anicca (impermanence)

Being the river

In this excerpt from the chapter on the Water Element, I discuss how water is the archetype of all change. All things flow, and we ourselves are not static and separate entities, but eddies in the stream of life.

Title: Living as a River
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: Sounds True,,, and

The most striking thing about the Water Element is its quality of flowing. It’s because of this characteristic that I too think of water as being the archetype of all the other elements. The Earth Element does flow, to be sure. It flows in a literal sense, as with landslides or the movement of tectonic plates—but these movements are either rare enough that they spring to mind infrequently, or they happen on timescales that are remote from our day-to-day experience. We generally expect mountains to remain where they are and the ground beneath our feet to provide a reliable support. Fire (energy) and air also flow, but these aren’t directly visible like the flow of water. On the other hand, it’s part of my everyday experience to perceive water flowing. I see water flowing from the sky, flowing along the river that passes by my house, flowing from faucets, and flowing down drains. I hear the trickle of urine on my periodic trips to the bathroom. I can feel the blood pumping in my arteries and the saliva sloshing in my mouth. This ready familiarity means that the flow of water becomes a metaphor for the other elements that compose our bodies. As the Buddha once said: “Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so . . . is human life like a mountain stream.”

When I meditate upon the various elements entering this human form, swirling around, and passing out again, it is in fact the image of a river that most often comes to mind. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting next to a six-foot stretch of river that represents my self—my body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. I sit on the bank, watching the waters flow by in this length of river that represents what is myself, me, and mine. As I watch the waters roll by I’m forced to recognize that what constitutes this “me” is forever changing. What I’ve just identified as “me” is now gone, and has been replaced. This is disconcerting, and I begin to realize more and more that I constantly grasp after a kind of self-definition and try to delimit the self, as if I fear that I will be lost in the flow of the elements. The grasping becomes more conscious, the identification more obvious. Yet as I continue to reflect on the transitory nature of the elements as they pass through my form, I realize that grasping is futile. One may as well try to hold onto flowing water as to claim the elements as one’s own, or as oneself. The moment of identification is followed so closely by the moment of dis-identification that they are essentially the same moment, and the moment of grasping becomes the moment of letting go. I find myself experiencing a sense of ease, less compelled to try to grasp the ungraspable. I begin to feel liberated.

Sometimes the image is different. I imagine that I sit before a waterfall. The sheet of water is like a cinema screen, and on it is projected a photograph or movie of my body. I can see myself, and yet there is nothing static within the image. What makes up the representation of myself, what constitutes the substance, what is apparently “contained” within the image I see of myself, is not a thing but a flow, an endlessly changing current, an ever-moving wall of water. In no two moments am I the same person, because the waterfall is not the same waterfall. As with the image of the river, the contents of the form are forever being replaced. There is an appearance of substantiality—of something static—but there is no essence. And again, sitting with this image, as I continue to observe the transitoriness of my self, I have a sense that there’s nothing to grasp. Indeed I begin to sense that there’s no one to do any grasping, since it’s my self that is void of substance.

Being the River

Early in my introduction to Buddhist practice, I had an opportunity to participate in a puja, the collective chanting of some inspirational and philosophical texts. Most of what I heard went straight over my head because I found the idiom foreign and the concepts abstruse. But it was one of the more baffling texts that I also found most intriguing: a work called the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is so named because it explains the core philosophical teaching of the Mahayana school: a teaching known as shunyata, or emptiness. Actually, the word “explains” is not entirely accurate because of the highly paradoxical nature of the text, which combines two different perspectives on the world in order to illuminate the self’s indefinable nature. And so we
have statements such as:

Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form.
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness is only form.

This kind of statement is in effect saying, “Look we have something we call a ‘self’ (which includes a ‘form’ or body), but when we look closely at that self we find that it lacks (or is empty of) the characteristics we assume it to have: characteristics such as permanence and separateness. The self is made up of stuff that is/was/will be ‘not self.’ And when we say it is ‘made up’ of this not-self stuff, that’s not to imply that it’s static. The not-self stuff that makes up the self is simply flowing through.” As you’ll see, it’s hard to talk about the Heart Sutra, or the teaching of emptiness, without lapsing into the same kind of paradoxical talk it employs.

