December 8, 2014

The Buddha’s Last Words. ~ Frank Berliner

Frank Berliner

We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis


Chapter 21.

Bittersweet Impermanence

From the Buddha’s vipasyana experiences, he arrived at many core insights that we will explore in the coming chapters. 

In the teaching on the marks of existence, the Buddha presented a very penetrating and all-encompassing view of life. This view provides a foundational ground for us to later experience his teachings about enlightenment and liberation. It is important to start with how you experience things now rather than base your path to enlightenment on wishful thinking.

The word “mark” points to a quality or characteristic of something which is so inherent to it, so embedded in its nature that if the mark were to be removed, then the thing it was part of would no longer exist. An example of this would be to say that the mark of fire is to burn. This is the essential function of fire; this is its identifying quality, its defining characteristic. Without burning, you would no longer have what we call fire.

In this sense a mark can be seen as something indelible on the phenomenon it describes—like a birthmark, a tattoo that you can’t remove, or the permanent ink your mother used to write your name in your underwear when you went away to summer camp. So the mark is something you can’t get rid of; you can’t escape it.

With the three marks of existence, the Buddha was not describing concepts or ideas or opinions about the phenomenon of existence. Rather he observed these marks as inherent aspects of it that he perceived directly through his vipasyana. They are the living truth, the “is-ness” of our experience, so to speak. 

The phenomenon that is being looked at in these teachings was described by the Buddha as “existence.” It’s important to understand what existence means in this context. It refers to the experience of human life at its deepest inner core. The marks describe what that depth of experience really consists of. So he used “existence” in somewhat the same way that the modern Western existentialists used it, as a term that invokes the most fundamental conditions under which we live our lives as individual human beings—the unalterable givens of being alive.

The Buddha taught that there are three marks of existence. The first is impermanence; the second is suffering; the third is egolessness.

In the next three chapters, we will examine each of these in turn, but in the big picture they are not really separate things. Rather they are three ways of describing the same thing. In one analogy, if existence were an harmonic chord, the three marks would be the three individual but simultaneous notes that made up the chord, and without each of the three notes there would be no chord. As you read about the three marks in detail, you might let yourself reflect on their inseparability.Describing them separately is just a conceptual convenience.

Change Over Time

The superficial meaning of impermanence is just “change”. It is the perception that everything changes. It is the old adage that “Change is the only constant” or “The only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.” Change is the essential condition for our experience of linear time altogether. Time comes into being only because of the mark of impermanence.

You can observe this in your life in obvious ways and in subtle ways. Each of us can come up with innumerable personal examples of it. One shocking experience of change I had was driving from the airport in Denver to Boulder after an absence of ten years. If you have ever made that drive, the front range of the Rocky Mountains is ahead of you the whole time, and the outline of the peaks is majestically familiar. It is also re-assuring in the way it seems never to change. But the land on either side of the highway was now covered with thousands of houses, built very close together as if marching across the plain; and of course there were more gas stations and McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Pizza Huts and whatnot. The air was also filled with a brownish haze.

The experience was so shocking because I still had a vivid mental image of the landscape as miles of ranches and uncut grasslands with the wind blowing through them, filled with flowers, with the snow-capped mountains lifting into pristine blue air. Just ten years had passed. Shocking.


Another obvious experience of impermanence might be seeing a relative or friend again after a long time of not seeing them, and you don’t immediately recognize them or you have a little shock in recognizing them because they’re older and look different than you remember. The deeper message in moments like these is that you have been holding an image of the person as they were when you last saw them. That image must reconfigure itself in order to synchronize with the reality of the present moment. Of course, they are probably experiencing you in a similar way. The still subtler message is that this aging process has been proceeding imperceptibly from moment to moment, both in your friend and in yourself, since the last time you saw each other. This process is so subtle and imperceptible on a daily basis that you don’t notice it; and of course you don’t really want to notice it, which helps you not see it.

