This issue of Inquiring Mind is the first in a series focusing on what the Buddha called “the three characteristics of existence.” We begin the series with impermanence (annica), followed by unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and nonself (anatta). To inaugurate the series and lead us into our examination of impermanence, we offer an interview with vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein, cofounder and guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Society’s Retreat Center and Forest Refuge programs. He has been teaching vipassana and metta retreats worldwide since 1974 and in 1989 helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Inquiring Mind: Could you brieﬂy explain the three characteristics and their role in the Buddha’s teaching?
Joseph Goldstein: The three characteristics—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selﬂessness—are a clear and succinct description of the nature of conditioned phenomena. When we look, we see that all experience is constantly changing; that it is therefore ultimately unreliable; and that experience is arising out of conditions rather than simply our wish that things be a certain way. However, just understanding these three characteristics is not the end. It is the wisdom that comes from experiencing them deeply that frees the mind from grasping.
The danger, I think, in any spiritual tradition is to stay on the level of philosophy. In Buddhism, we can easily get lost in thinking about the various lists—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Five Hindrances, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. It is always important to follow these formulations of the teachings back to their essence, to explore how they can serve our liberation, so that we stay both connected to and inspired by the real point of what the Buddha taught.
IM: So the three characteristics are the skillful means, and a mind without clinging is the fruit.
JG: That’s right. The three characteristics are not just philosophical statements about the nature of the universe; that is not what is important. They are practices. There is a great paradox here because these truths are at once both obvious and hidden. They are obvious when we make the right eﬀort to actually awaken to them in the moment, and they are hidden when we are simply carried along by the habit energies of our lives.
For example, on one level impermanence is so obvious to almost everyone that on the whole we generally ignore it. It is such an ordinary truth that we don’t give it any importance. And yet, when we do pay attention to it, when we bring some real interest and energy to that seeing, when we are actually vitally experiencing the impermanence of our present experience, in that moment the mind is not clinging. This is an immediate fruit—a mind free of contraction, a relaxed heart.
IM: In the Buddha’s teaching, do you ﬁnd that any one of the three characteristics is given more importance as a gateway to liberation?
JG: In abhidharma theory, any one of the three is potentially the gateway to liberation: people can go through the door of impermanence, the door of suﬀering, or door number three, of selﬂessness. [Laughter] In dharma practice, one or another of the three characteristics presents itself more readily to diﬀerent people and temperaments. Those who go through the door of impermanence tend to have strong faith; those who go through the door of suﬀering have strong concentration; and those who go through the door of selﬂessness have strong wisdom.
IM: How is it that the door of impermanence is linked with faith?
JG: When I am experiencing impermanence fully, the image that often comes to mind is that of white-water rafting. Our response to the danger seems to be either panic and holding on or surrender. After rafting through enough rapids, we develop the faith or conﬁdence to surrender, to let go. At this point of experience, faith seems the wisest option.
IM: Is there any standard meditative progression through the three characteristics?
JG: In the traditional stages of insight, each of the three characteristics becomes predominant at a diﬀerent time. For example, an early stage in the real deepening of practice is that of “arising and passing away,” when one is seeing the momentariness of phenomena very clearly. Following this profound experience of impermanence, there are insights into the unsatisfactoriness of these ever-changing phenomena. We see the dissolution of all things, which often triggers the stages of “fear, misery and disgust”—all part of growing insight into the truth of suﬀering. Within this process, one also begins to see the selﬂess quality of phenomena, which leads us to equanimity and ﬁnally freedom.
IM: How would you describe impermanence?
JG: Impermanence is the constant, basic universal truth of change. Impermanence is both a process of continual loss, in which things exist and then disappear, and it is also a process of continuous rebirth or creativity, in which things that do not exist suddenly appear. We can see this on a momentary level in meditation. For example, sounds, thoughts or sensations continually are disappearing and new ones arising. We can also see it very clearly in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. Where has our experience of breakfast gone by midmorning? Where is the conversation we had with a friend by the next afternoon? Sometimes we are more aware of new things arising, and sometimes we notice their passing away. But change is always obvious when we pay attention.
I ﬁnd it a very powerful practice to pay attention, moment-to-moment, to the experience of things changing. Rather than just getting lost in the content of what is happening, it is simultaneously possible to pay attention to the fact that experience keeps altering and ﬂowing. This is not such a diﬃcult thing to do, but it is diﬃcult to remember to do it.
On a more gross level of experience, just last weekend I happened across some Newsweek magazines from 1997. As I was reading them, it amazed me to see the urgent energy of the articles, giving even minor events great importance. Which celebrities did what with whom? Of course, that energy helps sell the magazines, but from the perspective of the year 2000, those events seemed almost cartoonlike.
