4: Impermanence

It is a Monday morning in early spring and the alarm wakes me. I almost always wake up on my own, but this morning is different. Daylight savings time ended on Sunday and my body hasn’t adjusted to the time change. Half awake I take my shower and stand bleary eyed in front of the mirror to shave, wondering how I ever got to look this old.  Making my morning coffee, I go to the refrigerator and open the milk but it smells sour.  A glance at the carton confirms that the expiration date passed two weeks ago.  Sitting down with my black coffee I begin to read the newspaper. The main headline concerns the resignation of a member of Congress who is facing credible accusations of sexual abuse.  Below the fold is a story about the previous week’s stock market correction, which erased assets in excess of one trillion dollars. Turning to the sports page I see that an NFL franchise that was once a focus of civic pride and fierce fan loyalty will pull up roots and move to another city. As I leave my building an hour later to keep a dentist appointment it feels unusually warm for the time of year. Is this global warming already?  After my examination and x rays, I get more news. A crown that seemed so permanent when it was put in 18 years ago will have to be replaced. On some days our lives seem permanent and predictable, but on days like this one, events come together to drive home the truth: nothing is permanent; everything changes.

*

The Buddha taught that:

Everything arises and passes away. When you see this you are above sorrow. This is the shining way. The Buddha, Dhammapada[i]

For Buddhists impermanence (anicca) is another of the basic facts of existence. Everything in our universe, at every level, is in a continual state of change. Some things change in gross or readily observable ways, like clouds in the sky or living beings that age and die. Others, like rocks and buildings, appear permanent to us but are in continual change at the atomic level and will gradually disintegrate over time if they are not destroyed first. Shakespeare takes the universal human experience of impermanence and transforms it into poetry.

In the seven ages of man soliloquy from As You Like It, we have impermanence as it manifests in the aging body, which progresses all too quickly from the “Infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” to:

. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.vii.172-173)

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony meditates on the impermanence of shape-shifting clouds as he prepares for death:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock, (IV.xiv.4-6)

That which was a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water. (IV.xiv.12-14)

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

In the above examples the speakers tell us about impermanence as they envision it. 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, Cressida soon 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 impermanence in which water drops wear away stones. Knowing that Cressida will prove false, they would think of the impermanence of human affections. And knowing the story of the Trojan War, they would think of the destruction that will come to Troy far sooner than Cressida expects. Cressida unwittingly reminds the audience that even as we acknowledge impermanence, things are far more impermanent than we imagine.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are in one way or another about impermanence. In Sonnet 64 he describes the ways in which our seemingly solid world is subject to change:

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 watery 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.

Towers are disassembled and objects of brass are melted down. Such examples of impermanence would have been widely evident 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 were destroyed. Even the earth proves to be impermanent as the ocean washes it away and rearranges it. Seeing change and decay all around him, the speaker sadly reflects that if time can take away such solid-seeming phenomena, then it will surely take away his love as well. 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 simultaneously feel 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 at 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 more strong and that our response should be to love well.

This is in contrast to the final couplet of Sonnet 64, where the only response is to weep. In Sonnet 64 impermanence leads only to pain, but in Sonnet 73 impermanence leads to love. We can love well by embracing love and impermanence in the same instant, recognizing that they are inseparable and that impermanence 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 the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, explains, “When you realize the fact that everything changes and find your composure in it, there you find yourself in nirvana.”[iii]

It is easy to fall into the habit of grasping onto things as though they were permanent, even when we know better. Shakespeare continually reminds us of impermanence in all its manifestations and gives us a glimpse of the reconciliation to be found in acceptance of change.

___________________________________________________________________

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

[ii] To efface.

[iii] Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2008), 327.

Leave a Reply