The words of the Heart Sutra rattled around in my young mind (I was in my early twenties at the time, and coming toward the end of a grueling degree in veterinary medicine), both fascinating and frustrating me. To some extent I intellectually understood the teachings it summarized, but I knew that a direct appreciation of the teachings eluded me. It was as if I’d been studying the geography of France in textbooks but had never set foot on the country’s soil. Then, one day, as I was hoeing a patch of ground in the West End of Glasgow (I was spending part of my summer vacation working in a Buddhist gardening cooperative), an image appeared to me that explained the Heart Sutra in a way that went deeper than mere intellectual appreciation. I hadn’t exactly set foot in France, but it was if I’d found myself flying low over the French countryside, finally getting a clear view of it through a gap in the clouds. It was a direct experience, albeit a brief and distant one.

The image involved water. Specifically, I had an inner vision of an eddy in a river. Like many boys who had access to country streams, I’d grown up fascinated by water—the way it flows, its textures, its sounds, and the way in which it ultimately defied all my attempts with dams made of mud and stone and branches to hold back its flow.

Eddies particularly fascinated me. I was intrigued by how they held their form in the midst of constant motion, and by the fact that it was their motion that allowed that form to exist. It’s also quite astonishing that water can have a hole in it, which is essentially what an eddy is—a restless hole in the water.

An eddy never holds exactly the same form for two consecutive moments, but there is often a relative constancy of location and shape that give it, to the human mind, a sense of permanence. The kind of relatively static eddy that forms at the edge of a stream looks more or less the same over a period of time. It may change, but I have a sense that it is the same eddy. The mind in fact names this thing “the eddy,” implicitly assuming that this eddy is a “thing.” But when I look more closely, what do I see? There is no clear boundary to the eddy. Where does it stop and the river begin? It’s impossible to say.

Although I still perceive a form there, it’s a form without a boundary or, to put it paradoxically, a form without a form. Even wondering where the eddy stops and the river begins implies an assumption that the eddy and the river are in some way separate, as if the eddy could be extracted from the river. That of course is nonsense, but it’s a nonsense that in some way my mind creates by regarding “river” as one thing and “eddy” as another. Even if I edit the question to read, “Where does the eddy stop and the rest of the river begin?” there’s still a mental sense of separation that I find impossible to avoid. The fission of the concept of a river into “eddy” and “rest of the river” inevitably implies a real division. I can’t help but look for the eddy’s edge, and every time I fail.

What’s the eddy made of? Obviously it’s made of the same stuff as the rest of the river—water. But just as Heraclitus’s river isn’t the same river in two separate moments because the waters that form it have changed, so—and for the same reason—is the eddy not the same eddy in two consecutive moments. Do we then have a succession of eddies, one following another in rapid succession? If I assume this then I’m forced to ask when one eddy ends and the next begins, and I’m faced with the same situation that I encounter when I look for the eddy’s edge. I’m looking for boundaries in a situation where there is only continuity. Our imagined eddy has an apparent form, but that form, when we look for it, is elusive; the eddy is not permanent and neither does it have any separateness, even though my mind expects to find both of these characteristics.

All of this came to me, as I was gardening, in a few brief moments, rather like a bolt of lightning; and it occurred to me that the metaphor encapsulated what the Heart Sutra was expressing, and that this applied to all forms, including ourselves. I too am a kind of eddy in the flow of elements. I have an apparent form, but that form has neither permanence nor separateness. The eddy that I call myself is made up of stuff that is not-self, and that “not-self stuff” is simply flowing. When I look for the boundary between myself and the world, I can’t find one. When I look for some defining “stuff” that is in me and constitutes the essence of me, I can’t find that either, because everything is in motion. I can see my self, but I can’t pin down what it is. My self seems to be indefinable.

Excerpted with permission from Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, by Bodhipaksa (Sounds True, October 2010)

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Sand mandala dismantled in ceremony

wildmind meditation news

Frederick News-Post: It took monks from the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Maryland, about a week to build a sacred sand mandala.

It took a single ceremony Thursday afternoon to destroy it.

Dozens gathered at the Claggett Center to watch the dismantling of the mandala, created by monks to coincide with a visit by Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche.

Devotees chanted “om mani padme hum” as they stood in line to receive small bags of sand — sand that monks had strategically placed on a wooden board to honor the deity Nairatmya, the “mother of selflessness.”

Following the destruction of the mandala, a caravan of cars and trucks paraded about 10 miles down the road to gather along the banks of the Potomac River near Point of Rocks. Kyabgon sat on a small log near the water and chanted and blessed the sand as lamas in saffron and magenta robes poured it into the water. Sand mandalas are dismantled and the leftover materials returned to nature to symbolize transitory nature of material life.

The ceremony was part of a week-long retreat, the crux of which was the transmission of the Nairatmya Great Empowerment.

