Making the most of time

7 mins read

Do you ever have that feeling when you go back to a familiar place that you never left? Even if months or even years have seemingly gone by?

alpacasI think this is because there is no time outside of impermanent things. Time is not like a soup or something, in which things bob about, like lumps of potato. Time is simply a characteristic of each impermanent phenomenon, their own cause and effect. The past and the future are just parts of the present moment, as Ven Geshe Kelsang explains in Ocean of Nectar. For example, this moment I have a past and I have a future. And the same will be true in the next moment, and the next …

If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!

There is nothing inherently linear about time because it is momentary, as described in this last article. And Buddha pointed out that things don’t even last a moment 

I happen to be writing this on a train in Switzerland, to which I paid an unexpected visit this week. There is no past stretching out like the train tracks behind me or future stretching out like the train tracks in front of me. There is only now, only this moment. All functioning things are present. Everything is a momentary appearance, whether the stillness of Lake Geneva through the window (not too shabby) or the French kids jumping around in this carriage. moving scenery

There is no time outside of the mind. Time is mere appearance; we merely impute a continuum on cause and effect. Take a movie as an example. A movie is made up of many stills, but it has the illusion of movement, why? This is an illusion created by our own conceptual minds as we string the stills together through imputation.

Or indeed the moving scenery outside of my window … there is nothing actually moving out there.

Of course we then believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.

church bell

Talking about Switzerland, I found the juxtaposition of ageless mountains and the (loud) ringing of the village church bell quite interesting … is the idea that being reminded of the time every 15 minutes helps us control it somehow? Slow it down?! Divide life into neat, tidy, and perhaps more manageable portions?! “So there, big old everlasting mountains! You can’t outwit me!” As if there is real time out there, being marked out by bell chimes …

Even when we know better, we can still get trapped in the illusion. For example, movies … even though we know there is nothing actually there, or really happening, they still have the power to freak us out as we get caught up in them.

Now and then

There is no real gap between being in a familiar place now and “back then” — it is just a continuation of karma ripening.

I feel it’s like we are having lots of different dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in our mind, each one arising fully and all at once with its spatial and temporal coordinates intact. Just like last night’s dream, and just as when we arose into the dream of this life.

TorbelThis January I had this experience in NYC when I returned there for a month – it was like I’d never left it since the previous January. Yet I know I had a pretty full 12 months in-between! But all that in-between time was like lots of dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in my mind. Nothing linear about it. When I looked in the restroom mirror, I could see that my body had seemingly aged a year! But that was because (a) my body had undergone some cause and effect, including one or two too many doughnuts, and (2) the new dream with the new me involved someone who was a year older.

I had the same appearance whenever I visit my parents in their flat in London, like now for example – it is like I have never left. Same for when I go back to Manjushri KMC, such as for the beautiful Summer Festival we have just had. It is another dream, with many of the same people, just all of us appearing older in the context of this new dream. I have many such experiences every year. There is nothing linear about my life or yours.

IMG_4369We often mark our lives with milestones, a wedding, getting ahead in our career, falling in love again, playing with our grandkids, or simply the chiming of a church bell – but in reality this advance through an inherently existent life is just an hallucination. The past and future are just projections of our minds. There is only now. We have to make it count.

Milestones on the way to what?

Plus, these kinds of milestones just light the way to dusty death. There are no “happy endings” in samsara, as Buddha said:

All our dreams are broken in the end.

IMG_4403

That’s the thing about dreams. They are fleeting. They are momentary appearances to mind. They fall apart. And “all phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. The law of entropy is an example of how every impermanent phenomenon is spinning away from everything else all the time, even on a molecular level. That is time. The only thing that stays the same, as the saying goes, is change.

With grasping and attachment we try so hard to hold onto things – our relatives, our environment, our job, our enjoyments. This strikes me as so sad because we cannot hold everything together however desperately we try. When I left London, my dad was sitting forlornly on the front steps as the taxi drove me away – of course my parents didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to leave. But we are all travelers. We have to leave everyone. We are always on the move. Even the great larger than life Aretha Franklin died today. The only way to avoid being flung afar over and over again is (a) Skype and (b) to control our own minds, rather than trying in vain to control the fleeting appearances of our minds.

IMG_4401 2.JPGWe need to train in pure love. Love keeps our connections alive.

Eventually we need to attain enlightenment, when everyone will be a mere aspect of our blissful omniscience, never separated from us again.

And one more thing while I am on this train …

Where is this train headed?

Since sitting on this train, a 2.5 hour journey from Visp to Geneva Airport, I have lost track of the number of people getting on and off this carriage. Our time with each other is vanishingly brief. Same for life, really.

