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January 1995, Volume 2 Nr 5, Issue 17

Impermanence

Recently, our family watched the movie Little Buddha. In it, Lama Norbu, a Tibetan monk, searches for the reincarnation of the great teacher Lama Dorje. In a conversation with the father of a prospective North American candidate, Lama Norbu defines impermanence. He says, "There are five billion people in the world. In a hundred years they will all be gone. Now, that is impermanence."

The ego would hide from us the fact that it and we will ever die. The ego conjures up an amazing assortment of events, grievances, situations, minutia, trivia, etc. and raises them to the stature of unignorable importance. That way, we can focus our attention away from impermanence and toward the ever demanding ego clamoring for recognition. As a consequence, we ignore what we really are: love. The consequences of our ignoring impermanence sneak up on us through accident, ill health, disability or death. Impermanence has a way of letting us know all too late that we have wasted a lot of the time given to us.

Decades ago, a family member discovered that the circulation in his toes was poor. A heavy drinker, his ego told him that he could continue drinking as he always had, even though his physician told him that he was diabetic and risked further health deterioration. He felt that he would not die. He had no legal will to protect his family. He completely denied his impermanence. One morning, he went into a diabetic coma. He was taken into the hospital and impermanence offered him the choice to either lose his leg or his life. The immediate family made the decision to amputate the leg.

Even after he recovered from the amputation, he refused to accept that his leg was gone. He believed that nothing had changed. He planned to return to his life as it was, the same lifestyle, drinking, etc. Some of his "friends" brought alcoholic beverages into his room and within a short while, he passed away. This was my first experience with impermanence and its denial.

A few years later, my mother, who was very heavily invested in fat-laden eastern European diets, came down with excruciating abdominal pains. Recognizing her impermanence, she chose to keep her pain and deteriorating health to herself. Eventually, the pain could not be ignored. One day, my father called me to tell me that he could no longer take care of her. He did not know what to do. I suggested that we take her to a local hospital where a physician friend would have a close look at her. She reluctantly went along, fighting all the way down the stairs and the sixty-mile Garden State Parkway drive. We settled her into her hospital room and went home for a bite to eat. The phone rang. She had passed away. I have the sense that she chose the exact moment to accept the ultimate consequence of giving in to impermanence. I believe she chose her time, just after we left. Our family never discussed or talked about death. By doing what I thought was the correct thing, I may have acted against my mother's wishes regarding her dying.

Six years later, my father came face to face with his impermanence. He fought and struggled with the fear of dying. He was subjected to test after test, technique after technique, until one day, he decided no more. "Jozio. Let us not do that again", he said. He spent the last few months of his life in relative peace and calm in the Catskill region of New York after living almost a half-century in a big city.

Two years ago, a young, good friend, who loved life and adventure had impermanence thrust upon him. An avid hang glider, his wing tip hit a tree while trying to land and he came down twenty feet onto his head. He never regained consciousness. In accord with his and the family's wishes (he had a living will and power of attorney), life support was removed. He was in his mid thirties. His wife told us, "He died doing what he loved most."

At Any Time

When I was very young, I remember one of my friends asking me when I thought that I would die. I answered sometime when I was much older, in my sixties, seventies or later. I was informed that I could die at any moment. I remember the incident. I remember being afraid. Why is it that we are shocked to find out that we have this condition or that one? Why is it such a surprise to learn that our physical bodies are deteriorating rapidly and that there is little time left? We are after all directed toward impermanence as surely as an arrow toward its target, and like the arrow have little or no cognizance of the ultimate destination.

I believe that we do not come to terms with impermanence because we confuse the body with the ego. We define ourselves by our physical stature, our eye color, hair color, skin color, shape, complexion, etc. A Course in Miracles tells us, "Being told by the ego that it is really part of the body and that the body is its protector, the mind is also told that the body cannot protect it. Therefore, the mind asks, 'Where can I go for protection?' to which the ego replies, 'Turn to me.' " Heavily identified with the body, the ego has no protection from impermanence. It attempts to solve the impermanence problem by removing the question from our awareness. Thus, we go through life seldom thinking about the end, seldom evoking images of our own physical demise for to do so would bring about much unease. We are then surprised when the unthinkable grabs us in a myriad of possibilities.

