I just finished reading an excellent article, “Impermanence is Buddha Nature,” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, published in the May 2013 issue of Shambhala Sun. The article was incredibly helpful in deepening my understanding of Buddhism’s teachings on permanence and impermanence. As with pretty much everything, I found I had instinctively tried to simplify the teaching into a concept I could (ironically) “grasp.” I felt as if this article opened a pair of eyes I never knew I had.
Dōgen writes “Impermanence itself is Buddha Nature.” And adds, “Permanence is the mind that discriminates the wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of all things.” Permanence!? Impermanence seems to be (as Dōgen himself writes elsewhere) an “unshakable teaching” in buddhadharma. How does “permanence” manage to worm its way into Dogen’s discourse?…For Dōgen, “permanence” is practice: having the wisdom and the commitment to see the difference between what we commit ourselves to pursuing in this human lifetime, and what we commit ourselves to letting go of. The good news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that we can finally let ourselves off the hook: we can let go of the great and endless chore of improving ourselves, of being stellar accomplished people, inwardly or in our external lives. This is no small thing, because we are all subject to this kind of brutal inner pressure to be and do more today than we have been and done yesterday—and more than someone else has been and done today and tomorrow.
I became a student of Buddhism when I was 18, and after five years of being conditioned to question my various assumptions of permanence, and my clinging to permanence itself, I still balk a little at the word “permanence.” So my mind is still adjusting to the use of “permanence” in the passage above. For now, what’s helpful for me is to think of it as returning. I can’t return to conditioned states (happiness, calm, energy, etc.)–those are impermanent. But I can return to practice. I may return grudgingly sometimes; other times, joyfully–it doesn’t matter. I can return again and again and again and again, and again.
It’s helpful to see that woven into Buddhism’s profound teachings on impermanence, there is an equally profound thread of “wise permanence,” or wise and committed returning. This quote from the Buddha seems to echo that sense of this wise and subtle permanence, consistency, something to return to:
The mighty ocean has but one taste, the taste of salt. Even so, the true way has but one savor, the savor of freedom.