Thoughts at Vesak on impermanence

By Manel Abhayaratna, Daily Mirror, May 20, 2008

The flowers that fade and the flames that die down, speak to them of impermanency

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- A cluster of white lanterns swaying with pristine beauty, lighting the night with their filtered light symbolizes often  the tranquility and serenity of the Buddhist philosophy perhaps much more than the multi coloured jets  and the dazzling sometimes even garishly decorated pandals.

The lanterns too bring to my mind the beautiful film titled "Meditation", directed by Paul Zils in which many many years ago he as a foreigner working at the Government film unit attempted through this film to present the most important concepts of Buddhism.

The film commences with a  young boy gazing with pride and happiness at a lantern he has fashioned and hung on a tree outside his home. (This was at a  time when lanterns were made at home, often by children assisted and encouraged by adults, not as it happen so commonly now when lantern frames and even the decorated lanterns are offered for sale perhaps another a manifestation of the specialization of globalization!)

The lantern is admired by passersby and the boy is thrilled with his creation . However his joy does not remain for long ,a gust of wind blows the flame within the lantern and soon the fire consumes its beauty and only the blackened frame is left. The boy weeps at the tragedy that has reduced his lantern to ashes. And as he grows up different incidents of his life accentuate loss by sickness , death and other calamities. He finally realizes the teachings of the Buddha as contained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble truth is Dukka and it represents that birth , old age, sickness and death are universal.

The second explains the origin or cause of suffering. Tanha or craving is the universal cause of suffering. It includes not only desire for sensual pleasures, wealth and power, but also attachment to ideas', views, opinions, concepts, and beliefs. One clings to things which are impermanent, changeable and perishable. The failure to satisfy one's desires through these things; causes disappointment and suffering. Craving is a powerful force present in all of us and it  is the root cause of our sufferings. The third explains the end of cessation of suffering and the Fourth Truth explains the Path or the Way which leads to the cessation of suffering. This is called the Noble Eightfold Path and  consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The film in a sense attempt to bring into focus a very important aspect of Buddhist thought , which was explained in the Anguttara Nikaya 111. 134, the Buddha teaches as follows:"Whether Perfect Ones appear in the world or not, it still remains a firm condition, an immutable fact, and fixed law that all formations (sankharas) are impermanent.” The  three characteristics of Anitya, Dukkha and Anatma, are the salient features of sentient existence. In the Buddha-Dharma these are called the "Trilakshana" or the three cardinal features of life.

Annitya means that everything that undergoes change, is impermanent and unstable. There is the process of arising, reaching a peak, and passing away. This transitory nature of life is recognised by all religions and philosophies. Unfortunately while we rcognize that impermanence is the cardinal feature of life we do not often act according to this premise. To many of us life is eternal , as is our power , our ambitions, wealth and all that we have acquired. We see this attitude so often in our country in almost all strata of society , each one clinging with desperate longing to what they believe is their by right or privilege.

During this Vesak poya many will in temples offer flowers  and light oil  lamps  and as the Ven. Piyadassi Nayake Thera says  when devotees do so they are not praying to the Buddha or to any "supernatural being." The flowers that fade and the flames that die down, speak to them of the impermanency of all conditioned things.’ But one wonders how often that thought follows our actions in society, within the community and in our own families.

If all of us make a more concerted effort to bring into society the teaching of the Buddha who said to his disciples “The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of "I am." Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion... removes and abolishes all conceit of "I am."

The many political, economic and social problems we face in our country stem more often than not, in that very few are willing to consider the wider needs of society as against their own insular desires. Maybe this attitude is nurtured by the highly competitive secular materialism that globilization has created . Another factor could be the breakdown of the extended family for today many among the young  do not appear to know what sharing means, they are demanding and seek gratification regardless of the impact their demands may have on their  parents  who strive to give them what they feel they should because of social pressure . ‘ Me’ ‘mine’ and ‘I’ have become the operative words among the young and within such a social syndrome there is no possibility that egoism will be abolished .

In fact it has often due to poor parenting skills , and lack of discipline became entrenched among the young who see no different moral ethos in adult behaviour. The young specially those who are of affluent families or enjoy the benefits of political privilege never think of a time when these special benefits will be gone , they never imagine that all those privileges are transitory and yet if think back especially at the different instances of political patronage that prevailed they will realize that like the lantern in Paul Zils’ film, the privileges that leads to their arrogance and selfishness can be reduced to ashes soon.

After all even though we refer with pride to the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome all these have  been relegated to the limbo of the forgotten past. As the Ven. Piyadassi Nayake Thera says ‘History has proved again and again and will continue to prove that nothing in this world is lasting. All things when clung to fail. Nations and civilizations rise, flourish, and die away as waves upon the ocean, yielding place to new, and thus the scrolls of time record the passing pageant, the baseless vision, and the fading flow that is human history.’ Many of us are familiar with that same theme expressed in  the poem Ozymandias,by Shelley.

Those who today who disregard the basic norms of moral behaviour , whose contempt for the sanctity of life is marked by the violence that exists in society , and who encourage corruption and bigotry should also remember that even  our own bodies undergo change and lead to the inevitable decay and death. The Buddha states that impermanence is the first cardinal feature of life. We have seen through the experience of others that power , positions and wealth will not remain  stable.

What is the purpose of denying and suppressing moral values merely to  cling to our ambitions for wealth and power  believing  that they will remain with us forever when we have seen  and experienced in so many instances how transitory they are: like the lantern made by the boy in Paul Zils film they too will end in ashes, and as  such surely they not worthy of our attachment?