On a U.S. tour, Kyabgon, one of two heads of the Drikung Kagyu Order of Tibetan Buddhism, chose Frederick as the only place in the United States to transmit the Nairatmya Great Empowerment, in part because he helped establish TMC more than 25 years ago.

Some people returned to see His Holiness after seeing him in Frederick eight years ago, when he last visited from his home in Northern India.

Hun Lye, president of TMC and organizer of Kyabgon’s tour, said he has received transmissions from Kyabgon on several occasions, as have others at TMC.

Lye said Kyabgon is committed to promoting the Nairatmya program, which belongs to a larger collection of teachings known as the Hevajra.

“His Holiness has said that he sees it as his main spiritual contribution to revive the Hevajra practice within our lineage. This cycle of practices used to be very important in our lineage but in the last few hundred years have suffered some decline.”

Other guests simply awaited an appointment with Kyabgon, so they could ask him a question — quite often the product of several meditations.

But you can ask him anything, insisted Pamela Konchog Gyurme Drolma, in Frederick from North Carolina. She and others agreed that all high lamas are psychic, so to speak, and that people’s questions will be answered, regardless of whether or not they’re asked aloud.

They also agreed that people are changed by the experience, that personalities undergo transformations.

“There may be problems they had, but when they leave … there’s a kindness, a softness,” said Michael Pittmin, who participated in the retreat with his son. “It’s visible. … They come in sort of a cloud of confusion, and things seem so far over your head maybe sometimes, and then the sun comes out … and you get an inexplicable sense of clearness. When you’re in the presence of someone who embodies the (qualities) you’re practicing, it sort of carries you forward,” he said. “It’s like getting a jump start.”

Those at the ceremony were told to keep their pouches of colored sand on their altars or shrines at home, as a reminder.

“We can celebrate impermanence,” Pittmin said as he walked away from the river, “and not fixate on what we just did.”



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A Slow, True Path

This beautiful post came into my e-mail recently. It’s a wonderfully simple and clear exposition of the Buddhist view of life. Or maybe it just happens to coincide with my own. In any case, I thought I’d share it in the hope that might resonate for some of you as well.

A Slow, True Path
Pamela White affirms the beliefs of a Buddhist.

THIS I BELIEVE: That phenomena do not have any kind of demonstrable, intrinsic existence. That anything that is the composite sum of other parts is, logically, impermanent. That suffering is a given in any form of existence where confusion and ignorance are present. That when confusion and ignorance have been definitively eliminated, and goodness, caring, and wisdom have entirely taken their place, that is true happiness.

These four beliefs define me as a Buddhist and are the ground on which other beliefs are based. For example, I believe the teachings when they point to ego, to self-cherishing, to always being on the lookout for recognition, approval, comfort, and pleasure, as being so many hammers that fatally pound in the barbed nails of suffering. And I believed my teacher, the late great Tibetan master Gendun Rinpoche, when he answered my mother’s question saying, “Yes, if you attain enlightenment you’ll know it. How? Because suffering will have come to an end.”

The Buddhist teachers and teachings I’ve been taken with have encouraged me to honestly investigate, question, and delve. And time after time, I’ve had to concur: Trying to build happiness on a foundation of ego is like trying to build a tower on quicksand. But letting go—oh, letting go—is the simplest, most direct path to what I’m always scrambling to achieve with the most ineffectual, hackneyed methods— like crowing about being right, or trying to get something for nothing, or choosing the shortest line, or getting the biggest peanut butter cookie. . .

What do I train in letting go of? Not enthusiasm, or humor, or creativity, or curiosity. I train in letting go of selfimportance and its infinite ramifications. Not that it’s easy. I am the most important thing in my universe—take me out of it, what’s left?

How do I train?

I try to remember that every living being is also the center of its personal universe—from mite to mackerel to monkey. You are also the epicenter of your universe.

I try to take myself less seriously. I try to remember that every seed that is sown will sprout and ripen one day.

I try to imagine myself in the skin of others. And to love them for their qualities, and for the enlightened spark that underlies confusion. It’s hard going, appreciating instead of judging, but every now and then it simply happens, and when it does, I’m happy.

Sometimes I train through meditation, learning over and over again that the fullness and goodness of the present can only be recognized when I’m ready to will my mind to let go of the past and the future.

And sometimes I train by remembering and accepting the inevitability of impermanence and death, making the wonder of the present moment even more luminous.

I try to remember how lucky I am, and to be helpful, and to expect less. I try to understand the teachings of the Buddha, of enlightenment, and to put my understanding into practice. It’s a slow path, rarely an easy path, but it is a true path.

