Impermanence in Plain English

Introduction: Protections for the Heart

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Image Protections for the Heart

TOGETHER we are about to embark on a journey into unknown territory. We might call our investigation ajjhattanupassana: contemplation (anupassati) of the deeply personal, peculiar to the subjective, and of that which originates from within (ajjhatta), a method of observation that can ultimately prove liberating. By engaging sincerely in this practice of introspection, we will perceive much sensory data and myriad mental formations. As we refine our practice toward freedom, the sheer quantity of happenings in the mental world as well as the rate of our knowing them will seem to quicken. But we don’t need to be overwhelmed by this; the Buddha’s teachings offer protections for our minds and hearts, so that both now and at the time of death we can rest at ease with the intensification of uncertainty. The Dhamma points to ease in ways of attention that are not dependent upon having ideal conditions in an unpredictable world.

The wise ruler, said the Buddha, knows that safety lies not in building walls against danger but in removing fortifications of the heart, so that unwholesomeness cannot find any foothold in the first place. In traversing this inner terrain, rather than amassing arms, he declared it best to generate reserves of wholesome mental states for protection. The training exercises he recommended are collectively called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is the placement of careful attention on and in this very body, these feelings, this mind, and on the objects of mind respectively. “That is your home,” he said. “Reside in this home. As you dwell in the ancestral abode, Mara will not attack you.”1


On more than one occasion, the Buddha roused his students, “Monks, be islands unto yourselves; be a refuge unto yourselves with no other refuge. Let the Dhamma be your island; let the Dhamma be your refuge, with no other refuge.”2 In his entire lifetime, he did not find the shelter of any place or person to be more effective than the sensibly cultivated heart and mind.

Of course, the Buddha did consider it important to have a teacher for guidance and respect; it was just that he could not find any more skilled and wise than himself.3 We can look within and find that teacher, too. The Buddha did not appoint any person as successor. Just before his passing, he exhorted his followers to work out their own deliverance from stress by following the Dhamma itself as a guide.

By Dhamma, he meant the nature of things just as they are, not subject to manipulation or elaboration by the mind. “Let me then honor, respect, and dwell in dependence on this very Dhamma to which I have fully awakened,”4 said the Buddha soon after his full liberation from suffering. Even though he was fully enlightened and had seen the Dhamma in himself; even though he had perfected his morality, concentration, wisdom, and liberation, as well as the vision and knowledge of total release from suffering, still he continued to live in accordance with Dhamma. “One who sees Dhamma . . . sees me; one who sees me, sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me, one sees Dhamma.”5

This is a practical book about touching impermanence with simplicity—about how to enter into the direct, felt sense of living impermanence, free from all thought and cognition. It might sound quite nice to experience such a fundamental teaching for ourselves. Yet profound change is all-pervading and unrelenting. If all things are inherently unstable, how can we find resort in anything? A person is changing. I am changing; you are changing. Conditions all around us and inside of us are changing. But we don’t need to be disconcerted. Reality has always been this way. We are simply coming to see things as they are.

In fact, there is space all around and within, if we turn the mind to 3notice. Meanwhile, wholesome aspirations can help us to ride the waves of change, until we find a peace that is open and free. Our temporary shelter is the resting of attention directly on the personal body, in the body; on the personal feelings, in the feelings; and so forth, with nothing to do, nothing to compel thoughts outward. As we clarify our understanding of change through this project of exploration, our sense of what constitutes safety will also change. Eventually, the awakened heart will come to reflect its matured qualities, with a responsiveness that knows security everywhere.

The Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are functional ideals that support and cannot complicate our situation. For the Buddha, there remained not a single dark corner in his mind. He had swept out and examined all aspects of view until none remained fixed. His enlightenment was so perfect that he saw all beings purely, flawlessly, without any shade of a doubt as to the workings of becoming—as to how our minds give rise to how things are in each moment.

This is akin to seeing every single object in the field of awareness with utterly clear eyesight. His perception was as astute and unobstructed as the sunrise on a cloudless autumn day marked only by the vastness and clarity of the sky. He saw no self anywhere, so there were no corners in which dust could settle, or surfaces upon which it might accumulate. There were no edges.

The Dhamma consists of the intention to not harm plus the instructions leading to insight. It is said that one who stays with Dhamma stays with the Buddha—these words steer us toward the real refuge within ourselves.

The Sangha, or community of awakening beings, expands our sense of possibility and lends solidarity. We are reminded that there are indeed beings in this very world who practice in just this way, aspiring toward the conduct of the Buddha, in accordance with Dhamma. So too, we find inspiration in meeting fellow meditators whose practice has borne fruit.


While growing into familiarity with these ideas, think big. By taking refuge in what is timeless, it is possible to approach the deathless and to reside beyond Mara’s reach; the thought of the Buddha protects you.

