First Series: The Immutable True Characteristic
There Is Nothing in the World That Can Last Forever
If you have not entered deeply into a complete understanding of Buddhist wisdom, the principle that “all contrived things are like dreams, like illusions, like bubbles, like reflections” will surely make you feel confused, it will seem inconceivable, and you might more or less reject it. I can understand this. Ultimately you can see and touch these cars and these apartment buildings and so on-they are the entirety of our lives. These things that are so real-how can they become like dreams, like illusions, likes bubbles, like reflections? That’s a good question. In reality, Buddhists do not deny this reality of theirs, but they emphasize that their existence is an apparent existence. They are temporary, and they cannot last forever.
Everything in the world is in a process of uninterrupted change. Some changes can influence the surface appearance of things, and you can see them clearly, but some changes are very subtle, and take place inside things. They are like hypocrites in the community, weaving together lies that people enjoy hearing and seeing, to the point that many intelligent people are taken in by them.
Let me bring up a simple example: a beautiful girl enjoys her own beauty, and many boys are captivated by her beautiful appearance, but this kind of beautiful appearance will not last forever. The girl will always develop white hair, wrinkles, and will inevitably show signs of old age, not to mention the subtle changes in her body, the sudden birth and death of cells, the constantly changing thoughts. What's more, she is the same as the ordinary looking women: she has dirty inside her body, her skin is covered with bacteria, her body is supported by bones. But the girls themselves are not conscious of this: they jealously vie with other beautiful girls for male attention in a life-or-death struggle. But they do not understand that beauty seized by the mind of suffering will always be taken away by time.
In fact, whether it is beautiful or it is ugly, whether you have it or you lose it, in the world there is nothing that can exist forever, nor can any situation exist forever. The world is this way.
Everything in the world is a big false appearance. Why do we say these things are false appearances? Because they cannot last forever, but they let you think they will always be this way. This error we call “accepting the false as true.”
The myriad things do not have an eternal changeless intrinsic nature; they have no self, they are impermanent, but after the causal conditions come together, they can manifest various kinds of apparent forms. The external world which we see is a coming together of causal conditions, so of course it returns to the empty inherent nature, and it is impermanent. Moreover, many times what we see is not the true face of things and events: it is only the manifestation of our own minds. This is the meaning of the saying “the myriad phenomena are only fabrications of the mind.” For example, for a beggar out in the cold, having clothes to wear and food to eat is heaven. If one day this beggar becomes a rich man, then for him his heaven will be some other situation. This is the way it is.
So then, ultimately, are there any things that really exist, or not? There are, but their existence is “existence through causal origination,” For example, the cup we use to drink water does not have a fundamental essence that can last forever without changing, so we term it “empty”. But this is not to say that this cup is not there. Up until now, the cup still exists, but it does not have an eternal unchanging fundamental essence. They really exist, but they are also temporary appearances. This is because, in the next moment the situation may change into something that is not the same. Change is the true characteristic of this world, and no matter how you reject it, you will still constantly encounter it.
A young friend told me a story: She had been a very insecure person, afraid of the unknown, always wanting to control everything around her. One day her young husband suddenly died. Three hours before her husband died, the two of them had talked over the phone. Having experienced this event, she finally discovered that all she could truly control was her own mind. She said to me that she and her husband had originally agreed that the next month they would go on their honeymoon, and she would have her picture taken in her wedding dress, and the month after that they wanted to conceive a child, and after two years they would return to the husband's hometown for the child to grow up. But all of this turned into a dream.
Everything is fundamentally a dream. Her husband's existence was a dream, and some years later, her own existence would also become a dream. Is there anything that we must be concerned about, anything that we can be concerned about? When you truly understand the impermanence of worldly things, you will understand this statement. Luckily, what change brings is not all pain and suffering and helplessness: it also implies that all pain, suffering and helplessness will pass.
That friend also told me that in the first month after her husband died, it was as if she were living in hell, and every day she dreaded waking up, and every day she longed to be reunited with her husband in dreams. It was as if her mind was burning in the karmic fire, while her body was freezing in an icehouse. She said that every day she was waiting in a cold lonely room, not seeing any friends, not eating, as if her whole human form was bled dry. But this painful suffering did disappear. She ended up understanding that everything in the world is all like a dewdrop in the sunshine: in the twinkling of an eye it can evaporate, and nothing can last forever.
My younger brother died when he was twenty-seven. Friends who have read my book Desert Rites all know that for me at that time, his death was without doubt a deadly blow, but at the same time, it smashed my illusions about life, and broke up many of my clingings and attachments. Not long after it happened, I came to a thorough understanding of what the true characteristic of the world is. I knew that whether you cling to it or not, the world is always in the midst of change. The bright morning will always go into the dark night, and the dark night will always welcome the dawn. Children will slowly grow up, and parents will gradually grow old. All the stories in human life, whether we live through them ourselves, or hear about them from others, will all vanish in an instant, like a splash of water in our memories, or a flash of lightning in the night sky.
Every experience, every event, everything, every person-all these are apparent phenomena, and they will not endure forever, and they do not have fixed identities. Whether good or bad, they all just exist in our interpretation here and now. Thus we say: why must we take every experience and view it as so real? Why must we care about these ceaselessly changing appearances? Holding onto the present moment, savoring the present moment, enjoying the present moment, drawing nourishment from the present moment, letting the past go into the past, keeping the future in the future-this alone is a healthy attitude for living.