Sand Through the Fingertips: The Dharma Seal of Impermanence – 2/13/2017
In the early days of December, 2007 I was visiting Houston from my home in Denver. I was seated at the breakfast table at my parents house, and watched a scene unfold that I had seen over 1000 times, by my conservative calculation. It was a morning ritual that had been etched into a particular samskara of my brain.
My father shuffled into the room in his pajamas and robe and proceeded to take a slow loop around the table where my mother was already seated. I don’t remember exactly what was being served that morning – mother had a set schedule on what was served on a particular day – but he circled and around, approached her chair, and bent down to kiss her softly on her lips. I noticed a difference on that day, as I swear my parent’s were more in love on that morning than I had ever seen them.
We ate breakfast as everyone read the latest current events from The Houston Chronicle, and from time to time would have a discussion about some topic that one of us had found interesting. I vaguely remember a topic about what a disappointment the current administration had been in Washington.
And then my father rose, maybe we had been at the table for 30 minutes, and shook my hand and told me how much he had enjoyed my visit. I was waiting on a car to take me to the airport back to Denver, and so we said our goodbyes.
And then he walked out of the dining room, through the living room, into the entry hall, and just as he entered the hallway to his bedroom, I had a very quick flash of a thought, “I think this is the last time I will see my father alive.”
You see, this time was actually quite different. I had been visiting my father for a week, because in a few days time he was to undergo a very risky open heart operation. He was in congestive heart failure, and needed a new valve in his heart. He really didn’t want the surgery – he had a very complicated underlying autoimmune disease, and he was, himself, a doctor, and knew the risks were far greater than any of us did. And, really, he was doing it out of his love for my mother. She didn’t want him to go.
And, when 3 days later my phone rang, and I saw in was my brother calling, I knew before I picked up the phone, what he was calling to tell me. Dad had suffered a massive heart attack – he had never made it to the operating room, and was on life support. Hours later he was dead.
When I walk through the Glenwood Cemetery where he is buried with his parents, 2 sisters, and many other friends and family members that go back 4 generations to the early days of Houston as a city, what is most apparent to me, besides the vastness of the number of tombstones rolling through oak tree covered hills along the bayou, is the unpredictability of how long we are here. The other thing that struck me is the way we memorialize the dead. In one instance, I noticed the family of one of the better known real estate developers in town – apparently no one yet occupies space in the family plot, but the plot itself is grand – serpentine brick walls, perfectly landscaped, and with a million dollar view looking out over the bayou at city skyline. We hold on as long as we can, even in death.
The Three Seals of the Dharma:
1. Impermanence – Anicca
3. Nirvana/Dhukka Suffering and the End of Suffering:
a. While many times the seals are presented with Dhukka, in the Southern Transmission – written in Pali in Sri Lanka about 500 years after his final awakening – it is written as Nirvana.
Any teaching that does not carry all three seals, cannot be assumed to be a teaching of the Buddha.
Everything is Impermanent because everything needs causes and conditions to arise before they can exist. Nothing escapes this Karmic Law.
The Buddha, in all his teachings, encourages us to investigate the nature of the changing phenomena, of our own lives and everything around us. And he uses, most often, the classroom of the Nature – changing seasons, falling leaves, rivers – to help us see the dynamism of the universe.
Issa – Japanese Zen Priest 18th C.
This dew drop world.
Is a dew drop world.
And yet, and yet.
Written after the death of his young daughter.
The dew glistens on the grass in the moments shortly before sunrise, but after the first rays of sun hit the grass, it is gone.
It opens us to wonder & Mystery of Nature at the same time.
I read an article just last week that scientists have now discovered that the Milky Way galaxy is being pushed across the universe. And yet we think that our individual lives somehow matter more, and can buck the trend.
The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should be treated with caution.
The Story of the Brahmin Velama:
The Brahmin brought the Buddha great alms offerings – gold bowls filled with silver, silver bowls filled with gold, elephants, chariots, milk cows, furnishings, fine clothes…and, of course, maidens.
And the Buddha says to the monk: as great as all the offerings are, it would be even better if he would do certain deeds: feed awakened ones, take the Refuges, follow the Precepts, etc.
But at the end, he says, “…and as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still, if one would develop the perception of Impermanence for the time it takes to snap one’s fingers.”
The Buddha goes on:
“Bhikkus, when the perception of Impermanence is developed, this perception eliminates all sensual desire and lust. It eliminates all lust for existence, it eliminates all ignorance, and uproots all conceit “I am.” These 4 things mean complete Awakening.”
Developing the Perception:
The idea of Impermanence is intellectually not so hard to understand. It is easy to see that things are not static. We age, we notice changes in weather patterns, leaves falling from trees, etc.
And yet, when we are challenged by a difficult emotional state – a spouse leaves, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, a business partner betrays us, a boss belittles us in front of our co-workers, we are late for an appointment and hit every red light…we think that the internal discord will last forever. It takes on a concrete form. We get stuck.
