Impermanence, What is it really?

For the last few weeks, I have been trying to understand what exactly the Buddha meant when he said “All conditioned things are impermanent”. This was prompted by a Dhamma sermon that I listened to wherein the preacher was explaining impermanence in relation to contact, phassa. That is that the eye, the form and eye consciousness are impermanent because the contact momentarily changes to another contact. The preacher went onto say that the Buddha did not mean the impermanence ordinarily associated with what comes in to contact with the six senses for example, the sights and sounds etc.
In fact, that is how I am used to understand impermanence even though I am aware that contact changes momentarily.

The preacher cited SN35.93 wherein we find;

"Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights.
The eye is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.
Sights are impermanent, decaying, and perishing.
So this duality is tottering and toppling; it’s impermanent, decaying, and perishing.
Eye consciousness is impermanent, decaying, and perishing.
And the causes and reasons that give rise to eye consciousness are also impermanent, decaying, and perishing"

While I was searching for an explanation in the internet, I came across the above you tube video which is similar to what the preacher said.

I am aware that Ajahn Brahmali has already provided a detailed response to a similar question in the link;
Explaining sankhāra="choices" - #22 by Brahmali.

But unfortunately, it does not specifically answer the question that I have which is;
What exactly did the Buddha mean when he said all conditioned things are impermanent? Is the interpretation given by the preacher and the monk in the video correct?
If that is so, how can we understand this concept of impermanence when reading a Sutta? For example, when SN35.93 says, “eye is impermanent” one would think of impermanence of the eye in terms of ordinary impermanence such as eye sight becoming weak with the passage of time etc.

I am sure this is a very fundamental concept that everyone should understand correctly. Therefore, I would appreciate if everyone offers their ideas although I have tagged only the two Venerables. Also please back your ideas with Sutta references for everyone to read and understand.

Thanks everyone in advance.
With Metta

The Saha World and Samsara are impermanent.

Impermanence, taught by the Lord Buddha, should be seen in the background of subjectivity, namely notion of self, inseparable from sakkayaditthi is associated with perception of permanence.
And so the aim of the teaching is to correct the puthujjana’s wrong interpretation of experience, where in fact impersonal experience of seeing is interpreted as “I see”. That means that puthujjana does not see the eye as impermanent, taking existence of the subject (himself) or the person (sakkaya) for granted.

Anatta and impermanence stand together, and only one who understands doctrine of anatta, understands also impermanence ( on the level taught by the Lord Buddha).

Why must we choose? They all are impermanent. Whatever reflection that helps to remove passion for the world, is helpful.

Are you suggesting that someone reading a Sutta such as SN35.93 for the first time should have had knowledge about subjectivity as a core teaching of the Buddha? I think it is impossible. So what it is the clue or the yardstick to understand a Sutta the way you suggest?
With Metta

This is true. But when the teachers say that ordinary impermanence is not what the Buddha meant, we need to pay attention and find out how we can understand a Sutta the way the teachers explain.

Although this too is true, the teachers’ stand is that ordinary impermanence is not useful. For example, the doctors see impermanence and repulsiveness of the body everyday. But they are not enlightened.

Is there any criteria by which we can read the Buddha’s mind?
With Metta

It depends on one’s reflection, and knowledge of the noble 8fold path as well.

Part of monastic meditation subject is to see corpse decaying. Buddha projected a beautiful lady who rapidly aged to wear away the pride of a beautiful lady who listened to him.

For one who thinks diamonds are forever, it would be hard for them to uncling the attachment to the diamond. Diamonds are not forever, they decay after a long time into other less valuable form of carbon.

For those without knowledge of the path, maybe thinking too much on impermanence would make them go and become nihilist, because they don’t know a way out. As mentioned here: Truly Exist, dependently exist, dependently ceased, truly not existing - #3 by NgXinZhao Deeply seeing impermanence, makes one see lay life is not meaningful. The only meaningful thing is to attain to nibbāna. For people who don’t know the 4 noble truths, the way out of suffering is not known to them. They might get into depression or suicide, or absurdism, or something else. Like in Rick and Morty, Rick is a nihilist for seeing that there’s all possibilities in the multiverse and they are all meaningless, end up he abandoned morality.

