All Composite Phenomena are Impermanent

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 25574)

In the Nirvana Sutra, it is said:

Of all plantings, the autumn planting is most important; of all footprints, the elephant’s tracks are most reliable; of all thoughts, the thought of impermanence is most sacred.


In Buddhism, “composite phenomena” are all things — whether physical matter, mental factors, or their respective activities — that arise from causes and conditions and are subject to cause and effect. “All composite phenomena are impermanent” means all things that depend on causes and conditions for their arising are impermanent.


Impermanence can be divided into two kinds, inner and outer. The world of living beings, the sentient world, is referred to as “inner,” the physical world of mountains and rivers, the non- sentient world, as “outer.” Each kind of impermanence can be further classified as continuous or momentary.


Continuous Impermanence denotes impermanence that can be examined from a macroscopic standpoint. For example, in Abhidharmakosa, reference is made to the four stages of formation, abiding, disintegration, and void in the one billion world systems; phenomena which people can observe — the changes in the four seasons each year, the transformation of the moon from a full moon to crescent during the first and second half of each month, and the shift from day to night, from sunrise to sunset, over the course of twenty-four hours each day – all belong in the category of continuous impermanence. These principles are easy to apprehend; no one would think of denying this type of impermanence. Nonetheless, because of the absence of practice and contemplation, many people hold on to the view that things are permanent and long lasting. This attachment to permanence is of two types: one is innate and the other imputed.

The first type of attachment is common to all sentient beings, including animals. As an example, from the time a building is constructed until such time it is demolished, we will think the building is a permanent structure which does not change. Even if there are changes to the building, we believe they are only superficial and not structural. In this and all other similar cases, the attachment which has no theoretical or empirical basis is innate or inherited at birth.

To eliminate innate attachment to permanence, we should contemplate continuous impermanence. This is because a lot of undesirable thoughts, afflictive emotions, and karmic formation come entirely from our ongoing adherence to things being permanent. For instance, if we think a car can last a long time and is useful until such time it breaks down, the desire to own a car will arise; we may take any number of measures, even theft, robbery, and fraud, to realize this goal, thereby creating bad karma from killing, lying, etc. The source of afflictions, karmic formation, and all such problems is the attachment to the car, while the cause of this attachment is our adherence to permanence. If the latter is not eradicated, we cannot resolve the problems mentioned above.

Nevertheless, just as in the case of a patient who has access to medical books at his or her bedside and also knows what prescription, medication, and type of treatment can cure the illness, this knowledge is no use if he or she refuses to receive treatment. Although we all have an understanding of continuous impermanence, simply knowing it is useless. Without actual practice, our perception of things as permanent will remain essentially unchanged.

The most significant impact on us in everyday life is adherence to continuous permanence, which leads to the production of all kinds of emotional negativities and to bad karma.

Momentary Impermanence is the basis of continuous impermanence. All composite phenomena are impermanent in that they are momentary: the moment they come into existence, they disintegrate. In other words, whatever is created is annihilated in the same instant.

From a macro perspective, all things that are created abide in the world for a time before they disintegrate – the process of arising and ceasing cannot be instantaneous. However, in examining phenomena on a microcosmic level, we discover all things arise and cease at the same time.

Consider the following: suppose we divide time into an infinitesimal moment so small it cannot be further divided, can we still separate this time into a moment of arising and a moment of ceasing? No, we cannot. If we could, this moment would then be divisible, not indivisible. If there is only arising but no cessation in this indivisible moment, things would arise indefinitely and abide forever; if there is only cessation but no arising, what is it that has ceased to exist? Is it physical matter, mental phenomena, or something entirely different? We know that nothing exists apart from physical matter and mental phenomena. Within this indivisible moment, arising and ceasing can only happen at the same time. All things in the world are destroyed the instant they are created; their arising and cessation exist at the same time. Such is momentary impermanence.

What can we learn from this principle?

For instance, when we look at the wall facing us, in the past we would think it is a still structure; now we can apprehend the process of arising and ceasing that takes place in the wall each instant. The wall is no longer the same structure it was a moment ago.