I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives. It is like we are all on a train to Auschwitz. It is all very well being IMG_4400 2nice to the other people on the carriage – finding time to spend with them, putting a blanket over their knees, trying to make them comfortable. But every moment in samsara we are getting closer and closer to catastrophe, all of us. So if I really want to help my fellow passengers, my real job is to derail the train.

The most responsible duty of care, if you ask me, is therefore to use our “time” to purify our mental continuum so that our dreams become joyful and meaningful for ourselves and others, and under our control. And the time to do this, ideally, is right now. Before we die, while we still have these wisdom teachings that enable us to do it.

(Meanwhile, about that church bell … it is said that the sound of the bell symbolizes emptiness, and that Dakinis follow the sound of the bell. Plus writing about Switzerland has now given me the excuse to put my photos in this article 😄)

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

How to handle things falling apart

Various articles on subtle impermanence

 

 

Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

4.5 mins read 

Escape to realitySometimes people get discouraged with their Tantric practice, thinking it’s beyond them and they should stick to Sutra. But I think Tantra can be pretty straightforward, especially if we can read and follow the instructions of the modern-day Vajra Master Geshe Kelsang who, like Je Tsongkhapa, is known for his ability to reveal Buddha’s wisdom and Tantric teachings in a clear and profound, yet totally accessible, way.

Carrying on from this last article about Tantra.

If we’re used to identifying with our Buddha nature from a Sutra point of view, then we do this now from a Tantric point of view, bringing the result into the path – which makes our progress smooth, joyful, and rapid.

And, as explained in the last couple of articles, we are not plopping an inherently existent ordinary miserable me onto Buddha Vajrayogini or Buddha Heruka. There is no such real me — our me or I is mere label, thank goodness. So we are generating some purity in our mind and labelling it with our mere I, Vajrayogini, and growing it from there. Try it and see!  nothing is real

Then we keep coming back to divine pride and clear appearance in very practical, usable ways, both in meditation and throughout our day. This way we transform our life into a very rapid path to enlightenment, which is what Tantra is all about.

As mentioned here, normally we believe the self we normally perceive, the one around which all our problems revolve, the ordinary limited self; and we cherish this self and protect it at all costs. We are obliged to follow its ordinary narrative and milestones. But we slowly come to understand that it is time to stop doing that — I don’t want to do that anymore! It is painful. It is daily frustrating. It is also a ginormous waste of time.

As we get going in our Tantric practice, for a long time we move back and forth between generating as a Deity and identifying as an ordinary being. This is normal, so there’s no need to entertain discouraged thoughts such as: “I thought I had this! I felt so blissful – I can’t believe I got all neurotic and graspy and sad again!”

Subtle impermanence and the emptiness of time

And here is a profound contemplation that I have always found enormously encouraging in this regard, and hope you might too.

When we appear as Vajrayogini or Heruka, we remember that we dissolved away all ordinary appearances, including their time, ie, including the pasts and futures of all ordinary appearances.

Past and future are mere name, mere appearance, now disappeared – so when we arise as Vajrayogini, we have always been Vajrayogini. Our previous identity has dissolved into emptiness, disappeared entirely, and we, Vajrayogini, have never been that person.

samsaric life

Remembering subtle impermanence is invaluable – always, but especially in Tantra. For the present moment to arise, the previous moment has to go out of existence, completely. Yesterday has gone, or where is it?! It had to go for today to arise. Everything before this moment in time has completely disappeared. By the same token, everything after this moment doesn’t exist yet because this moment has to disappear first.

In this article I talk about this incredibly useful teaching from Geshe Kelsang:

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. ~ How to Understand the Mind, page 134

When we arise in bliss and emptiness as a Buddha, the whole past is transformed because there is no past, only pasts of things (as explained in Ocean of Nectar), and Buddha’s past is bliss and emptiness. In that moment the whole future is transformed too, as there are only futures of things.

How long is a dream?

To help us understand this, we can consider our dreams. Dreams arise fully and all at once – they are mere projection of mind, and always present, unravelling moment by moment; but when we meet people in our dreams they have a past and a future, do they not? They were born in Clapham and they are going to die who knows where. All that is part of them in the present moment because this is the only moment there is.

Vajrayogini 1

The me of this present moment has a past and a future – so if I am ordinary I have an ordinary & suffering past and future and if I am Vajrayogini I have a pure & blissful past and future.

Wild, huh?! But true.

How old are you?

