Editorial: Fear and Wonder

Featured in Mountain Record 30.3, Spring 2012

Impermanence. It’s so personal. Looking in the mirror I see white hair beginning to show, wrinkles multiplying—signs of my own impermanence. We were all born, and one day, no one knows when, each one of us will die. In a sense, nothing could be more ordinary. Or more completely mysterious.

Our lives are steeped in impermanence, from the mundane to the life-changing: the hole in our jeans, losing someone we love. It can astonish, like the arrival of spring; or frighten, like the menace of climate change. Upon hearing the theme of this issue, one sangha member said, “But, doesn’t impermanence include everything?” Yes. And yet, how resistant we are. How quickly we can shrug and feel we’ve got a handle on it: Of course, everything changes. Of course we’re all going to die. It may indeed be obvious, but we are not at peace with this truth.

That’s where the teachings in this issue emerge: from the tension between the allpervasive reality of impermanence and our effort to truly, completely embrace its implications.

Master Sheng Yen puts it bluntly, “What is impermanence? It is suffering, it is emptiness, it is no-self, it is the absence of intrinsic identity.” Shugen Sensei points out, “Nothing in a non-human world says ‘no.’ Ever. It’s a concept that is born of a human mind—to deny, to reject. . .But we cannot deny impermanence.”

We cling. Attach. Shore up our sense of self. Surround ourselves with things. Endlessly plan our future. Continue guzzling oil. Ignore the melting ice. Pretend, in our own private and inimitable way, that we’re immortal. That things will continue as they always have. That tomorrow we’ll wake up and live a day pretty much like today.

Making peace with impermanence is more than simply swallowing hard and accepting our fate—if this is what the dharma came down to, it would never have lasted. Instead, the teachings point to the possibility of realizing impermanence so thoroughly that it frees us. As Ryushin Sensei says, “Impermanence is the only reliable thing we have; the joyfulness that the Buddha speaks about is directly connected to recognizing this.” Daido Roshi says, “Life, death, coming, going, existing, not existing. . . we always see things dualistically. How do you see it as one thing?”

Beyond denial, filled with joy, transcending all dualities: it seems the swift and unbounded flow of life—impermanence—can shimmer and sparkle. Amidst the loss, the grief, the fear, there is something else. What is it? I think of the end of Franz Wright’s poem, The Fire:

. . . just try
to observe your own face
growing old
in the mirror, or
is it beginning to be born?

Danica Shoan Ankele, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor