The Three Characteristics of Existence: Impermanence

The Three Characteristics of Existence: Impermanence

A dharma talk by Danielle MacCartney


“The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.” 
― Virginia WoolfOrlando


The Three Characteristics of Existence (sometimes called the marks or signs of existence) are: impermanence (anicca), no self (anatta), and suffering (dukkha).


For this post, I’ll focus on the characteristic of impermanence. Many of us can understand this concept intellectually, but let’s briefly review before we move into the pragmatic applications of the concept.


Nothing lasts forever – not our physical body, not our relationships, not our homes, jobs, pets, not even the earth we’re standing on will last forever. And, although this flies in the face of much Buddhist thought, not even enlightenment lasts forever. Because this last point is so contentious, I will return to it later.


It’s easiest for us to accept the idea that no physical thing lasts forever. If you’ve ever discovered you left a half eaten sandwich on your kitchen counter for a week, you had a tangible reminder that every physical thing is in the process of decay and eventual death. Even our bodies remind us of the impermanence of physical things – when we look at photos of ourselves from five or ten years ago, we can see how much we’ve aged. When we cling to the idea of these objects as permanent, we suffer. Acknowledging that these things end allows us to fully enjoy them while they last and let go of them once they’re gone.


The reflection process can help us understand the impermanence of intangible things, such as our relationships or jobs. While it is sometimes painful because of our attachment to these relationships, we can look back on our life and recognize that all things end. We’ve all suffered loss – the end of romantic or familial relationships through death or separation, the end of paid employment through firing, quitting, or transitioning, the end of the beliefs we held dear as children (although I’ll admit I still have a robust relationship with the monster under my bed sometimes).


So, things end. We get it. We get it intellectually. We understand the idea that all things end. But how do we live that idea to help end our suffering and the suffering of others? For most of us, we don’t. Most of us cling desperately to the idea that things will be permanent. And we’re afraid of adopting a practice that takes impermanence seriously, in part, because we think that implies approval of the ending of things. Many of us approach impermanence the way Dylan Thomas did:


Do not go gentle into that good night,

But rage, rage against the dying of the light!


Actually, Prince better captures the Buddhist approach: “But life is just a party, and parties weren't meant to last.” 


In this context, it is important to note the difference between acceptance and approval. Acknowledging that a thing is accurate does not mean you approve. It does not mean you are “off the hook.” Sometimes knowing a thing is accurate means you need to just sit with that knowledge. Sometimes knowing a thing is accurate means you need to engage in some appropriate action.


For some of us, once we accept the idea of impermanence, we move into a despondent, nihilistic, who-cares-what-I-do-if-everything-ends kind of way. So, how do we avoid a nihilistic view of life, if all is impermanent?


In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha said,


Ardently do today what must be done.

Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.


Precisely because all things end, we must act appropriately. This moment is the only moment we have. Are we spending it wisely? Are we doing the compassionate thing (for ourselves and others)? Are our current actions increasing our flourishing and the flourishing of others or are our actions contributing to our suffering and the suffering of others?


If we can accept and embody the idea of impermanence, we are also liberated from our clinging to particular outcomes. Sometimes we are paralyzed by indecision because we don’t know which action (or inaction) will have the best outcome. But, if we recognize that even the outcome is impermanent, we can give ourselves permission to engage in an appropriate action in this moment, based on the information we have at hand (which, of course, we are regularly improving by practicing the eightfold path). When we engage in this kind of dharma practice, we can recover from our suffering more easily because we improve our ability to see things as they are, instead of clinging to an idea of how we want them to stay forever.


This point is where my argument that not even enlightenment is permanent. Buddhism is a process that fully embraces impermanence. Impermanence applies to ideas and states of mind, such as enlightenment. I can not count on the last moment or the next moment for my enlightenment, for my wisdom. I must think, speak, and act with enlightenment in this moment.


It is true, however, that the more I think, speak, and act in ways that embody enlightenment – that incorporate dharma practice focused on ending my suffering and the suffering of others – the easier it becomes to continually engage in the actions that create enlightenment. But, enlightenment is not a box you can check off and be done. Enlightenment is practice.


So, embrace the concept of impermanence. Recognize that the only moment you have is this moment. How are you spending it?