I was at the Grand Canyon recently, thinking about these rocks. They are, mind-bogglingly enough, millions of years old! Yet at the same time they are a momentary arising, an appearance to mind that is completely new in this moment. In this moment, which I am sharing with this rock, the rock has a past of millions of years whereas I only have a past of three (ahem) decades. old rocks

So once you are Buddha Vajrayogini, you have always been Vajrayogini. And always will be.

Yes, we may forget this due to lacking effort, mindfulness, and familiarity, and the ordinary person might reappear with an ordinary past and future, just like another dream. But it doesn’t invalidate the pure dream of being Vajrayogini; and at the next available opportunity we can dissolve away all the ordinariness and hallucination and go back to the Pure Land.

Eventually we can stay here  24/7, which is liberation. And then guide everyone else to this reality by helping them drop their self-grasping and ordinary appearances as well.

Check out these articles on subtle impermanence for a better idea of all this. And I have a bit more to say on the subject later.

Meantime, the Kadampa Summer Festival in the English Lake District (or Keajra Pure Land), offering the Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and teachings, starts this Friday! Talk about a life-changing experience. Hope to see some of you there.

Comments very welcome – please scroll below to leave one.

Related articles

Subtle impermanence 

How to be enlightened right now per Tantra

Tantra is not as hard as you may think

Improving the narrative of our lives

 

Where is everything?

Unfindable, impermanent shapes — everything is like this!

Here is an (unusually) short but (hopefully) sweet article.

Everything is made of parts, including even the smallest part. And those parts are continually changing both individually and collectively.

Our body, for example, is changing all the time like this in dependence upon causes and conditions. So is every part of our body, as is every part of every starling.

Things may move at different paces, but move they do.

Atoms whizz around exceedingly fast, in fact, giving the illusion of solidity where there is none.

And absolutely everything changes moment by moment. Nothing lasts even a moment. Check out these articles on subtle impermanence to find more.

And, even more profoundly, everything is empty of existing from its own side.

We are attracted to the five sense objects and, like a moth to a flame, we get burned again and again. We need to learn to enjoy lightly without getting absorbed into everything, taken over and burned.

We get so attached to shapes — bodies, houses, art, carpets, mugs, and any number of other shapes, such that we think we can’t even live without them. Sometimes it seems that we are more attached to the shape of things than anything else?! Maybe the color too. This might be because our visual awareness is so important to us. In the old days, some meditators would even pray to be born blind! However, there is an easier way, which is to remember emptiness. Hence me posting this video as a visual reminder.

We think these shapes are actually there, solid and real. But if we go looking for the object of our attachment, such as our lover’s body, we’ll never be able to find it, any more than we can point to a shape in those birds. There is only emptiness. Every shape is mere appearance or mere name — nothing behind that. So what exactly are we so attached to?

(We like the smell, taste, sound, and touch of physical things too, of course, and they are all just as unfindable.)

The problem is not with attractive appearances, but with the belief that they are outside of our mind and hence outside of our control. Hence attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”. So we seek to own (or be owned). We seek to control (or be controlled).

Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not right into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance or mere name of beautiful things, such as we enjoy these starlings, without getting sucked into something that is not actually there.

On the basis of contentment (or renunciation), compassion, and wisdom, we can find out how to channel the desire energy aroused by attractive things into open-ended non-dual blissful wisdom, rather than falling into the flames of attachment and craving and experiencing suffering.

What do you reckon?

 

How to get out of bed when you’re feeling hopeless

The world is pretty much a mess right now, it seems. A lot of people have been feeling hopeless and depressed, including some close to me. So I want to share a few ideas on how to cope when things go wrong, based on some skyof my own recent experiences. It’s in two parts — hope you have time to read this first one before you get up to face your day.

Don’t panic

Whenever I get one of those phone calls containing bad news, eg, a shocking bereavement or break up of a good relationship, or am sickened by some cruel and unusual politics, the first thing I tell myself is not to panic because feeling sad for a while is not going to kill me. I’ve been through worse and ended up happy again. These are temporary cloud formations in the sky. Things seem so solid when we are unhappy, but the truth is they are not.

Through practice in identifying with a pure and peaceful mind, it has gotten to the point where I can still feel the bliss of the clear sky mind even under the thick cloak of the dark clouds. So if I can do it, you can too.

Stay present

Then I tell myself, as soon as I remember, “Don’t rewind and don’t fast forward”. This was what my close friend Lovely Lekma told me after a calamity I had some years ago, and it sustained me then and sustains me now.

Stay in the moment. Stay in today at least.

Today I can handle. Today I can transform. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And I really don’t need to be thinking about how this will impact me all next year, let alone the rest of my life … especially considering I may die today.

