Impermanence is not only mentioned in Buddhist teachings. Those who learn from the past to understand the present and more meticulously analyze their surroundings can glimpse the flux and unpredictability of everyday life.
Qin Shihuang considered himself utterly superior, majestic and powerful, thinking that he could go as he pleased and that the world was beneath the soles of his feet. However, even as he was wrapped up in his imperial life, he could sense that the wild and unruly Liu Bang had begun to move against him. Cao Cao was not mistrustful by nature, and was as wise as he was daring, with no equal in the Three Kingdoms. But all of this changed when he narrowly escaped an attempted assassination. Afterwards, his suspicion of even his closest relatives eventually destroyed him his promising future and any chance at ascending to emperorship. In this world, there was a man who, to this day, holds 2.5 billion disciples, all claiming unswerving loyalty and service. But who could have imagined that, at only 36 years old and in the prime of his life, he was nailed to the cross. It’s clear that nothing in this world is certain or controllable at will.
I’ve spoken with many great masters and historians who, in their research and personal experience, all agree that no matter how great the achievements of an emperor or how unparalleled the hero, they all end up under the ground and being pulled into the bardo. Thus, many of them turned to the study of Buddhism, in particular the sutras. Many people, especially scholars, are partial to the Diamond Sutra. It is almost always the scholars who ask me questions about its verses. In fact, this sutra, along with the Heart Sutra, are the Buddha’s best sermons for those wishing to traverse the landscape of the mind and resolve their fear of life and death. Many people misunderstand the Diamond Sutra, believing it to be too abstract, impractical and just a play on words about emptiness. In actuality, many of the secrets of life and the keys to transcending the cycle of birth and death lie in its four-phrasal verses.
For example, the phrase “give rise to a mind which does not abide in anything” means that people need not be attached to external or internal circumstances or the needs we place on them. As well, we ought to use these very circumstances to experience the world in all of its facets, since in the end everything falls back into Emptiness. Is it from this true Emptiness that we obtain enlightened wisdom.
To illustrate this point using the external world: all the things our mind perceives in the material world – our whole planet – is it real? If you say yes, where are the people who lived hundreds of years ago? The Bianjing of old, flourishing Chang’an, the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, Luoyang in Guangdong, their music, their poetry, their merriment and grand celebrations are mere shadows in recollection. We can only pick up the traces of what is left in the cadence of classical Chinese poetry. Can that magnificence be restored? If not, how can we verify whether it is real? On the other hand, you might say it’s empty, but records and ruins serve as evidence of its existence.
Now take the mind as another example: does it exist? If it does, then you should be able to consolidate all of its phenomena into a single whole, but why do they still slip away like smoke? What is there that you can pin down? Truthfully, nothing really exists. Sometimes our mind is above, sometimes below, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. The point is, everything your eyes see and your mind thinks are just temporary scenes that vanish as soon as you reach out to touch them. They aren’t real. All of life’s comings and goings are just pieces of information slowly filling up your memory. There is no reason to cling to them. By understanding that “All that has form is illusive and unreal,” you will be able to clearly observe all forms and all of the things that you experience but not be disturbed by them. This is what is meant by “without abiding.” You will be able to maintain inner purity and clarity, remaining unaffected by the sensory experience of what you see, touch and taste. This is an experience of what is known as “without form.” At this stage, with the truly pure mind having arisen from “non-abiding,” everything you see and contemplate will be different.