OPL8: chapter 4: impermanence of the composite

With chapter 4, we arrive at the heart of Gamopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation. Here, in the instructions of the dharma master, which comprise the next 16 chapters of the book, the actual path begins, and our first stop is to really contemplate the impermanence of everything we experience, including ourselves.

You may recall that, according to Gampopa, understanding impermanence is the antidote to the first obstacle to realizing our buddha nature: attachment to the activities of this life. We have so many compelling things on our to-do list — tasks and responsibilities, projects and plans, emails, appointments, news, housework, homework, workouts, meals, shopping, gardening, on and on, ad infinitum — that the forward momentum can carry us along from the moment we wake up until night comes and we fall into bed, or at least onto the couch in front of the TV (see obstacle two). Does that sound like your day?

As a healthcare practitioner once told an exhausted friend of mine who insisted she couldn’t afford to build any rest time into her day, “The work will still be there when you’re dead.” This is not unlike Gampopa’s advice in the introduction to OPL, that samsara is endless, and it will never liberate itself. It will never stop; it is up to us to step out of it.

It’s not that we have to give up all our activities and go into full-time retreat. But if we are so caught up in our worldly responsibilities that we can’t interrupt the momentum to find an hour a day, or even fifteen minutes, to study, contemplate, and meditate in order to free ourselves from the prison of our own confusion and suffering, then our immense good fortune of having the three prerequisites will not do us any good, another lifetime will go by like a dream, and we could end up like Mr. and Mrs. Pig in our next life.

So what does Gampopa have to say about impermanence, that will help us break this cycle? First, what is it that’s impermanent? Ringu Tulku explains: “Buddha said that everything compounded is impermanent. Everything that isn’t made of one single substance but of different elements must by its very nature, fall apart.” That’s us, and everything in our world.

Contemplations: Class participant Dave put a helpful spin on this, pointing out that from a scientific point of view, we and everything that surrounds us are composed of molecules and atoms and increasingly subtle subatomic particles, spinning around in the vast expanse of space. You could take a few minutes to contemplate what you and your environment might look and feel like on this level. This image corresponds on a physical level with the Buddha’s teaching that each of us is not really one single, unique, indivisible, freestanding entity but a mere set of aggregates, heaps of heaps of heaps (besides the physical aggregates, we also have four mental ones, usually translated as feelings, perception, formations, and consciousness, each aggregate itself another set). Try pinpointing what defines you, what makes you you, and you will likely come up with not one word or trait but a long list of pretty disparate items. (This is kind of a fun exercise.)

Path to Buddhahood pages 32-37 and/or chapter 4 in OPL: You can read these for a detailed explanation of the impermanence of compounded, aka conditioned, phenomena, so I’ll just hit a few highlights here:

The four ends: This is a classic Buddhist formulation and reminder of impermanence: All construction ends in ruin, all accumulation ends in scattering, all meeting ends in parting, all birth ends in death. That covers pretty much everything, right? When I think of the four ends, I’m always reminded of the poem Ozymandias (this link is worth a look; stick around for the zinger after the screen briefly goes to black).

Impermanence of the world: Gampopa’s presentation of impermanence is beautifully structured, beginning with the main division into the impermanence of the world and the impermanence of the sentient beings who inhabit it. He first addresses the impermanence of the world, and this category also subdivides into two contemplations: the large-scale impermanence of the world itself, which as we clearly see in our time, is subject to destruction by both internal and external forces (asteroids versus the behaviors of beings that lead to climate change and environmental havoc); and the smaller-scale, increasingly subtle levels of impermanence of the changing seasons, the daily cycle of day and night, and moment-to-moment impermanence. Gampopa’s description of the latter is expressed by Kalu Rinpoche in his Writings as:

This impermanent world is like a waterfall: a succession of similar events gives the impression of continuity.

