Everything comes to an end: a difficult day, a pleasant day, a song, a feeling, a dinner at the restaurant, a blog post, a trip, a heartache.
The impermanence of things, which is a key-concept of Buddhism and ancient philosophy, largely covered in the arts and literature, makes a flower fade, an anger go away, a baby be born.
The only permanence which is not an illusion is impermanence. We can easily picture you frowning in front of your screens with this slight impression to pass an exam of philosophy. It may be a nice exam topic though. If everything is impermanent, it makes a human being confront the passing of time which is only palpable through experience of duration and space. Let’s have a small overview of this topic.
KEY CONCEPT OF BUDDHISM AND ANCIENT PHILOSOPHYThe famous yogi Shabkar (1781 – 1851) reported in his The Life of Shabkar, the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogi, that he fully and sadly understood what impermanence was when his mother died: « When they placed in my hands my mother’s bones, I thought, ‟A ho! Things of this world really are nothing. […] Believing in the permanence of things, I kept putting off my return. Next year…I’ll come to see you next year. […] She is no longer in a place where, if I looked, I could see her, or that, if I spoke, she could hear me. […] I have no need to meditate any further on impermanence and death. My mother gave me these teachings, and vanished. »
The Buddhist tradition has identified impermanence as one of the major causes of human suffering: as everything is impermanent, growing attached to them is a cause of suffering. Yet human beings cling firmly to their desires but things do not always go their way.
Let’s go back to philosophy. Heraclitus would have been the first philosopher to think of the world as infinite and ever-changing. This assumption is confirmed by the scientific discoveries of the 20th century: relativity in the field of physics, evolution of species in life sciences, radioactivity and instability of nuclei in atomic physics, the Big Bang theory in cosmology, etc.
THE IMPERMANENCE, Or how to deal with the passing of time
Impermanence confronts the human beings to the objectivity of time through the experience of duration. It reminds Saint Augustine saying in his Confessions: « What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. »
We have temporalized our world through clocks, timezones, watches, which is an illusion of permanence at the human-scale.
Heraclitus was not only the first to think of the world as constantly changing but also the first to think of impermanence in a positive way: impermanence is necessary to make something exist, and this is precisely because everything changes that human beings can change. There’s always a beginning after an end. Everything becomes possible. Wouldn’t this positive acceptation of the impermanence of things be the true wisdom?
Photo credit: Harry Sandhu, Unsplash