The first of the three characteristics to discuss is invaluable to virtually every other important belief in Buddhism, such as sunyata or the qualification between desire and craving. The trait in question is impermanence, a common translation from anicca, the original Sanskrit. It isn’t just a claim that things tend towards decay, but also that it is something we must realize on a larger scale for progress of our path towards enlightenment.
There are said to be five things we cannot control: old age, disease, death, perishability and transience. Old age is an explicit reminder that time may heal wounds, but it can also degrade humans to little more than shells of themselves in their mid life crisis. And old age in terms of physical degradation is only one side of the proverbial coin. You also retain, precluding dementia, much experience that you can use to aid others. Your eventual weakness can be avoided in part with exercise and diet as well as certain medical assistance in part. If Japan is any indication, many elderly people can be relatively spry with the ingesting of a simple food that many even in the country regard as undesirable, mostly because of its smell. At least one study showed that having natto, the fermented soybean paste, enhanced overall performance and is quite likely a large factor in how Japan has the highest life expectancy, around 82 compared to the U.S. with 78, though a great deal of it may have to do with healthcare differences in each country. I do not completely look forward to getting shorter and losing bone density along with becoming more dependent on others. But at the same time, the inevitability is not something to regard as ultimately bad, but something that has benefits and is also a basic failsafe in nature to prevent overpopulation, since if we lived significantly longer overall, we would have more difficulties. Our mortality is not something we should seek to undermine completely, but accommodate in some sense with improvements in medicine that will make it manageable, but not luxurious.
Disease is not something we cannot ultimately avoid because the nature of sickness has a relation to evolutionary biology as much as our own bodies do in aging. Viruses adapt and become resistant to older medication and new flu shots, of which I got one a few weeks ago, are necessary to combat those unseen enemies. It shouldn’t be seen as a curse upon humanity to still get sick even with developments in immunology and virology happening yearly, if not monthly. “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells reminds us that our resistance and ability to combat the common cold will overcome even extraterrestrials that possess technology destructive enough to bring us to our knees. Within a few months, those seemingly invincible beings succumbed to death because they had no antibodies to fight what can be fatal without proper built up barriers. Humans, as weak as we appear in comparison to the potential beings that may exist halfway across the galaxy, have a resilience that persists even in spite of such immense suffering as in cancer. But anicca in relation to disease, along with all things, claims that it will pass away in time, at least until the next iteration of some threat to our bodies.
Death is one of the things humans have the most difficulty accepting without attaching extra qualifications to our state after passing away. The positing of a soul and living forever can allow us to feel secure knowing that our loved ones will live on in some immaterial form. As much as many people might feel they cannot live without this belief, many people do, including myself. I have lost family members and experienced a good friend’s loss of her father and saw that people’s mourning is supplanted in virtually all cases by the belief that they are “in a better place”. I can’t say whether I ever thought it was true that there was an afterlife or even whether it would comfort me if it were true. My grandfathers left their legacy in our families, as any patriarch tends to do in our male-centered society where men possess more influence than females in many areas. And I remembered those men who raised my parents as respectable men, who I nonetheless might disagree with, but also could sympathize with, since both of them were raised in a very different time. My paternal grandfather, even though he was exposed quite likely to much racism against African Americans in the deep south where progress was slow. But even relatives who are in my generation used racial slurs occasionally, which he objected to. Each person is different in how they develop their beliefs about race, so that’s how I accepted it, particularly since I probably couldn’t have changed their minds for the most part anyway even had I tried to. The death of anyone especially close to me would indeed cause me to mourn, but not because I think that their physical life was only a welcome mat to wipe your feet off in preparation for your spiritual life. If anyone, be they young or old dies, I weep in one way or another for the loss I feel, especially since I believe we all only get one life. Reincarnation doesn’t imply in any sense that we persist on as souls transmigrating from one body to another, but I’ll get to that as soon as I can.
The final two inevitabilities are linked in that things passing away materially and existence as a whole being transient are similar in admitting a thing many Christians, for example, would admit in part. The notion that things are unsatisfactory (a mark of existence I’ll talk about last) is explained by Christians to be the result of a sinful world corrupted and warped, which explains things like our getting sick, our growing old and dying and the passing away of things in this world. Instead, the permanent things are of God and remain so in heaven and hell. Buddhists instead note that it is not intrinsically evil (“sinful”) that things pass away, by a simple principle that things have value because they are impermanent. Not only do we inevitably replace things, but we can appreciate things for their contribution to us as they did exist before breaking down. That people die, objects fall apart and the state of the world is always flowing forward are not signs of evil, but are just the way things are. We should strive in some way to alleviate the pain, but if we try to avoid accepting that these are fundamentally out of our control and cannot be made to persist, then we live in a fantasy world, a delusion. Things exist in a web of interrelation, another concept commonly referred to as dependent origination, which is a way to consider that things may pass away, but they also bring forth other things in their passing. A tree burning down provides a form of fertilizer for future trees to grow, humans dying provides food to worms, which improves soil quality, and the examples can continue ad infinitum. Even our personality and psychology change over time. We cannot say we are exactly the same person we were as a child when we are an adult, no more than we can say anything maintains its identity fully in any sense as time passes. Even a mountain eventually wears down, and anything else we can think of, material or immaterial, changes or deteriorates by disuse or its interrelation with other concepts subject to change as well. The belief in a soul, for instance, has changed dramatically, or for a more pertinent example, the belief in divinity. The core message we get from anicca is that things can be appreciated but should not be seen as remaining the same in any way. This is not to claim hard relativism is true, but only that we should not see tradition as the determinant factor for truth or reality, but inquiry and investigation of the world as a series of moments and instances instead of a whole without parts.
Life is impermanent, but this does not suggest things do not exist objectively, but only exist in a continuous state of change and progression. In that sense, the recognition of time is especially important to understanding anicca in Buddhism. And just because things are temporary does not mean we cannot enjoy them as they are. Things will change regardless of if we want them to or not, so accepting the futility of trying to eliminate change and decay is a way to liberate yourself further from those chains. The true value of things is that they don’t last forever, not that they might last forever in some universe with a soul or afterlife. Beliefs also change, even supposedly orthodox ones. Christianity split off and has had schisms even today (Episcopal church for example). Nothing truly stands still or remains forever, to quote Heraclitus in part, and one’s attachment only binds one to this destructive mindset of clinging. Everything I’ve spoken on before in the last three weeks and anything I could speak about afterwards has a relevance to this quality of existence and I think that makes my next topic after the other two characteristics of life pretty obvious. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.