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this monk is talking about comprehending impermanence at different levels. both are true.

on the one hand he’s noting that “this cup is impermanent” alludes to the fact that form is impermanent. it’s currently constantly in flux in a way we cannot see (atoms vibrating), so comprhending impermanence of form results from a long-standing observation of form to see that the cup discolours or breaks, or decomposes in some way.

the other way of understanding “this cup is impermanent” is to consider it in terms of the way it is comprehended in terms of the other aggregates of sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness.

for example, we see the cup - this is a sight (visual sense object) arising from sense contact at the eye (visual sense base) with the arising of eye-consciousness. eye, sight, contact, and eye-consciousness are all impermanent. we can see the impermanence in all of these directly, in the here and now. none of them remain. we can see the impermanence of perceptions about that sight - the cup looks dirty; no, it’s clean; its white; no it’s off white; it’s elegant; no it’s ugly. all such perceptions arise and pass away around the sense object. our intentionality (mental fabrications) according varies towards the sense object - we want to keep it, wash it, put it away, act with it in various ways. craving arises around the object - this too is impermanent - one moment we want it, and the next moment that wanting is replaced with wanting something else. the four elements associated with that cup are impermanent - we sense coolness, then warmth; hardness of the pottery, then the smooth softness of the glaze; then the space within the cup and the dense texture of the cup; all come and go.

this latter sense is the sense the monk is speaking of - seeing impermanence in all phenomena in the way our brains process that information, rather than waiting for a lifetime to see the cup break.

This makes sense to me and thanks for the lengthy response. I can understand the impermanence of the aggregates that arise and cease along with the greed that accompanies it.

But this impermanence does not result in Dukkha the way the Buddha explained Dukkha in SN56.11. For example Dukkha is explained as;

Now this is the noble truth of suffering.
“Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.”

So my understanding is that in order for the momentary arising and ceasing of aggregates to qualify as Dukkha the way the Buddha has explained, it is necessary to combine the physicality of sense objects with the momentariness of aggregates being grasped. Unless we do it, we end up simply saying that the momentary impermanence of aggregates is Dukkha disregarding the impermanence of the sense objects.
These are just my thoughts and I am trying to understand what the Buddha meant exactly by impermanence.
With Metta

the buddha is talking about the world - the world is only apprehended through the senses. we have no way of knowing truly what a cup looks like or feels like. it’s only through the meditation of the senses that we know the world.

actually that external world has no true essence. the rose we see as red is seen as black by an insect. our perception of the object is conditional on the sense base we have - yours differs to mine. if i’m colour blind, the rose looks green.

so the world is truly anatta - no true defining essence.

the buddha is encouraging us to look at the world in terms of the three characteristics, starting with impermanence.

dukkha arises because we deny the true nature of phenomena - seeing things as permanent, capable of providing satisfaction, and with a defining real essence when they are none of those things.

if you think suffering doesn’t apply to mental phenomena, the mental aggregates, ask yourself why your mind keeps running from one thing to another. if there was no suffering, why would the mind move? it’s there - suffering’s there. you’re just not looking.

keep contemplating impermanence and then you’ll start to see the suffering. it all starts with impermanence. from there one sees both dissatisfaction and the anarchy of any true essence to all phenomena. but it starts with impermanence.

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Generally, it is just the problem stated in the terms of dependent arising. Any item preceding the following is sankhara, and so the following item is sankhata dhamma. Being impermanent, determined (sankhata) and dependently arisen are synonyms terms, just like knowledgeable about impermanence always go together with. the knowledge about dukkha and anatta.

I would rather say that one who approaches impermanence without taking into account assumed permanence of the subject or person - sakkaya, put oneself into impossible position where understanding of the Dhamma simply cannot happen.