Lama Norbu, in Little Buddha, reflects upon impermanence of the body through a small lesson using tea. He says that the tea in a cup is just the tea in a vessel. Breaking the cup, the tea splatters on the table and the floor and can be soaked up in a rag. The tea can then be placed in another cup and becomes tea in a cup once again. Lama Norbu makes the point that it is still tea; on the floor, in the rag, in the cup. He sees the essence of what we are as being beyond the impermanence of the vessel, in this case the body.

Death as Narcissism

Buddhism and other world religions believe in coming back after death. Is not the notion of reincarnation the ultimate in ego narcissism? Christians believe that all people will at another time rise from the dead and spend eternity in either the presence of God or in the fire of hell. Both reincarnation and resurrection foster the notion of existence beyond impermanence. Either way, the belief is in something beyond the impermanence of the body.

Frank J. Tipler, a physicist and codiscoverer of global quantum mechanics (along with Stephen Hawking), sees impermanence defeated through ultimate knowledge. Tipler suggests that we are complex machines, combinations of ROM (read only memory) as intuition, and RAM (random access memory) as environmentally and genetically produced encoded programming. He calls the programming running the biological machine soul. In the future as life will most probably continue and become more knowledgeable, humans will create computers capable of running any previously written or encoded program, opening up the possibility that any personality or being could be duplicated. In other words, such a computer could resurrect a personality. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality makes a striking attempt at proving resurrection through mathematics and science.

Are any of the what-happens-after-death theories relevant in the context of our day-to-day existence? Does the supposition or even the confirmation of any of these ideas change the way we play out our moment-to-moment lives? Is the discussion itself more fuel for the ego to use as a diversion against the recognition that there might be nothing else? Does this creative and brilliant narcissism concentrate our energies toward enlightenment at the expense of helping others in the day-to-day? Prince Siddhartha, later known as the Buddha, did after all, leave all his temporal attachments behind, not only the material comforts of royal privilege, but also the responsibility of family life as well. His day-to-day quest took place unencumbered by parental duties and familial obligations.

Death Be Not Proud

John Donne (1573 - 1631) wrote the poem, Death Be Not Proud which I remember from my freshman college poetry class:

Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go -

Rest of their bones and souls' delivery!
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.

 

In the first four lines, John Donne challenges and baits
death. In the next four he checks and mates death. Then
he attacks and shows contempt for impermanence and finally in the last four lines, coup de grace. Even death as individual experience is impermanent. To defeat it one need only die.

Our impermanence then is a matter of matter. As long as we see time as the operative in our lives attached to our physical being we will continue to avoid death and anything related to it. Since death is a part of life, we will avoid life as well. If however we see ourselves as the tea that dwells in the cup, then in one form or another, we will continue. We continue through art, poetry, music, progeny, legacy, etc.

Death as Ego Consequence

An elder friend once told me that "Death is the scariest $%&#!@+ thing I can think of." It would seem to me that statement is not only a matter of personal opinion, but of personal temporal placement. It is also very common, so common that we avoid talking about death at all cost. Occasionally, the thought of dying gives us shivers while most times it is of seemingly little or no consequence. During a depression, death and impermanence can seem inviting, a possible way out of crowding dilemma and turmoil.

I cannot help but ponder whether our ability to consider death came about as a development of acquired and evolved thinking and accumulation of knowledge. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets states, "It has been said that Death came into existence only with the rise of man's consciousness, a roundabout way of saying death is more real for humans than for any other animal, because only humans foresee it. Religions owe their existence to the unique ability of the human animal to understand that it must die." Possibly, both death and the ego came into existence at the same time as a result of this recognition.

While long lasting matriarchal cultures apparently accepted death as just as important as life, patriarchy has sought to prolong life, sometimes because impermanence was seen as inevitable and the inevitable as unacceptable. To deny our impermanence and demise is to negate the intimacy with our entrance into and exit from a consciousness based reality. Our recognition and acceptance of impermanence need not impose fear as my friend lamented. Fear is of the ego while love is of conscious awareness. Jerry Jampolsky writes, "Teach only love for that is what you are." The awareness of the ego's avoidance of dying curtails the fear of impermanence. While consciousness may have created the ego, the ego masks consciousness.

