The unexpected death of a young and healthy person is shocking. On such occasions the impermanence of life suddenly reveals itself as the ultimate reality, and it includes oneself. The insight takes the form of a realization ― in the root sense of that word ― the vanishing nature of one’s own existence becomes real ― a felt reality.
I use the example of a sudden unexpected death, but unpredictable catastrophes of other kinds ― like natural disasters ― can also precipitate the same reaction.
The reaction I am speaking about is not grief or terror, but the resulting derogation of ordinary priorities, goals and objectives to meaninglessness. Desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, attractions and un-attractions, spontaneously disappear. They generally reconstitute themselves in time but for some, they linger and must be intentionally re-installed. On the flip-side, the evaporation of the ordinary objects of desire also brings clearly to mind that death has happened to someone else. “I am still here.” This evokes a sense of personal liberation, a serene interiority and a joy in being-here-now that, however momentary, is accompanied by a cessation of time-flow. It is a profound self-appreciation and is quite unique. The experience is knowledge-based ― an insight ― a seeing of one’s reality as it actually is for the first time. Some call it the opening of a third eye. Inevitably, this feeling of joy in the simple timeless fact of being-here-now recedes with the return of the ordinary pressures of life. It’s like waking up from a dream.
I have heard people refer to the profound liberation they have experienced on such occasions, and bemoan the fact that there was no way to keep it from evaporating in the stresses of daily routines. I believe that much of Buddhist practice can be understood as an attempt to grasp the nature of these spontaneous transformations and then to devise mental and behavioral exercises that will establish them as a permanent feature of daily living.
But this choice generates a contradiction. The irony of trying to make the experience of insuperable impermanence, revealed in the disappearance of a “self” (death), a permanent feature of a new, transformed and purposeful “self,” should not be lost on us. It was not lost on the Buddha. It is what is responsible for the second phase of Buddhist teaching, emphasized by the Mahayana Reform: universal emptiness.
Universal emptiness means everything is impermanent. The experience of impermanence is itself impermanent. Buddha, who counselled generating a mind-set he called “no-self” (meaning that nothing contained within itself the necessary and sufficient reason for its own existence) was quite aware that the re-establishment of “goals and objectives,” even one called “the experience of impermanence,” risked evoking the re-emergence of a “self” that might very possibly pursue the permanent acquisition of those goals with as much desire as before. For a system that identified both permanence and desire as mental illusions that are the source of suffering, this was disastrous. Interest in simply being-here-now would be lost in the frenzy. The heedless practitioner could easily re-instate precisely those unconscious reflex reactions that cause suffering and had been transformed by the death experience to begin with. It meant that the medicine identified as the cure, could easily become the source of a new and potentially more virulent contagion.
So it required a frank acknowledgement: the very application of the means that would achieve a sense of impermanence had themselves to be understood as impermanent, or the initial insight would be lost, blinded by its own light. The attempt to apply and simultaneously undermine the practices that would lead to liberation and the simple resting in the present moment led to the creation of the confusing and apparently contradictory statements that have come to be associated with Buddhism. Zen doctrine especially, which was inspired by the focus of the Mahayana reform, has been accused of being arcane and inaccessible precisely because of its enigmatic expressions. Hence we hear, in the Diamond Sutra, a document of Mahayana origins, dialogs like the following:
“The fruit of the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind is realized through the practice of all wholesome actions in the spirit of non-self, non-person, non-living being and non-life span. Subhuti [the Buddha’s interlocutor in the dialog], what are called wholesome actions are in fact not wholesome actions. That is why they are called wholesome actions.
. . .
Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [the Buddha] has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single living being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, a life-span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That’s why he can call them ordinary persons.”
This practice of constantly negating doctrinal statements that have just been made is a deliberate attempt to create confusion and to force the reader to see the problem and think about it. These contradictory assertions are not themselves fully intelligible; they are not meant to be. They do not clear up the issue but rather emphasize its unintelligibility as a stimulant for thinking. Eventually, it is hoped, the fact that the teacher is intentionally trying to undermine the very clarity and “truth” of what he just said, should bring the practitioner to the realization that there is no permanence in anything ever, even Buddhist doctrine, and that therefore the pursuit of anything whatsoever as a permanent acquisition is an illusion and a waste of time. The aim is to get the student to “back-in” to the insight ― not as a concept but as a realization ― that being-here-now is the only thing that’s real and the insight into impermanence is only a tool that will lead to it. The ultimate desired state is to be-here-now in full enjoyment with no regrets about the past nor any interest in the future.
The understanding of the emptiness of things might be relatively easy to embrace at the early stages of practice when the objects of acquisition are material and the gratifications they offer are gross and evanescent. Objects of sensual desire are the first to be let go as the practitioner advances in her/his identification with impermanence. But other objectives, more spiritual in nature, like having certain insights, or being recognized for having humility, or a reputation for generosity and service, can entrap the aspiring Buddhist in ego-building for they presume the existence of a permanent self. These are subtle and it is not always easy to discern the way to avoid the pitfalls waiting on both sides of the question.
Zen koans (short pithy riddle-like sayings) in particular are claimed to be designed to bring the mind to a complete halt. The person meditating arrives at the intended insight from sheer exhaustion. It is not an active grasping or comprehension as much as a passive letting go. It is called enlightenment.
