The Buddha describes subtle impermanence as “arising and passing away” or as “origination and disintegration.” Understanding arising or origination dispels the misconception of nihilism, which believes that either things do not exist at all or the person completely discontinues after death, so that there is no continuity of karma and its effects. Understanding passing away or disintegration dispels the misconception of absolutism, according to which people and things have a substantial, permanent, eternal reality.
Occasionally, the sutras speak about knowing feelings, discriminations, and thoughts “as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear” (MN 123.23), outlining three characteristics of the conditioned: arising, changing while abiding, and passing away. The Abhidharma formalizes this into the theory that at the micro level any conditioned phenomenon has three phases: the phases of arising, presence, and dissolution. These three points are without temporal duration. Change occurs not from the actual change of a persisting thing, but from the successive arisings of discrete phenomena in an unbroken sequence with imperceptible rapidity.
In meditation, it is more helpful to focus on the sutra presentation of arising and passing away, and within those two, especially on dissolution or passing away, as that highlights impermanence in a very forceful way.
By beginning with the analysis of form’s impermanence, the Buddha appeals to the direct experience of our body. We know our body is constantly changing; we know it is aging and will eventually cease to exist. This is a comparatively gross form of impermanence, whereas the understanding of subtle impermanence frees us from the illusion of the body being permanent.
A stable, solid body is a mental image superimposed onto a stream of events in the same way that a spinning propeller is seen as a circle. The constant succession of discrete acts of cognition or feeling appears as a monolithic event, just as the rapid change of frames in a film appears as a smooth continuum.
Subtle impermanence is more difficult to understand. Scientists tell us of the constant changes in subatomic particles, but since these are not visible to our ordinary perceptions and the physical objects around us seem to be stable, we assume that our five aggregates and the world around us are immutable and fixed. In fact, our body, feelings, and so on are dynamic processes in which every aspect of them is arising and passing away in each moment. Nothing is static, even though it may appear to be firm and unchanging because our perception is not sharp enough to detect the subtle changes occurring in each moment. The obscured mind puts together these unique moments of ever-changing existence and sees them as solid objects so that the ignorant mind can deal with the world. A stable, solid body is a mental image superimposed onto a stream of events in the same way that a spinning propeller is seen as a circle. The constant succession of discrete acts of cognition or feeling appears as a monolithic event, just as the rapid change of frames in a film appears as a smooth continuum.
By practicing mindfulness and paying careful attention to the body and mental processes, we will gradually see that what appear as unified objects or events are momentary phenomena that are arising and passing away in a fraction of a nanosecond. This constant change occurs due to causes and conditions, which themselves are in constant flux. Similarly the elements that compose the body are actually dynamic processes that arise and cease in each moment. As mindfulness deepens, subtle impermanence is seen clearly, not in an intellectual or conceptual manner, but as direct experience.
To approach subtle impermanence, begin by examining your body. Is it the same from one year to the next? Is it the same from one month, week, day, hour, minute, and second to the next? Is it the same from one split-second to the next? Questioning in this way makes it clear that our body changes from split-second to split-second. Similarly, each part of our body and each atom of our body changes from one split-second to the next. Feelings, discriminations, miscellaneous factors, and consciousnesses also do not remain the same from one nanosecond to the next. Everything comes into existence, persists for the tiniest fraction of a moment, and then ceases; in fact, even in that split-second while it persists, it is changing. This is followed by something new that arises, persists for a changing fraction of a moment, and disintegrates. There is no way to stop this process: change is in the very nature of conditioned things.
The experience of a pleasant feeling is dependent on an object, the sense faculty, consciousness, and contact, but once the feeling arises, could it be permanent during the time it endures? Bhikkhu Nandaka, when instructing a group of five hundred bhikshunis, asked (MN 146.9):
Monastics, suppose an oil lamp is burning: its oil is impermanent and subject to change, its wick is impermanent and subject to change, its flame is impermanent and subject to change, and its radiance is impermanent and subject to change. Now would anyone be speaking rightly who spoke thus: “While this oil lamp is burning, its oil, wick, and flame are impermanent and subject to change, but its radiance is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change?”
To this the bhikshunis responded that such permanence is not possible. Anything that arises dependent on causes and conditions—even if it endures for a period of time—cannot itself be permanent and unchanging. It too perishes, and something new arises in each split-second of its continuity.
Our ordinary consciousness sees feelings as solid and substantial, but by directing our attention inward to our moment-to-moment experience, it is possible to realize the arising and ceasing of contact—the cause of feeling—in each split-second. As contact is seen—and it too is momentary and transient—so is the ceasing of each moment of feeling that has arisen based on that contact. By not understanding pleasant feelings as impermanent, sensual desire is ignited; by not understanding unpleasant feelings as impermanent, anger flares; and by not understanding neutral feelings as impermanent, confusion is activated. For this reason, the Buddha emphasizes understanding feelings with correct wisdom, because doing so prevents the arising of these afflictions and will eventually lead to their total eradication.
By increasing our mindfulness of each of the five aggregates, insight knowledge will arise that directly knows subtle impermanence. When this happens, it almost seems as if nothing is there, because whatever arises is gone in the next moment. The present cannot be stopped.
From Searching for the Self by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, ©2022. Reprinted by permission of Wisdom Publications, wisdomexperience.org.