4: Impermanence

The Buddha tells a story about children intently making castles of sand by the side of a river, each proudly possessive of his or her creation. When one child kicked over another’s sandcastle, there was a loud protest of “That was mine!” The perpetrator was set upon and beaten by the others. Then the children resumed their play, each attached to their sandcastle and careful to defend it from any incursions. When evening came, and it was time to go home, the children demolished the castles that they had treasured and protected only moments before. Then they all departed.[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 and take to heart 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, at every level, 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 to us 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:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (IV.ii.331-336)

In Jaques’ seven ages of man speech from As You Like It, we have impermanence as it manifests in the aging body, which progresses too quickly from the

Infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms, (II.vii.151)

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 clouds as he prepares for death:

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)

That which is now 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 see 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 how 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 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.

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 went into the fire. 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 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 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 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 only to suffering, 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 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, it is easy to fall into the habit of grasping 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 reconcile ourselves to the truth of “everything changes” or we can suffer. 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.

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[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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