The expression that “the only constant is change,” is part of our everyday language, but do we realize how true this is? Impermanence is clearly the most permanent part of our lives. I received my first lesson in how fleeting things are as a boy, when my beautiful Schwinn bicycle was stolen. I was devastated and cried for weeks. I naively assumed that this was the worst blow that life could ever deal me. My parents were intelligent, thoughtful people and did not replace it immediately, allowing time for this lesson of impermanence to sink in.
Years later my beloved dog Phaedra died. To me she was irreplaceable and I had never given much thought to the idea that she was only here for a certain amount of time. I was inconsolable and grieved for months. As a young adult, I watched my father’s thriving retail business crushed by a new wave of department stores. Our family fell on hard times and we struggled. This new wave of independent department stores and chains that swept across America would themselves be replaced by malls, and the malls are now being replaced by online retailers. I don’t know what is next, but something will replace online.
When my father passed away I was shattered. By this time I had clearly begun to understand impermanence, but understanding and accepting are very different states. My mother left this world a few years later. Life was teaching me to accept that nothing lasts. I was a slow learner. With time however, the lesson of impermanence would be learned.
Nothing is permanent. Once rock-solid jobs are eliminated. Countless occupations become part of the annals of history. Trees die, flowers die, pets die, and sadly, parents, loved ones and friends are all temporary. As high-order creatures, we struggle with this clear, simple and painfully obvious reality. Why is this? Are we hard-wired in our DNA to try to hold on to everything? Is this part of our primal survival instinct as humans?
In the foothills of the Himalayas, in the northeast corner of India near the Chinese border, lies the unique village of Dharamshala, in what is referred to as the Tibet Autonomous Region. At almost 7,000 feet in elevation, this area is strikingly beautiful and vibrantly alive with Buddhist culture. Dharamshala is the holy city of the Tibetan Buddhists in exile. It is here where Buddhists from Tibet fleeing Chinese oppression began settling in the 1950s. This unique area of 55,000 inhabitants is aptly referred to as “Little Lhasa.”
On a recent tour of India, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a full morning at the Dalai Lama’s Temple Complex. This is the personal residence, palace in exile and primary place of worship of His Holiness, when he is not traveling. The complex is colorful and robustly celebrates Buddhist life with its vibrant architecture and decorations. Many rows of large prayer wheels abound, and strings of prayer flags dance in the cool morning breeze. In this remote place, as a senior citizen, I would once again be reminded of impermanence, this time demonstrated emphatically by Buddhist monks and in a most unforgettable way.
After a tour of the palace, and meeting with and receiving individual blessings from senior monks, we entered the Dalai Lama’s private sanctuary. It is a small but beautiful single room, and the Buddha statue silently overlooking everything immediately put us at ease. I was struck by the small size and modesty of this iconic individual’s private place of worship. I doubt that it could comfortably accommodate more than 60 people. We were able to wander freely and take in the serenity and beauty. Monks in their bright red and gold robes came and went performing their daily activities, as we watched life enacted in the Buddhist way. Our minds were clear and we were totally immersed in the moment. This lucid and “present” state is what Buddhists seek. In the personal sanctuary of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of over 500 million Buddhists, I would today witness how Buddhists teach and reinforce one of life’s most important lessons: Nothing is permanent. Nothing.
As we watched, one of the most stunning examples of Buddhist ritual unfolded before our eyes. A group of four monks gathered around a 4-by-4 wooden board, cinched up their robes, leaned forward, and with long, narrow, fluted metal tubes, scooped up tiny grains of colored sand and worked on a large circular sand painting called a mandala. A mandala painting or structure is a circle — or if you prefer, a wheel — representing wholeness. This spiritual practice from ancient Tibet is seen as a model for all life — its limitless possibilities of geometric patterns are intended to depict our relationship as humans to the present and the infinite, to the current moment as well as the world that extends beyond our physical and “temporary” bodies. Buddhist monks must first go through years of training to learn the skills required to make a sand mandala. The ritual is considered extremely sacred and cannot be undertaken lightly. Trained monks then continue this 1,000-year-old tradition, traveling the globe and educating people about the art of mandalas and teachings of Buddha.
We gazed in amazement as the monks worked tirelessly on a beautiful multicolored and intricately detailed mandala, moving colored sand particles into place with tiny tweezers and pins, one grain at a time. This is mentally laborious and not easy on the feet or eyes, so the monks work in teams of four, changing shifts throughout the day. Each sand mandala takes one to two months to complete. When finished, the mandala is striking in color and geometric detail, and represents thousands of hours of tedious and skillful artistic effort.
The following day, the entire monastery community gathered in a gleeful ceremony where the mandala was blessed. The monks chanted in unison and prayed over the mandala, and with a single stroke of a broom, destroyed in an instant thousands of hours of intricate work, demonstrating in a most profound fashion how fleeting everything in life is. Buddhists are not an unhappy group, and this was not an unhappy moment, but in fact a joyous one. “Process” is more important than “product” and they had received the energy that the mandala had to offer. This entire progression begins with a single grain of colored sand and ends with millions destroyed in an instant, a teachable moment that needs constant repeating. The disassembled sand is placed in a container and emptied into a nearby body of flowing water, signifying the infinite cycle of life. The next day, months of teamwork will once again begin with single grain of sand.
Don’t be sad, friend. Accept impermanence and live every moment with all the joy it deserves. This is the essence of Buddhism. The miracle of every sunrise is yours to behold. The serenity of every sunset is yours to ponder. Enjoy your material things, but be careful about giving affection to anything that cannot return it. Love everyone you care about with all your heart.
“One never knows what tomorrow brings.” Perhaps a better way to look at this expression is, “One never knows what tomorrow takes away.” Everyone and everything is a “limited engagement.” Impermanence is permanent. Don’t overthink it. Accept and rejoice.
*Image: Teams of four skilled monks work in shifts on the mandala. All photos courtesy of the author.