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Permanent Impermanence

Scientists are now saying that the Universe is running down, heading toward its inevitable passing away. Buddhists aren’t surprised. What’s going to happen when all this goes away? No one knows; and does it matter anyway? Does it affect the way you live your life today? Does it affect the way you relate to your family and the environment? Of course not. The thing is the same should be true of impermanence in general.

Even back in the days of the Steady State theory scientists knew that individual elements of the Universe passed away; they knew that the Sun and the Earth would come to an end. They were not planning on the eternity of Earth or humanity. They lived each day the same way then as they do now - seeking always after more knowledge and continuously learning. Science exists for the purpose of striving after knowledge, not material gain. Materialism is inherently unscientific - not to mention un-Buddhist. Why? Is there anything wrong with accumulating material goods or wealth?

Let’s look at the way materialism has taught us to live, taught us to structure our lives. One of the reasons that the “prosperity gospel” teachings are so common in Christianity today is that materialism is at heart an “eternalist” philosophy. It only makes sense to accumulate more than we can use if we think we’ll always be around to use it. The same thoughts were around in the Buddha’s time as well. He says in the Atthakavagga:

“Those who are greedy - engrossed or confounded by sense pleasures or miserly; they are caught in the web of desires. When they are brought to an uneasy end they will worry, ‘What will become of us when we have passed away from here?’ Therefore a person should train themselves right here and now to avoid that which is wicked and unskillful and not practice those ways; for the sages tell us, ‘This life is short’.”

Materialism leads people today to not take vacations but work year-round to accumulate the wealth that will let them retire in comfort and travel then. But there is no then, there is only now. Many of those putting away treasure now for their old age will never reach their old age, or will reach it so beaten down that they can’t enjoy the possessions they stashed away. Those building up bank accounts to take care of their children are denying those children the care they most need - love and companionship.

Western culture teaches materialism hand in hand with capitalism, even though they’re not the same and in doing so corrupts both capitalism and the cultures they seek to “advance” and “develop”. Even Buddhist cultures around the world are being “caught in the web of desires” as materialism advances as supposedly the only way to prove you’re civilized. But how civilized is it to chase ghosts in the night?

Educated Westerners scoff at those who chase ghosts in old buildings and graveyards while at the same time chasing equally ephemeral phantasms trying to build up possessions they can never possess. Again the Buddha teaches:

People suffer because of selfishness, yet there are no permanent possessions; this life is a state of loss and change, therefore let no one cling to anything as “mine”.

Everything that one calls “mine” is left behind at death; having realized this, a follower of the Way will let go of “mine-ness”.

Notice that we’re admonished to let go of “mine-ness”, not of having. Indeed in another passage of the Atthakavagga the Buddha praises those who “understand having without greed”. There is no argument in the teachings of the Buddha against capitalism or earning from your efforts, but only from thinking of anything as “mine”. While he praises the monks and nuns who follow him by giving away all their possessions he doesn’t condemn the kings and merchants for what they have but only reminds them that they won’t always have it.

To me one of the great things that Buddhism - and particularly the teaching on impermanence - can bring to the West is a philosophy that separates capitalism from materialism. Earn. Work hard. Always remember that accumulating needlessly for a time that may never come is the height of absurdity. You do not own the things in your life, or your children or your lover or anything else because they will all pass away; and so will you. Earn. Work hard. Always understand having without greed. This is the eternal teaching of impermanence.

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