The Centrality of Impermanence

flowing waterIf there is just one thing you should learn about this world, anicca is it. It may be an exaggeration to say that anicca, or impermanence, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, but when we look closely at this single idea, the whole of the Buddha’s teaching begins to open up.

In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three “marks” of existence, along with dukkha and anattā, or unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Together, these three marks form the core of a Buddhist conception of reality. Understanding this reality is often described as tantamount to awakening.

Indeed, in Vipassanā meditation we are taught to note, or to simply direct the mind to “see” these three marks in all of our experience. To fully see these marks in a way that is unshakable, in a way that you simply cannot forget, such that your every experience of the world resonates: “anicca, anattā, dukkha” is to be awakened. This is no easy task of course, requiring perhaps lifetimes of effort. But this insight alone is enough to cut the roots of ignorance that tie us to cycle after cycle of repeated suffering.

As if to emphasize the centrality of insight into the three marks, the Buddhist Jātakas (birth-stories) describe numerous beings who gained awakening through the realization of these three marks without hearing any teachings from a sammā-sambuddha, or fully and perfectly awakened one. These beings became known as pacceka-buddhas, or solitary awakened ones, because they neither followed another Buddha’s teachings nor taught others what they had discovered. So even from the early Buddhist texts we are taught that one can become awakened without following any “Buddhist” path per se, by simply gaining insight into the three marks of existence.

 With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering crumble  

So why is impermanence in particular so important? Because, as Ñanamoli Bhikkhu points out in his Buddhist Dictionary, ”It is from this all-embracing fact of impermanence that the other two universal characteristics, suffering dukkha and no-self anattā, are derived.” This may be helpful because so much is said and written by contemporary Buddhists about dukkha and anattā in isolation from the more fundamental fact of anicca. And many discussions on these topics, including my own at times, quickly spin off into abstraction, technical details, and heady philosophy.

And yet in the actual practice of meditation the “mark” that is most easily experienced is that of impermanence. With a stilled mind everything is experienced rising and falling. All is impermanent, from the pain in one’s knee: dancing, throbbing, pulsing, fading – to thoughts and ideas: arising as if from the clear sky and fading again into it without a trace, leaving behind pure clarity (or just more thoughts!). Watching this flow, the apparent “solidity” underlying our typical samsāric experience begins to crumble. If you’re anything like me, that solidity comes back a few minutes after most meditations, but experience of anicca is now undeniable.

With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering and sense of a permanent, unchanging self crumble. Obviously, if all is flow and change, then this goes for our “self” too. Our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that we wrongly believe will give us lasting happiness. Realizing anicca, our grip on all of this is loosened. This was described to me once by the young daughter of one of my friends in grad school. “We learn to hold that which we love not like this,” she said, holding out a closed fist in front of her, “but like this,” and she turned her hand over, slowly extending her fingers.

 …insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra  

To work at stilling the mind to directly perceive anicca is to traverse a path to openness, acceptance, and a welcoming attitude toward life.

This work may be done in many ways. Calming meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing certainly forms the most widely taught foundation. Further techniques are numerous and are best pursued with the assistance of a teacher. The best known route in the West is the “path of wisdom,” which directs the student’s stilled mind directly at anicca. However, this path is not for everyone. Buddhaghosa, in his Visuddhimagga, describes how the “path of faith” works in Buddhism, drawing the practitioner by the heart, not so much the head, into direct confrontation with the changing nature of all experience. Peter Harvey discusses the rise of the early “Cult of Relics” in stating that, “Buddha-relics can be seen to remind devotees both of the impermanence of the Buddha and his entry to the deathless (nirvāṇa); they are a presence that reminds them of the absent Buddha…”

Thus we see that it might not be such an exaggeration to call insight into anicca the central goal of Buddhist practice, whether it is through the path of wisdom or the path of faith. We can trace the route back from suffering, through clinging and our mistaken notions of a permanent, unchanging self and lasting happiness in things of this world, to this one fundamental aspect of experience as it truly is. When we truly “get” impermanence, the cycle of ignorance and what follows begins to unravel. We might say that this insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Matthew Brown
    March 30, 2009 1:56 pm

    I’m in the early stages of pursuing this understanding, and what I’ve found is that it has been very painful. As good for one’s health, etc as meditation is, confronting these core truths hurts. And it takes faith — confidence in one’s ability to confront the truth — to continue on what is a very difficult path. Of course, to deny reality doesn’t solve the problems of impermanence, but to face impermanence squarely takes great psychological strength.

