Written Saturday, October 31, 2015, 11:00 AM
This is my contemplation on the third verse.
“I bow at the feet of the masters who carefully teach that
All conditioned entities are impermanent, unstable, changeable
Phenomena—like a mountain waterfall, like a cloud, like
Lightning, and like dew on a blade of grass.”
Full Disclosure: This is my first contemplation on a whole verse!
Explain to someone else (making it my own)
When I knew I was going to write about this, the first thing I set out to do was to prove it wrong. But to do that, I had to understand it better. What’s this ‘conditioned entities’ thing all about? Well, it’s anything that arises from cause and effect. What? No. That definitely can’t be true because absolutely everything arises from cause and effect. If this is true, that would have to mean that every thing is impermanent, and unstable, and changeable.
I tried really hard (I had two weeks) to think of some ‘unconditioned entity’. But no go. I couldn’t think of one single thing. The moment when my mind was finally forced to that conclusion was pretty heavy duty. I think I was driving home from somewhere and I thought to myself…Yes, it’s true. And…wonderful!
The tail end of that thought caught me by surprise. Wonderful? Yes! Imagine if the pyramids in Egypt were still sparkling brand new, fresh as the day the Pharaohs got buried there, wouldn’t that be weird? Worse yet, imagine if that really truly horrible meal you ate last year to be polite and not hurt any feelings were still there in your stomach undigested!
Yes, I thought to myself, yes. This conditioned thing is good. Imagine a world where cause and effect had no…well…no effect. Ice would never melt, even in hot sun. Our bodies would never age. No. That’s not a good thing—you like having teeth don’t you? And worst of all, I think, karma would be carved in some kind of unforgiving, immutable stone.
This would mean that whatever direction we chose for our lives, we’d be stuck with it. Think about that. Do you really still want the things you wanted when you were sixteen?
In our existence here in samsara, our biggest tug of war with impermanence is that we want selective impermanence. You know, like—I want to age to 25, stop there, never grow older, but keep learning and becoming wiser. But that’s not how it is. We age, we grow, we learn, and if we’re very fortunate, we gain some wisdom along the way. It’s a package deal.
Conditioned existence itself, “like dew on a blade of grass” passes moment to moment without our ever seeing it. The great benefit, the great joy of this is that every moment that arises can become a cause of suffering or a cause of happiness. It’s our choice.
Every moment, it’s our choice.
Apply to a past situation (how would it have been different?)
There’s a scene in an old movie called “The Time Machine”. In it the time traveler moves through hundreds of years in a matter of seconds. You see buildings melt into rubble, then brand new sparkling buildings rise, then crumble into rubble as he jets forward in time. I was fascinated by that. I wondered when my house would crumble like that, and what would rise in its place.
Decades later I got involved in a relationship. We both vowed that not only would we love each other forever, but we would love each other in EXACTLY the same way we loved each other that day at that moment.
Talk about naïve, right?
I spent a horribly tortuous decade of my life struggling to keep that vow. It was terrifying. As soon as something changed, I felt like—no. No! Things have to stay just like they are—forever. If I could have found Old Man Time, I would have done him in.
And change did of course come, but not in the way I feared it would. I changed. I wanted different things. I wasn’t in love. I grew tired of the struggle.
All of this struggle had a predictably disastrous outcome—what else could the ending have been but disastrous and painful, and heartbreaking?
If I could go back and whisper in the ear of my younger idealistic self, I would tell her that change is part of life. I would tell her that when we try to hold back the rhythms of cause and effect, we will bring upon ourselves a Tsunami of pain and suffering. I would tell her that in the end change will come, better to welcome it, no matter how frightening. I would whisper that anything permanent is a delusion, fueled by hope and fear. And I would certainly tell her that change, as fraught with danger as it may seem, is better than entombing yourself in a delusion of unchanging permanence.
Apply to an (ongoing) present situation (how does it matter today?)