From “A Slow, True Path to Goodness,” © 2008 by Pamela White. Reprinted with permission from This I Believe, Inc., © 2006–2008.

[via Tricycle Magazine]
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Do you know where you’re going to? The Teaching of Guru Garth

There is a profound teaching in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked by the evil Benjamin “How do you feel about making a change?”, Wayne’s friend and side-kick Garth responds in a deadpan voice “We fear change.” It’s a popular part of the movie, with thousands of references to it online, and like many jokes it has a significant truth at its heart.

We really do fear change. We don’t know what change may bring us, and for many people that fear of the unknown is so strong that it not only stifles their growth and development, it keeps them in abusive relationships or jobs that they hate. For many people the security of the familiar, however unpleasant, appears preferable to the uncertainty of change.

I recently took part in some training on the Solution Focus coaching methodology OSKAR, and I was very struck by the way that this approach is particularly effective in working to overcome our innate fear of the unknown.

As you’ve probably guessed, OSKAR is an acronym, and the O stands for Outcome. (I don’t intend to explore the whole methodology here, you can follow the links if you’d like to know what the other letters stand for.) In OSKAR, Outcome has two aspects:

• clarification of what the client wants to achieve, both overall and within the context of the particular coaching session (known as Building the Platform)

• imagining a Future Perfect, in which a miracle has taken place and the desired outcome has been fully achieved (in Solution Focus this is known as the Miracle Question)

In demonstrations of the OSKAR approach I was struck by the way a whole session could focus almost exclusively on clarifying what the client wanted to achieve. Sometimes we’re so hung up on what we don’t want in our current situation, that it’s hard to see through to what we do want instead. Just gaining this clarity about the desired goal can be all that we need – a strategy and the imperative to act seems to naturally emerge from it.

Of course different people have different responses to the idea of change, and different responses to life itself. In Buddhist psychology a simple distinction is made between what are traditionally known as ‘greed types’ and ‘hate types’. I usually explain this by asking people to imagine a buffet table at a party or event. A greed type will approach the table and have an internal discourse along the lines of “Ooh look, mushroom vol-au-vents, I like those … and there’s some nice looking samosas … oh, and look at the puddings!” because he (or she) pays attention to the aspects of their situation that they find attractive.

In contrast, a hate type’s inner discourse will be much more along the lines of “I hate eating standing up … and I can’t eat chicken wings … and look they’ve put celery in the salad, I can’t stand celery … and those puddings are really fattening”, because they pay attention to the aspects of the situation that they dislike.

When they look at the future, greed types and hates types imagine very different things: greed types get excited and enthusiastic about all the things they’re looking forward to, and hate types worry about how everything might go wrong! Greed types are natural optimists and hate types are inveterate pessimists, and as the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives – albeit with an occasional tendency to naivety and seeing life through overly ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.

Of course I’m exaggerating the differences here to emphasise a point. We are all greed types and hate types to different degrees at different times, depending on circumstances and how well-resourced we are. Nevertheless this simple model can be one of many useful lenses to look at our habits and help to address our resistances to change.

Useful though the OSKAR methodology can be, the importance of clarifying your goal is fundamental to change of any kind. It’s not a new observation, but we seem to need reminding of it again and again. Back in the 1940s the Hindu teacher Swami Ramdas was unequivocal: “although many embark on a path of spiritual development few make progress because most lack a clear idea of the goal they wish to reach, and they also lack a clear idea of how to get there.”

If you don’t like where you are now, then be careful to clarify where you’re trying to go at the very start of the journey, otherwise fear of the unknown may undermine your ability to get anywhere at all.

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“This Is Getting Old,” by Susan Moon

This is getting old, by Susan MoonSusan Moon is one of Buddhism’s funniest writers. In this new book, Bodhipaksa finds, she’s also one of Buddhism’s most honest, moving, and beautiful writers.

Title: This is Getting Old
Author: Susan Moon
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-776-2
Available from: Shambhala and

My first encounter with Susan Moon’s writings was The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, which fondly parodied the language, idiom, and culture of the Zen tradition in which Moon practices. It’s the best Buddhist humor writing I’ve come across. That was in 1980, which is 30 years ago, now. That’s a long time. Realizing that makes me feel old, which is appropriate since Moon’s latest book is subtitled “Zen Thoughts of Aging With Humor and Dignity.”

