The truth of impermanence, of the absence of a fixed reference point anywhere or at any time within the universe, undermines the possibility or security of some overarching meaning of our lives. We are change. We are all-inclusive becoming. There is no way that we can bring ourselves into focus. Yet, this direct insight does not imply or even suggest that we should dismiss everything as irrelevant in its meaninglessness. If anything, in realizing this truth, we come to embrace a profound sense of responsibility, and of a need for deepening wisdom, so we can live in accord with reality.

We effect change. We effect change with our intent because we are this very change, not because we have a privileged vantage point from which we can measure and manipulate. In our complete embodiment of impermanence, we get to the point where we are nearest to what this life is all about. That is the purpose of forgetting the self in zazen. That is the purpose of the intimacy of not-knowing in everything we do. That not-knowing is the very compassionate generosity and the sincere fulfillment of our vows.

Most of us, most of the time, are unaware—unaware that we are alive, that we can attend to something completely, that we are making choices at every moment. We are not quite like voodoo zombies, but neither are we fully awake. We have different strategies for remaining asleep.

In some of his early writings, specifically in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa Rinpoche mentions the Three Lords of Materialism, three ways in which we preoccupy ourselves so that we can sustain a buffer zone between ourselves and wakefulness, three spells that perpetuate the illusion of the ego, three attempts at defeating impermanence.

The first is the Lord of Forms, the realm of mountains and of mountains of things. This includes any pursuit of pleasure, comfort and security through the manipulation of our external, physical reality. On the most rudimentary level, this means accumulation of objects. We become fascinated with a thing, a new gadget, infusing it with the momentary hope of transcending the ordinariness of this moment stripped bare, unadorned. The realm of forms also involves an endless rearranging of our environment, aiming for a completely managed and controlled universe.

The second realm is the domain of knowledge, of information and communication. This is reflected in our obsession with data; bits of knowing, compacted and framed for transport and exchange. Just like with the collection of things, we accumulate data. We’re inundated with it. We’re intoxicated by it. We suffer from it. My brother-in-law, doing some computer consulting for the CIA, shared that many of our problems in espionage these days stem not from a lack of information but from having too much of it, and from not knowing how to process and apply it.


Photo by Sophie Saller


We are frightened by reality and its incessant capacity to humiliate our best plans. We try to control it by manipulating the information, by knowing what things are and how they work. Through naming, we convince ourselves that we can hold something still and steady, that we can gain its cooperation. We end up holding a dried up husk of a living breath, an abstraction. We stay asleep within our stories.