We are welcoming a new year, saying farewell to an old year; yet already this year is passing. This is the nature of all things—nothing fixed, nothing eternal, all is impermanent. When the Buddha left home seeking liberation, from what did he want to be liberated? Having encountered the inescapable truths of aging, illness and death, he wanted to discover the path to being free of these truths from within aging, illness and death.
In this koan, the student too recognizes that “the physical body rots away.” He then seeks, “the hard and fast body of reality.” This is his question, but what is he really asking? Can you see into the mind of this question? The Buddha said this body is “made of material form, consisting of the four great elements—earth, air, fire, and water, procreated by a mother and father and built up out of boiled rice and porridge—and that it is subject to impermanence.” Our bodies are “subject to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration.” The Buddha taught that we should regard the body as impermanent, “as dukkha, as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as not self. When one regards the body thus, then one abandons desire for the body, affection for the body, and subservience to the body.”
Why would the Buddha encourage us to regard our physical body this way? Was he hateful toward the body? Is the body itself a fundamental problem? No. But our attachment to it is, and our attachment to it is dear. So he uses extraordinary measures—harsh measures, you might say— to lead us towards a disenchantment with our physical form. This is not a reviling of the body, but rather a giving up of our clinging subservience to our idea of the body as self, because this is unreliable and can only lead to disappointment. And so he says, “When one regards the body thus, then we can abandon our desire for the body.”
In other words, the affliction is not in our body, but in the mind that cherishes it. When we are not clear about this, we remain enchanted, attached, self-cherishing, and we seek to recreate pleasure through the body and in the body again and again. Yet, all along, we know that this physical body acts just as this student says. It is subject to impermanence; it is worn away and leads inevitably toward dissolution and disintegration, just like our fleeting experiences of pleasure. Being attached to the idea of body as self, we try to make the body—and its youthfulness, vitality and strength—eternal and lasting. Isn’t this why the natural process of aging is so denied in our culture? To age, and lose our youthfulness and strength, is to become less as a person, to lose something essential of who we think we are.
I’m reminded of how the writer Annie Dillard described finding a spider who had lost several of its legs. Rather than seeing this as a poor, destitute, handicapped spider, she says she realized, “this spider has lived.” Its missing legs didn’t make it any less of a spider—they showed that it had a full encounter with life, tasted danger, and was alive! But we don’t normally see it that way.
Not a single thing avoids this impermanence: mountains, rivers, stars, galaxies. Every single thing, the moment it comes into being, begins this natural process, moving toward dissolution. Yet we live in a culture of “no!” We say “no” to eternal, natural laws—laws which will not be changed just because we resist them. Nothing in a non-human world says “no.” Ever. It’s a concept that is born of a human mind—to deny, to reject, and it’s one of our favorite forms of attachment. But we cannot deny impermanence. We can pretend to deny it, but then we just know we’re pretending and it hurts even more.