, I look back over the month and review my mom’s illness and death; a teaching engagement that took me to Los Angeles; and a political fight to influence Arizona’s governor to veto an immoral, discriminatory bill that the state legislature had passed!
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn't depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the peace and ease you seek are available in the midst of changing circumstances. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.

If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It's the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you're attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to "freeze-dry" elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of life. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.

Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of "not-self." When you can extend beyond the limits you've created you see that your life is not really "yours" but ultimately simply one manifestation of life.

As “the buddha” tells us: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit of 'I' is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.

I am of the nature to experience illness. There is no way to escape illness.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


Anand said...

Great post. I share your opinion of working to lessen the grip of attachment in this current life while still experiencing all the happy benefits that it brings. It doesn't seem practical to forego present-moment appreciation and awareness to bank on a mental construct of anything past the end of this life. It's almost like getting attached to impermanence!

Kevin Knox said...

Thanks for the excellent post. Our sangha here in Mexico, which is mostly made up of retirees, has been working with both the 5 Reminders from the Theravada tradition and the 4 Thoughts from the Tibetan teachings on a daily basis as part of a lengthy series on death and dying. Considering that we have two people with terminal diagnoses and many more who are in their last years of life these practices all hit home.

In my experience, and from the many teachings on the 4 Thoughts I've received, one of the day-to-day differences between using the two sets of contemplations is that the 5 reminders are all "bad news" up until you get to the fifth, which reminds you that through cultivating wise intentions and putting them into action positive changes are possible.

The 4 Thoughts on the other hand, as Tsoknyi Rinpoche teaches, follow a "good news/bad news" format. The good news is you have a precious human (re)birth; the bad news is you could lose it at any time. The good news is that by cultivating positive karma you can be free; the bad news is that without doing so samsara's misery will never come to an end.

I don't think the flavor of renunciation is any less strong in Theravada than it is in the Tibetan tradition, and the EXPERIENCE of consciousness without an object, rigpa, "the one who knows" (Ajahn Chah), Original Mind (Zen), on and on, is pervasive in all of the traditions. Making into a philosophical position is a problem, for sure, but then again so is nihilism, which is why, for example, the Tibetans say that Rangtong Madhyamaka is for philosophers but Shentong is for practitioners who seek actual liberation.

Anyway, what I can say for certain having practiced with Alan Wallace and having had conversations with him is that his renunciation is infused with a great deal of joy and he teaches the Brahmaviharas magnificently. He is anything but dour, but his discipline runs very deep - as does his philosophical acuity.

What you're attributing to the Tibetans alone here, namely quasi-Advaita theism and a belief in reincarnation - seems to me to be integral to Mahayana Buddhism altogether. The Bodhisattva vow and visions of saving all beings depend utterly on accepting rebirth, and the hair splitting about streams of consciousness and rebirth not being reincarnation is just that. As Jayarava points out here:

there's no possibility of Buddhist ethics without at least a tacit acceptance of personal continuity and self. "Not self" I see as a wise strategy to reduce clinging that causes suffering, and I pretty much see the whole of the Buddha's teachings as being along those lines. Conceptualized versions of self in the form of atman and Brahman are also clinging, so the Buddha's via negativa and not-self strategy makes sense, but I don't see that as being at all at odds with the classic Dzoghen description of the nature of mind: "Empty in essence, cognizant by nature, manifold in its capacity." This is where your adamant Naturalism - which I truly do respect - runs up against 3000 years of meditative experience.

At the end of the day though, your approach - which is also the one Larry Rosenberg recommends in his superb "Livng in the Light of Death." makes us appreciate every moment while doing our best to both live our lives and our deaths with "don't know mind." That, surely, is the most I can ever aspire to.

Your blog is always a blast of fresh air and original thinking. Thanks for writing it.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Thanks for your comment. Obviously, I am not singling out Tibetan Buddhism here; in fact, I made it a point to speak of "Tibetan Buddhisms" because like all sects and schools of ANY religion or philosophy, there is more diversity than often acknowledged. And you have read my criticisms of zen to know I reject "Original Mind" and other forms of atman-thinking such as "tatagatagarbha" in whatever sect or form I find it. Here is where I think the Critical Buddhist movement of Japan is valuable.