Nibbana in Suttas is described as the cessation of conceit “I am” what allows as to state the Four Noble Truths in the following way:

1 conceit “I am” = dukkha
2 conceit “I am” is dependently arisen
3 there is such thing as cessation of the conceit “I am”
4 there is the way leading to the cessation of conceit “I am”

Refusing to deal with reality, namely that conceit “I am” and it rationalisation on the level of views, sakkayadithi, where certain self-image of what I am is created are associated with perception of permanence, one simlpy refuses to deal with the reality of dukkha, and instead of following the Buddha’s advice: suffering is to be understood, one in fact not only doesn’t understand dukkha, which after all is a normal puthujjana’s situation, but it looks like one doesn’t want to understsnd it.

Of course that Dhamma is very difficult to understand, and also it is true that puthujjana does not understand his own experience and so he doesn’t see the fundamental existential contradiction between the permanence of one’s own self, and impermanence of sankharas - things from which conceit “I am” is derivated.

So Lord Buddha says:

“There is, bhikkhus, a world-phenomenon in the world to which the Tathāgata has awakened and broken through. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it.

“And what is that world-phenomenon in the world to which the Tathāgata has awakened and broken through? Form, bhikkhus, is a world-phenomenon in the world to which the Tathāgata has awakened and broken through. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. When it is being thus explained… and elucidated by the Tathāgata, if anyone does not know and see, how can I do anything with that foolish worldling, blind and sightless, who does not know and does not see?

“Feeling … Perception … Determinations … Consciousness is a world-phenomenon in the world to which the Tathāgata has awakened and broken through. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. When it is being thus explained … and elucidated by the Tathāgata, if anyone does not know and see, how can I do anything with that foolish worldling, blind and sightless, who does not know and does not see? SN 22 : 94

But why refusing to deal with the problem by closing eyes on it? Venerable Chana was able to see that there is a problem which he doesn’t understand:

Then it occurred to the Venerable Channa: “I too think in this way: ‘Form is impermanent … consciousness is impermanent. Form is nonself … consciousness is nonself. All determinations are impermanent; all things are nonself.’ But my mind does not launch out upon the stilling of all determinations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna; nor does it acquire confidence, settle down, and resolve on it. Instead, agitation and clinging arise and the mind turns back, thinking: ‘But who is my self?’ But such does not happen to one who sees the Dhamma

SN 22: 90

So regarding determinations, (sankhara) in Suttas the very act of determining what is my self is sankhara:

He regards matter—or feeling, or perception, or determinations, or consciousness—as self. That is a determination…. In an uninformed commoner contacted by feeling born of nescience-contact, monks, there is craving arisen; thence is born that determination. Thus, monks, that determination is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen; and that craving too is impermanent, deter-mined, dependently arisen; and that feeling too is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen; and that contact too is imperma-nent, determined, dependently arisen; and that nescience too is impermanent, determined, dependently arisen.

<S. XXII,81:iii,96-7>

This world is anguished, being exposed to contact,
Even what the world calls self is in fact ill;
For no matter upon what it conceives (its conceits of self),
The fact is ever other than that (which it conceives).
The world, whose being is to become other,
Is committed to being, is exposed to being, relishes only being,
Yet what it relishes brings fear, and what it fears is pain.
Now this holy life is lived to abandon suffering. Ud. 3:10

So we here the fundamental contradiction between assumed permanence of self and impermanence of things with which self can be identified. This problem is the problem of sankhara dukkha which can be stated in the following ways:

And where does the Buddha’s Teaching come in? If we understand the ‘eternal’ (which for Kierkegaard is ultimately God—i.e. the soul that is part of God) as the ‘subject’ or ‘self’, and ‘that which be-comes’ as the quite evidently impermanent ‘objects’ in the world (which is also K.’s meaning), the position becomes clear. What we call the ‘self’ is a certain characteristic of all experience, that seems to be eternal. It is quite obvious that for all men the reality and permanence of their selves, ‘I’, is taken absolutely for granted; and the discrepancy that K. speaks of is simply that between my ‘self’ (which I automatic-ally presume to be permanent) and the only too manifestly impermanent ‘things’ in the world that ‘I’ strive to possess. The eternal ‘subject’ strives to possess the temporal ‘object’, and the situation is at once both comic and tragic—comic, because something temporal cannot be possessed eternally, and tragic, because the eternal cannot desist from making the futile attempt to possess the temporal eternally . This tragi-comedy is suffering (dukkha) in its profoundest sense. And it is release from this that the Buddha teaches. How? By pointing out that, con-trary to our natural assumption (which supposes that the subject ‘I’ would still continue to exist even if there were no objects at all), the existence of the subject depends upon the existence of the object; and since the object is manifestly impermanent, the subject must be no less so. And once the presumed-eternal subject is seen to be no less temporal than the object, the discrepancy between the eternal and the temporal disappears (in four stages—sotàpatti, sakadàgàmità, anàgà-mità, and arahatta); and with the disappearance of the discrepancy the two categories of ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ also disappear. The arahat neither laughs nor weeps; and that is the end of suffering (except, of course, for bodily pain, which only ceases when the body finally breaks up).

