This is a continuation of Buddhism in a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma
The First Seal:
All Compounded Things are Impermanent
Every phenomenon we can think of is compounded, and therefore subject to impermanence. Certain aspects of impermanence, like the changing of the weather, we can accept easily, but there are equally obvious things that we don’t accept.
For instance, our body is visibly impermanent and getting older every day, and yet this is something we don’t want to accept. Certain popular magazines that cater to youth and beauty exploit this attitude. In terms of view, meditation and action, their readers might have a view—thinking in terms of not aging or escaping the aging process somehow. They contemplate this view of permanence, and their consequent action is to go to fitness centers and undergo plastic surgery and all sorts of other hassles.
Enlightened beings would think that this is ridiculous and based on a wrong view. Regarding these different aspects of impermanence, getting old and dying, the changing of the weather, etc., Buddhists have a single statement, namely this first seal: phenomena are impermanent because they are compounded. Anything that is assembled will, sooner or later, come apart.
When we say “compounded,” that includes the dimensions of space and time. Time is compounded and therefore impermanent: without the past and future, there is no such thing as the present. If the present moment were permanent, there would be no future, since the present would always be there. Every act you do—let’s say, plant a flower or sing a song—has a beginning, a middle and an end. If, in the singing of a song, the beginning, middle or end were missing, there would be no such thing as singing a song, would there? That means that singing a song is something compounded.
“So what?” we ask. “Why should we bother about that? What’s the big deal? It has a beginning, middle, and end—so what?” It’s not that Buddhists are really worried about beginnings, middles or ends; that’s not the problem. The problem is that when there is composition and impermanence, as there is with temporal and material things, there is uncertainty and pain.
Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death, impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a relief! I don’t have a BMW today and it is thanks to the impermanence of that fact that I might have one tomorrow. Without impermanence, I am stuck with the non-possession of a BMW, and I can never have one. I might feel severely depressed today and, thanks to impermanence, I might feel great tomorrow. Impermanence is not necessarily bad news; it depends on the way you understand it. Even if today your BMW gets scratched by a vandal, or your best friend lets you down, if you have a view of impermanence, you won’t be so worried.
Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed, narrow-minded belief in permanence. Everything, whether you like it or not—even the path, the precious Buddhist path—is compounded. It has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.
When you understand that “all compounded things are impermanent,” you are prepared to accept the experience of loss. Since everything is impermanent, this is to be expected.
...to be continued