Subtle impermanence

(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just impermanence 3recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s —  but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.

Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Two ways to address the problem

There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.

First, wisdom

this too shall passI’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.

In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.

For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”

Two different models of change

time lapse 2Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.

There  are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.

Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.

It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.

This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.

What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.time lapse 3

But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?

We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.

In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.

seeds sprouting
Five replacement sprouts

This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone. 

Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me. 

So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?

weatherUse bigger than smaller chunks of time

It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.

Today is your first day.

Continued here.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

27 thoughts on “Subtle impermanence”

  1. It’ll be the first time that I lead a meditation on Impermanence tonight. It would be so useful to read some of this post out or use one some of the examples. Is that OK with you?

    1. Yes, of course, feel free to use any examples from it, but perhaps don’t actually read it out — best just to read from the Dharma books. Have a good one!

  2. Wonderful and thought-provoking post (as always), Luna–thank you! 🙂 A question though… you say repeatedly throughout that the person/thing of now is completely different from the person/thing of just a moment ago, a day ago, etc. “not even an atom remains”. This makes sense to me when considered through the lens of imputation… with emptiness in mind. However, do you mean on a molecular / scientific level this is true as well? That literally not even an atom of the “me” that began typing a moment ago actually exists now that I’ve finished typing this sentence? Is this scientifically true? And if so, is that point part of why this teaching is so “subtle” / hard to observe/conceive, hence the name? Thanks for helping me understand more deeply!

    1. Hi, sorry, only just saw this comment … while from the point of view of subtle impermanence nothing remains the same even for a moment, including atoms, i don’t know enough about quantum mechanics to answer your question from a scientific point of view. Does anyone else reading this care to shed some light?!

    2. Hi Brad,
      There are scientific theories that point to the nature of the ‘stuff’ that makes up protons, neutrons and electrons as merely phasing between energy and mass – i.e., e=mc^2. I.E., there is no matter, then there is. In the meantime it turns int ‘pure energy’. And it all moves at the speed of light, c. Some use this to say atoms do not remain for an instance. Other scientists disagree, and might consider this ‘hippy dippy’… or something like that.

      Still, production without causes is not Je Tsongkhapa’s view. When Geshela-la gave oral teachings on this topic, to my memory he used teaching techniques that simplified in a way that prevented the development of incorrect understandings. I havenoticed over the years in the NKT, best practices in teaching are not taught. Professional teachers identify common misconceptions and teach in a way that avoids misunderstandings that later need to be ‘untaught’. Geshela achieved this on this topic by emphasizing the karmic continuum of the object while simultaneously emphasizing that the object has no abiding, no permanance. To address the topic while only teaching subtle impermanence without addressing the karmic continuum, only facilitates that development of misunderstandings. You can check ON, 9th ch GBWL, etc, etc and my favorite teaching techniques book, “Teach Like a Champion”.

  3. Thank you–One thing that has tremendously helped me with subtle impermanence is thinking “what is the subtlest moment or the most infinitesimal moment?” If things change, we must identify that in the subtlest moment change must still be present. Change seems to be nicely defined as ‘something becoming something else’, and if in the subtlest moment, things are simultaneously something and something else, what is really there in the first place? It makes me think of Geshe-la’s point but in regards to moments themselves–‘if a moment of an object truly existed, we would need to be able to isolate one moment of an object from all other things that are not that moment of an object’. Impossible!

  4. Hi Luna, I wonder if you can help me out with this one please? I’ve been thinking about this all day. Contemplating, “is each moment is distinct, unique *and* empty of inherent existence?” Like, although each moment appears to have a continuum it it like a distinct note in a symphony. I tried to use stills in a movie but music worked for a better analogy in my mind. Each note is dependent on the last, they all form a continuum of a piece of music but although each note appears as part of the symphony it is, in fact, only a series of notes. Does our mind work that way? Like we piece together all these mental notes and impute a symphony? Momentary moments appearing to mind giving an appearance of continuum but then I got “lost” in emptiness. Where does the note begin? What causes the unique moment of mind to arise if it is distinct? Then I thought about parts of notes, the beginning strike of a string, the, you know, echo of a note, whatever that’s called, even that’s a got smaller and smaller parts. Am I on the right track or have a meandered off course? Any help you can offer would be great. I’ve read MB, HTUTM and OoN bit on it but there’s not a lot about it. Loved this piece btw, thank you most uberliciously! KK xXx

    1. We impute cause and effect with our mind. For example, a rainbow arises moment by moment in dependence upon sunshine, moisture, the position of the observer etc, but appears to have a continuum, one moment of rainbow causing the next, due to our imputation. Cause and effect is just appearance, is just imputation.

  5. I think advice about the importance of living in the moment ought to be coupled with the requirement that we remain authentic. That we show up, in earnest. Not hide first and then open the door.

      1. Just thinking this through… When we have experiences we perceive are harmful we use our capacity to learn to avoid having those experiences again. To choose not to do so isn’t easy, obviously. But we have to move through life somehow weathering all kinds of knocks and scrapes. So that we don’t end up completely contracting we come up with tactics to make some degree of openness possible. I tend to think persona is one way we create a kind of user-friendly interface for ourselves and at the same time build a layer of insulation between our real selves and our experiences. From one point of view this is healthy, but not if we start to identify with it. Then we are faking it because then we aren’t in the moment. We’ve distanced ourselves from it by not even really showing up. I suppose I think a lot of not living in the moment is about avoiding fresh pain. And a lot of inauthenticity is about managing the expectation that we should be present and open but can’t really do it.

  6. Hi Luna, Thanks for the post 🙂
    What do you say to the observation that although the troublesome person of yesterday has ceased, they are troublesome in the same way today! How can we start afresh when to all intents and purposes they are same person? Also, if the troublesome person is the cause of the ‘new’ person, surely they are the cause of a new troublesome person haha, so it is appropriate to relate to the continuum of the person as a troublesome one?

    1. What do you reckon!? I am going to address this in a future article in fact, i still have several up my sleeve on this topic, but i’d like feedback in the meantime …

  7. “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
    ― Alan W. Watts
    Thanks Luna for this ” wisdomful ” article !

  8. I’ve heard these teachings so many times and still I’m confused!

    Logically I understand that cause and effect cannot exist at the same time, however if I look at a photo of myself when I was 10 years old, it appears that I definitely can see some of me now in the image, and also traits in my personality that developed from around that time and still effect me now as a 50 year old.

    It feels hard to let go of the idea that there is some intrinsic “me” in there, although apparently I’m simply mere name.

    One day it will become clear and I will be free….

    1. It’s a very good first step to get a clear understanding of what the problem is — ie, that we are grasping wrongly at a permanent and intrinsic “me” 🙂 We didn’t know we were doing that before we heard these teachings! So don’t give up, do keep contemplating …

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