A teaching from Larry Rosenberg’s Tricycle Retreat

Image: Photograph by Nick Dolding/Getty Images
Image: Photograph by Nick Dolding/Getty Images

Not only is it of profound importance for each of us to understand in a deep way the law of impermanence but it’s also quite practical. It’s not merely metaphysical or something to be argued about in philosophy seminars and coffee shops. Learning the law of impermanence can be done there, too, but the Buddhist teaching is designed to help us learn how to live.

I grew up in the Depression, and my father was unemployed for five years. I saw what that did to him and how he handled it. I remember how embarrassed he was that he couldn’t buy me toys that I wanted, and I remember how embarrassed my mother was that all she had for us when we went to Brighton Beach at Coney Island was cream cheese and jelly or peanut butter and jelly on white bread. But that’s what they could afford. I saw what the Depression did to them; and it certainly had its effect on me. Were their actions skillful? Well, it was the best they could do. This relates to all of us, just in case you were thinking it’s not about you. Today, as a culture, we find ourselves once again in a situation of massive unemployment. In my meditation classes, when people talk about what their fears are, these days it’s often fear of losing their job.

This is about all of us, and it’s not simply about work. It’s about every aspect of life. Are we willing to actively accept a loss? Taking that beyond the obvious application regarding livelihood, are we willing to face the loss of youth? The loss of health? The loss of life itself? That’s what I am getting at. There are many things in life that we lose. I remember having a conversation while studying with the Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah and he summed this point up in a rather unpretentious way. He spoke of how in Thailand, like many tropical countries, there is a great deal of flooding and people often lose their homes. I remember that he said, “If you lose your home because of a flood, is it possible to not lose your mind?” We’re getting at a subtle point here: There’s no question that hard and difficult things happen to us. The question is, what is our reaction to it? What is our relationship to what happens? The Buddhist teachings are both revolutionary and simple in that they attempt to change our relationship to our life experience, whatever that is. We move away from our tendencies to always, out of ignorance, either grasp or push away our experience, toward a better understanding of our actions and what they can lead to in the present moment and beyond.

There’s a story I like to tell that illustrates this ignorance and grasping. One day in a Zen monastery, a student who has been practicing meditation approaches his master and asks, “How do you practice when it’s hot and it’s cold?” The teacher answers, “Kill hot! Kill cold!” The student asks, “What do you mean, kill hot, kill cold?” Here we’re getting closer to getting to know our mind: The weather is just the weather; it’s just what it is. It’s just a certain temperature.

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