This is a book about aging, but it’s not at all depressing. Susan Moon is a very funny lady. She has a chapter about her family’s history of retinal detachment that includes the following line about contact lenses: “They required at least as much daily care as a small pet–a canary or hamster–without providing any companionship.” I can imagine those words coming from the lips of David Sedaris. Even the title of the book is a lovely, playful double-entendre. This is aging. This is what getting old’s like. And it’s getting old. I especially loved the opening to the final chapter, “This Vast Life”:

“Every morning, I vow to be grateful for the precious gift of human birth. It’s a big gift, and it includes a lot of stuff I never particularly wanted for my birthday. Some of the things in the package I wish I could exchange for a different size or color.”

Moon herself would say she’s a very funny “old lady,” although I don’t tend to think of late-60s as being old these days. Still, she’s 30 years older than when she wrote Tofu Roshi, and she describes in meticulous detail the kinds of changes that have taken place in her body and mind since then — hair graying, bones thinning, memory failing — and that’s a lot to deal with. Moon has almost two decades on me, but I’m already starting to experience my body as aging. From that point of view, This Is Getting Old is a good reminder, to people who aren’t yet old, of what’s in store for them.

The Buddha said that in his youth he was “intoxicated with youth,” and don’t we all, in our younger days, see old age as something that will never happen to us — not because we plan to die young, but because we think of old age as a personality defect, or we think of elderly people as having always been that way. Perhaps Moon’s book will find itself mainly in the hands of “boomers,” but that would be a shame. Anyone interested in Buddhism, whose key teaching is impermanence, would appreciate this up-close portrait of what’s in store.

This Is Getting Old is a collection of essays on different topics more or less related to aging. Mostly the stories focus on Moon herself, but there’s a particularly moving chapter (“The Breathing Tube”) about her mother’s car accident, and her death after three undignified weeks in hospital. There’s a coda to that story in a a later chapter (“Talking to My Dead Mother”) in which we learn that Moon had just finished the final edits to a book her mother had written–only three weeks before the crash. Moon’s mother never got to see her own book in print. That’s painful to hear, but it reminds us that death is like that — it doesn’t wait until you’ve wrapped everything up before it takes you away.

There’s a chapter about depression called “I Wasn’t My Self,” which initially struck me as being rather tangential to the theme of aging. Depression, after all, can strike at any age, and Moon was far from elderly in the several years she dipped in and out of that experience. But in retrospect it’s an essential chapter. This Is Getting Old is pervaded by the theme not just of aging, but of loneliness. In fact, of the two, loneliness may be the more dominant, since much of the content is about what it’s like to no longer be desirable, to know that you may never have sex again (and, more importantly, not to have someone with whom you can have sex), what it’s like to end a relationship and have the thought “I’ll die alone” taunt you day after day. Moon’s depression seems to have been her strongest experience of the loneliness that still haunts her in her 60s.

This Is Getting Old is an aubiographical book. I say this just to be clear that it’s not a series of reflections on aging treated as an impersonal phenomenon. Moon shows us aging rather than tells us about it, and she shows us in a breathtakingly honest way. She’s very open about the pain she’s experienced at various times in her life. And she never seems nasty, even when she’s talking about people giving her a hard time, like her mother driving her mad with disparaging comments about her hair. And, as I mentioned, she’s very, very funny. I found that I liked her more and more as the book unfolded.

I’ve just finished a book on the six element practice, which teaches us about impermanence and not-self, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to read Moon’s beek earlier. She has some beautiful passages on the elements:

“There’s no empty space. The air is fluid, making room for us, so that each of us inhabits a nook that is exactly our size and shape. The air kindly moves with us when we move … We’re all connected, molecule to molecule. I’m held by everything that’s not me.”

You’ll notice that Moon writes beautifully.

This Is Getting Old is beautiful, funny, warm, honest, and existential — what’s not to love?

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P.G. Wodehouse: “If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is!”

P.G. Wodehouse

We spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier.

Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.

I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
—P.G. Wodehouse

We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.

See also:

Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.

Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.

The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?

An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.

Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.

We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.

Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.

We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.

The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.

This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.

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Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself…”

Marcus Aurelius

We can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to it. This piece of practical wisdom is found in the Buddhist tradition, but was also a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. Bodhipaksa explains how we can untangle ourselves from the stories we tell ourselves about our experience.

Marcus Aurelius is my favorite Stoic philosopher. The Stoics, if you’re not familiar with them, were a school of philosophy who started about 300 BCE and who continued teaching until 529 CE, when the Christian emperor Justinian I banned pagan philosophies.

