The Practice of Impermanence

AUTHOR:Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö

The practice of impermanence is of two kinds: one is impermanence at the microscopic level; the other is impermanence at the macroscopic level. In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, the discussion on impermanence is entirely at the macroscopic level; in general, not much is said about impermanence at the microscopic level. However, both types shall be discussed here.

Firstly, what is macroscopic? What is microscopic? That which we can see, hear, and touch in everyday life is macroscopic. That which we cannot see, hear, smell, and taste but know in theory that it exists is microscopic. Either way, they are impermanent.

Why do we want to practice impermanence? As previously explained, it is because we have attachment to things staying unchanged and this fixation leads to all kinds of affliction. We also practice from both the macroscopic and microscopic perspective in order to completely understand the impermanent nature of phenomena and to eradicate our attachment to permanence.


How does one practice? First, we prepare for meditation as before: take refuge, engender bodhicitta, expel impure chi, supplicate to Sakyamuni Buddha, and so forth. Then, using the logical reasoning discussed previously, we establish that all composite phenomena arise and cease, and are impermanent. This is the case not only at the macroscopic level but also at the microscopic level, wherein all things change from instant to instant.

As mentioned earlier, the Buddha said an instant denotes the time it takes a needle tip to pass through a very thin flower petal, but this instant can be divided into still smaller parts. If an instant can be separated into hundred thousands of time segments, we can imagine how short any one time segment is. Yet, even in this fraction of an instant, everything is in a state of flux. The Buddhist term for this is arising and ceasing, the modern term is motion.

From a macro standpoint, we can take this book in our right hand and put it in our left hand; however, from a micro standpoint, when the book is placed in the left hand, it is no longer the same book. The book in the right hand has already disappeared from the right hand and does not exist anymore. What about the book in the left hand? The causes and conditions that lead to the production of this book are as follows: when the book in the right hand disappears, a new book is produced in the second place; when the book in the second place disappears, a new book is produced in the third place; when the book in the third place disappears, a new book is produced in the fourth place; by the time the book reaches the left hand after arising and ceasing successively like this, the original book in the right hand has long since disappeared. The process by which the book goes from the right hand to the left hand is called motion. Relatively speaking, motion is a macro concept; the Buddhist interpretation differs from the macro viewpoint since the original book no longer exists. If the book has already disappeared, wherein is the motion? The book in my hand is an example of the law of cause and effect at work; when causes and conditions come together, a new book like this is produced. Our eyes cannot perceive this process or the causes and conditions; they can only tell the book has been moved from one hand to the other.

As another illustration, if we take a candle or anything that is lit and make a circle with it in the dark, even though we see a circle of light, we know it is not a circle. It is just a point that glows, not a continuous circle of light. Why do we see this circle of light? Because the light is moving very fast. If it is moving slowly, we will see it move a step at a time.

The movie film is a good example. When the speed at which films are rolled out slows down, we no longer see a continuous image on the screen but individual pictures going either forward or backward. But when the speed at which they are rolled out is raised to more than twenty-four films per second, we see one continuous image on the screen instead of individual pictures moving back and forth. Our eyes cannot tell where one picture ends and the next begins.

Likewise, in a microcosm, this book has never moved because it arises and ceases simultaneously each moment. However, the conventional view is entirely different. From our perspective, the same book exists all the time. Since this is a misconception we have always held, it is difficult for us to understand the kind of change that takes place moment to moment. When impermanence is apprehended at this very subtle level, a contradiction arises between our experience at the macroscopic level and true reality.

Similarly, when we examine ourselves, we think: I am the same person today as I was yesterday. But this too is a macroscopic concept; from a microscopic standpoint, it is a glaring mistake since all phenomena arise and cease every instant. Relatively speaking, the microscopic view is more accurate than the macroscopic view; however, at a still deeper level, neither view is correct.

It is essential to reflect on this during the practice. After contemplation, it will become clear even though we can see the change that occurs very briefly in a lightning, a river current, or a blaze, we cannot perceive the arising and ceasing that takes place in still objects such as a wall, book, etc. At this time, we are not using our eyes but our wisdom to reflect. When we have a profound realization that all composite phenomena arise and cease in one thousandth of a second or one ten-thousandth of a second, stay focused in this state. Let the mind and the feeling of impermanence become one and the same; that is, let the sense of impermanence become a part of the mind or the nature of mind. At that point, there is nothing more to contemplate but to stop and abide in this state for as long as possible. As previously mentioned, it is then important to watch the mind from the side, not directly.