Necessity

I once thought that there is a sad benefit to having few biological relatives. The fewer the number, the less often one has to cope with their deaths. Since I have no brothers or sisters, no known cousins, no known grandparents, aunts or uncles, my experience with the death of a close blood relative has been limited to my parents. I vividly recall the traumas and drama of both my father's and mother's passing. I was in my thirties and not ready for their transition. I could not understand why anyone would take pictures of the open casket and send them to relatives. Now I do. I found it difficult to deal with laughter, joking, happy story-telling and drinking at a gathering after my mother's funeral. Now I understand.

We gather together to witness the marriage of partners in celebration. We rejoice at births, christenings, dedications, Bar Mitzvahs, First Communions, initiations, graduations and other rites. So too, we celebrate the lives of those who have reminded us of our own impermanence through their death. We remember the good times, the failings and recognize that they, like us, are on a journey which has shortcomings, successes, failures, and an end. No wonder those who attended my mother's funeral all came to the luncheon gathering where they cried, laughed, hugged, sang, ate and drank. Many of these people would never again be part of the same group. Others would never see each other again. They would not see the deceased again either.

During JeanneE's father's wake this past summer, a few extended family members had some concern about our eight-year old son, Dylan, and the open casket of his grandfather. While family members had formed opinions of this man, Dylan saw him as his grandfather. Missing were the little scars formed by years of interaction. It didn't matter to Dylan what Doug had done, nor failed at. His grandfather was gone. Dylan stood over the body and the casket, putting his hand on his grandfather's and said, "He's just a shell. He's no longer in there. I see his spirit as a monkey, sitting on the end of the casket." When it was time to take the remains to the cemetery, Dylan asked and was allowed to join his uncles as pall bearer. His experience of death was positive.

Sto Lat

The value of death is in the value of life. Immortality, or the elimination of impermanence, if achieved would diminish the value of life. Imagine a beautiful rose. Imagine roses that last forever and proliferate everywhere. Rather than adding their beauty to the world, they soon would become a nuisance, all too common, ordinary and always expected to be. The specialness of the rose would disappear. Life then, has meaning in living because of death and impermanence. This impermanence is all the reason to rejoice in every day that we have.

Sto Lat
(Polish Folk Tune)

Sto lat, sto lat, Niech zyje, zyje nam.
Sto lat, sto lat, Niech zyje, zyje nam.
Niech zyje nam! Jescze raz, jescze raz,
Niech zyje nam!!

This Polish song is sung at birthdays. It recognizes impermanence while wishing the best for the birthday celebrant in their relationship with us. We have a vested interest in the longevity of their lives (and ours) as determined by impermanence. The words translate to:

A hundred years, a hundred years.
Let him/her live for us.
A hundred years, a hundred years.
Let him/her live for us.
Let him/her live for us!
One more time, one more time,
Let him/her live for us.*

Each day could be an ode to joy, a celebration of the beauty of the sunset and sunrise. Each is short lived. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful in Vermont. Mountains are everywhere and contribute to the scattering of sunlight during day's beginning and end. Ever changing and always different, sunrise and sunset is one wonderful metaphor for life's impermanence. Sometimes spectacular, other times less so, both occur as reminders of our short term, constantly changing and evolving lives. No matter, each is for cherishing, savoring and living.

[Editor's note. While the translation uses "him/her" as all encompassing, the Polish language version of the song is inherently gender non-specific.]

Impermanence as Temporary

Suffice it to say that everything, including impermanence, is impermanent. Anger is impermanent. Although raging anger may seem as if it will never end, it does. Gavin Harrison in Working with Anger in Shambhala Sun, November, 1994 writes, "Anger, like everything else, is impermanent. As soon as we are distracted, or the conditions that precipitated the anger change, the anger itself falls away too." Harrison suggests that our recognition of anger as impermanent changes our relationship with anger. By extension, recognizing that everything is impermanent changes our relationship with the universe and everything in it including our own impermanence. Death might then be seen like a sunrise or sunset, just another beautiful but, impermanent transition.

