Sunday, March 3, 2013

Anicca

My favorite Buddhist retreat center is the Bhavana Society, in West Virginia. While I was there for a 2-week,  year-end retreat in December of 2011, I was driven to write some things down. This is one of them.

A-NEE-cha. Perhaps the most important Pali word those following the Buddhist path need to know. This trip to Bhavana could not have illustrated the meaning better. Summer's dense greenery has turned to winter's bare branches, a thick bed of brown leaves and lots of downed trees.

Roughly translated, Anicca means 'impermanence', yet according to Bhante Gunaratana it means a great deal more than that. Like so many words from ancient languages, there is no clear English word that conveys the full meaning, so 'impermanence' has to do. He suggests we learn the word and use it, to benefit from its full meaning. Does my English-fed mind truly understand the Pali nuances? It's not a question I can answer, but I can tell you that when I contemplate 'anicca' (a word I learned 7 years ago at my first retreat) in my meditation, I do seem to feel a tad different than when I contemplate 'impermanence.'

We contemplate anicca, or impermanence, because the entirety of the Buddha's teaching can pretty much be boiled down to this word. He taught that the cause of all suffering is craving (greed), or its opposite, aversion. And yet, since everything in this world -- this universe -- is impermanent, we can never find happiness, or freedom from suffering, from grasping and trying to hold onto pleasant feelings, perceptions, ideas and circumstances, or from angrily pushing away or against feelings, perceptions, ideas and circumstances that we find less appealing. It just doesn't happen. That shiny new car, or that new love in your life, satisfy a greed or desire, but only temporarily. Once the newness of either wears away, we're mostly off to some new object or idea to 'make us happy.'

Everything changes.  The oceans, rivers,mountains and trees -- even the stars in the sky -- are constantly changing. And so, my friend, are you. Does your body look the same in the mirror as it did 20 or 40 years ago? One year ago? We age. We mature, hopefully. Our body loses old cells by the millions daily, replaces them with new. We have ways of making us live longer, but death and aging are inevitable.

Our ideas change, too.  When we look closely at the feelings of body and mind we see constant change. Things arise, they pass away. Nothing stays the same. Yet, we grasp at objects, people, ideas for happiness, even though it's impossible for that object, person or idea to remain constant.

So, we're back to anicca. We contemplate everything as impermanent, unable to give us lasting happiness. Along with that we realize that these feelings or desires are not 'ours', since we cannot control them or hold on to them. They are mere products of the mind, which with close attention we can watch arise and pass away, arise and pass away. Regarded as impermanent, we cannot grab hold and develop attachment, cause suffering. And that, to answer many questions, is a good part of 'what do you do up there?". Anicca, anicca, anicca.

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