Since 2012 (maybe 2011), I have been through layoffs that included hundreds of people, other layoffs that came once a quarter, and finally the sale of the company I worked for. The very first layoff was terrifying. Even though I knew I’d get a good severance package—still—it was heart stopping and heartrending to see people be escorted out.
By the third or fourth layoff, I just kind of waited to see if my name was on The List. When the company got sold, I was furious! What? Getting sold to some rinky dink, nouveau riche, mom & pop family-owned operation whose true name should be Greedsters, Inc.? And who, I might add, was (and continues to be) very evasive about the whole idea of a severance package.
It took me a long time, a few months to realize the truth of the situation I’m in. I find myself at a point in my life where anything is possible. Of course, it’s always been that way. But now, I’m aware of it.
Aside from the overt acts of not showing up and/or not doing my work, whether or not I have a job is utterly beyond my control. Of course, it always has been. But awareness has a certain magic about it, or maybe I should say a certain grace. But more on that later.
The truth about my job is that the position I fill is on someone’s spreadsheet beside my Greedster, Inc. Employee ID Number. When the formulae in that spreadsheet indicate that my position can be filled for much cheaper in say. . . Mumbai or Puerto Rico. . .the Greedster, Inc. Employee ID Number will be changed and my steady paycheck will evaporate—kinda like dew on a blade of grass.
So each day, I work with what I have. This situation forces me to bow to impermanence and cause and effect.
In doing this, I am finding that when we bow to impermanence, our life takes on a certain grace, a certain lightness of being. Not to wax too poetic here, but we come to realize that we came to samsara with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. Rather than being depressing, as I thought that realization would be, it is in fact buoyant. I mean that literally. When we become aware of the true state of conditioned existence, then we can let of the terrible weight of hope and fear. Why? Because there’s no question: Yes. You are to lose absolutely everything you have acquired in samsara. No one gets out alive.
There. Now you know how the movie ends. The only question remaining is: do you want to struggle against impermanence until your last breath, or, do you want to live with the grace of impermanence and use your every moment to move toward true bliss, true permanence, true purity, true self.
Apply to a potential situation (bringing it home to play)
Last year I took a vow to give 125 hats / scarves to the Jonang Monastery in Tibet. I took that vow in December, 2014. At the outset, I couldn’t turn the little wheel on my Addi knitting machine fast enough. Wow! I thought, at this rate, I’ll have 250 hats and scarves to give. In other words, I believed with a brand of blind faith, that things would remain exactly as they were.
With the help of a very good friend, I was able to make my way out of the deepest bits of the quicksand. As I lay panting on the shore, recovering, rediscovering my life—I panicked. Four months! And not one hat or scarf had rolled off my Addi. I was a long, long, way from 125. I wasn’t even in shouting distance.
I almost wanted to just let myself slide back into the quicksand. But before I did, I asked in desperation—how do I give back a vow? I tell you, that vow was wrecking my nerves.
The answer was so simple, I missed it. When my friend repeated it, I was just about bowled over. Change the vow. That was the answer. That’s it. Just change it. [Disclaimer: This is not true for all vows.]
Well, I tell you, that’s given me a world of relief. I feel the shore expanding, the quicksand drying on my legs and falling away as I pull myself free of the slough of despondency.
This seems like a small thing, but it made me think of all the other absolutes we have in our lives. We come up with all these “Have To” things in our lives, and somehow we come to have a faith in the imputed immutability we grant them. We will even change our lives to match the “Have To”. Wow. That’s a little bit crazy.
No. I say no to that. All that we see around us is, by its very nature, subject to cause and effect. All that we witness in samsara not only will pass away, but is passing away before our very eyes, with every breath.
Would we try to hold onto a wave in an ocean? Or a breeze rattling the leaves of a tree? These things and all that we see in samsara are ephemera. Their permanence arises from our deluded mind.
Once we understand this, we can appreciate the fleeting beauty of a waterfall, or a cloud, or a drop of dew on a blade of grass. We can appreciate each moment as it arises and falls away, and know that within each and every moment there exists a cause for our suffering or a cause for our enlightenment.
Which will we choose?