In the Psychology of Romantic Love, Nathaniel Branden discusses the need for us to accept our ultimate aloneness. Many of us are afraid of being alone, yet that is what we are eventually. Dorje Loppon Lodro Dorje (Eric Holm) in November 1994 Shambhala Sun writes, "We have to realize that no matter how much support and companionship we have on our journey, fundamentally we are alone in our responsibility for ourselves. If we have made a relation with the spiritual background of our existence, we may see even death as a journey rather than a defeat."

Many have experienced impermanence in their homes. Three people passed away in a friend's house, in bed, in their night clothes, naturally. Part of life. And that seemed normal and natural as it should be. Upsetting to some is the dressed up, makeup laden, wearing evening clothes, bodies in boxes of satin and oak. That looks more like a reflection of our narcissistic culture avoiding death rather than dealing with it..

Our narcissistic culture avoids death because it does not make us "feel good" to deal with it. We mask it. Our unfamiliarity with impermanence prevents us from openly discussing it or seeing it. Our culture is a culture of avoidance which leads to much incompleteness and absence of peace in our lives.

I once shrugged away from anything medically intrusive. Any thoughts of surgery, intravenous procedures, blood test, etc., made me feel uneasy, squeamish, afraid. I avoided them. Dylan's medical condition thrust all of these upon me and the family for the next nine years. This young man underwent nineteen surgeries in the first six years of his life. Now, the thoughts of surgery (I gave Dylan my kidney) no longer upset or phase me. Familiarity fosters action and action mediates acceptance.

Attachments

Our western, modern society is full of seemingly necessary attachments. We are overly attached to everything from our CD-stereo systems to our relationships; from our ego to our controlling the environment. Mostly, we are attached to life. We live our lives as if we will exist forever, avoiding the prospects of impermanence and its consequences.

Science and medicine prolong life through high technology hardware and state-of-the-art pharmacology. Alternative movements seek long healthy life through obtaining enough spirituality. Witness all the advertising and hype surrounding products, pills, salves, drinks, foods, vitamins, exercise machines, workshops, retreats, books, magazines, etc., catering to these attachments.

Larry Dossey MD in an interview with Paul Ferrini in the Fall 1994 issue of Miracles Magazine says, "...that culture needs to include giving people permission to die. Dying has got to be made respectable. We have to stop thinking that it is a sign of spiritual weakness to die." Dossey writes that the comprehension of our consciousness as being beyond space and time; that there is something that is us that goes on, that "gives people the permission to die without a sense of failure and without a sense of finality." A good, wholesome, honest, compassionate and joyous life culminates in naming our final chapter with the words, "Thank You."

The Gift

A commonality for all of us is the fact of death. We exist in an anxious world left to our own devices to cope with our impermanence. In the end, our methods of escape fail and we are humbled. Rather than fight impermanence, we can see it as a positive event. Death becomes a spiritual teacher. It matters just as much how we die as does how we live. Zen Buddhism considers the last words of a teacher as very important. We are all teachers. Charles M. Johnson, MD in Necessary Wisdom, recalls the story of the Zen Master, Roshi Taji:

As Roshi Taji drew near to the time of his death, his senior disciples gathered around him. One disciple, knowing that the Roshi was very fond of a particular kind of small cake, had traveled much of the day before and searched many shops to find a bit of this confection.

As the time of Roshi's passing approached, the students gathered closer - the room electric with suspense - and humbly asked if he had any last words for them.

"Yes", he replied.

Leaning forward, ears strained, the students waited in anticipation. Lifting one of his morsels that had been brought to him to his mouth, he turned to those gathered. 'This cake is delicious', he said...and died.

Death can be a gift given to those in witness of dying. Recognizing that we all die, and that impermanence is an integral part of living, sharing the experience of another's passing as witness with compassion and gratitude is one of life's unique treasures. We may honor that gift by both receiving and offering it whenever we are called upon.

Announcement

Tanzan wrote sixty postal cards on the last day of his life, and asked an attendant to mail them. Then he passed away. The cards read:

I am departing from this world. This is my last announcement.

Tanzan, July 27, 1982

1995 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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