Life is changing constantly. The world, our environment, and even our bodies change from one day to another. The notion that nothing is permanent in life is not just a hard reality; it’s a fact that we all have to live and work with. Impermanence has been known extensively in Buddhist art and concepts as well as a Hindu principle.
To put it simply, the notion of impermanence states that all that has been created must perish. And, hence, you cannot hold on to or grasp anything. While the concept of impermanence may seem like a hard pill to swallow, it is the only and the most significant truth about life. But, how do you program yourself to accept the truth? If nothing can be held on to and nothing is permanent, what is the point of life even?
Impermanence is also known as Annica. It can be associated with all the teachings of Buddha. It means that everything in the world is temporary and inconsistent, including human life.
The word Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence and can be associated with all of Buddha’s teachings about life and its temporary form. Literally, ‘a’ means non and ‘nicca’ refers to constant, implying that ‘Anicca’ is impermanent, temporary, and inconsistent. This is the core meaning of the concept of impermanence.
It is slightly difficult to point out the date and time in history when impermanence was first talked about. However, the several thousand years of research into the Buddhist concept suggests that ‘impermanence’ appeared widely in the Pali Canon.
It is important to mention here that Pali Canon is considered to be the most complete collection of Buddhist teachings. The first recitations included in the Canon date back to 400 BCE, however the most complete version is known to be the surviving Sri Lankan version that dates back to the 5th and 6th century CE.
Pali is one of the oldest languages in the world. It is known to be a Middle Indo-Aryan language specific to north India. Though it isn’t widely spoken anymore, Pali is studied extensively as the sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism. It is also the language that has been used to write Pali Canon.
There are 3 marks of existence – Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta. Anatta means that nothing in the world is of essence or has permanence. Forming attachments only leads to dukkha. Therefore, one must practice understanding Anicca or impermanence.
We are now aware of the origin of impermanence and its definition. But you may still be wondering – ‘what does it really mean?’, ‘How do we associate it with life?’ and ‘How is it a teaching of Buddha?’
To answer these questions, we must first understand the three marks of existence. According to early Buddhism doctrines, the three marks of existence are:
- Anicca or Impermanence
- Dukkha or Suffering (pain, sadness, etc.)
- Anatta or Non-self
Buddha taught that everything that ever came into being will dissolve. This truth applies to everything in the world and beyond. According to Buddhism, Anicca is closely related to the other two marks of existence. Anatta refers to that which has no essence, no soul, and no permanent self. Since nothing is of essence and permanence in this world, forming attachments and having desires would only lead to Dukkha.
Impermanence in Buddhism (and Various Cultures)
Impermanence has also been mentioned and talked about extensively in Hinduism. Anicca, in Buddhism, is synonymous with the Sanskrit word, ‘Anitya’. Found in Katha Upanishad verse 1.2.10, Anitya or Impermanence implies that everything in the world is variable, even human life. The term has also been used in Rigveda and Bhagavad Gita.
The impermanent nature of life and its beings has also been talked about in the West. While the concepts of Anicca and Anitya are extremely eastern, Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus of Ephesus, Pyrrho of Elis, and Democritus have widely spoken about impermanence in their doctrines. Heraclitus’ saying “No man ever steps in the same river twice” has largely been used to form the philosophical concept of ‘becoming’, as opposed to ‘being’.
Impermanence in Buddhism vs Impermanence in Hinduism
It is interesting to note that while Buddhism and Hinduism both agree on the concept of Anicca and Anitya, there is a total contrast between the doctrine of Anatta and the Hinduism concept of Atman.
Buddhism emphasizes that the practice of Anicca is important to relieve ourselves from Dukkha. Hence, all attachments should be discarded to attain Nibbana (liberation). On the other hand, Hinduism highlights that not all changes or attachments lead to a life of Dukkha. And, that some changes and attachments, mental or physical, can be rewarding. Therefore, they must be sought to attain Moksha (liberation).
While the Nicca (permanence) in Anicca stands for Anatta in Buddhism, the Nitya denotes Atman in Hinduism.
Moksha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘liberation’. Also referred to as ‘Mukti’, the term has been known to be widely used in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, as well as Jainism. Simply put, it is the end of the rebirth and death cycle. Interestingly, Moksha is known to be attained by overcoming ignorance and desires – even the desire to achieve Moksha itself.
How To Accept The Impermanence Of Life?
