Contemplate Impermanence to Realize the True Mind

Translated from a Dharma lecture by Grand Master Wei Chueh



The mind that neither arises nor ceases is fundamental and infinite

Buddhism teaches us that the aim of the principle of “impermanence” is to realize this true, permanent, and original mind by contemplating the impermanence of heaven and earth.  All sentient beings, all forms and characteristics, which include all the mountains, rivers, earth, clothing, food, housing, and transportation are “impermanent.”  They do not last forever.  Where there is life there is death; where there is achievement there is failure; only this mind is fundamental and infinite.  If we do not realize the truth that heaven and earth and everything in the whole world are impermanent, and hope to seek a state where there is no death, we definitely will never find it.

Contemplating Impermanence

If we are unable to realize this original true mind at this moment, we must “contemplate impermanence.”  By contemplating birth and death we will realize the state of “no birth or death”. This is, “All things are impermanent; this is the dharma of birth and death.   Extinguish birth and death and attain the joy of nirvana.”  To realize the mind that is free of birth and death is the highest truth.

“Contemplation” is to think and reflect; it is to reflect on the truth of impermanence with prajna wisdom.  First, we must contemplate that the external world has arising, abiding, disintegration, and emptiness.  This world will eventually be destroyed by the three major disasters and three minor disasters — the heavenly beings in the first dhyana heaven still have minds of anger, therefore they will feel the disasters of fire; those in the second dhyana heaven have minds of greed, so they will feel the disasters of floods; those in the third dhyana heaven still have breath and can feel the disasters of wind storms.  Even those in the heavens are imperiled, so how could people on earth be safe?

Why should we first contemplate the impermanence of the external world?  It is because this world’s wealth, lust,  name,  profit, debauchery, and pleasure, bring us worries and unrest, leading to all kinds of attachments and obstacles.  When we understand “impermanence” we will realize that this world will eventually perish and everything will return to emptiness.  So what is there to worry about?

Furthermore, we should realize that everyone will grow old, get sick, and die — when we grow old, the hair turns white, the skin becomes wrinkled, the back becomes bent, we exhibit signs of senility; one day, we will get sick and die.  The corpse is filthy and fetid — eventually only a pile of white bones remain.  At that time, where are the enemies, the loved ones, the craving, the hatred — all are completely swept away.

Finally, we contemplate further that this mind is also impermanent.  When we get up in the morning, as our thoughts arise, that is birth; after we get out of bed and start getting dressed, the thought of getting up ceases, and the thought of getting dressed arises; we then put on our socks, and the thought of getting dressed ceases, the thought of putting on our socks arises.

Therefore from morning till night, our thoughts never rest — they are always flowing, constantly undergoing renewal.  This is “impermanence.”  If we don’t know to contemplate the impermanence of our thoughts, we will think that it is the “I” who is getting dressed, it is the “I” who is putting on socks.  This is attachment to the self.

Contemplating that the mind is empty, we must always pay attention to the arising and ceasing of our thoughts—when a thought arises that is “birth,” when a thought ceases, that is “death.”   When we pay attention to the arising and ceasing of our thoughts, we can immediately detect delusive thoughts when they arise.  Finally, this mind arrives at the state of neither arising nor ceasing.  At that time our body no longer exists; this mind can expand without obstructions and see clearly both within and without.  This is the manifestation of nirvana.

We must constantly practice this method of contemplation.  It depends on our own effort to practice constantly.  When we perfect this practice, we will gradually arrive at a state of samadhi.  Furthermore, we will be in accord with a mind of wu wei, a mind that neither arises nor ceases, a mind of calmness and extinction.   Samadhi then manifests and we will realize the true nature of Buddhism.

Finding a place of peace and stability

Since everything in the world is impermanent, our life on this earth finally ends up with nothing (emptiness), so there is nothing worth clinging to, nothing we should be reluctant to part with.  When viewed this way, life seems to be very passive and pessimistic; therefore, we must go one step further and find the nature of “no” birth and death in birth and death.”  This is finding the true place of peace and stability in life.

In the Shurangama Sutra, King Prasenajit asked the Buddha, “World Honored One!  I can understand your teaching of the mind’s arising and ceasing, but I don’t understand what is“a mind that has no birth or death in a mind that has birth and death’ — I respectfully ask the World Honored One to explain this to us.”  The World Honored One told King Prasenajit, “Great King! When you see the waters of the Ganges River now that you are 62 years old, is it different from the waters of the Ganges that you saw when you were three years old?  When you were three years old, your youthful face was rosy, smooth, and radiant, but now at 62, your features have become old and wrinkled.  Yet your mind that saw the waters of Ganges has not changed since you were three years old; it is no different in youth and in old age. Great King!  The body can become wrinkled, it is impermanent, subject to birth and death, but this mind can never become wrinkled, it is eternal, it is not subject to birth and death. Great King, the physical body arises and ceases, is impermanent and is subject to birth and death, but this mind neither arises nor ceases, it is not subject to birth and death.”

Everyone has a mind that arises and ceases; we should know that in birth and death there is a nature that neither arises nor ceases.  This is most precious.  When there is no birth and death in the mind that arises and ceases, it is like the gold within the ore. When we wish to find the true gold in the gold ore, we must refine the ore from a large amount of impurities — the mind that arises and ceases (the mind of greed, anger, and ignorance) is the gold ore.  The mind that neither arises nor ceases (the true pure gold) that is in the mind that arises and ceases (the gold ore) is our own Buddha nature in the mind of greed anger and ignorance.  If we can refine gold from its impurities, (use “contemplation on practice”to eradicate greed anger and ignorance) we will obtain pure gold (attain Buddhahood).  Otherwise, the ore is still the ore, we will never obtain pure gold.  Therefore, the object of “contemplation on practice” is to transform knowledge into wisdom and transcend birth and death.

Realizing the extinction and stillness of nirvana

Whether our practice is based on the Great Vehicle or the Small Vehicle, we must realize this mind that neither arises nor ceases, this still and serene mind of nirvana—this is most fundamental. To attain the stillness of nirvana, we must cultivate the method of “contemplation on practice.”   When this corresponds with our cultivation, we will be able to look at all external phenomena lightly.  Then we can penetrate all dharmas and eventually be able to let go.  If we cannot look at things lightly, even though we tell ourselves not to, we still cannot help thinking about it.  This is the seed of the eighth consciousness—clinging to external forms and thinking they are real, and being unable to see through them or let go.

Therefore “contemplating impermanence” is to penetrate and gradually analyze our thoughts in order to realize that all dharmas are impermanent, illusive, and unreal. This is prajna wisdom, this is to reflect inward. If we practice “contemplating impermanence”, we will eventually see through and let go of all things.

The expedient means of “contemplating impermanence” can be practiced by both laity and monastics.  From this practice, we will be able to realize the nature of this mind that neither arises nor ceases.  After we realize this, this mind constantly abides in right mindfulness, in samadhi and wisdom, without clinging, without confusion, always lucid, clear, and master of itself.  This is the mind of wisdom and compassion.  When we have this mind of wisdom and compassion, in our contact with external objects, we are able to perceive clearly that prosperity and adversity, all forms, sound, smell, taste, and touch are impermanent.  Then we can overcome this mind’s vexations of greed, anger, ignorance, and erroneous views.  Then our mind can attain liberation and be free.  

(Taken from Chung Tai Magazine, issue #67)