Impermanence (Part I)

One of the core doctrines of Buddhism is impermanence & it is also intellectually one of the most straightforward. Things change. Nobody really disputes that--except that when you look a little closer, most philosophical / spiritual systems try to reserve some tiny space for the permanent--that is, when permanence is not front & center, without disguise. But there is no nanoparticle of spirit or matter that is permanent. Nor are conditions permanent. This truth has been sneaking up on me in different ways since I became ill. [Image source: Cafepress] Impermanence Chinese characters It is with pain & the temporary relief of pain where this instability of existence has become most apparent to me. When one experiences pain that is not constant, that comes & goes & can be treated with rest, movement, heat, cold, drugs, electrical stimulation & so on, the variables can multiply in confusing & frustrating ways. And these variables play themselves out in the material reality of one's body. To make this less abstract: When my back began to ache three months ago, I took OTC pain relievers & they worked pretty well, until they didn't. That's when I went to my internist of many years & got a shot of cortisone & a muscle relaxant & all the rest I put into this list. Since then, because of something pressing against something & causing pain, especially when I walk, I have been mostly sitting & lying down. Not that I've been reclining on the proverbial bed of roses--it's a slightly lumpy pull-out daybed in the TV room with a two-inch thick piece of Wal-Mart foam to smooth out the lumps. Pain has the habit of coming back, keeps moving around: left hip, left thigh, lower back, right hip, headache, the pain of nausea brought on by pain medications. No sooner do I find the best position in bed, propped & cushioned by pillows, than the pain will shift around. And because I have been leaning heavily on a stick when I walk, I have strained my shoulder, creating a second echelon of discomfort & disability. This is a model of the way things always are in general--a theory of reality based in Buddhist doctrine--but pain of the sort I've been experiencing really shines a light on this reality, throwing it into high relief. I chant the opening lines of the Heart Sutra while massaging my thigh, & while throwing up.
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep Prajna Paramita, Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
At first I enjoyed all this lying down. I was mostly managing the pain. Semester over, relieved of most of my responsibilities, I could read, listen to music, take pictures & post them to the web . . . with the threat of a serious medical diagnosis hanging there in the middle distance, it's true. But I had created a little island of stability--of supposed permanence--in the midst of swiftly shifting events & conditions. And I don't think there is anything wrong with creating conditions that alleviate suffering--the mistake is getting attached to those conditions, or imagining that they can last. I have had some satisfying days over the last three weeks or so & hope to have many more, though things are going to change--for good or ill--come Tuesday when I get a precise diagnosis & treatment plan. Buddhist doctrine names three marks of existence, which are fundamental characteristics of reality: "impermanence (Anitya), suffering (Duhkha) and not-self (Anatma)."[1. See Buddhanet for a full exposition.] Suffering sometimes gets divided up into another catchy Buddhist triad: "Old age, sickness & death," which is a pretty stark schematic. I'm old--or pretty old, anyway--& I'm sure sick. This sickness may or may not lead directly to death, but death is out there in any case, patient. This sickness makes the silhouette more visible, certainly. I find that I have plenty of immediate worries, but as yet, little anxiety & no fear.
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena. No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness; no ignorance and no end to ignorance, No old age and death, no end to old age and death, No suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom and no gain. No gain and thus the Bodhisattva lives Prajna Paramita, With no hindrance in the mind. No hindrance, therefore no fear.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.