November 2001
Weeping for the World

Impermanence (Anicca)

Weeping for the World

It is a time of great sorrow. People are urged to get on with their lives, and of course one has to. And yet, thousands have died, thousands more will. How does one fit this fact into "ordinary" life? When bombs are falling and the endless human cycle of war goes on, how does one respond? It is a time to take time to grieve, to witness, to weep for the suffering of the world and pray that from those tears arise in one's heart vision, action, a knowing of one's path, a re-dedication to one's commitment to bring greater peace and love into this world. It can seem like a hopeless task; it can be difficult to know how to fulfill it.


There is a story in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Tara, the great Bodhisattva (wisdom being) who has vowed always to be reborn in feminine form, who has vowed to protect all sentient beings, who hears the cries of the world. It is said that she was born from the tears of Chenrezi, another great Bodhisattva of Compassion, when he felt overwhelmed by the sufferings of the world. What arises from our tears? Tara, the great energy of compassion, nurturing, caring and protection. What arises from our tears? The presence of Tara in our own hearts, reaching out, finding ways to bring peace, protection and nurturing of life into a world where so many forces are bent on destroying life. She comes in many forms. She is there in the aid workers trying to bring help to the people of Afghanistan and to the families of the victims of the WTC attacks. She is there in the mothers everywhere soothing their frightened children. She is there in the voices that call for a halt to aggression and violence. She is there when we call Her. She goes by the name of Tara, Kuan Yin, Mary, Great Divine Mother. She goes by your name; She dwells in your heart, your tears.

Impermanence (Anicca)


One of the core teachings of the Buddhist tradition, the Buddhist Dharma, is that all things are impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. There is no thing that can be held on to, no form that provides a secure, eternal haven. The universe is in a state of constant change, of flux. All phenomena arise, stay for a time, and return to that primal energy, that great Oneness, from which they arose. The truth of impermanence, of Anicca (the traditional PaIi word, pronounced ah-nee-cha), is something that must be realized if one is to realize one's true nature, if one is to understand the nature of this universe.

It is said that the Buddha prophesied that following his death his teaching would flourish and spread for 1000 years and then begin to decline; however, there would be a period some 2500 years following his life and death where there would be an unparalleled opportunity to realize the truth of the Buddha Dharma, to experience the true nature of the self, the world and the universe. Many believe we are now in that time of opportunity.

As one reflects on the events in the world, there is certainly that unparalleled opportunity to experience the truth of impermanence, of Anicca. Many people are experiencing fear because of a new sense of uncertainty, the unknown, in their day-to-day life. The truth of impermanence is more obvious for many people than it has ever been. That is, many Americans are experiencing this for the first time. Millions of people in other parts of the world have lived with uncertainty and the unknown as their daily experience for as long as they can remember, as have also many Americans, historically and in the present.

In many ways this moment in the history of America could also be said to parallel a certain moment in the history of the Buddha's life. When the Buddha was born, a sage said that he would either become a great king or a great sage. The Buddha's father, who was a king, wanted his son to be a king, and so made every effort to keep him from influences that might encourage him to seek a spiritual path. It is said that the Buddha was raised in great luxury, in a very protective environment. He was prohibited from going outside the palace, from seeing the suffering and the misery of the life around him. Until he was a grown man, his life was one of privilege and isolation. One day he ordered his charioteer to take him beyond the palace walls. On three different visits, he saw a sick person, an old person, and a dying person, and experienced the truth of suffering. These sights affected him deeply and he could no longer dwell in the luxury and isolation behind his palace walls. On his fourth visit outside the walls he saw a holy man practicing meditation and he was precipitated into his great spiritual search.

One could argue that if he had grown up with these sights, they would not have been such a shock, and would not have caused him to give up his old life. The contrast between his life of privilege behind the castle walls and the suffering that he experienced outside led him into his spiritual search for enlightenment and to his eventual Awakening.

America's castle walls have been breached; the truth of suffering arrives on our home shores in a way we cannot ignore, and if we pay attention, we also become more aware of the suffering that exists beyond our shores. And so there is a choice. The uncertainty of the times -the insecurity, threats, and suffering--can lead one into withdrawal, depression, fear, anger and aggressive reaction -- or it can lead one to re-examine the very foundations of one's life. It can lead one deeper into the question, "What is the purpose of my life, of our life here on this earth?" It can precipitate one into deeper spiritual search, greater awakening, greater understanding. It can awaken greater Awareness of the suffering we now share with many other peoples of the world, that suffering caused by greed, anger, and ignorance, and into the commitment to address those forces in oneself and in the world in every way possible. It can awaken deep compassion, the desire to help, to find one's own way to alleviate the suffering.

There is a walking meditation that is practiced in certain of the Southeast Asian countries where people walk back and forth on a dirt path. As one places the foot on the ground, one experiences the arising of the sensation of the foot touching the ground. As one lifts the foot from the ground, one experiences the ceasing of the sensation. With the stepping down there is arising, with the lifting, there is the ceasing. As one steps, one inhales and exhales, one is aware of the breath and again there is Awareness of the arising and ceasing of the breath. That constant flow of arising, staying and ceasing is the nature of all phenomena. The deep experience of this, the acceptance of this, brings a greater calm and peace in troubled times, attunes one to the eternal rhythm of change, letting go, moving on.


In such times, one does what one can sensibly to protect oneself and loved ones. One continues on with life, perhaps with a new and deepened sense of what matters. And one appreciates deeply the moments that arise, and feels the preciousness of each moment as it ceases. Traditionally when this walking was done there would often be a human skeleton hanging at the end of the path. The skeleton was there to remind people of their own impermanence. There is no need for that skeleton now. People are uncomfortably aware of their own impermanence. In the midst of life there is always the possibility of death, in the midst of death there is the always the possibility of new life.
The whisper - or the scream-of Anicca is present in each moment. It opens the heart, if you listen.

May all beings be happy, peaceful and free of suffering.

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"Non-violence is about becoming the change we wish to see in the world." Gandhi

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