As humans, we have a hard time accepting the painful truth of impermanence. Human beings are emotional and sensitive. We try to hold on to the ones that we love and care for. We feel devastated when someone or something important to us ceases to exist.
Here are a few ways which can help you accept the impermanence of life:
1. Accept it as normal
Think about all those times that you made plans and how it all eventually changed or fell apart. Recognize that everything in life, from your job and your work, to you and your family themselves are impermanent. Planning for permanent things will only create more anxiety. Instead, bear yourself for change and work towards embracing that change when it comes your way.
2. Share and let go
Most of the times, when we are faced with the prospect of impermanence, we want to escape the sadness, anger, and anxiety that comes with it. Instead, learn to feel everything in a healthy way, and talk to other people about it. Seek therapy if you have to, and eventually learn to let go of the notion of permanence.
3. Seek opportunity in impermanence
Every single situation in your life that is riddled with impermanence, has a hidden opportunity inside it. All you have to do is recognize that and create something wonderful for yourself. Change your perspective and look at the ups and downs as purposes. Serve others, and find meaning in your life.
4. Show gratitude
Get up every morning and thank the universe, God, or whatever higher power you believe in for all that you are given. Start your day with a sense of gratitude, and tell yourself that even if the good things in your life are impermanent, that does not make them any less joyful.
5. Treat your life as finite
Accept death as the final destination of life, and read your life as a finite moment on earth. When you do that, every single moment will be precious, and you won’t be wasting time worrying about impermanence. Understand that suffering comes not from impermanence, but wanting things to be permanent, and learn how to change that thinking.
6. Be mindful
Thinking about how fragile existence is and how impermanent our lives are can lead to distresses and cognitive challenges. The only way to counter this is to accept every moment as a gift and be mindful of the present, instead of worrying about the future or regretting things done in the past.
7. Do not get attached
Pain comes not from the realization of impermanence, but from the desire to not let of things. Look at the circle of birth and death as just another part of your journey, and do not get attached to anything you find in the way. Whether it is your job, your people, your belongings – the moment you start accepting that none of it is truly yours, you will have freed yourself from the delusion of permanence.
8. Put yourself in the way of beauty
Instead of focusing on the impermanence of life and everything else, pay attention to the natural beauty and splendor around you. This will also improve your spiritual progress towards enlightenment and the four noble truths of life.
The Four Noble Truths of Life
Having discussed the three markers of existence, it is time that we discuss the four noble truths of life in detail.
It is believed that soon after Buddha attained enlightenment, he spoke about the four noble truths during his first sermon. And, these truths came to lay the foundation of Buddhism and are the most important steps in the Buddhist path towards understanding impermanence. Let us talk about these truths a bit more.
The first Noble Truth – Dukkha
Dukkha speaks of suffering. It states that everything in the world is perishable and materialistic. Therefore, our existence is always affected by Dukkha.
The first noble truth, the Buddhist doctrine of Dukkha, speaks about suffering. While the literal English translation of the word sounds extremely dire and depressing, the actual Pali word Dukkha talks about the inability of satisfaction that human beings often suffer from.
Additionally, it implies that everything in the world is perishable, be it human life or something materialistic. Furthermore, it states that skandhas, or the components of human life, such as ideas, thoughts, form, and even consciousness is impermanent. And, as humans, we identify this conditioned existence as Dukkha.
The Second Noble Truth – Samudaya
Samudaya asks us to not depend on external things for our happiness. It states that when we look for reasons outside ourselves for happiness, we end up becoming more unhappy.
The second noble truth talks about the causes of our suffering – greed, attachment, and desires. As human beings, we are conditioned to always seek things outside of ourselves. And, we base our happiness and contentment on these things.
The truth doesn’t ask us to give up everything that we cherish and love, but merely to not depend on our happiness on these things. The craving to find something or seek someone other than ourselves to make us happy is what results in the suffering.
We live our lives acquiring one thing after another and believe that these things bring us satisfaction and a sense of security. We attach ourselves to not just people or physical objects but also to ideas and thoughts about the world we live in. And, when something doesn’t go the way we want to, we suffer disappointment.
The Third Noble Truth – Nirodha
Nirodha states that the only way to stop the suffering is to practice impermanence. It can be done by not clinging to things, and detaching oneself from the materialistic world.