  • Justin Whitaker
    March 31, 2009 10:40 am

    Hi Matthew – thanks for commenting. You’ve brought up a great point. A teacher of mine once said that it is at the edge of breakthrough that we find greatest resistance in the form of suffering. I’ll see if I can’t find a closer quote – but you are right, “confronting these core truths hurts.” Faith/confidence is hugely important, as is renunciation (or, more strongly, disgust with living in denial), and so is having a good teacher to push at times and to comfort you when needed. As they say in Spain, poco a poco, bit by bit.

    • I’d also like to add that I consider it important to have a good basis of samatha meditation practice, leading to a basically positive and lovingkindness-filled outlook before pushing into the realms of seriously meditating on impermanence. Not that I think people should avoid thinking about impermanence early on, but the emphasis should be primarily on ridding the mind of negative emotions and cultivating positive emotions. We need to have a healthy appreciation of ourselves before we can begin to deconstruct the self, otherwise much pain will result.

      Of course at times, for any practitioner, impermanence is going to be painful, but our ability to handle pain is perhaps proportional to our ability to eliminate the hindrances and cultivate lovingkindness.

  • Matthew Brown
    March 31, 2009 6:19 pm

    Bodhipaksa, your point is well taken. I’ve been advised to emphasize metta right now, even to the point of leaving off mindfulness meditation entirely for awhile. Partly that’s because of the transitional stage my life is in. I think that lovingkindness meditation and cultivating positive emotions are necessary counter-weights to meditating on impermanence, as you say, especially early on, and especially if one is given to dwelling on negative thoughts.

  • Luc Delannoy
    April 3, 2009 9:12 pm

    May I add the following: music is a great exemple of impermanence. Thru music I have studied musical consciousness for 30 years, and tried to live the impermanence of life (and of the things of life). In that sense, the “understanding” of music gives you the ability to handle pain. Music is a great meditation on impermanance. Best.

  • Thanks so much. I’ve been trying to understand how Buddhism fits together – in geometry, the student has to start with some concepts: the line, the point, the plane, etc., and everything else can be derived from those. I’ve been looking for Buddhism’s central ideas and how they fit together, so, very happy to read this article: understanding HOW they fit will teach me a lot about what they really mean.

  • justin whitaker
    April 15, 2009 8:36 am

    Mark, Matthew, Luc, and Bodhipaksa (I feel like I’ve opened a strange version of the New Testament) – thanks for your very insightful comments.

    I agree that in practice, impermanence is not a good starting point – mindfulness and metta are key, as well as sila or ethics. In fact, from my perspective as a practitioner, impermanence is pretty far down the road – unless I happen to be on an intensive Vipassanā retreat.

    It is more from the perspective of philosopher that, as Mark put it, “we start with some concepts… and everything else can be derived from those.” But philosophy is always a two-edged sword: it can be used to cut through our ignorance or it can increase it by drawing us away from practice and into many “thickets of views.”

    Luc, I love the idea of music as a path into impermanence. I remember hearing (but can’t recall the source) that it is the emptiness or space between the notes that makes music so beautiful.

  • Luc Delannoy
    July 23, 2010 9:18 pm

    Justin, I’d love to send you my book on Musical Consciousness. Could you give me an email address? Thanks

  • Great article, Justin. I appreciate you taking the time to write this and post this for the benefit of others to read. I have recently been adopting many Buddhist principles into my life and everything has changed. The world has never been more beautiful. Although I continually strive to free myself from fear in any sense, I have a specific fear that is always present in my mind. I have come to understand and not fear death, however; I am very afraid of what would happen if I died before I became enlightened. This is what I mean. Recently, I came out of a spiraling descent into depression and ignorance. After finally taking the effort to consciously adopt these Buddhist values and principles into my own life, I suddenly became so grateful for everything and became so much more free and at peace within myself. Now, my worry is that if I die on my path to enlightenment and when I am reborn as a human again, will I still have the intuition or knowledge to follow the Buddha’s path? I guess I am just nervous that now that I know how to live a life without suffering, will I be able to relearn this in my next life? I am so worried that I would be reborn and then have to go through depression or other life scenarios before gaining these insights again. Hope to hear from you soon and hope you can address this specific issue. I would really appreciate it. Thanks.

  • Justin Whitaker
    February 8, 2012 9:01 am

    Hi J.P. If you’re out of depression and living at peace, GOOD! Keep it up, help others. I think that if you keep up your practice in this life, which comes down to your thoughts, speech, and actions in this moment, over and over again, then you won’t have much to worry about concerning the next. In fact, you might find that concerns about the next life just fall away on their own. As with depression (which I also suffered from), a huge part of recovery is in simply seeing worrying thoughts or anxiety for what they are rather than letting them ‘get ahold’ of us.

  • Life is impermanent. Life is just a dream!

    Enjoy the following slideshow of a famous poem “Dream”.

    With metta,



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