Sakyamuni Buddha expounded this principle two thousand years ago. Modern physics also acknowledges the continuous process of small particles arising and ceasing in a moment, in one thousandth of a second or even one ten-thousandth of a second. However, what the Buddha taught is more profound and explicit than modern physics, since the concept of an indivisible moment which is significantly smaller than one thousandth of a second or one ten-thousandth of a second is virtually inconceivable to us. The arising and ceasing that takes place in such a moment is so subtle we cannot begin to comprehend it.

We are accustomed to thinking all matter undergo the three stages of becoming, abiding, and cessation. But in this microcosm, we cannot experience arising and ceasing at all; arising and ceasing simply do not exist. Arising is ceasing; ceasing is arising.

This principle, contrary to the conventional view, shows the so-called notion of becoming, abiding, and cessation is a complete misconception. In Buddhism, it is known as “momentary arising and ceasing”; in modern physics, it is called “motion in a microcosm.”

We cannot apprehend this with our eyes but can experience it through our consciousness. When our visualization practice reaches a certain stage, we become very conscious of subtle matter and can observe it as clearly as if it were under a microscope. For instance, in examining the wall, we can clearly see each brick, each speck of dust in the brick, the space within the dust, the arising and ceasing of each particle, and so forth — like taking a picture with a high-speed camera. The entire world is an illusion in that moment; all phenomena come into being, abide, and cease to exist within the illusion. Like in the Heart Sutra, “form does not differ from void, void does not differ from form; form is thus void, void is thus form,” arising and ceasing are the same thing.

How is this realization useful? What does it have to do with liberation?

With this realization, we can cut through our attachment to permanence. For instance, the perception we used to have that a building is a permanent structure from the time it is constructed to the time it is demolished would now be completely overturned. Again, suppose this place used to be a vacant lot before a building was constructed on it; later when the building was torn down, it became a vacant lot again. It took many years for the building to come into being, from nothing to something and back to nothing; but we can also be certain that all along, in each instant of its existence, change was taking place through a continuous process of arising and ceasing.

By contemplating on continuous impermanence, we can eradicate our long-lasting adherence to permanence. It is very useful to be able to cut through this attachment. Although we cannot experience the momentary impermanence in matter, by seeing things as unreliable and impermanent, we do not develop excessive attachment to them; we are mindful there is no point in caring about something which cannot be counted on. In this way, we can gradually dissolve attachment. Once attachment is eliminated, greed, anger, and other afflictions will also disappear. Without afflictions, we will not create bad karma and can thus transcend samsara.

The above pertains to outer impermanence.


What is inner impermanence? The term “inner” denotes sentient beings. The sentient beings referred to here are not plant life but living beings that can experience suffering and happiness.

Inner impermanence can also be classified as continuous or momentary.

Continuous impermanence is easy to understand, like when we undergo successive rebirths as a human or god in the previous life, as a human in this life, and as a human or animal in the next life; or when we experience the various changes within this lifetime, i.e., birth, infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, aging, and death. These changes which we can clearly observe not only in ourselves but also in other beings constitute continuous impermanence.

Momentary impermanence denotes the arising and ceasing that take place each instant in our body and mind as in the world outside.

In Abhidharmakosa, it is said samsara does not exist on its own or apart from mind and matter. These two factors underlie the formation of the entire world.

Following the previous analysis on physical matter, we shall next discuss the mind.

Every thought that arises in our consciousness or mind is subject to arising and ceasing. The moment a thought arises, let us follow the thought, observe where it comes from, and divide the thought into many time segments.

For instance, the sutras say: when we recite the three syllables “OM AH HUM,” three separate thoughts – OM AH HUM – will also arise within our consciousness. Then examine the thought “AH” in the middle and divide it into three segments: the first is next to “OM”; the second is in the middle; the third is next to “HUM.” Each of these segments can be divided again and again until such time we come upon the smallest part that ordinary human consciousness can grasp. Within this indivisible part, arising and ceasing are sure to also take place at the same time. From this, we can infer that the so-called mind or consciousness only exists for an instant; there is no world or person apart from this instant.

As an example, when we are listening to Dharma teachings, we think I exist, but actually the so-called “I” only exist within an instant. If we assume, in a succession of ten moments, that the fifth moment is “I,” then the first, second, third, and fourth moments constitute the past, while the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth moments are the future; the only moment in which I exist is the fifth moment. All things that are gone cannot exist – in any corner of the world, planet, or time frame; all things that have yet to come also cannot exist. Only the fifth moment remains, but this too will pass instantly. At which point we will think the sixth moment is “I,” then the seventh and eighth. When all the moments successively step into the present, we will continue to designate each moment as “I.”