There is also the subjective shift in how change is experienced as you grow older—a commonly reported and agreed-upon phenomenon. The days of childhood seem to take forever, but in middle age they seem to pass by very fast indeed. This is perhaps especially true in our society, whose whole ethic is built upon a sense of speed, or what one Tibetan teacher called “hurry sickness.” As one 55-year old comic put it, “It seems like fifteen minutes pass, and now it’s time for breakfast again.”


Fifteen years ago I stood in a beautiful meadow in Vermont with my father, who was then 82 years old, at the spot where Chogyam Trungpa had been cremated in 1987. Both of us witnessed this event, and I said to my father, “Twelve years have passed since the cremation, yet it feels as if it just happened.” And he replied, “Frank, it feels like just yesterday that I was a boy running through meadows like this, chasing butterflies.” Two years later, my father too was gone.

Ritual Change

Sometimes the reality of impermanence is actually reassuring. This is true of the cycles of nature that we experience in the changing of the seasons. For example, in autumn the air is cooler, the leaves of the trees blaze with many colors, and your senses are heightened and invigorated. There is also the familiarity of the autumns you have experienced often in the past. This combined sense of freshness and familiarity is very heartening. It is the essential experience of ritual in the best sense of that word: Something you repeat but, rather than being stale, is fresh each time you repeat it.

The Buddha’s insight about impermanence emphasized, however, that for each of us individually the process of change is moving in the same inexorable direction. To paraphrase one of his oral instructions to his students:

Monks, all composite things are impermanent and subject to decay. Whatever has been put together will eventually fall apart. The end of all meeting is parting, and the end of all birth is death. 

All Things Begun, End

This description of impermanence is similar to the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, which sees the universe as being like a great clock that is in the process of running down until it inevitably stops. Of course the uncompromising simplicity of this is something all of us have a very difficult time accepting—a point we will explore further in our discussion of the other two marks. But two brief, closely related examples will make this clearer.

One is the feeling that occurs when you hear about a disaster that has taken the lives of many people, especially when you don’t know them personally. It is the common experience of subtle relief or reassurance that you are still alive—in the midst of your other feelings of shock and sympathy. The fact that the truth of impermanence has visited others with such force is something that—by an odd twist of reasoning—you make into a reassurance about your own invulnerability and your own permanence.

The other is invoked by a memorable quotation from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, in which one of the main characters responds to the question, “What is the greatest wonder in the world?”

“The greatest wonder in the world” he replies, “is that with all the death happening everywhere around us every day of our lives, we still believe that it won’t happen to us, and live as if it won’t.”

The last words of the Buddha himself were a teaching on impermanence, when he said to his monks as he lay dying beneath the sal tree:

“Now, monks, I am about to die, because as I have taught, all composite things are impermanent. You must be a lamp unto yourselves, and work out your own liberation with great diligence.”

Impermanence is the first of the three marks, and it is undeniably difficult and threatening to look at it straightforwardly. On one hand it is essential for developing a courageous attitude that we be able to look directly at this, and contemplate it until its reality sinks in and we take it to heart. In the Tibetan tradition, the truth of impermanence is a daily reminder for practitioners about the urgency of exerting oneself on the path of liberation. On the other hand, it is helpful to keep your sense of humor and your compassion about just how difficult this is for any of us to do. For the most part we are unlikely to look at impermanence unless and until it is forced upon us by the circumstances of our own lives. Interestingly, this attitude of humor and compassion about your own denial is part of being a warrior as well.

The Levity and Blessing of Impermanence

Finally, and as an aspect of that attitude of humor and compassion, we should also remember the positive side of impermanence, expressed eloquently by the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. He points out that it is only because of impermanence that you are not condemned to be stuck in your negative emotions forever, nor are you condemned to experience the suffering that is the karmic consequence of these negative emotions forever, either.

Because of impermanence, you can grow in your understanding of the Dharma, and you can free yourself from what formerly bound you through the strength of your study and practice. Therefore, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Long live impermanence!”


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Frank Berliner

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