Although we use the word “stoicism” to mean something like to “grin and bear it” or to “suck it up,” Stoicism wasn’t a macho pose of unemotional toughness but a well-developed practical philosophy based on living with an awareness of impermanence. For example Marcus said, “Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things … sweep past us and are carried away”. The stoics worked to live ethically, to eliminate negative emotions such as ill will and jealousy from their lives, and they even meditated. Marcus again: “Allow yourself a space of quiet … and learn to curb your restlessness”. Sounds like Buddhism? Yes it does. I think it’s a tragedy that Stoicism was killed off before it had a chance to encounter Buddhism; I think Buddhists and Stoics would have had a lot in common.

Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius’ advice to look to our responses to events in order to pinpoint the cause of suffering in order to eliminate suffering parallels some important Buddhist teachings. And here’s the crucial thing: It’s not what happens to us that causes most of our suffering, but how we respond. In the end, we cause virtually all of our own suffering: not all, but most of it. A Buddhist analogy is the man who is shot by an arrow, and who responds by shooting himself with yet another arrow. It sounds weird, but that’s what we do all the time.

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Some things in life are going to be painful, but we amplify and repeat the pain through the way we respond to it. Let’s say that something painful happens, like someone saying something unkind to us. Without mindfulness, the mind is likely to proliferate thoughts: blaming the other person; thinking about their faults; wondering over and over, why me?; telling ourselves we’re stupid for having got hurt; wishing things were otherwise; repeating the painful words we heard over and over. There seem to be endless possibilities for multiplying thoughts. This proliferation of thoughts adds yet more pain, but this time it’s self-inflicted.

We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them.

With more mindfulness we’re able simply to accept that we experienced pain in response to another person’s words. If necessary, we respond appropriately without obsessing about it. We might tell the other person how we feel, for example, or suggest another perspective. Or we might decide that no action is the most appropriate action. We let the matter go quickly without obsessing. The mind doesn’t take the original arrow and plunge it into our bodies repeatedly.

Marcus says that “the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it.” We create distress in response to external events because of the way we interpret them. We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them, based on our habitual tendencies. We assign meaning to them. So when we say hello to someone and they don’t seem to acknowledge us we might jump to some assumption about how rude they’re being and how they’re trying to snub us and think they’re too important to reply and so on and so on, and then those thoughts may lead to memories of similar incidents and we move on to telling ourselves stories about who we are and our importance or lack of importance in the world. Proliferation!

Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves.

A lot of the time these stories we make up bear little resemblance to reality. And we know this (or should) because we’re often characters in other people’s dramas. You know, where you have one of those weird conversations where everything you say and do is taken the wrong way? What’s going on there can be more obvious for us. It can be easier to see that a story is being made up that doesn’t match with reality. But we do this ourselves all the time.

One thing that’s really ironic is when we get into thinking hateful thoughts about another person in response to something they’ve done, or that we think they’ve done. Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves. Isn’t it crazy? To “defend” ourselves we hurt ourselves!

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice. When we start watching them unfolding we can quickly see that they are repetitive. It’s like we have a limited repertoire of stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. And when something goes wrong we automatically put on a “recording” of one of those stories. It might be the “poor me” story or the “why am I surrounded by jerks” story, or one of a thousand others. When something hurts us we often reach for one of these stories. They’re comforting, in a way. They give us a reassuring sense of who we are in relation to the world. But they’re also a cause of pain.

So noticing these stories is a good first step in moving towards a more satisfying way of living. Eventually, as we hear these stories for the umpteenth time, we start to take them less seriously. They still may have an effect on us, but it doesn’t go as deep. Part of us is unaffected by the narrative, and we’ve become more free. Eventually, particular stories can just die away. They’re just not needed any more. Something painful happens in life, we notice it compassionately, and we move on. We’ve stopped interpreting life and started living it.

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Act Normal: The origin of suffering

Robert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In this clip, from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Edison, at that time a monk in Thailand, contrasts the Buddhist explanation of the cause of suffering with the explanations from theistic religion.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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“Jake Fades” by David Guy

"Jake Fades" by David Guy

As Buddhist ideas become more commonly known in the west, they increasingly pervade art and literature. Reviewer Hazel Colditz, herself a Buddhist and artist, was impressed by David Guy’s new novel of impermanence, Jake Fades. Author David Guy is a teacher and writing instructor residing in North Carolina. A graduate of Duke and author of several books, he reviews books for newspapers and is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Jake Fades is a novel of impermanence. It is a simple yet enriching read based on the day-to-day lives of two main characters: Jake, an aging teacher of life, and Hank, his sidekick and student. Jake’s mission in life is to teach that everything will die, including himself.

