The Principle of Impermanence in Buddhism
Impermanence is an important principle in the Buddha’s teachings, and one that can lead to a great deal of freedom once it is seen clearly. Like the other Marks of Existence, impermanence is not something we need to create or conjure. Rather, it is a reality we can use as a foundation for clarity and insight.
This is going to be a very introductory look at impermanence, and we’ve listed some resources for further reading at the bottom if you really want to dive into this important teaching. For now, let’s look at what impermanence is in Buddhism.
What is Impermanence?
The Buddha’s teachings are contained in a collection known as the suttas, which may be thought of as a Buddhist holy book. The suttas were originally written in Pali, which is now a dead language. The word in Pali that we often translate as impermanence is anicca. Although we most often hear the word impermanence, it is sometimes translated as inconstant, changing, or unstable.
Essentially, the teaching of anicca is that every conditioned aspect of life is transient in nature, subject to arising and passing. This includes every smell, taste, feeling in the body, sound, sight, and thought. These experiences come and go, and are unstable even when they seem to be permanent.
You can take anything in your life that you’ve experienced and see impermanence at play. Big things like the solar system are constantly changing, as are the day-to-day thoughts and emotions. Even if you experience chronic pain, it isn’t really permanent. Chances are it comes and goes during your days and weeks. You may do things to cause more pain, while other things may dull the pain. And of course, when you die the pain will no longer be.
Impermanence isn’t only that things arise and pass. As they are present, they are changing in nature. Take, for example, the love you may have for someone else. It may be a significant other, a child, a friend, or a pet. When that being is there with you and you are experiencing love, it feels different than when you are separated and missing them. These may both be understood as love, but the actual quality and experience is in a state of flux.
It also is important to note that non-conditioned things are not subject to impermanence, such as nirvana.
Why is Impermanence Important in Buddhism?
Impermanence is really one of the most foundational Buddhist teachings. Although many people come to mindfulness and meditation practice to relieve anxiety or learn to relax, the actual purpose of mindfulness meditation is to gain insight into the Three Marks of Existence. As anicca is one of these three, it stands to reason that it is an essential piece of the puzzle.
When we don’t recognize that things are impermanent, we may fall into clinging and craving. We may also fall into aversion and ill-will. Not seeing clearly, we are in delusion or ignorance, one of the Three Poisons. We suffer when we cling and attach because nothing is permanent. We cling to things that leave us, and attach to experiences that simply won’t stay the same.
In 2015, I went on a ten day retreat where we practiced loving kindness meditation intensively. On the seventh day, I proposed to my then-girlfriend. She said yes, and we returned to silent meditation practice for a few days. During these final days, I say with an immense joy that was calm and easy. I simply felt content.
When we got off retreat, I called a few people to let them know we were getting married. Of course, people were extremely excited for us. There was a lot of joy, but it was a different kind. Rather than a calm and collected joy, it was a more energetic one. I felt very discontented and overwhelmed. I was strongly clinging to the previous joy, with the belief that joy “should” look like that. Because of the clinging, I was suffering and unable to really be present and enjoy the present happiness.
Understanding impermanence gives us great freedom. However, impermanence is not something we are just to intellectually understand. Although you may understand that everything is impermanent in theory, it’s important to know it. In the Buddhist teachings, to know something does not mean to just know it with our brains. Instead, the instruction is to fully know it in practice and experience. As you grow to know anicca, the mind and body grow less inclined toward clinging and craving naturally. Recognizing the impermanent nature, you no longer hold so tightly to this or that experience.
Practicing with Impermanence
To know impermanence means you will actually need to practice. As mentioned before, this is really one of the points of mindfulness practice as outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta. We can see impermanence in almost any mindfulness practice. You may notice the impermanent nature of the breath with each inhalation and exhalation, the impermanence of sounds during a hearing meditation, or the changing nature of feelings in the body during a body scan meditation.
Below is a guided vipassana meditation, or insight practice. This is a core mindfulness practice in our meditation tradition, and is useful at looking at our experience with wisdom and clarity. Remember, it’s a practice. As you meditate with this, remember to pay attention to the changing nature of your experience from moment-to-moment.
You can also notice the impermanence in your daily life. There’s really no limit. Notice the cars as they pass, the wind blowing the clouds through the sky, or the arising and passing of a thought during your day. By tuning into impermanence repeatedly, you are re-training the mind to see this aspect of reality clearly. With continued practice, we no longer need to strain to see the impermanent nature of phenomena; it becomes rather obvious and apparent.
Impermanence Buddhism Quotes
It doesn’t seem right to talk about imperamence without looking at what the Buddha said about the subject. When we were doing so, we came across a few thoughts from other teachers on impermanence as well.
“The three kinds of feelings, O monks, are impermanent, compounded, dependently arisen, liable to destruction, to evanescence, to fading away, to cessation — namely, pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neutral feeling.”
“A man’s joys are always transient, and since men devote themselves to pleasure, seeking after happiness, they undergo birth and decay.”
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.”
“All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”
“In this manner the world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world.”
“Conditions are impermanent and unstable; having come into being they disappear, having arisen they pass away. And yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness.”
“Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.”
“Impermanence is the very fabric of our lives. It’s not just that our lives are always changing; our lives are made up of change.”
“What is it that allows us to open our hearts to every moment of our life? It’s the remembrance that it’s passing and it’s precious.”
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
-Alan W. Watts
If you are interested in working more in-depth with meditation practices, you can work one-on-one with a teacher at One Mind Dharma.