Like being stuck in an avalanche of emotion.
Panna: 3 Levels of Wisdom Arising:
1) Heard or Read – Maybe our initial understanding of teachings comes this way. It might help, but this is the lowest level of understanding.
2) Thinking/Wise Reflection/Engaged Intellect – We ponder the leaves of a tree changing color in Fall. We think about causes and conditions that perhaps we cannot see.
3) Conditions are Ripe for Perception to Shift – Occurs when we are mindful on a deep level. Can come in something as easily as washing dishes and watching soap bubbles, or perhaps when I was watching my father turn the corner – it occurs on a cellular level, and there usually is an “Ah haa!” moment.
a. Insights themselves are also Impermanent.
3 Ways Delusion Blocks Perception:
-Denial is not a river in Egypt.
When an unpleasant emotion arises, we resist it – we go from Aversion to the feeling, to Clinging – looking for something pleasant to make us happy.
“The tremendous danger is that this belief – that genuine happiness comes only from pleasant feelings – becomes a strong motivation to stay closed to anything unpleasant. But by staying closed to all unpleasantness, we also stay closed to our own wellspring of Compassion.”
The mind does not like instability, and so we cling to rigid views to find stability – BUT, the world is not stable.
Financial Crisis 2008
When the Buddha was old, and telling everyone he is dying, his attendant/cousin Ananda goes into his lodging and leans against the doorpost exasperated and weeping.
He says, “Alas, I am still a learner with much to do and the teacher is passing away who was so compassionate to me.”
The Buddha, noticing Ananda’s absence, gives the order to fetch him.
The Buddha says,
“Enough Ananda! Do not weep and wail. Have I not told you that all things pleasant and delightful are changeable subject to separation and becoming other. So, how could it be, Ananda, since whatever is born is subject to decay. How could it be that I would not pass away?”
The Buddha says this out of Love and Compassion – saying, “you have the ability to understand it. Keep practicing.”
When we are not trying to stop the inevitable fall, our hearts can open and become more flexible. And from this, tenderness and freedom come.
We aren’t able to see the moment to moment changes taking place.
We think, “It is, it is, it is…and then it isn’t.”
BUT, its not like this. Change is going on all the time.
On a cellular level the body is regenerating its own cells constantly -different organs at different rates, but we go through a complete regeneration about every 7 years, which means the “person” that I was when I was born has regenerated 7 times from birth.
“One dies as one lives…Once that starts to fall into place, then the question is how to use the moment-to-moment experiences of your life as vehicle for awakening.”
And sitting gives us an ability to watch momentary change. In your sitting here tonight, how many emotions, how many sensations, how many mental formations occurred?
Now to get through the day it is OK to take a break from this, to not dwell incessantly on the changes – just recognize that it is happening.
Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche:
“Ask yourself how many of the billions of inhabitants of this planet have any idea of how rare it is to have been born as a human being. How many of those who understand the rarity of human birth ever think of using that chance to practice the dharma? How many of those who think of practice actually do? How many of those who start continue? How many of those who continue attain ultimate realization? Indeed, those who attain ultimate realization, compared to those who do not, are as few as the stars you can see at daybreak. As long as you fail to recognize the true value of human existence you will just fritter your life away in futile activity and distraction. When life comes all too soon to its inevitable end, you will not have achieved anything worthwhile at all. But once you really see the unique opportunity that human life can bring, you will definitely direct all your energy into reaping its true worth by putting the dharma into practice.”
“We miss the real by lack of attention and create the real by excess imagination.”
-Nisargadatta: Indian Guru
When we are not steady with mindfulness, we don’t see all the other mental states going on.
When having a “bad” day, everything appears bad, but with momentary attention we see multitudes of other states, which may not be bad at all.
AA Meeting – The woman who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and who by noon had spiraled downwards to the point of needing a drink.
When we sit, we Surrender to what is occurring, and see the Impermanence behind all of it.
-When Bliss comes, then goes, there is something else behind it.
– When Aversion goes, it really goes, and is not waiting underground to booby trap us.
– When we are eating, how many chews does the food really taste good before we shovel the next bite in.
The weather: Lloyd’s drive with Sharon Salzberg. “Lloyd, you appear to take the weather very personally.”
And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things–childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves–that go on slipping , like sand, through our fingers.
Deepening the Wonder
Death is a favor to us.
But our scales have lost their balance.
The Impermanence of the body should give us great clarity.
Deepening the wonder.
Our senses and eyes of this mysterious existence we share and are surely just traveling through.
If I were in a tavern tonight.
Hafiz would call for drinks, and as the Master poured, I would be reminded that all I know of life and myself.
Is that we are just a midair flight of golden wine between His pitcher and His cup.
If I were in a tavern tonight.
I would buy freely for everyone in this world.
Because our marriage with the cruel beauty of time and space cannot endure very long.
Death is a favor to us.
But our minds have lost their balance.
The miraculaous existence and impermanence of form.
Always makes the Illumined ones laugh and sing.