This is likened to a mala: although it is formed by one hundred and eight individual beads, as each bead passes through our forefinger and thumb, we can only count up to the bead immediately ahead.

Similarly, a person’s lifetime is sure to contain incalculable moments, but the only one we can hold on to is an instant; the past is gone and the future yet to come. Yet we persist in thinking: “I” participated in an event to release living beings yesterday, “I” am now at an event to release living beings, and “I” will again attend an event to release living beings tomorrow. Our notion of “I” embraces not just yesterday and tomorrow but also a very distant point in time in the future. Actually, the real “I” exist only in an instant.


After understanding the concept of impermanence, we must get in the practice of examining how mind and matter are impermanent. In so doing, we will discover the world we live in cannot be relied on at all – it is impermanent not only from a macroscopic viewpoint but also moment to moment. We live in a world of illusion, but have yet to recognize it.

This world of illusion is described in the American film The Matrix. The directors Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, with whom a friend of mine is acquainted, have a substantial interest in Buddhism and have based the film on certain Buddhist concepts. At the end of the movie, we discover what appears to be a normal world of reality is actually controlled by an artificially intelligent computer called “Matrix,” and that all the people and circumstances in it are computer programs.

In the same way, the flowers, buildings, tables, and so forth which we can see all exist in only a moment. When countless moments join together, they form a continuum; when countless specks of dust come together, they form physical objects like buildings and vehicles, even mankind.

By just practicing impermanence, we can reach a state of mind that apprehends the entire world as an illusion.

However, we are instead deceived and lured by appearances because of our senses – our eye, ear, nose, tongue. Due to the eye’s limitation, we see the wall, table,etc. as still objects that do not change, not as something that is impermanent. According to Buddhist logic, when the eye consciousness sends out the wrong information to the mental consciousness, the mental consciousness is also deceived. The source of this misinformation is the eye faculty. At birth, we are given the wrong message by our eye consciousness the first moment we open our eyes and observe the world outside; this misinformation is then stored in our mind, with no further thought of examining appearances at a deeper level. This is our innate attachment to permanence.

The other kind of attachment to permanence is acquired in life. It pertains to a misconception derived from incorrect reasoning that is accepted in non-Buddhist schools. When people acknowledge the view that things are permanent, they compound an error by reinforcing their innate attachment to permanence with the non-Buddhist idea of permanence. This attachment is said to be imputed.

The imputed attachment to permanence takes us on a detour in life. The innate attachment to permanence gives rise to common afflictions – desire, anger, and ignorance – which cause karma and keep us in samsara. These are all the result of seeing things as permanent.

Sakyamuni Buddha once said, “Among all footprints, the elephant’s tracks are most reliable; among all thoughts, the concept of impermanence is most sacred.”

In what way are the elephant’s tracks most reliable? The elephant will only choose a safe path to tread, not a dangerous one. If we follow the elephant’s tracks, we will reach our destination safely.

Why is the concept of impermanence most sacred? By reflecting on continuous impermanence, we develop the motivation to practice. When our practice becomes lax, just thinking about impermanence — in life and in all worldly things — generates a strong desire to practice. If we practice momentary impermanence, it will be the basis for realization of no-self. This is because what is perceived to be “I” cannot exist when change is happening moment to moment. The realization of emptiness and no-self will come after a period of practice. Therefore, we must practice impermanence, and with practice, attain progress.

Presently, there are many empowerments and teachings given on Dzogchen and Vajrayana Buddhism; there are also many people who claim they want to practice Dzogchen and receive empowerments. However, serious practitioners of impermanence and bodhicitta are few and far between. This is why we never see progress. We are true practitioners only if we earnestly undertake basic practices like impermanence and suffering. At that point, our worldview will be entirely different; however difficult or harsh life’s circumstances, there will be nothing we cannot think through and accept.

How do we engage in visualization practice? In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, an introduction on how to practice continuous impermanence is given in the chapter on impermanence of life. Following the conceptual overview of the Four Dharma Seals in this book, an explanation shall also be given on how to practice momentary impermanence.