We think our experience is smooth and continuous, but if we look at it closely, we begin to see how it breaks down into a string or spray of passing moments, much like the frames of a movie (an analogy Gampopa didn’t have handy but that contemporary teachers sometimes cite). This is what is meant when our teachers tell us that we are not the same person as when we were seven years old, or even a moment ago. We only appear the same because of the gross resemblance of one moment to the next to the next — and, for example, as we age or our house ages, what is present in one moment deteriorates in each successive moment that passes.

Impermanence of sentient beings: Gampopa gives us a number of ways to contemplate our own impermanence through awareness of changes in ourself and observation of the impermanence of others. The main contemplation in this section is the ninefold way of meditating on death. The nine ways are divided into three main meditations, each of which has three secondary meditations:

  1. It is certain I will die: a) all previous generations have died, b) my body is composite (and thus subject to the four ends), and c) life is exhausted moment by moment (its trajectory similar to an arrow that has been shot, a stream cascading over a cliff, or a prisoner being led to execution; or, as one of my early teachers put it: we already fell off the building; we’re hurtling toward the ground).
  2. When I will die is uncertain: a) lifespan is uncertain (people die at all stages of life; once you’re born, anything can happen), b) the body has no single vital essence (I think we are back to composite again, that no matter how deeply you dissect the body, you never find any one thing it is made of), and c) there are many potential causes of death (Jamgon Kongtrul’s Torch of Certainty is also eloquent on this topic).
  3. When I die, I can’t take anything with me: a) wealth and possessions are left behind, b) friends and relatives are left behind, c) even our own body must be left behind. Verse 4 of the 37 practices expresses this memorably.

“I, too, am of this nature.” Gampopa also encourages us, in a particularly striking passage, to observe the deaths of others and take that to heart as our own fate too. Whether we watch a friend or loved one gradually fade from a terminal illness, see a corpse in a funeral home or hearse (or, in Gampopa’s Tibet, in a charnel ground being “ripped apart by jackals and dogs, decomposed by insects”), remember a long-deceased acquaintance, or read the obituary of a celebrity (he didn’t put it quite that way), we should always think, “I, too, am of this nature. This will happen to me as well.”

What is the benefit of understanding impermanence? How does it remedy the first obstacle to awakening, attachment to the activities of this life? Ringu Tulku again: “Understanding impermanence … will make us less attached to our present life, less unhappy, easier to live with, and more carefree and relaxed. In fact, most of the problems we encounter in this world come from the idea of permanence.” At a deeper level, he says, understanding impermanence will open the door to understanding the Buddhist view of emptiness, interdependence, karma, and rebirth. It has also been said, “Impermanence is the doorway to emptiness.”

This chapter contains one of my favorite quotes to contemplate, especially when I’m out for a walk on a deceptively carefree beautiful fall day, from the Vast Manifestation Sutra:

The three worlds are as fleeting as autumn clouds.

“The three worlds” or realms refers to all the beings in the desire realm and the form and formless realms, which comprise all the six realms of samsara. (More on that coming up in chapter 5.) The same term is also used to refer to all beings on the earth, in the sky, and under the surface of the ground and oceans. Either way, it’s a compelling image.

Remember Ozymandias! And think, “I, too, am of this nature.”


Homework: Contemplate the second reminder from the four ordinary preliminaries composed by the Ninth Karmapa:

Secondly, everything is impermanent, the world and all it contains. In particular, the life of beings is as fragile as a bubble of water. The time of death is uncertain, and when I die, I will be nothing but a corpse. At that time, only the dharma can help me. I must practice diligently.

Or, in verse format:

Secondly, all things are fleeting, / this world and all that it contains.

Life is fragile, death uncertain, / dharma the unfailing thing.

Also, each day pay attention to the various manifestations of impermanence and change in your daily experience: sunrises and sunsets, the changing of weather and seasons, the seconds ticking by. When you read or hear that someone has died, apply the nine contemplations from OPL, and remember, “I, too, am of this nature. This will happen to me as well.”

Related post: “In a Nutshell”

Related 37 practices verse: verse 4

Class audio (2 sessions): January 17 and 24

Next: samsara = suffering, antidote to obstacle number 2

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