Enlightenment is not a one-time thing. Enlightenment occurs over and over again precisely because like everything else it is impermanent. It is different at each occurrence because the capitulation to permanence that it is reacting to (and from which it draws its energy and richness of content) is new. But despite this absolute uniqueness as a personal insight, when translated into conventional terms it always amounts to exactly the same thing: being-here-now. It’s just that the flow of time has made it so that all three terms have evolved and are new for each occasion.
If you take the term “enlightenment” to refer to an action occurring, the state that results from that action is called nirvana. Nirvana means literally “snuffing out” as one would a match or a candlelight, and evokes the extinction of cravings and desires which the Buddhists have identified as the cause of all individual suffering and the ultimate source of all social disharmony. But because all things are impermanent, nirvana, too, is impermanent. The unenlightened state is called samsara, and there is no physical/metaphysical difference between nirvana and samsara. They are the same reality. The only difference (and it is a huge difference) is subjective ― how this same experience is perceived and the attitude that the practitioner has assumed toward it. In nirvana, the experience is perceived as impermanent, the passing perception of a non-self, one who is affectively detached from it, while in samsara, exactly the same experience is perceived as a necessary desideratum or aversion pursued with passion and the anxiety that always accompanies hot pursuit along with a disregard for the damage it may do to oneself or others. Nirvana and samsara are intimately related. It is samsara whose frustrations lead to the realization of emptiness and the embrace of being-here-now that constitutes nirvana.
So there is no permanent Buddhist salvation, because salvation consists in letting go of the misperceptions of permanence, including the fictional permanence of salvation. The accompanying sense of liberation and the joy of timeless self-embrace serves as confirmation that the experience is authentic. This unique sense of joy in being-here-now provides an intense happiness. But there is a potential trap here as well. This happiness itself can become the object of desire and pursuit and the fact that it does not last (it is also impermanent) can become a source of frustrated desire every bit as enslaving as the grossest lust. Similar to the advice of Christian mystics, practitioners are warned against clinging to them or pursuing them.
Thus salvation simultaneously is and is not. And because it does not exist as a permanent state of mind (no state of mind is permanent) it cannot be considered fully to exist. In fact, since all “things” of whatever kind ― conscious, living or inanimate ― arise as the effects of the causality of other things and are subsequently subject to entropic forces that ensure their ultimate dissipation, they are also simultaneously both themselves and not themselves, they can be said to exist and to not exist. Hence Buddhism claims to arrive beyond being and non-being.
The same thinking is applied to the coming into existence and the dissolution of those material composites that we call “things” (dharmas in Sanscrit) including biological organisms like ourselves. Everything that exists ― whether it be psychological phenomena or a physical entity ― is the result of causes beyond itself both for its initial coming into existence and for its continued duration. So in a very real sense, what anything is should be understood as the extension of those causal activities. Any given “thing” is itself because of all the other “things” not itself whose activity is essential to it have been or are active in its being-here-now. Therefore everything, simultaneously, is both itself and its necessary causes which are all other than itself.
The appreciation of what something truly is cannot be had until this analysis becomes incorporated into the perception of that thing. We don’t really see any given human being correctly unless we are aware of all the things that keep her/his body alive ― food, air, water, just to mention the most basic. For indeed, if that chain of causes should ever disappear, the organism would also disappear, and quickly. Looked at from this point of view, we can see that our “ideas” of things are a kind of “short-hand” or macro-image that intentionally ignores the 90% of the iceberg that lies beneath the surface. All things are intimately connected to other things, eventually involving the totality. What Buddhists ultimately mean by perceiving things as essentially empty of self, is that everything involves everything else. We are always aware of the myriad of non-self factors that are actively present in the encounter with any phenomenon whatsoever. Things are only themselves because of the plethora of things that are not themselves that make them be what they are. Ultimately that means everything.
Thus Buddhist impermanence also involves an immense widening of perspective on reality. Reality is ultimately incomprehensible unless it is understood in all its relationality, for how things are related to one another is not only accidental, it is constitutive of what they are. To fully appreciate reality, therefore, necessarily involves an embrace of the totality of existing phenomena which also includes what goes on in our heads.
Impermanence and “being-here-now”
This perspective is so different from the way we normally pursue our daily lives that some may think it immobilizing. If, in order to relate to baking a loaf of bread, they say, I have to be conscious of the entire universe, how can I focus on the simple task at hand? Buddhists answer that the awareness of the involvement of all of reality in the ingredients and human activity of baking bread does not hinder the process in the least. In fact it enriches the significance of both the work and the worker to such an extent that it transforms the experience. It becomes a mystical experience embracing what is happening here and now in all its depth and extent without breaking step. What the new perspective brings to the event implies a new respect and love for what is actually going on in the present moment. It makes the subjection of such activity to selfish ends, and perhaps utilizing unjust means, increasingly unthinkable. Imagine if the workplace were filled with people who were steeped in perceiving everything in the light of the totality. Being-here-now means doing the task at hand with a new awareness of the cosmic background. It does not mean stopping work to sit in contemplative rapture. That would be an example of the trap the Buddha warns against. This experience becomes part of the flow of real events in real time, events that are passing and impermanent, touched, felt, cherished and let go.
This is what is meant by mindfulness. Something essential has been introduced into the experience that was not present without it ― something that brings the activity in the orbit of the Dharma, the ethical dimension. For it is only in understanding things, people and human actions in the context of their real relationships both as effects themselves and as causes of other effects, that they can be treated as they should be: with justice, compassion and generosity.
 Diamond Sutra, taken from sections 23 and 25, quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening of the Heart, Parallax, Berkeley, 2012, p. 330