This memory of sitting under the rose-apple tree occurred during an annual celebration in which the village planted the crops for the next year. Being a young prince, he was given a break and was left by his attendants underneath this rose-apple tree, where he sat, watching. As he sat there, he felt a vast beauty and a communal sense of everybody being together. Then his gaze fell upon the earth as the plows were turning it over, and he saw the worms squirming, some of them cut in half, some descended upon by the birds. He watched all of this—witnessing the dance between life and death. And he felt a sense of impermanence, of brevity—a feeling of connection with the world and of the fragility of life. And somehow, in that feeling, he very naturally came to rest.
When Buddha describes this, he refers to it technically as resting in the first jhana, the first absorption—based on seclusion, on the simple fact of being quiet and alone, of abandoning sensual pleasures and unwholesome states of mind. Within that absorption, characterized by joyfulness, by pleasure, even by rapture, he sat—naturally, within himself, not towards anything other than that moment. The story goes that all the beings surrounding him realized what was going on and aligned themselves to support him. As the afternoon progressed and the sun moved overhead, the shadow of the rose-apple tree didn’t move, but remained steadfastly over him to give him protection. Buddha harmonized himself with how things were, harmonized his whole body and mind with reality. In this, he found a state of joy and pleasure that had nothing to do with hearing beautiful sounds, seeing beautiful sights, or thinking fantastic thoughts. It was a pleasure that had nothing to do with unwholesome states—of anger, of power, of greed, of wanting. There was another way to be joyfully in the world—a joy that exists apart from the objects of thirst and craving, a joy that is embedded in the very texture of reality. This joy is, therefore, inseperable from the thing that we fear so much: impermanence itself.
The word impermanence seems to instantaneously bring with it a sense of sadness—the saddness of things slipping by, of uncertainty. We tend to equate impermanence and our encounter with it with somehow being defeated, humiliated even. One of the more evocative ways that I’ve heard the First Noble Truth defined is as the truth of continuous humiliation by impermanence. The challenge that we face in waking up is the challenge of making peace, complete peace, with impermanence. Impermanence is the inherent condition of our life—of this body, of this mind, of every relationship, of everything we rely upon. Impermanence is the only reliable thing we have; the joyfulness that the Buddha speaks about is directly connected to recognizing this.