In this way you may see the progressive advance from the thoughtlessness of immediacy (either childish amusement, which refuses to take the tragic seriously, or pompous earnestness, which refuses to take the comic humorously) to the awareness of reflexion (where the tragic and the comic are seen to be reciprocal, and each is given its due), and from the awareness of reflexion (which is the limit of the puthujjana’s philosophy) to full realization of the ariya dhamma (where both tragic and comic finally vanish, never again to return).

Or

But now you say, ‘If all things are characterized by dukkha….’ This needs careful qualification. In the first place, the universal dukkha you refer to here is obviously not the dukkha of rheumatism or a toothache, which is by no means universal. It is, rather, the sankhaa-dukkha (the unpleasure or suffering connected with determinations) of this Sutta passage:

There are, monk, three feelings stated by me: sukha feeling, dukkha feeling, neither-dukkha-nor-sukha feeling. These three feelings have been stated by me. But this, monk, has been stated by me: whatever is felt, that counts as dukkha. But that, monk, was said by me with reference just to the impermanence of determinations…. (Vedanà Samy . 11: iv,216)

But what is this dukkha that is bound up with impermanence? It is the implicit taking as pleasantly-permanent (perhaps ‘eternal’ would be better) of what actually is impermanent. And things are implicitly taken as pleasantly-permanent (or eternal) when they are taken (in one way or another) as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ (since, as you rightly imply, ideas of subjectivity are associated with ideas of immortality). And the puthujjana takes all things in this way. So, for the puthujjana, all things are (sankhara-)dukkha. How then—and this seems to be the crux of your argument—how then does the puthujjana see or know (or adjudge) that ‘all things are dukkha’ unless there is some background (or criter-ion or norm) of non-dukkha (i.e. of sukha) against which all things stand out as dukkha? The answer is quite simple: he does not see or know (or adjudge) that ‘all things are dukkha’. The puthujjana has no criterion or norm for making any such judgement, and so he does not make it.

The puthujjana’s experience is (sankhara-)dukkha from top to bottom, and the consequence is that he has no way of knowing dukkha for himself; for however much he ‘steps back’ from himself in a reflexive effort he still takes dukkha with him. (I have discussed this question in terms of avijja (‘nescience’) in A Note on Pañiccasamuppàda §§23 & 25, where I show that avijja which is dukkhe aññanam (‘non-knowledge of dukkha’), has a hierarchical structure and breeds only itself.) The whole point is that the puthujjana’s non-knowledge of dukkha is the dukkha that he has non-knowledge of; and this dukkha that is at the same time non-knowledge of dukkha is the puthujjana’s (mistaken) acceptance of what seems to be a ‘self’ or ‘subject’ or ‘ego’ at its face value (as nicca/sukha/attà, ‘permanent/ pleasant/self’).

