Impermanence refers to the concept that many aspects of our perceived reality are uncertain and temporary. Despite this, we often hold onto these fleeting circumstances as if they are permanent fixtures in our lives, such as our jobs, relationships, income, and housing. When we invest in these temporary situations, we increase the intensity of the pain and suffering that comes with loss, grief, rejection, and disappointment.
However, when we examine the nature of reality, we realize that everything is in a constant state of flux, including things that appear solid and permanent. For example, a house may look sturdy, but it will eventually deteriorate and return to the earth without ongoing maintenance and care.
Recognizing the pervasive nature of impermanence can trigger anxiety about life’s unpredictability. Nevertheless, Buddhism teaches that accepting impermanence can be liberating because it opens us up to endless possibilities. Understanding the reality of impermanence can be helpful during times of pain and suffering, reminding us that these experiences are also temporary.
The Role of Impermanence in Buddhism
For Buddhists, the phenomenal world we experience through our senses is constantly changing. The Buddha taught that this world is transitory and subject to change due to causes and conditions, such as the cycles of nature, human life, relationships, and cultural shifts throughout history.
Ignorance of the impermanence of the phenomenal world causes attachment, craving, and clinging, which leads to suffering. Nirvana is a state of mind free from suffering and refers to the extinguishing of the personal desires that fuel attachment. Achieving nirvana is necessary for enlightenment.
An enlightened mind recognizes both the impermanence of the phenomenal world, referred to as conventional or relative truth, and the ultimate truth, which is permanent and underpins our conventional experience of reality. Understanding ultimate truth requires extensive scholarly training and insight cultivated through meditation.
For Mahayana Buddhists, this teaching is known as the Two Truths, which acknowledges both relative and ultimate truth. This concept is a late addition to Buddhism and is not based on the Buddha’s original discourses in the Pali canon. Some debate exists between early Buddhists and later Mahayana Buddhists about the meaning of impermanence. Nevertheless, the distinction between the Two Truths emphasises the importance of acknowledging both types of truth. This is a key difference between the Hindu and Buddhist views on impermanence.