What are the experiences that the teachings of the Buddha are founded on? They are sadness, love, and openness. Although they appear to be quite different, sadness and openness are in fact intimately connected. The profound sadness that overwhelms us when we understand the impermanent nature of all phenomena opens us up to the world around us. We open our hearts and begin to notice our fellow beings. We see how we all must face the hardships of life; we understand the fleeting nature of our joys; and we become aware of how much worry, pain, and suffering we all go through in our lives. In this way, we realize that we all share similar painful experiences. Knowing what others go through and feel, we cannot help but sympathize with them, and the wish to help and protect our fellow beings naturally wells up in us. This wish to help and protect arises from love, and the more we open our eyes to others’ suffering and delusion, the stronger our love becomes. Love clears the mind of the thick fog of desire, anger, and ignorance. Love is like the sun that burns through the fog, dissolving it, until only vast openness and clarity remain. When nothing but boundless openness and lucidity remain, we come face-to-face with the basic nature of all phenomena beyond concepts.

Still, as thoughts reemerge, the fog inevitably reappears. But now we know—from our own experience—that freedom and awakening are always right here within us. This realization gives rise to an indescribable joy. We have experienced for ourselves that awakening is a genuine option, for us and for everyone else—how wonderful! The heartfelt wish that everyone may awaken to true freedom is born in us and consumes us to the point where our attachment and delusion seem to dissolve naturally. All the while, we see the world for what it is, utterly impermanent and painful, and our sadness grows ever more profound. Yet our sadness is now accompanied by genuine love and affection and a deep sense of responsibility brought on by the certainty that if we simply stay on course, we will be able to make a true and lasting difference everywhere we go. This is how sadness, love, and openness sustain dharma practitioners.


Reflecting on impermanence is not meant to make us miserable. But without that sorrow of knowing nothing will last, we will never get anywhere on our path. Sadness makes it possible for us to gain something that is much more precious than anything we could imagine. That is why we must contemplate impermanence. If there were nothing to gain, it would be foolish to think about these things—we would just be making ourselves miserable for no reason. But there’s a deep meaning to it all. When it dawns on us what the world is actually like, and we are consequently struck by overwhelming sadness, the next step comes naturally. We draw the logical conclusion that all things are impermanent and begin training in letting go.


Gradually, we are able to let go of all the things we used to chase after blindly, all the things that used to bind us and control us. We develop that ability through a discernment that we normally don’t possess. Instinctively, we begin to let go, because now we know. Whether we like it or not, sooner or later we will be forced to let everything go, so when we know this, it makes perfect sense to lessen our clinging now. Unless we take impermanence into account, we will just continue holding on to things, which in the end will only bring us pain and deprive our lives of meaning. On the other hand, if we have really understood that nothing lasts and that everything is unreal and illusory, then letting go is easy. Actually, it happens by itself without effort. Reflecting on the impermanent and illusory nature of all things is a very powerful practice.

Related: Breaking the Sadness Habit


Understanding impermanence is no magical feat, but it dramatically, almost magically, changes our experience of the world. It makes us capable of actions that used to be impossible. We begin to look at our world and ourselves from a completely new perspective, and that profound shift in outlook is actually at the heart of all dharma practice. In fact, we can measure our spiritual progress by how often we remember that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. For the most accomplished practitioners, this happens quite spontaneously. They have already then let go.


We begin to awaken, thinking: I’m fooling myself. The way I experience the world and those around me, the way I experience my emotions and myself—it’s all wrong and it’s painful. All the stuff that I worry about—the things I must have, the things I cannot bear to lose, and the things I try to avoid—it all just keeps me trapped. When I see things in that confused way, it has nothing to do with how they actually are. Moreover, since I am doing this to myself, I am only causing my own suffering. How sad and meaningless!


We then commit ourselves to breaking free of this outlook: I’m done! From now on, I want to see things for what they really are. I won’t be a slave to my own delusions anymore. I know my perception of the world is completely out of touch with reality. All my daydreams and fantasies, all my worries and fears—they are all trivial and pointless!

As we think in this way, our wish to be free grows stronger. The power of that wish then transforms into a key that unlocks Buddhism’s vast treasury of methods and instructions.


When we realize that everything is impermanent and unreal, we open up to the pain and suffering of others. That is how love and compassion become heartfelt and genuine. No matter how many praises we sing of love and compassion, such qualities won’t awaken and flourish unless we acknowledge impermanence.


So many wonderful qualities are already present within us, just waiting to be discovered. The key lies in understanding that things are impermanent and unreal. Sadness, of course, is not an end in itself. But deep sorrow comes with realizing that everything we previously took to be lasting and real is actually just about to disappear—and it never even existed in the first place. Such sadness and disillusionment have a wonderful effect. Sorrow makes us let go. As we stop chasing futile and ultimately painful goals, we embark on the spiritual path with superior strength and resolve.

From Sadness, Love, Openness: The Buddhist Path of Joy by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche © 2018 by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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