What does it mean to watch the mind directly? For instance, if there is a thought to examine whether the mind is calm or thinking of other things, it is watching the mind directly. We should not entertain this kind of examination when abiding in the concentrated state, because once the thought of examination arises, it disrupts this state. Hence we need to watch the mind from the side.

Actually, “watching the mind directly or from the side” is an expression I introduced to clarify this method of practice. It is not a specific Buddhist term. To watch the mind from the side means not having a specific thought: Is my mind scattered? Is it thinking of other things?

Some people may question this approach: Do we not have just one mind? How can a mind be a subject and object of examination at the same time? Is it possible we have two minds? No, we do not have two minds, but our mind has the capability of abiding in a state of calm and concurrently watching itself from the side. These two aspects are very important.

When we watch the mind in this way, we can immediately discover other thoughts that surface. Without this supervision, a distracting thought will crop up but we won’t even notice it; this thought will then grow into more and more thoughts until, five or ten minutes later, they run out of control.

With supervision, we can drop the thought as soon as it comes up; after dropping the thought, we can continue if possible to abide in the original state of calmness. If that state has already disappeared, we should not persist in resting the mind but instead resume contemplation.

Sometimes we can examine our own mind stream, and sometimes the world outside; all composite phenomena are objects for practicing impermanence. When we examine these objects one by one and sense impermanence with each object, then rest in that state of mind. This is the practice of impermanence at the microscopic level.

As for other concepts pertaining to impermanence, a lot can be found in the commentaries on Buddhist logic, such as Commentary on Valid Cognition, or in Maitreya Bodhisattva’s Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras; however, these are difficult to apprehend without a certain background in Buddhist studies. The discussions we have given on impermanence, whether they relate in substance to logic or not, are easier to understand.

With this method of investigation, we can do without concepts for the moment. Ultimately, our goal is to attain a feeling that all phenomena are impermanent. Having this feeling is most essential.


The practice of impermanence at the macroscopic level is simply that expounded in The Words of My Perfect Teacher on the impermanence of life, death, etc. Sometimes we examine the world outside, sometimes sentient beings; sometimes we examine the spiritual masters, and sometimes the changes in the four seasons. All kinds of phenomena can be employed in our contemplation on impermanence.

Logic is not necessary in this practice. Ordinarily, we can all see the changes that go on, but we only react to the change, such as fear, when it is totally unexpected; but without practice, this feeling dissipates soon after. When changes take place with such frequency in our lives, we become numb and insensitive to them. For this reason, we must practice. By placing importance on these methods of investigation, we will easily apprehend all composite phenomena are impermanent and unreliable. The natural world outside, all material things, our own life, possessions, and reputation are all unreliable.

A book appears in this form now, but how it looked in the past and whether it will look the same in the future is uncertain, since it is not a permanent entity. Likewise, we are alive today, but we may not be around tomorrow or the day after. The further out we go, the less guarantee there is. It is the same with our possessions, reputation, and so forth. With practice and contemplation, we will discover all things are unreliable, impermanent, and meaningless; this is the basis of renunciation. Of course, it is not yet true renunciation.

Some people become very pessimistic when they hear these teachings on impermanence: I used to be very proud of my status and possessions, but all that is meaningless now. Even my own life cannot be guaranteed. What is the point of this life?

Is this outcome good or bad? It is good because an understanding of impermanence allows us to forgo our attachment to worldly things. When we encounter death in the family, bankruptcy, or other tragedies, we will not be overwhelmed by suffering but realize such is the nature of all things and that we are now a witness to it. If our practice of impermanence is successful, we will then turn our attention to matters of liberation.

In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, the discussion on precious human birth, impermanence, etc. is followed immediately by an elaboration on the merit and the benefits of liberation. Why is it necessary to talk about the benefits of liberation? When we do not understand the benefits of liberation, we lose hope because we think there is no purpose in life if everything is impermanent; when we understand the benefits and know liberation represents eternal happiness, rather than being pessimistic, we feel optimistic and happy. Because we finally see the reason for living and will then direct all our effort at attaining liberation. At that point, true renunciation can be cultivated. The ultimate goal of practicing impermanence is none other than realizing this outcome.

This practice can be undertaken on your own time, and for as long or short as you like. At the end of each session, do not forget to dedicate the merit of the practice.