5. Impermanence

The Buddha tells a story about children intently making castles of sand by the side of a river. Each child is proudly possessive of his or her creation. When one child kicks over another’s sandcastle, there is a loud protest of “That was mine!” The perpetrator is set upon and beaten by the others. Then the children resume their play, each attached to his or her treasured sandcastle and careful to defend it from any further incursions. When evening comes, and it is time to go home, the children demolish the castles that they had jealously protected only moments before. Then they depart.[i]

In just this way we forget impermanence and cling to things that we know won’t last. The only difference between the children and the rest of us is that our attachments to impermanent phenomena do not usually go away with the onset of evening. We need to remember the words of the Buddha:

Everything arises and passes away.                                                                                                                 When you see this you are above sorrow.                                                                                                        This is the shining way.[ii]

Impermanence is a fact of existence. Everything in our universe is in a state of change. Some things change in readily observable ways, like sandcastles or clouds in the sky. Others, like rocks and buildings, appear permanent but are in continual change at the atomic level and will gradually disintegrate over time if not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal experience of impermanence and gives it poetic expression, as in the funeral song from Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (IV.ii.335-336)

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony looks at shape-shifting clouds and thinks of l the imminent dissolution of his body:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

Even such a body, Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, (IV.xiv.18-19)

In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida tells us more about impermanence than she intends when she vows to be true to Troilus:

If I be false or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When water drops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! (III.iii.187-193)

In vowing constancy, Cressida envisions a Troy that will last for eons into the future, until water drops have worn away its stones. Her vow notwithstanding, she transfers her affections to the Greek, Diomedes, after she is forced to join her father in the Greek camp. Audiences hearing Cressida’s speech would perceive three kinds of impermanence. In her words, they would find the slow-acting change in which water drops wear away stones. Knowing that Cressida will prove false, they would see the impermanence of human affections. And knowing the story of the Trojan War, they would think of the destruction that will come to Troy sooner than Cressida expects. While Cressida acknowledges slow-acting change, she has no idea how impermanent her world will prove to be.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are in one way or another about impermanence. In Sonnet 64, he describes how our seemingly solid world changes:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

“Down-razed” towers would have been a common sight in Shakespeare’s day when the recently dissolved monastic establishments were torn down or quarried for their stone, and brass images and other objects associated with the Roman Catholic faith went into the fire. Even the earth proves to be impermanent as the ocean washes it away and rearranges it. Seeing change all around, the speaker sadly reflects that if time can take away such solid-seeming phenomena, then it will surely take away his love. He can only “weep to have that which [he] fears to lose.”

In Sonnet 73, the speaker turns his attention to the impermanence of his own body. He makes us feel both the sweetness of life and the certainty of its passing:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In the opening line, the speaker identifies himself with life at its lowest ebb, and its most precious. The tone is elegiac, and the images of decline are also images of beauty, yellow leaves, bare ruined choirs, twilight fading into night, and the glow of a dying fire. The final couplet drives home the point that imminent loss makes love stronger and that our response should be to love well. This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the response is to weep. In Sonnet 64, impermanence leads to suffering, but in Sonnet 73, it leads to love.

We love well when we embrace love and change in the same instant, recognizing that they are inseparable and that change is a source of joy as well as sorrow. It will take our love away, but it brought our love to us in the first place. Without impermanence, nothing could change, grow, or live. As Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki explains:

When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.[iii]

Like the children with their sandcastles, we habitually grasp onto people and things as though they were permanent, but as the Buddha teaches, “All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.”[iv]We can come to terms with the truth of “everything changes,” or we can argue with reality. Shakespeare shows us impermanence in all its manifestations and provides a glimpse of the reconciliation found in acceptance of change.

 

Notes

[i]Kornfield, Jack; Gil Fronsdal (eds); Teachings of the Buddha(Shambhala Publications, 1996), 16.

[ii]Byrom, Thomas. The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha(Boston: Shambhala,1993), 74.

 

[iii]Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind(New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 102-103.

 

[iv]The Buddha, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth from the Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli Thera, trans. 13 June 2010 (03 Mar 2019) https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html

 

 

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