We live life from dream to dream

As I explain a lot in these articles on subtle impermanence, due to our permanent grasping we spread our present mood over the past, missing what we think we had, and over the future, dreading a cold and depressing future. But neither of those scenarios release shacklesexist — the past has gone, and the future doesn’t exist yet, plus I guarantee you that it will be very different to how you’re envisaging it while you’re in a sad mood.

When we are feeling blessed again, or just back in a reasonably okay mood, we appreciate past lessons and welcome the opportunities of the future. The immediate past can feel like a beautiful dream, and just one of many now passed. The dream-like future can feel ripe with the potential for lasting bliss, freedom, and the ability to help others.

In other words, I only have to make the effort to change the present moment. And that is very do-able.

The rest takes care of itself. It really does. Try it and see.

Let me take that away for you

One way I like to transform the present moment is to acknowledge my current feeling of sadness rather than push it away, and use it to empathize with and absorb the similar refugesadness of so many other living beings, thus releasing them from it. This practice of taking others’ suffering makes my suffering feel meaningful, rather than like useless pain. Taking pacifies my mind with compassion and motivates me, lifting me out of discouragement.

And the deeper the sadness, the more effective this practice is in some ways! So we need not fear our sadness.

Also, as our suffering is always arising from one delusion or another, such as attachment, we can also take on others’ similar delusions as explained in Great Treasury of Merit (which I will quote in full as it is such a helpful paragraph):

If we find it difficult to prevent a particular delusion by transforming it into its opposite, we can try to overcome it by practicing taking and giving. For example, if we are having difficulty in preventing attachment towards a particular object or person, we should think how there are countless beings afflicted by attachment which is often much stronger than our own, and out of compassion decide to take all their attachment upon ourself. We imagine that we draw all their attachment towards us in the form of black smoke. As it enters us, it completely destroys our own attachment, and then we meditate on emptiness for a while. We can use the same technique to overcome hatred and ignorance. In this way, we use our delusions to cultivate pure minds, rather as a farmer uses manure to grow crops.

people on banks of river

I remember discussing this meditation with another friend, Gen Rabten, last year — he told me it has been his go-to for overcoming delusions for many years. IMHO it seems to be working for him very well, so I may as well copy him! Spiritual friends can be so useful.

Part 2 coming up in a couple of days, including practical stuff on prayer, blessings, and how to view ourselves completely differently.

Care to share?

Meantime, have you dealt successfully with any calamities lately? Are you finding ways to avoid falling into despair over the current world situation?

Related articles

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

More on taking and giving …

Learning to live in the moment

Life is like a flash of lightning

Two ways of thinking about the same thing

Geshe Kelsang has said that “arising, abiding, and ceasing are justwalking in rainbows three different ways of thinking about the same event.” Even arising and ceasing (or cessation) are two different ways of thinking about the same thing. When we realize this, we begin to let go of grasping; and it is really a question of allowing ourselves to float into that space. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

How can arising and ceasing happen simultaneously? Well one question in return is how could they not? If something is the nature of change, how could it remain the same, even for an instant?

What is the option if arising really precedes cessation? Is there is a little bit in the middle where it has arisen but not ceased? In which case that moment has a degree of permanence there, and so there is going to be grasping at it. And where do you draw the line? A fraction or two fractions? It is only when you say completely there is NO remaining that it starts to make sense.

walking through doorwayI heard once that Native Americans call all objects “events” (though now I can’t find it on Google.) This I find helpful. Everything is fluid.

If arising and cessation are the same event that is distinguished differently just by thought, another helpful example I find is this. If someone is going through a doorway, are they entering or exiting? It depends on perspective, on mind. I think this is similar to arising and ceasing.

The only continuation is what we impute as continuation. For example, a rainbow arises and ceases newly moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions, and stringing its moments together is done entirely by our mind. It’s a bit like watching a movie of many stills.

By the way, why do things change?! Our mind changes, and different appearances arise due to karma, like waves arising from an ocean. We also impute all changes with our mind. For example, perhaps we fell in love with someone who was totally fantastic and then later, bewilderingly, they changed into someone who was a total (add your own description here). Where did the person we fell for go?! We feel deceived. But where did they go?! What actually changed? Did they change, did we change? A bit of both? I’ll leave you to answer that one for now.

The doorway to realizing emptinessflash of lightning 1

If we can wrap our minds around subtle impermanence, this will take us very close to Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Understanding subtle impermanence is said to be the doorway to emptiness, and emptiness is said to be the doorway to liberation. Geshe Potowa said:

My main meditation on the middle way is meditation on subtle impermanence.