And how, then, does knowledge of dukkha come about? How it is with a Buddha I can’t say (though it seems from the Suttas to be a matter of prodigiously intelligent trial-by-error over a long period); but in others it comes about by their hearing (as puthujjanas) the Buddha’s Teaching, which goes against their whole way of thinking. They accept out of trust (saddha) this teaching of anicca/dukkha/anatta; and it is this that, being accepted, becomes the criterion or norm with reference to which they eventually come to see for themselves that all things are dukkha—for the puthujjana. But in seeing this they cease to be puthujjanas and, to the extent that they cease to be puthujjanas, to that extent (sankhara-)dukkha ceases, and to that extent also they have in all their experience a ‘built-in’ criterion or norm by reference to which they make further progress. (The sekha—no longer a puthujjana but not yet an arahat—has a kind of ‘double vision’, one part un-regenerate, the other regenerate.) As soon as one becomes a sotà-panna one is possessed of aparapaccayà nanam, or ‘knowledge that does not depend upon anyone else’: this knowledge is also said to be ‘not shared by puthujjanas’, and the man who has it has (except for accelerating his progress) no further need to hear the Teaching—in a sense he is (in part) that Teaching.

So far, then, from its being a Subject (immortal soul) that judges ‘all things are dukkha’ with reference to an objective sukha, it is only with subsidence of (ideas of) subjectivity that there appears an (objective) sukha with reference to which the judgement ‘all things are dukkha (for the commoner)’ becomes possible at all. Nanavira Thera

Refusing to deal with assumed permanence of the subject, one in fact must remain on the level of Bhikkhu Boddhi who in his critique of Ven Nanavira writings says:

An unbiased and complete survey of the Nikáyas, however, would reveal that the problem of dukkha to which the Buddha’ s Teaching is addressed is not primarily existential anxiety , nor even the distorted sense of self of which such anxiety may be symptomatic. The primary problem of dukkha with which the Buddha is concerned, in its most comprehensive and fundamental dimensions, is the problem of our bondage to samsara—the round of repeated birth, aging, and death. And, as I will show presently , these terms are intended quite literally as signifying biological birth, aging, and death, not our anxiety over being born, growing old, and dying.

What Venerable Bodhi is talking about? It is hard to say since if phrsse “the distorted sense of self” means something it must mean attavada and sakkayadithi which is precisely the dukkha from which sotapanna successfully freed oneself and “the round of repeated birth, aging, and death” comes to the end for one who arrived at the cessation of the conceit “I am”, the very thing on which Nanavira Thera put the strongest emphasis in his writing.

Summarise: knowledge about impermanence, suffering and the nature of not-self of all things is the same thing, and if one hopes to arive one day at the understanding of impermanence, one must face the problem of the asumed permanence of the subject, the person (sakkaya). Without this background one will remain on the level of pseudo-explanations which feed only one’s own ignorance.

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Thank you very much for your detailed response and I really appreciate the time you have taken to explain it so lucidly.
With Metta

Exactly. I was stuck between the conventional world and the world of the senses. Thank you very much for clarifying.
With Metta

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As I recall and understand, conditioned is always conditioned by mind.
Imagine for a moment that the mind comes to a halt. You’d know by the absent of mental movement, while awareness of this absence is present. Yet knowledge of this absence is not present, since that would be the mind not being fully stopped.
Now the mind returns to a normal state.

The mind longs for the experienced mental state. Because it’s pleasant.
It’s right here that it turned Dhamma into Sankhara, it conditions the (recollection of the) experience by adding the perspective of pleasant to it. And then based on that perspective longs for the state. And that longing itself is stressful, because “now” is not as pleasant as the meditative state.

Should you however observe the experienced mental state as such, as being pleasant when achieved and stressful when not experienced, you know instantly that both greed for this mental state, as well as aversion towards the non-experience of the state, are both the result of the mind conditioning the experience.
The state might be the highest possible pleasure, yet when the mind does not see the drawback of this notion, being the want for the pleasure and the not-want of whatever is not this state, it’s gone beyond what’s reasonable.
When conditions are right the state is experienced, when conditions are otherwise the state is not experienced. Both can give rise to passion and aversion.

This is why “all Dhamma” is considered non-self, meaning that we can’t rely on it.
Where Dhamma is truth, seeing/experiencing things as they are.
Such an experience and even the notion of highest pleasure might be true, yet the moment we need this state to experience to experience the highest pleasure we depend on it, and … well … it’s already conditioned.

