We live in a universe that is constantly in a state of change. Nothing ever is, everything is becoming or ceasing to become. From the moment we are born, we are working our way towards death. Buddhists say human suffering is caused because we view an impermanent universe as if it is permanent. We try to hold onto things that are already in a state of change and we feel a sense of loss when they end up changing, as is their nature to. So imagine opening the kitchen faucet and trying to grab some water as it falls into the sink, and when the water we have tried to grab onto seeps through and disappears we suffer. This is how we live our lives. Something enters into our lives that bring us joy and we believe that this thing will always be here and will continue to bring us the same joy that is does now. But when this changes, as it inevitably will, we suffer.
If we take a few minutes to think about this we can see that the concept of impermanence is an evident truth, but most people do not view the universe this way. They hold on to things as if they will always be there and then suffering ensues when nature takes its natural course and this thing ceases to be what it once was. The illusion of permanence that most people have is a deep seated one, which is rooted in their idea of self, which I will go into later.
We as humans live with the illusion that we are permanent and fixed and our loved ones are also permanent and fixed. We understand, intellectually that everything is constantly changing, but we do not perceive things in that way. We perceive ourselves as being the same person continuing from birth to death and some believe that even beyond that our soul is a continuation of us. The Buddha describes a person’s life as that of a river. The river is constantly flowing and no bit of the river is the same as the last moment or as the next moment. A person exists now, the person that existed a moment ago has gone and the person that will exist in the next moment is yet to come. Science also agrees with this concept as it is acknowledged that in every moment old cells die and new cells are born and no person is physically identical to what they were a moment ago and what they will be in the next moment. Yet we hold on to the image of ourselves that we like and think we will always look and feel this way. As we naturally age and our looks change and our health changes we suffer as we feel a loss for something that we feel we should still have. When our loved ones die we suffer, as we are attached to the idea that they will be around forever.
The concept of impermanence is also an important one when looking at our views and opinions of ourselves and things external to us. What my view on something is today may not be the view that I have tomorrow, as everything is always changing. A person who tells others their opinions or views are wrong is a person who has not understood this concept of impermanence and is seeing the world through the illusion of permanence. What may seem like the truth today may not be the truth tomorrow and what may seem wrong today may be right tomorrow as everything is in a constant state of change.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!