Impermanence is Buddha Nature

Change isn’t just a fact of life we have to accept and work with, says Norman Fischer.

Norman Fischer
15 June 2021
Buddhanature Impermanence Norman Fischer Shambhala Sun - May '12 Zen
norwegian photographer eirik Solheim glued a camera to a window shelf in his home and rigged it to take a picture every thirty minutes for a year. From more than 16,000 digital images the camera fed into a computer system, he selected 3,888 daytime photos. By taking one vertical line from each of those images in sequence and compiling them from left to right, he created this single photograph encompassing all four seasons.

Practitioners have always understood impermanence as the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings and practice. All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts. Therefore nothing can be grasped or held onto. When we don’t fully appreciate this simple but profound truth we suffer, as did the monks who descended into misery and despair at the Buddha’s passing. When we do, we have real peace and understanding, as did the monks who remained fully mindful and calm.

As far as classical Buddhism is concerned, impermanence is the number one inescapable, and essentially painful, fact of life. It is the singular existential problem that the whole edifice of Buddhist practice is meant to address. To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing the path with diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.

A while ago I had a dream that has stayed with me. In a hazy grotto, my mother-in-law and I, coming from opposite directions, are trying to squeeze through a dim doorway. Both of us are fairly large people and the space is small, so for a moment we are stuck together in the doorway. Finally we press through, she to her side (formerly mine), I to mine (formerly hers).

Almost all my talking and writing, and much of my thinking, is in one way or another in reference to death, absence, disappearing.

It’s not that surprising to me that I would dream about my mother-in-law. Her situation is often on my mind. My mother-in-law is nearing ninety. She has many health problems. She is usually in pain, can’t walk or sleep at night, and is losing the use of her hands to neuropathy. She lives with her husband of more than sixty years, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, can’t speak a coherent sentence, and doesn’t know who or where he is. Despite all this, my mother-in-law affirms life 100 percent, as she always has. She never entertains the idea of death, as far as I know. All she wants and hopes for is a good and pleasant life. Since she doesn’t have this right now (though she hasn’t given up hope for it), she is fairly miserable, as anyone in her situation would be.

I, on the other hand, am fairly healthy, with no expectation of dying anytime soon. Yet from childhood I have been thinking about death, and the fact of death has probably been the main motivator in my life. (Why else would I have devoted myself full time to Buddhist practice from an early age?) Consequently, almost all my talking and writing, and much of my thinking, is in one way or another in reference to death, absence, disappearing.

So this dream intrigues and confuses me. Is my mother-in-law about to pass over from life to death, though temporarily stuck in the crowded doorway? If that’s the logic of the dream, then I must be dead, stuck in that same doorway as I try to pass through to life. Of course this makes no sense! But then, the longer I contemplate life and death, the less sense they make. Sometimes I wonder whether life and death isn’t merely a conceptual framework we confuse ourselves with. Of course, people do seem to disappear, and, this having been the case generally with others, it seems reasonable to assume that it will be the case for us at some point. But how to understand this? And how to account for the many anomalies that appear when you look closely, such as reported appearances of ghosts and other visitations from the dead, reincarnation, and so on.

It is very telling that some religions refer to death as “eternal life,” and that in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha doesn’t die. He enters parinirvana, full extinction, which is something other than death. In Buddhism generally, death isn’t death—it’s a staging area for further life. So there are many respectable and less respectable reasons to wonder about the question of death.

There are a lot of older people in the Buddhist communities in which I practice. Some are in their seventies and eighties, others in their sixties, like me. Because of this, the theme of death and impermanence is always on our minds and seems to come up again and again in the teachings we study. All conditioned things pass away. Nothing remains as it was. The body changes and weakens as it ages. In response to this, and to a lifetime’s experience, the mind changes as well. The way one thinks of, views, and feels about life and the world is different. Even the same thoughts one had in youth or midlife take on a different flavor when held in older age. The other day a friend about my age, who in her youth studied Zen with the great master Song Sa Nim, told me, “He always said, ‘Soon dead!’ I understood the words then as being true—very Zen, and almost funny. Now they seem personal and poignant.”

“All conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,” the Buddha said. What is impermanence after all? When we’re young we know that death is coming, but it will probably come later, so we don’t have to be so concerned with it now. And even if we are concerned with it in youth, as I was, the concern is philosophical. When we are older we know death is coming sooner rather than later, so we take it more personally. But do we really know what we are talking about?