Title: Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence.
Author: David Guy.
Publisher: Shambhala.
ISBN: 978-1-59030-566-9
Available from: Shambhala and

Jake starts out as a young man passionate about art and intent on making his mark. Most of Jake’s training in Zen is described to Hank in flashbacks throughout the novel. He travels to the east, meets a humble landscape painter in Japan, and soon becomes his student and servant. He is taught to focus on observing life: “Learning to observe and appreciate the landscape before you [do] something so presumptuous as painting it.” With Jake’s youthful passion and energy it is hard for him to be told to sit and observe. He resists for months but eventually gives in and grows to love it, and twelve years later he is ordained as a Zen priest.

Jake always holds to the early teachings he imbibed in the monastery: “Buddha nature, true self,” he says at one point. “This practice isn’t about sitting. It’s about compassion which can’t be taught … where you naturally feel for the person, reach out to help.” Jake teaches and embodies these aphorisms.

In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence…

Hank first encounters Jake while in Maine on a vacation with his son, Josh. Josh is a typical teenager, and he and Hank are having one of those father/son vacations-from-hell experiences. While in Maine they rent bikes from Jake, who repairs bikes for a living. When Josh returns his bike he throws it on the ground in front of Jake, frustrated not just with a difficult ride, but with his parents’ divorce and the problems this brings. Jake is unperturbed by Josh’s anger or the damage he causes to the bike, and Hank is struck with Jake’s compassion towards his son. This marks the beginning of their relationship.

The following year they return and thus begins Hank’s introduction into a life as a student of Zen. Jake has a way to make people feel safer and saner by just being around him and Hank wants more. Hank, who struggles with issues of sexual craving, love, and fear of commitment, tells Jake he wants to just stop all his constant craving. Jake tells him “This is your conditioning. This is your karma. You have to see this, the nature of desire.”

I particularly enjoyed David Guy’s storytelling and how he presents Jake as a rounded human being, a profound and humble teacher, but also imperfect. Jake is not a vegetarian, he likes to kick back with a few beers, and he has a passion for desserts.

Just beginning in Buddhism myself I have always had great difficulty in trying too hard, almost forcing my perception or understanding of what a “perfect” practice might be. Am I doing the prostrations correctly? Why won’t my mind just stop wandering during seated meditation? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room, damn it! There’s reassurance in seeing the imperfections that can exist alongside an inspiring practice.

I recognized myself in the character of Jess, a young woman working in the town bar and who struggles to find herself, and in Madeleine, who can sit in perfect posture with grace and physical ease, but who after years of training cannot sit through an entire retreat because of overwhelming fear. She is the one whom Jake feels deep compassion for, a woman whose wealth made it easier for her to escape herself. She loves Jake, although Jake always knows it was not truly him that the woman fell in love with, but the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog…

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog, not just through the obvious fact of Jake’s death through Alzheimer’s disease. “In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence,” Jake says, introducing a talk that Hank is to give. Hank’s response to Jake’s words on impermanence comes out in a teaching: “Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you can’t live this moment until you die to the past one.” This is the magic of David Guy’s writing; he infuses his knowledge or understanding of Buddhism in his dialog between the characters.

Jake teaches Hank that living in the moment is about being fully present. Jake is fully present even if his mind, because of his Alzheimer’s, isn’t. Even in his “moments of forgetting” Jake is in touch with what Hank calls “the unconscious rhythm of the universe.”

Jake connects his Alzheimer’s with his Zen practice. “Sesshin [intensive meditation] is like death,” he says. “When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you?” In an analogy Jake describes how once in his youth he is in a car accident and incurs amnesia: “The strangest sensation. I came to on a hospital table and was clearly awake, looking around, but I had no idea who I was.” Where does the memory go, when it isn’t there? Jake was scared living with his illness but was not unhappy because he had found acceptance.

“I wanted to discover wisdom that manifested as compassion.” These are Hank’s words as he describes why he became Jake’s student. He fell into the lap of Buddha so to speak. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? A life fulfilled, as portrayed in Jake Fades.

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If there is no self, then who’s sitting here?

Silhouette of woman meditating against an umber sunset sky

If I asked you who you are, what would you say? Many people might begin by telling me what they do for work – teacher, software engineer, accountant. But no, I’d say. That’s the work you do, not who you are. If you changed or lost your job, that identity would disappear. So who are you really?