And also, please note, my "beef" with Wallace in this particular post (in fact I am critical of his philosophical allegiances to unconditioned, non-biological consciousness) is that his language of hyperbole is life-denying. I mean, he DID write:

"If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

First, I'd say that just because we die these desires and objects of desire are not 'worth nothing.' This is the same kind of thinking permeating much of western philosophy ever since Plato: the 'real' is what is permanent and unchanging and what is permanent is the only thing of value. Everything else is not "real" but simply appearance or delusion. While I wouldn't deny that wealth and luxury are not such wonderful desires or objects, to include affection in this list? Hell, to include "good food" is extreme in my opinion. Especially if that includes coffee! ;-)

Second, it's actually as you say and as I point out: Wallace doesn't live by the extreme beliefs implied by what he says! So why does he and so many teachers teach this when it's not accurate? I argue with the dishonesty of such statements.

And again, I am not attributing "quasi-Advaita theism and a belief in reincarnation" to Tibetans alone. In fact, you, of all people, who have been reading me for some time know that I've written critically about such distortions as found in zen many more times than I've ever written about any Tibetan buddhisms. In fact, I believe this is my first critique of Tibetan Buddhism, so I'd say your off-base on this charge here.

However, I have never heard a Theravadin, or any Mahayana teacher outside of Tibetan buddhism, refer to "reincarnation" which is a synonym for transmigration. They do indeed speak of rebirth, but that is completely different (though as I write, also something I reject other than metaphorically). I think you and Jayarava are both wrong about this being hair-splitting. One notion is at least consistent with not-self and one is not, even though both are not consistent with what I take as compelling evidence that consciousness requires a living brain.

I also disagree that ethics (including, especially, buddhist ethics) requires the continuity of a self even in this life, and it totally makes no sense of repeated lives if one cannot remember previous lives.

Meditative experience? Like visions of gods and goddesses? Like visions of hells and heavens? And I'm supposed to take 3,000 years of meditative experience as evidence in their ontological existence. That Dzoghen description of mind is no more than a phenomenological experience generated by brains that are made in such a way that such experiences are 'natural.' To make some 'thing' out of it, that's delusion. It's the exact same mistake Patanjali makes when he reifies awareness into purusha and distinguishes it from body and mind.

Having had the experience, I can see how someone (and whole traditions) can make this mistake. That's why meta-cognition and critical thinking is so important.

Kevin Knox said...

Great response - thanks!

In at least a lukewarm defense of Wallace, he refers to "desire for" (which I'm sure includes, or really means, "attachment to") affection and acceptance as being the problem, not affection itself. He is talking about the classic 8 Worldly Concerns as being what keeps us rooted in samsara. That said, I think your take on all of this is certainly much clearer and wiser than the wholesale rejection of pleasure and positive emotion that we see all-too-often in traditional Dharma teachings, and that Wallace is certainly guilty of participation in here.

The ethics and continuity of self topic is one I am still feeling my way through.

Lastly, the Dzogchen teachers I've had would agree with you 100% that that poetic description of "mind" is nothing more than a phenomenological experience (though many would say that your certainty that such experiences are entirely brain dependent is itself an article of faith). There certainly aren't any claims for ontological existence, nor, really, any interest in anything but experience.

Anyway, a really great post on impermanence that is by far the most up-do-date and clear of anything I've read. I'll be sharing it with the sangha here, gratefully.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Thanks, again Kevin, for your response.

Perhaps Wallace means "attachment" as in "clinging," with which I would concur. And that's why I personally make a distinction between "desire" and "clinging" (which I prefer even over attachment; I mean, we practice 'attachment theory' in our parenting and we know as social animals how important healthy attachment is for human development). It isn't desire nor attachment that is problematic, but how we hold those desires. Perhaps that's why 'the buddha' used the word 'tanha' for the second reality of the noble?

I'm glad to hear what you say of the Dzogchen teachers; what I've read in Tricycle certainly makes it sound like some "essential nature" is indeed being spoken of, and not just "poetically" or phenomenologically.

Of course, I'd respond to any criticism that my "certainty" that consciousness is biologically arisen isn't "certainty," and is not "faith-based," but like any scientific assertion, based upon the preponderance of evidence. AND, therefore it is open to change (my understanding has changed more than once, having at one time believed and accepted the possibility of rebirth) if and when I see the requisite strong evidence to overturn this view.

Unknown said...

invigorating conversation! I have nothing to add but my thanks!

Anonymous said...