This indicated that, for him, meditating on subtle impermanence intuitively led him into emptiness.

What do the realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness have in common? They both help us to stop grasping. Subtle impermanence weakens our tendency to grasp, and the wisdom realizing emptiness removes it completely.

Moment by moment things are gone. But they weren’t really there to begin with.

Everything is like a flash of lightning, and even that flash of lightning doesn’t exist from its own side.

real life permanent dreamsI also think that even if we have a good understanding of emptiness, contemplating subtle impermanence has very practical benefit. Perhaps we already “get” the dream-like nature of reality. But perhaps there is still some part of us that is grasping at our dreams as lasting and as abiding – sort of like permanent dreams!

This is one of the greatest gifts that subtle impermanence can give us – at the beginning it improves all aspects of our life by helping us naturally drop our attachment and aversion etc.; and eventually it leads us to the realization of emptiness.

Hope you enjoy this series of articles on subtle impermanence.

What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Nothing sticks around

We can understand subtle impermanence in two ways. (And I am once again unabashedly going to borrow Gen Samten’s explanations on the subject.)

  1. No carry over 

letting go 4The first we have looked at already, vis there is no carry over — no element of the past carries over, the present is completely new. Just to remind you: The building we walk past on the way to work each day is a completely different building each day – not the same building that has just changed a little bit. The building is a continuum of moments, causally related, each of which is different from the previous one. The second moment of the building is different to the first – or another way of putting it is that the building in the second moment is completely different to the building in the first moment.

Likewise, the friendship we have with someone today is not the one we had yesterday – it is not the same friendship that has changed a little, but a completely different friendship. When we go to work every day we don’t go to work in the same job we had yesterday – it is a new job every day.

This is even the case for the person we are today. You today are as different from yesterday’s you as I am different from you! There is that degree of difference. Yesterday’s you had to go out of existence for today’s you to arise.

So everything and everyone is completely different every moment – there is not even the slightest carry over from one moment to the next. Now is brand new.

  1. Nothing sticks around for even a moment

letting go 6Secondly, there is no such thing as abiding. Abiding exists at the level of gross impermanence, but not at the level of subtle impermanence. For example, the building is built, it remains, it is destroyed. We can identify three sequential stages – production, remaining (or abiding), and destruction (or cessation).

What about when we move from this gross level to a subtle level? Subtle impermanence is momentary change. Is it that the first moment arises, then there is a little bit of remaining, then there is destruction? No. There is no remaining. There is no abiding. According to Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence, production and cessation happen simultaneously. A moment doesn’t remain even for a moment. Think about that!

Sometimes we can define subtle impermanence as “momentary disintegration”. This is a good way of thinking about it for it means that every moment is a moment of disintegration. This body is one moment of disintegration after another.

Another way to define it is “simultaneous production and cessation” – in each moment of our body, for example, production and cessation occur at the same time. This means that as soon as it is there, it is gone!

Just a point about function. Things undergo gross impermanence when they stop performing their function. For example, an iPhone is arguably still an iPhone when we crack the screen (depending on how fussy we are); but if we drop it down the toilet and don’t scoop it out fast enough it can no longer perform its function, so we smashed iphonesay it has undergone gross impermanence and gone altogether. What is the function of each moment of subtle impermanence, you might ask? The function of one moment of the iPhone is to give rise to the next moment, which is also functioning to let you send texts, browse this article, etc. The point with subtle impermanence is not that each moment doesn’t perform a function, but that we cannot hold onto anything that is performing that function — for example an iPhone can take photos but there is nothing there to grasp onto. So you cannot get attached to your iPhone! And you won’t be upset when you drop it.

Wild, huh. Our permanent grasping mind can hardly compute, but it is well worth contemplating as it opens new doorways in the mind.

Fresh eyes

life is too shortLet’s apply this to a practical challenge. Suppose we’re a manager working with people. This involves trying to understand their strengths etc., something that is built up over time. So if we’re seeing someone with new eyes, can we not take their history into account? Do we have to start each day, each moment, with a clean slate?

You’re welcome to address this in the comments section. My answer would be yes and no. A habit or tendency someone shows today is related as an effect to a habit or tendency they had in the past, but it is not the same habit or tendency. So if they show a similar tendency to a strength or a weakness today, we can take it into account; but by remembering subtle impermanence we can also understand that nothing is fixed. We can see new potential in them by not seeing them through the eyes of yesterday. I think subtle impermanence helps us to respond better because it opens our mind to infinite possibilities about this person. There is a lot more to them. Things are less fixed, more changeable. Every time we look at someone, we can see them with fresh eyes.

Ninth (and penultimate) installment is here.