To be able to keep this perspective of the transitory nature of experience, even as we’re living through it, helps ease the anxiety of our minds. Six months from now, will we even remember the anger or sadness or joy of this moment? This doesn’t mean that we should not be responsive or responsible to what is happening around us, but we should do so with the realization that it is always changing. We know this truth abstractly, but we don’t often live from that space of wisdom. The main point, really, is how we use impermanence as a method to liberate the mind.
IM: We can see change happening all around us, but isn’t it most important to see that we ourselves are changing?
JG: That is a good point. Seeing impermanence will not be so eﬀective if we still believe that the observer is solid or reiﬁed. The awareness of impermanence must include ourselves, the observer, for it to be a place of real freedom. This can be a very subtle matter. We may know that our thoughts and feelings keep changing, but have we investigated the very nature of the knowing mind? What is consciousness, and is it impermanent as well? Of course it’s easy for me to ask these questions sitting here talking with you. The real challenge is for us to look deeply and see for ourselves (or nonselves).
IM: S. N. Goenka has his students focus on the impermanence of physical sensations as a way of realizing that the observer—this form—is also in the process of changing.
JG: That is a very powerful practice for many people. And the more it’s practiced, the more one can stay in that awareness throughout the day.
IM: How else can we cultivate the ability to be more aware of impermanence in our day-to-day lives?
JG: Put a big sign on the refrigerator: “Pay Attention to Change!” [Laughter] Awareness o f impermanence is completely accessible at all times. I think there’s a mistaken belief in dharma circles that the deepest insights can come only during intensive retreats. I truly love what can happen on retreat, but the nature of the world and the nature of our minds are exactly the same whether we are on retreat or oﬀ. Just go for a walk, open the door, or even just move your hand. Impermanence is always right there. Notice what happens in any simple activity during the day. Sounds, sights, sensations and thoughts are continually changing. The more we notice that, the less we grasp and cling. The less we grasp and cling, the more ease and freedom there is in the mind. It’s very simple, although, as my ﬁrst teacher, Anagarika Munindra, would often add, “It is not easy.” We have to practice paying attention.
IM: As we are talking right now, are you mindfully aware of impermanence?
J G: Now you’re getting personal! [Laughter] Obviously, most people, myself included, are not living with a continual, steady-state awareness of impermanence. But we can drop into the experience of that truth many times each day. Even now, we can ask, “Where is the beginning of this conversation? Where is the experience we had when we put the tape into the recorder?” It’s gone. Experience just keeps ﬂowing and changing, and what was here thirty seconds ago is no longer here. I ﬁnd it really a little magical, a little mysterious, to drop into that awareness. I do it as often as I can remember. It doesn’t require any special state of mind. It is always accessible.
An image I like to use is that of being in a movie theater and being caught up in the story on the screen. Then, suddenly we remember we are watching a movie, and for that moment the spell is broken. But we can go even deeper by turning around and looking up at the projection booth to see that the movie itself is just beams of light projected through the theater and falling in diﬀerent patterns on the screen. This is a good analogy for how we often live: we are completely lost in the movie, but nothing substantial is really happening.
IM: Some people would call that a very nihilistic statement. Are you saying that nothing is really happening here?
JG: When I say that nothing is really happening, I mean that what is happening is not what we think is happening. A common example referred to in Buddhist texts is that of the dream state. Is a dream really happening? Well, it’s really happening as a dream. Our delusion is that we don’t know it’s a dream, so we’re caught up in it. Can we make our waking reality a kind of lucid dream? When we pay attention to impermanence, it helps wake us up.
We can also talk about this in terms of relative and absolute levels of reality and the union of the two. We can be fully engaged on the relative level and still have an understanding of the absolute perspective from which we see the impermanent, empty nature of phenomena. Only then can we be engaged in experience without ﬁxation, without delusion. Seeing impermanence does not imply a lack of empathy or connectedness. In fact, with awareness of impermanence there is much less a sense of self and other, so one can then feel connected on a deeper level. If we’re not identiﬁed with any one aspect of experience, including the knowing mind, then what is left is an understanding of the underlying interrelatedness, the oneness born of zero. Kalu Rinpoche expressed this so clearly when he said, “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When we understand this, we see that we are nothing. And being nothing, we are everything. That is all.”
IM: The truth of impermanence is becoming very apparent to a great many Western sangha members who are starting to get along in years and noticing the impermanence of hair, teeth and muscle strength. What are your reﬂections on this aging process?
JG: I think that seeing the impermanence of the body can lead in one of two directions. Obviously, we can feel a great deal of distress about the decaying nature of our ﬂesh and bones, which means that to the same extent we are identiﬁed with the body. If we ﬁnd ourselves reactive to our own aging, this reveals where we are stuck and can be an aid in further letting go. But if we observe our physical impermanence with the understanding that the body is completely selﬂess, a combination of basic elements, then seeing its decaying nature can be liberating. A big help for me has been remembering that change is not a mistake. It’s just how it is. So in experiencing the aging body, that’s what my mantra has become: “It’s just how it is.” Emaho! (How amazing!)