SB006: Skeptical Buddhists Seek Impermanence

Welcome back to the Skeptical Buddhists Channel, Star again still hanging out inside Second Life, this time at the astronomically amazing Inspire Space Park. I hope you all enjoy the scenery as we cover the second of the Three Marks of Existence. At the start of the last episode, I mentioned that the Buddha taught that there are three aspects of existence: impermanence; the suffering inherent in all things; and not-self. We covered not-self (“anatman”) last time, and it’s helpful if you’ve understood the concept before we take on impermanence, because the impermanence we’ll talk about today is the soul of not-self. The two concepts are deeply intertwined, and I may borrow a little “anatman” to explain impermanence. The basic concept, that nothing lasts forever, is pretty easy to grasp. We live in the age of science, so we’re beyond thinking that mountains are good places for the eternal homes for gods, because we know that mountains wear down; the sun will go out eventually; our galaxy will fly apart; we all die. I think we’ve got that, right? Stepping down a step from the Big Concept there, we have the fact that not only does everything cease to exist, it won’t even stay the same while it exists. Everything is constantly changing. This is in part what we were trying to see in ourselves last time, with meditations on the five aggregates of the self – remember those? They were: the body, feelings, perceptions, actions, and consciousness. We considered each of these in turn and saw that they change. The changes seem to be the result of outside influences like aging, events, new information, needs, and mind-altering substances (like anesthesia), and they each have their own times scales, but they all do change. Because these five aggregates are the things that make up our concepts of “self” and they change, and are dependent on outside factors, we can see that there is no unchanging self, no independent self, and therefore no independent unchanging eternal self. But that doesn’t mean there’s no you. You are a composition of those five aggregates, you are your sense of self, and, by the way, you’re also everyone else’s sense of your self. It’s a little like that shifting guy in the Philip Dick novel? you know the one done in rotoscope with Keanu Reaves starring? That disguise he had where his image flickered constantly and everyone saw someone different – that’s what you’re like. Changing, and impermanent. And frankly, kind of amazing. And so is everyone and everything else. Everything around us is made up of component parts and concepts. We tend toward defining people and things and then believing they are as we defined them to be, but if you think about it, that’s just silly. We have this concept of “a car” and we buy this “car” and it’s so cool looking and zips us all around and when it breaks down we get all angry because it’s no longer got some of the essence that makes it a “car.” The thing that we really need to see is that it’s not just you and I that have no eternal, unchanging, separate self, it’s everything. There is no inherent “car-ness” in that sexy hunk of useless junk by the side of the road – we just defined it as a car, and defined what it should do – but it’s way more than that, and sometimes less than that. Sometimes it won’t go, and it’s less. Sometimes it pollutes the air, and then it’s not just a car, but a menace to society. Our concepts of everything as permanently fixed in their roles limits our understanding of what they are capable of – capable of breaking down, capable of killing people if we drive them too fast. The same is especially true of our relationships with people. We like to put everyone in the world into boxes. Some of us have huge boxes and we sweep half the people into one, and the other half into another. Those are the “There are two kinds of people in the world” kinds of people. Are you one of those two-box people? I’m not. Either you’re one of those kinds of people who has two boxes, or you’re not. Some of us have more boxes than that, and some of us have lots and lots of boxes, more finely tuned. But, you see, they are all still boxes, and they come with definitions of the way people in those boxes should behave. We define “dad” as doing the things we believe fathers should do, and when he does something outside that box we get all outraged. The problem is not what dad did, the problem is that we defined dad and set our expectations, but he is a rotoscope person, shifting and changing and impermanent and no box in the world is going to fit him If we start by recognizing that everything is impermanent, including people, and even our concepts – our philosophies and beliefs and moral systems are changeable too – and we work at recognizing each person, place, and concept we encounter as entirely individual and mostly unknown and probably not very predictable – well that’s scary, that unpredictable part, but it’s far closer to the truth than the predictability we’d like to see. If we can do that, we’ll suffer less. And next time we’ll do a little more detail on why that’s so. See you then! Namasté!

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