Who is this Mara? What is the force that Mara represents? This character is the personification of distraction: any temptation that beckons us to waste life in the mere satisfaction of compulsion. Contemplating death can help us with Mara. Can we see our own death at every moment? If so, we can restore alignment with our inner integrity. All that is required to see this truth—namely, that we are all subject to the reality of human natural history—is that we pay total attention to ourselves in the living organism of this physical body. Whether sitting, walking, standing, lying down, whenever we are awake, we die in every instant and are likewise reborn. These two activities, the living and dying of being, operate perpetually until the entire mechanism comes apart and ceases to function.

Examining reality until we see the momentary interworking of forms and ideas might seem silly or unfamiliar at first. Perhaps it is hard to see any point in meditating at all, but with sustained practice, new worlds of experience will reveal themselves. Our range of mental mobility naturally expands; we feel a sense of release.

Perhaps you ride a bicycle well. Try to teach me how to ride it. You might feel that you are hitting your head against the wall. You see how difficult it is to teach me how to ride a bicycle. I have never done this task in my entire life. When I was growing up in a most primitive rural village, nobody owned or had access to a bicycle, let alone knew how to ride one. Now, at ninety-five years of age, I ride a bicycle only in dreams. But you can ride one effortlessly without even holding on to the handlebars. How easy it is for you! It is so difficult for me. I might find it difficult to teach some people how to practice right mindfulness, even though I do it just like you ride a bicycle.

Not here, not there, not in between. That is the end of suffering. This means that every moment, every fraction of every moment, we are moving, 5never stopping. Mind is pedaling, propelled by momentum and compulsion. There is no fixed place, no fixed moment, nothing static; this is the advice the Buddha once gave to a man named Bahiya Daruciya in ancient India. Its efficacy remains and the result of its application is more expansive than the intellect alone can grasp. Peace can be known. What you think of as “self,” that which you assume to be permanent, eternal, unchanging, and immutable, even those subtle parts that really feel like some unchanging aspect of “you,” are, in fact, constantly moving. In this ephemeral body and mind, you cannot find a single fixed point. Just when you are thinking that there is such a thing, that thing is gone. You think, “It is here.” Blink your eyes, and it is gone. What you thought to be true in that same instant becomes untrue.

There is a story of a beautiful girl who is dancing, singing captivating melodies on a stage. A man is going to meet her with a pot full to the brim of oil. Another man is going right after him with sword raised, ready to slice off his head if he spills even one drop of oil. This is the simile for the ardent practitioner of mindfulness. The Buddha issued an open invitation for all who sought his instruction to “come and see” how mindful that man carrying the pot of oil on his head must be. It is a simile designed to evoke the experience of things as they are in a way so potent, so direct as to liberate the heart and mind from stress. These teachings point to a knowing of impermanence that is immediate. It is established in the body with inner perception that defies mere intellectual description. Although practicing this degree of mindfulness amid sensual distraction demands diligence, the fruits of the Buddha’s practice are many and profound. They are available to all who set their minds on freedom, who are intent upon discovering the impermanence, the inherent selflessness, and above all, the capacity for release from suffering that is here and now.

“Bhikkhus, suppose that on hearing, ‘The most beautiful girl of the land! The most beautiful girl of the land!’ a great crowd of people would assemble. Now that most beautiful girl of the 6land would dance exquisitely and sing exquisitely. On hearing, ‘The most beautiful girl of the land is dancing! The most beautiful girl of the land is singing!’ an even larger crowd of people would assemble. Then a man would come along, wishing to live, not wishing to die, wishing for happiness, averse to suffering. Someone would say to him: ‘Good man, you must carry around this bowl of oil filled to the brim between the crowd and the most beautiful girl of the land. A man with a drawn sword will be following right behind you, and wherever you spill even a little of it, right there he will fell your head.’

“What do you think, bhikkhus, would that man stop attending to that bowl of oil and out of negligence turn his attention outward?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“I have made up this simile, bhikkhus, in order to convey a meaning. This here is the meaning: ‘The bowl of oil filled to the brim,’ this is a designation for mindfulness directed to the body. Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will develop and cultivate mindfulness directed to the body, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’ Thus, bhikkhus, should you train yourselves.”6

We might “come and see” how difficult it is to practice mindfulness amid all kinds of commitments. Our minds run in circles and vacillate from past to future, storing and dredging up all kinds of memories, planning many futures. Keeping the mind poised on the very real impermanence that informs every fraction of the current moment can be tricky.

How do we carry the figurative vessel of oil without a single drip, when our attention can so easily become distracted by attraction and aversion? In the tradition of Theravada Buddhist meditation, one way we generate continuity of mindfulness sufficient for the touching of impermanence 7is by cultivating just enough concentration. This gathering of attention allows you to attend to each happening with poise and precision while simultaneously knowing a more spacious peace. These instructions are intended to guide you to that point.

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