Death may be the ultimate loss, the ultimate impermanence, but even on a lesser, everyday scale, impermanence and the loss it entails still happens more or less “later.” Something is here now in a particular way; later it will not be. I am or have something now; later I will not. But “later” is the safest of all time frames. It can be safely ignored because it’s not now—it’s later, and later never comes. And even if it does, we don’t have to worry about it now. We can worry about it later. For most of us most of the time, impermanence seems irrelevant.

But in truth, impermanence isn’t later; it’s now. The Buddha said, “All conditioned things have the nature of vanishing.” Right now, as they appear before us, they have that nature. It’s not that something vanishes later. Right now, everything is in some way—though we don’t understand in what way—vanishing before our very eyes. Squeezing uncomfortably through the narrow doorway of now, we don’t know whether we are coming or going. Impermanence may be a deeper thought than we at first appreciate.

Change is always both good and bad, because change, even when it is refreshing, always entails loss.

Impermanence is not only loss; it is also change, and change can be refreshing and renewing. In fact, change is always both good and bad, because change, even when it is refreshing, always entails loss. Nothing new appears unless something old ceases. As they say on New Year’s Eve, “Out with the old, in with the new,” marking both a happy and a sad occasion. As with the scene in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, there’s despair and equanimity at the same time. Impermanence is both.

In one of his most important essays, the great 12th-century Japanese Zen master Dogen writes, “Impermanence is itself Buddha Nature.” This seems quite different from the classical Buddhist notion of impermanence, which emphasizes the loss side of the loss/change/renewal equation. For Dogen, impermanence isn’t a problem to be overcome with diligent effort on the path. Impermanence is the path. Practice isn’t the way to cope with or overcome impermanence. It is the way to fully appreciate and live it.

“If you want to understand Buddha Nature,” Dogen writes, “you should intimately observe cause and effect over time. When the time is ripe, Buddha Nature manifests.” In explaining this teaching, Dogen, in his usual inside-out, upside-down way (Dogen is unique among Zen Masters in his intricately detailed literary style, which usually involves very counterconceptual ways of understanding typical concepts), writes that practice isn’t so much a matter of changing or improving the conditions of your inner or outer life, as a way of fully embracing and appreciating those conditions, especially the condition of impermanence and loss. When you practice, “the time becomes ripe.” While this phrase naturally implies a “later” (something unripe ripens in time), Dogen understands it is the opposite way: Time is always ripe. Buddha Nature always manifests in time, because time is always impermanence.

Of course, time is impermanence and impermanence is time! Time is change, development, and loss. Present time is ungraspable. As soon as it occurs, it immediately falls into the past. As soon as I am here, I am gone. If this were not so, how could the me of this moment ever give way to the me of the following moment? Unless the first me disappears, clearing the way, the second me cannot appear. So my being here is thanks to my not being here. If I were not, not here, I couldn’t be here!

In words, this becomes very quickly paradoxical and absurd, but in living, it seems to be exactly the case. Logically it must be so, and once in a while (especially in a long meditation retreat) you can actually, viscerally, feel it. Nothing appears unless it appears in time. And whatever appears in time appears and vanishes at once, just as the Buddha said on his deathbed. Time is existence, impermanence, change, loss, growth, and development—the best and the worst news at once. Dogen calls this strange immense process Buddha Nature. “Buddha Nature is no other than all are, because all are is Buddha Nature,” he writes. The phrase “all are” is telling. Are: existence, being, time, impermanence, and change. All are: existence, being, time, impermanence, and change is never lonely; it is always all-inclusive. We’re all always in this together.

The other day I was talking to an old friend, an experienced Zen practitioner, about her practice. She told me she was beginning to notice that the persistent feeling of dissatisfaction she always felt in relation to others, the world, and the circumstances of her inner and outer life, was probably not about others, the world, or inner and outer circumstances, but instead was about her deepest inmost self. Dissatisfaction, she said, seems in some way to be herself, to be fundamentally engrained in her. Before realizing this, she went on, she’d assumed her dissatisfaction was due in some way to a personal failing on her part—a failing that she had hoped to correct with her Zen practice. But now she could see that it was far worse than that! The dissatisfaction was not about her, and therefore correctable; it was built into her, it was essential to her self!