So an experienced meditator can go through the motions to experience such peace, yet the moment this process is relied upon as necessary to “end currently experienced stress” the goal was not reached.
A good example is the sutta where Buddha was in great pain and “mindfully endured” the pain. He didn’t resort to some meditative state to end the experience (easy to do when you know how), he instead used mindfulness to not become overwhelmed (adding stress on top of stress, the double arrow analogy) by the pain.
Seeing pain as pain it’s not conditioned, seeing endurance as a way to deal with pain is not conditioned. With this the end of stress, in this case the lack of stress adding on top of pain, is experienced.
Yet the moment you rely on this, it’s s trick, a gimmick.
The path is a developed set of skills to deal with stress, and what works in one situation might not work in a slightly different situation (and that’s a source of stress again).

That’s why you find meditators in the suttas struggling with the final insight, they for example know the gimmick of meditation but lack the understanding that this itself turned into a source of stress because it’s not the correct way to deal with the kind of stress which is experienced.
The non-self teaching (perspective) aims to deal exactly with this situation and should not be regarded some kind of cookie cutter insight of absolute truth.

This is my limited understanding on this question about conditioned things

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Well said. Thank you for your detailed response and I really appreciate it.
With Metta

A very erudite presentation.

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In the end, when atta does not exist, and nothing has any fixed form, for example, not at any moment,
also the idea that rupa is impermanent makes no sense. In fact one cannot even establish change if atta does not exist. All such ideas as changing and impermanent things, rely on a belief in atta. The whole Canon is based upon belief in atta.

In the end there is never any satisfcatory knowledge or insight into things. Sorry to say but here is where i always arrive. Bankruptcy. There is just no REAL insight into things, only being intoxicated with knowledge and vision that in the end never is truthful.

One may be delighted, enthousiastic, inspired, aroused for some time that one has finally this and that insight, but after some time it also always fake news. I am at peace with this. I am bankrupt and it is oke too. I am not open anymore to knowledge and vision. All is merely intoxication.
Knowledge and vision is always imperfect, always questionable, always wobble. One cannot rely on it.
It is like stepping on a raft that is wobble and can any moment sink.

The sutta’s present things as facts, such as impermanent and changing things, that cannot even be established as facts.

But still, even knowledge and vision that is not true, and also not really seeing things as they really are, can have wholesome effects. All can intoxicate the mind with peace and happiness. One can even become more stable. It is all very strange when you think about it. It is intoxication.

I feel the only true path, not via intoxication with insight, is to see that dispassion and purity and the noble path is always there and does not depend on whatever knowledgde and vision. It does not depend on seeing things as anicca, dukkha and anatta. It is our birthright. All beings have a fully dispassionate, pure nature. All beings are allready nobles. Like gold is already gold while it is defiled.
It is not able to change into something else. It is only possible that our noble nature becomes shared with others and the world. It is never ever our merit and not made by us.

All knowledge and vision is unsatisfying. It is all wobble, questionable, unreliable too. Maybe some see it as quality that one is so sure about knowledge and vision. I believe that is not a quality. All certainty that relies and knowledge and vision is only ones own sensitivity for intoxication.

Anything that depends on something else are impermanent.

….hence you need to find that which is permanent, which in turn reveals things as they truly are!

Same reason why Nibbana is permanent but requires the right conditions to reveal itself, as nibbana doesn’t depend on anything else so it’s permanent and always there!! One is merely conditioned from it.

….except direct knowledge……which reveals the wisdom.

The purification of the path is for one who knows and sees and not for one who does not know and does not see.

How do you see this? Can you have direct knowledge of anicca, dukkha and anatta?
What does direct knowledge mean for you?

By going beyond the ALL.

SN35.117:
“Therefore, bhikkhus, that base should be understood, where the eye ceases and perception of forms fades away. That base should be understood, where the ear ceases and perception of sounds fades away… That base should be understood, where the mind ceases and perception of mental phenomena fades away. That base should be understood.”

Providing one is grounded strongly in precepts which allows for solid concentration, developed faculties, without these, wisdom will not be possible!

Anicca…yes…you will truly know what is impermanent….which also reveals the permanent.
Dukkha…yes…and the opposite.
Anatta…yes…not-self is confirmed and the transcendent.

With its full depth:…… Things as they truly are……as per the 4NT……beyond the illusion……without ignorance.