Everything in the universe is subject to change. There’s only one exception: death always follows life. Isn’t it strange that people haven’t noticed this, that they conduct their lives as though they’re going to live forever, that death is nothing to worry about? Of course if they really want to live as long as they obviously expect, they’d better pursue the Dharma. Life, death, and change itself are transcended in the Dharmakaya.
I think we know the reality of impermanence. Everything in our lives comes and goes..but too often we try to resist instead of accepting that. I’m thinking of people who go to great lengths to appear younger. Age exists as a constant reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. Sometimes we have to tell young people about impermanence but we never have to tell old people. They already know.
In Buddhism we talk about what’s called the Three Marks of Existence. It’s said that when the Buddha was sitting under a tree and he attained enlightenment he realized these three things that are fundamental to life.
They are: Suffering, Impermanence, and No Self.
Life is full of suffering. All things are impermanent. Deep down there is no you, just a collection of things.
Suffering and Impermanence are pretty obvious truths about our lives. No Self is a little bit trickier to understand.
That being said, although impermanence is obvious, we try to hide from it. This is what makes Buddhism unique. We can all see that life is fleeting. That is self evident. But, in other spiritual traditions it’s usually posited that there is some permanent thing at our core, a soul or a spirit. The Buddha dispensed with this and said, “No. It’s all impermanent.” He said that even the gods (who he may or may not have believed in) were ultimately impermanent too, though there lives were much longer than yours or mine.
So, Han Shan is telling us that life is impermanent and we need to really seize the day. The fact is that although our lives are short in the scheme of things, we can get more out of life. This spiritual practice isn’t about living forever. It’s not even about living longer. It’s about living more fully. It’s about paying attention to the things we want to pay attention to. It’s about re-adjusting our focus so we are engaging our lives instead of just reacting to things all the time.
Dharmakaya is a word that’s difficult to translate, so I am going to just leave it and say that we transcend these things, life, death, and change, by cultivating a more awakened way to engage the world. It’s not that those things go away, they don’t. But if we learn how to live, really live, then death doesn’t have so much power over us.
Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.
You can support independent Buddhist writing by joining a community of fellow learners/practitioners at Patreon