The four noble truths are very similar to a doctor’s diagnosis. The first step talks about the illness, the second step is about the cause behind it, and the third step is the hope that our illness can be cured.
Similarly, the third noble truth says that the only hope towards stopping this suffering is to stop clinging onto things. It speaks about detachment, but it also highlights that the art of detachment cannot happen overnight. Your will is not enough to stop wanting or holding onto things.
The second noble truth emphasized that we are programmed to grab one ephemeral thing after the other because we are never satisfied. And, we are never satisfied because everything that we have and acquire is temporary. Here, the third noble truth says that only when we are able to see this for ourselves, we can change our habits and learn to let go easily.
It is only when you can truly disconnect yourself from this never-ending cycle of chasing after satisfaction that you will attain ‘enlightenment’.
The Fourth Noble Truth – Magga
Magga states that there is an eightfold path that covers all aspects of our lives. It addresses all our actions, and it brings dharma into our lives. It teaches us to walk the path of Buddhism and then accept its doctrine, instead of accepting it with blind faith.
In the last 45 years of his life, Buddha spent most of his time offering sermons about the fourth noble truth i.e. Magga. The fourth truth is the eightfold path that we must venture on to cure our suffering. Unlike most philosophies and cultures of the world, Buddhism doesn’t ask you to blindly believe in its teachings. Instead, it asks you to walk the path and experience the doctrine.
The eightfold path encompasses all the parts of our lives. From living an ethical life to how you earn your living to experiencing moment to moment awareness, the paths address every action of your mind, body, and speech. And, it is not temporary. Once you decide to walk the path, you follow it till the end of your life.
Without the fourth noble truth, the first three noble truths are nothing but just theory. The fourth truth is what brings dharma into our lives and helps it blossom.
To understand impermanence in its truest form, you must try to understand that it applies to everything, even negative events and moments. The sadness or pain that you feel today won’t feel the same tomorrow, because, like everything else, it will fade away. To be aware of impermanence is a chance to cherish and appreciate the gift of life you have today. It brings you a sense of urgency in the way that you do not take anything or anyone for granted, but you appreciate what you have now.
Impermanence is often denoted by a half complete circle as follows:
This half circle is considered a symbol for impermanence because it is incomplete. In the same way, it is believed that everything around us – the world, human life, and our belongings are incompletely ours, because they will fall away into nothingness one day.
It can also be denoted by Annitya written in the Devanagari script:
Impermanence tattoos come in a variety.
Some people tend to get the half complete circle as shown above.
On the other hand, some people also consider the anti-infinity symbol as a mark of impermanence:
Since this symbol is the opposite of infinity – which means something will last forever, it is very appropriate for being used as a symbol of impermanence, which says that nothing will last forever.
Impermanence shows us why it is important to appreciate what we have today instead of regretting not having it anymore. Here are some quotes exemplifying this notion:
1. “Nothing wonderful lasted forever. Joy was as fleeting as a shooting star that crossed the evening sky, ready to blink out at any moment.”― Nicholas Sparks
2. “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”― W. Somerset Maugham
3. “I always think everything is going to last forever, but nothing ever does. In fact nothing exists longer than an instant except the thing that we hold in memory”― Sam Savage, Firmin
4. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”― Heraclitus
5. “Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.”― Paulo Coelho
6. “What is happiness, after all, but the fleeting, transitory butterfly of an emotion that is impossible to catch and hold for long before it flies away.”― Margaret Weis
7. “Everything changes. There is nothing to stick to. That is the Buddha’s most important teaching.”― Shunryu Suzuki
8. “Permanence is an illusion. Nothing lasts. When this awareness arrives in your Life, you awaken to Happiness – to embracing what is, to finding meaning and Purpose in what is and to be content with what is.”― AVIS Viswanathan
9. “Nature is a constant reminder of the beauty of consistence, the utility of patience and persistence, the vanity of arrogance, and the necessity of impermanence.”― Mokokoma Mokhonoana
10. “Time is a river that carries us along. We have to leave everything behind.”― Marty Rubin
Everything in this world, including our mental and physical self, is constantly arising and passing from one moment to another. In this very process, everything is fading, diminishing, and ceasing. Understanding impermanence and walking the eightfold path crafted by Buddha, we give ourselves a chance to live a better life. We give ourselves a chance to become aware and mindful, and to possibly be awakened.
Namrata is a Doctor i.e. dentist turned writer and a clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books, and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but the psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team