OK, then next you might tell me something about your family and your people – perhaps you’re a mother or father, a person of African descent, an American citizen, and so on. But no, that’s you in relation to others. So who are YOU, independent of them?

There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.

So then you might bring up your personality or values – an introvert, a romantic, or that you have a deep love of beauty. But I’d say these are descriptors of ways you behave or what motivates you. They aren’t who you are.

The thing is, we can continue this exercise forever, but we’ll never find anything we can nail down as “who we are.” That’s because everything we come up with is superficial and impermanent. There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.

Let me be clear that this idea isn’t saying we don’t exist. If we walked into a wall, our bodies would bump against it and we’d feel pain. Yes we exist! Instead, what it’s really saying is that we’re constantly changing beings, always in flux. We’re not permanent, fixed entities. We’re more like rivers. If you stood on a bank and watched a river, the water molecules passing by now would be different from what passed by a moment ago. So then how can we say it’s the same river? Giving it a fixed name and identity is just a convention that humans came up with so we can talk about it. The whole idea is a fiction.

The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it.

At this point, you might argue that there are core aspects of our character that don’t seem to change over our lifetimes. OK, now we’re getting into some tricky territory. The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it. And that’s what can get us into trouble.

Let me illustrate with an example of my own. Some of the traits that emerged very early in my life were my hard-working and self-motivated nature, and that I enjoyed accomplishing goals I set for myself. The various labels I took on included “high achiever,” “Type A personality,” “motivated by excellence.”

But labels are traps. With every one of them comes a whole string of stories, assumptions, and beliefs. And for the most part, they don’t match with reality. I took my labels to mean I should go after a high-paying, high-status professional job, become part of a “respectable” (i.e. conventional) community … you get the idea. But more than that, I felt I had to do my absolute best at everything I did. I was driven to excel at everything I took on because it made my ego feel good.

Many of you know my life story, so I’ll keep it short here — but basically, my house of cards came tumbling down hard in my thirties. I had so taken in my own stories of what being excellent meant that I wasn’t seeing any of the signs around me that were telling me otherwise. My physical health collapsed and I fell into a depression. Then on top of that, 9/11 happened, which among other things, pretty much closed the door on my career.

…look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment.

So what did the idea of “no self” have to teach me about all this? First and foremost, drop the stories. In any given moment when I’m faced with a choice, look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean I disregard everything from my past. I have all that I’ve learned from my life experiences, all the skills and knowledge that I’ve acquired, and all my personal strengths and talents. But the real question is, how are those things actually manifesting in me right now, and how do they apply to the situation at hand? It’s not about the degrees I have, or the idea that I strive toward excellence, or that I want to succeed. Those are my stories. What’s really present for me right now, and what’s the most positive choice I can make based on that?

The Buddha’s teaching of no-self is about letting go. Let go of our stories, or in short, our egos. Our egos think those stories bring us security, but in reality they act more like ill-fitting glasses that distort our vision. But at the same time, the teaching isn’t telling us to be passive and let the winds blow us around. It’s about being so completely immersed in and open to the present moment that we know clearly and fully what the situation is – including our own strengths and weaknesses. With that clarity of vision, we can choose to flow more in harmony with the way things really are by confidently relying on our known strengths, rather than fighting to hold up our version of a fool’s paradise.

This is where the practice of mindfulness is vitally important. At some point in our practice, we begin to let go of our grasping to uphold “me” as something opposed to “the world out there.” We start subtly shifting away from being dualistically MINDFUL OF various things to sensing that we are just awareness itself, inseparable from our surroundings. We stand naked just as we are, the pure potential present in us right now, and flow intimately with the world as it is. That’s the real gift of mindfulness — to feel so confident and in harmony with the world that we can trust and let go of our lives to it.

I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how.

Back to that notion of character traits that don’t change much – yes, I still have many of those qualities that keep me motivated to do my best at everything I do. But my way of thinking about them has really changed. I now know I’m at my best when I stand back and let the world around me augment what talents and skills I have. I suppose it’s sort of like sailing. Rather than me doing a lot of rowing, I’m learning how to harness the wind so it propels me toward where I want to go.

So if there is no self, then who’s sitting here? I guess the answer is a growing, changing being. In my case, this being also wants to grow toward becoming wiser and more open-hearted, and so every moment, I try to make the best choice I can to point myself in that direction. Where am I going? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Because the more I make positive choices, the more strongly the flow of my life seems to move in the direction I aspire toward.

I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how. And paradoxically, I’m finding that the more I take in the idea of no-self, the more I’m becoming who I really am.

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