With every breath, the old moment is lost, a new moment arrives. This is something Buddhist meditators know. We breathe in and we breathe out. In so doing, we abide in the ever-changing moment. We learn to welcome and accept this entire process. We exhale, and we let go of the old moment. It is lost to us. In so doing, we let go of the person we used to be. We inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. We repeat the process. This is meditation. This is renewal. It is also life. (Das)

Impermanence, anitya, or anicca in Pali, is one of the Buddha’s three marks of existence, three conditions that characterize all of life, and are always present. (The other two marks of existence are anatman (Pali: anatta), or not-self, and duhkha (Pali: dukkha), suffering, or dissatisfaction.) (Unknown)

Teachings in Buddhism tell us of impermanence. In Occidental philosophy we might think the impossibility of presence; to appear, to persist. Yet, there is appearance. So, what gives? This question is again brought to the fore in ancient Greece. Heraclitus tells us we can never step into the same river twice. Anaximander tells us:

“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
– The condemnation for the crime –
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.” Anaximander [1]

Let’s remember that the three marks of existence are impermanence, not-self and suffering. The word ‘existence’ is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma… a koan in Zen. Existence only has ‘sense’ in coming to presence. What cannot come to presence is not even comprehensible except as the lack of presence (within presence). In appearance there is a retention which presses through in temporality as not only enduring but also necessarily entails a kind of absoluteness upon which sensibility is made possible and persistent. To be and not to be relentlessly announce themselves as existence. They cannot erase themselves. This then is suffering. Suffering has no answer, no solution, except in the impossibility of denying appearance. The ‘it’ of appearance can have the ‘appearance’ of denying itself but in so doing only re-announces itself in its negation. The classic Latin world fitted itself with a ‘metaphysic’ of eternity and substance. This was also its doldrums in the later advents of philosophy and science. Science necessarily proceeds classicism in the de-naturing of presence and has continually brought the mystery of presence into a clarity which dispenses with noble certainties of yesteryear. Over the centuries we have lost the Latin consolidations of absolute certainties by paying close and temporal attention to its content.

Yet, what cannot be unveiled is the pain of loss, of suffering. There is no doubt that suffering and impermanence are inextricably linked. In extinction, Buddhism tells us of the not-self, the erasure of self. But only a self can erase itself. Thus, we have the age-old debate between Buddhism and Hinduism of the Atman (the soul, self) and the Brahman (what I have brought to the fore here as ‘presence’). Buddhism recognizes the not-self as a distinction from Hinduism. The unity of the Atman and Brahman in the Upanishads and Hinduism are irrelevant in Buddhism just as the belief in Christianity is irrelevant to science. Centrality itself is fundamentally questioned and yet, even in this we are still mired in philosophy and the notion of presence. This is why meditation is important in Buddhism. It is the practice of mindfulness. It puts into practice the value of detachment, from attachment to the incessant dilemma of presence. Buddhism, as with better practices in philosophy, deepens the questions of existence. It enriches the value of what cannot come to presence as a reverence and humility which does not totalize. The most knee-jerk reaction to suffering is fear. Fear totalizes as if it were an answer to suffering. In this way, fear loses to richness of life. It reduces and compacts suffering into an easy answer, a fictionalized tradition. However, the absolute as fear or God does violence to the depth of mystery and wonder, the notion of the ‘new’. We are world-weary when the new becomes a replay of the past. We lose our way; we miss the mark. Resistance to pain is suffering.

The tragic loss of my son is pain. It is not erased as long as I am. His death as change is painful. As long as I am, [that] pain is. This is my debt to the obligation I owe him. My debt will never be repaid. It is my homage to his presence and loss of presence. I do not shrink from it in negativity, fear or oblivion but carry it with every step I take as the burden of existence and relatedness, relationship, as what I have/had with him. It is real and deepens with every moment. Every moment carries promise and renewal but also weighs heavily especially as we age. Likewise, the notion of absoluteness, even as the absoluteness of impermanence, is not an escape but a way in, a chance for ‘new’ not yet announced. The death of Chris is the death of me, of us, and the possibility for what is not yet announced or capable of being formulated in presence and absence. This is what Chris was and is. This is what all of us have been or will be. We can shrink from it or let it transform us, deepen us, make us capable for the ‘new’.

The purpose of what has been and will be is what can never be, can never come into presence or be totalized into fear. All of us carry each other in the burden of existence. We can choose to deny this and whither and shrink away into anger, despair, regret and isolation. This avenue denies who we are and what beckons us toward extinction not as release but as fulfillment of all that has been and ever will be which can nonetheless ever be created or made from the presence of existence. The impossibility of existence is not a step into nihilism. It is the occasion of birth. All of our presences and absolutes did not usher us into life before birth as if stepping into a river in which we carried our intentions and conscious from one state to another. We ‘are’ the river which can never be stepped into twice. How appearance ‘is’ is not a question or an answer, it is an occasion for wonder, renewal in a type of ‘new’ which can never be made temporal or a-temporal. It is the possibility of enrichment which can only be nourished by debt and obligation to the other, the presence and absence of the other, in suffering… for the sake of the other which undoes me into the infinite depth of what is not-me, not-self.


Das, Lama Surya. Practicing With Loss.

Unknown. What is impermanence?


[1] See my discussion on Anaximander here.