This precious human body, supreme instrument though it is for the attainment of enlightenment, is itself a transient phenomenon. No one knows when, or how, death will come. Bubbles form on the surface of the water, but the next instant they are gone, they do not stay. It is just the same with this precious human body we have managed to find. We take all the time in the world before engaging in the practice, but who knows when this life of ours will simply cease to be? And once our precious human body is lost, our mindstream, continuing its existence, will take birth perhaps among the animals, or in one of the hells or god realms where spiritual development is impossible. Even life in a heavenly state, where all is ease and comfort, is a situation unsuitable for practice, on account of the constant dissipation and distraction that are features of the gods’ existence.
At present, the outer universe—earth, stones, mountains, rocks, and cliffs—seems to the perception of our senses to be permanent and stable, like the house built of reinforced concrete that we think will last for generations. In fact, there is nothing solid to it at all; it is nothing but a city of dreams.
In the past, when the Buddha was alive surrounded by multitudes of arhats and when the teachings prospered, what buildings must their benefactors have built for them! It was all impermanent; there is nothing left to see now but an empty plain. In the same way, at the universities of Vikramashila and Nalanda, thousands of panditas spent their time instructing enormous monastic assemblies. All impermanent! Now, not even a single monk or volume of Buddha’s teachings are to be found there.
Take another example from the more recent past. Before the arrival of the Chinese Communists, how many monasteries were there in what used to be called Tibet, the Land of Snow? How many temples and monasteries were there, like those in Lhasa, at Samye and Trandruk? How many precious objects were there, representations of the Buddha’s Body, Speech, and Mind? Now not even a statue remains. All that is left of Samye is something the size of this tent, hardly bigger than a stupa. Everything was either looted, broken, or scattered, and all the great images were destroyed. These things have happened and this demonstrates impermanence.
Think of all the lamas who came and lived in India, such as Gyalwa Karmapa, Lama Kalu Rinpoche, and Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche; think of all the teachings they gave, and how they contributed to the preservation of the Buddha’s doctrine. All of them have passed away. We can no longer see them and they remain only as objects of prayer and devotion. All this is because of impermanence. In the same way we should try to think of our fathers; mothers, children and friends. . . . When the Tibetans escaped to India, the physical conditions were too much for many of them and they died. Among my acquaintances alone, there were three or four deaths every day. That is impermanence. There is not one thing in existence that is stable and lasts.
If we have an understanding of impermanence, we will be able to practice the sacred teachings. But if we continue to think that everything will remain as it is, then we will be just like rich people still discussing their business projects on their deathbeds! Such people never talk about the next life, do they? It goes to show that an appreciation of the certainty of death has never touched their hearts. That is their mistake, their delusion.
From Enlightened Courage by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, ©1993, 2006 Editions Padmakara. Reprinted by arrangement with Snow Lion Publications, snowlionpub.com.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.