The quote below is from the late, revered Thai Buddhist master Ajahn Chah. I came across it early in my study of Buddhism, as Ajahn Chah was the teacher of a number of prominent Western meditation teachers.
“This glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say “of course.” When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious” — Ajahn Chah
As I write, I am drinking from a beautiful ceramic coffee mug I’ve had for a year. It has several cracks in it and the bottom is chipped. One of these days, it will fall out of my hand or bang up against a counter and it will break and be no more. I enjoy it now, knowing, as Ajahn Chah said, that it is “already broken.”
It is easy to see the impermanence of objects. We use them, they break, or fade or rip and they’re gone. Or they are taken away from us. A car vanishes from the driveway. Gone.
It is relatively easy to let go of physical objects. We say: oh, well, that can be replaced, even about unique items.
What about things that are not physical objects? Do they stay or go?
All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.
This is a translation of a text from the Pali Canon, the teachings of the Buddha that were memorized by monks and written down several hundred years after his death. These lines are still chanted by monks in the Theravadan Buddhist schools. These lines are chanted at funerals, and often taught on retreats at U.S. meditation centers.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the first things I did was to write this verse in English and Pali on a piece of paper. I kept it on my refrigerator throughout treatment. I chanted it most days, taking in its meaning.
All conditioned things are impermanent.
Everything that arises because of something that came before it or with it — a condition — is fleeting, changing into something else, moving along its way.
Particular forms of suffering are impermanent. Moments of joy and relief are impermanent. Feeling lousy, feeling well. All impermanent.
This friendship, this trouble, this day, this meal, this conversation, this body. All here, then gone.
And why? Because that is the nature of anything that has been created, any process, any thought, word or deed, any feeling, any situation. It is a characteristic of reality.
Knowing that, not struggling with or against that truth, in fact, living in harmony with that truth, that’s where happiness lies. And not just any happiness, says the Buddha, but the highest, ultimate happiness.
I had known impermanence before cancer. I needed to know it now not just with my mind, listening to a nice dharma talk on retreat, but to really know it, in an unshakeable and visceral way. The way I open my eyes and just see. The way the sound of the radio enters my ears and I just hear.
Impermanence means that the way is clear for the new.
Impermanence means that everything’s moving and shifting whether we like it or not.
Living in harmony with the truth of impermanence will make the way smoother.
I heard in many talks on retreats about “letting go.” I wandered around not knowing what in the world that meant. Let go. How?
Gradually, I saw that in the painful situations I found most difficult to cease thinking about and feeling, there was actually nothing to hold onto. The cup was already broken. That gave me the key.
Everything is temporary, except for the eternal One.
The sooner I can see and accept that there is no-thing to hold onto, that very seeing and accepting is itself the process of letting go.
All conditioned things are moving and shifting, even when I would prefer them to stay the same. I practice seeing that their nature is to change. They’re not “already broken” just like a glass mug will be, smashed out of existence in its utility as a cup. But they’re already changing, going, already gone.
Having a preference or even a strong desire is a natural process. Grasping onto that preference will make me suffer more than seeing clearly when a preference has not been met. Not this time, or in the form I’d like.
Letting go, seeing that all conditioned things are in the process of going — already gone – that’s a relief. It’s a sip of freedom.
I became fond of an acquaintance who treated me kindly during treatment. I wanted her to be my friend, despite our not having much in common. I liked her energy. It now appears that she doesn’t want to be my friend. The connection has changed. When I thought, with a little bit of regret, about losing the chance to be friends with this person, I trained my heart/mind: Already gone. Not what my little self would have chosen, but it’s true, and fine, and it opens up space for something else to arise.