If there is one thing that defines Buddhism I suppose you could argue that it is “Impermanence” before any other concept. The fact that this idea cuts to the marrow of most of our cherished ideas and beliefs is the element of Buddhist and specifically Zen buddhist philosophy that disturbs folks the most.
In short, what the Big B figured out was that there was nothing (and no-thing) which exists that is not made of other things. (sometimes this is phrased as ‘ there is no unchanging assembled phenomena’ ) We are made of bones, muscle, and blood while flowers are made of petals, roots, and stems, and even these components break down to cells which themselves are made of specific parts which break down into minerals etc etc etc. Same goes for inanimate objects like rocks, enormous objects like galaxies and teeny tiny ones like atoms. At some point in the cycle of their (our) existence all these things were not assembles into the forms we see today and at some other point they will no longer be assembled. When a flower has been dead for a year and all the parts that made it up are rotted and reused by the plants around there is no part we can point to and say “hey that was that flower from last year!” So it goes for everything.
What first attracted me to Zen was the idea that nothing, not even what we call “God” is beyond the laws of the universe, that God is, in fact, simply another way of saying ‘the whole universe and everything in it’. So we find that even the universe, the ancient limitless universe is still impermanent, will disassemble, fade, and change.
Even though its going on around us continually and despite the fact that we are always surrounded by evidence of it, this idea disturbs us to our core. We come up with all sorts of magical exceptions to the law of impermanence, things like a god outside the laws of the universe and reincarnation are simply ways we try to hold something, anything, apart from the idea that everything has a finite shelf life and will someday end. But if we really look honestly we realize that this is not so. What Zen teaches us time and again, however, is that what we see as a scary thing or a depressing thought is only so because we have been conditioned to see it that way. The reality is that the law of impermanence is a reason to celebrate! When things stay the same nothing changes, nothing moves, there is in fact, nothing without change. We need that crazy ever changing world of impermanence to even have a world at all! Would we want to live forever unchanging? Sounds more like hell to me than heaven, Ill take old age, decrepitude, and death over being a statue any day of the week!
When we can see into the fact that nothing has an unchanging permanent existence we can start to let go of the painful clinging to the world. We don’t get so upset when life sends us little set-backs, when something we own gets damaged or when our and our loved ones feelings naturally change over time. How mad can you really get if your car gets scratched when you know that within our lifetimes it will most likely be in pieces, rust, and dust? Better to enjoy what we have (and are) now than to try to preserve it for some future fantasy time when we would supposedly enjoy it more. . . if only we could preserve it, if only we could keep it from being different. I remember as a little kid hiding some Halloween candy in my sock drawer, I wanted to keep it for later and when I went back a month later it was melted and rancid. I would have enjoyed it more if I had eaten it while it was still fresh. We would do better to enjoy our life now while it is fresh as well. When we stop expecting the world to freeze into a pattern we are comfortable with then we begin to accept and adapt to its ever-changing dance.
In my personal life I often found myself trying to live up to some idea or statement I made in the past, for example I tried to keep identifying myself as “punk rock” because for a while in my life that’s how i saw myself. The fact that I kept getting further and further from it made me want to cling all the harder as if I could keep that part of my life with me even though it was in a past which was dead and gone. I didn’t need to hold that idea anymore than you need to hold onto the junk mail you threw away last year. Perhaps that what a Hoarder is, a person trying to keep everything in their life from changing and fading away. We all do it sometimes, but instead of hoarding dead cats and empty soda bottles we hoard old ideas, concepts, beliefs about ourselves and others in the desperate attempt to keep the world in a form we are comfortable with.