This seems to be exactly what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the basic shakiness of our sense of subjectivity in the famous doctrine of anatta, or nonself. Though we all need healthy egos to operate normally in the world, the essential grounding of ego is the false notion of permanence, a notion that we unthinkingly subscribe to, even though, deep in our hearts, we know it’s untrue. I am me, I have been me, and I will be me. I can change, and I want to change, but I am always here, always me, and have never known any other experience. But this ignores the reality that “all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,” and are vanishing constantly, as a condition of their existing in time, whose nature is vanishing.

No wonder we feel, as my friend felt, a constant nagging sense of dissatisfaction and disjunction that we might well interpret as coming from a chronic personal failing (that is, once we’d gotten over the even more faulty belief that others were responsible for it). On the other hand, as Dogen writes, “all are is Buddha Nature.” This means that the self is not, as we imagine, an improvable permanent isolated entity we and we alone are responsible for; instead it is impermanence itself, which is never alone, never isolated, constantly flowing, and immense. It is Buddha Nature itself.

Dogen writes, “Impermanence itself is Buddha Nature.” And adds, “Permanence is the mind that discriminates the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of all things.” Permanence!? Impermanence seems to be (as Dogen himself writes elsewhere) an “unshakable teaching” in buddhadharma. How does “permanence” manage to worm its way into Dogen’s discourse?

I come back to my dream of being stuck in the doorway between life and death with my mother-in-law. Which side is which, and who is going where? Impermanence and permanence may simply be balancing concepts—words, feelings, and thoughts that support one another in helping us grope toward an understanding (and a misunderstanding) of our lives. For Dogen, “permanence” is practice. It is having the wisdom and the commitment to see the difference between what we commit ourselves to pursuing in this human lifetime, and what we commit ourselves to letting go of. The good news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that we can finally let ourselves off the hook. We can let go of the great and endless chore of improving ourselves, of being stellar accomplished people, inwardly or in our external lives. This is no small thing, because we are all subject to this kind of brutal inner pressure to be and do more today than we have been and done yesterday—and more than someone else has been and done today and tomorrow.

The bad news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that it’s so big there isn’t much we can do with it. It can’t be enough simply to repeat the phrase to ourselves. And if we are not striving to accomplish the Great Awakening, the Ultimate Improvement, what would we do, and why would we do it? Dogen asserts a way and a motivation. If impermanence is the worm at the heart of the apple of self, making suffering a built-in factor of human life, then permanence is the petal emerging from the sepal of the flower of impermanence. It makes happiness possible. Impermanence is permanent, the ongoing process of living and dying and time. Permanence is nirvana, bliss, cessation, relief—the never-ending, everchanging, and growing field of practice.

Impermanence is not only to be overcome and conquered. It is also to be lived and appreciated.

In the Buddha’s final scene as told in the sutra, the contrast between the monastics who tore their hair, raised their arms, and threw themselves down in their grief, and those who received the Buddha’s passing with equanimity couldn’t be greater. The sutra seems to imply disapproval of the former and approval of the latter. Or perhaps the approval and disapproval are in our reading. For if impermanence is permanence is Buddha Nature, then loss is loss is also happiness, and both sets of monastics are to be approved. Impermanence is not only to be overcome and conquered. It is also to be lived and appreciated, because it reflects the “all are” side of our human nature. The weeping and wailing monastics were expressing not only their attachment; they were also expressing their immersion in this human life, and their love for someone they revered.

I have experienced this more than once at times of great loss. While I may not tear my hair and throw myself down in my grieving, I have experienced extreme sadness and loss, feeling the whole world weeping and dark with the fresh absence of someone I love. At the same time, I have felt some appreciation and equanimity, because loss, searing as it can be, is also beautiful—sad and beautiful. My tears, my sadness, are beautiful because they are the consequence of love, and my grieving makes me love the world and life all the more. Every loss I have ever experienced, every personal and emotional teaching of impermanence that life has been kind enough to offer me, has deepened my ability to love.

The happiness that spiritual practice promises is not endless bliss, endless joy, and soaring transcendence. Who would want that in a world in which there is so much injustice, so much tragedy, so much unhappiness, illness, and death? To feel the scourge of impermanence and loss and to appreciate it at the same time profoundly as the beautiful essence of what it means to be at all—this is the deep truth I hear reverberating in the Buddha’s last words. Everything vanishes. Practice goes on.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.