The Illusion of Permanence
This delusion manifests in many forms.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Heraclitus observes that even if the river looks the same, feels the same and appears to be in the same place, it’s only an illusion. The river changes course constantly, the water ebbs and floods throughout the seasons. The water may run clear one day then murky the next. Fish may run and fish may die. The river, in reality, is in constant flux. It is never the same from moment to moment. There is no permanence to the river. It may last for thousands of years, but it will run dry, or go underground or change course and go through someone else's backyard. It is not a permanent fixture.
The same must be said for the man. One who steps in the river today will be different tomorrow or next week or next year. Motivation and skills change daily. So it is with strength and resolve. These four forces are in constant flux in mankind. As we move through life - even as we move through any given day - we change. We will not be the same person who stepped in the river yesterday as we are today.
Even our bodies constantly change. Molecule by molecule, we refresh ourselves. We consume food that is turned into energy and either used or stored. Our minds absorb information and experiences that change us. We work out at the health club and our muscles grow and harden while our endurance is increased. When we age, our bodies deteriorate, we lose our balance more easily, we become winded just walking up a hill and we may begin to forget things. We are constant change and yet we seem to act like it isn’t happening. We become very attached to our bodies and believe them to be permanent. The younger we are, the more we believe this, for, as we age and near death, it’s clear to us that the permanence of our bodies is pure fantasy - an illusion.
“Many have died; you also will die. The drum of death is being beaten. The world has fallen in love with a dream. Only sayings of the wise will remain.”
― Kabir, The Bijak of Kabir
When we recognize this impermanence we quickly realize the power and influence we have over the little time remaining. Believing that you will last forever often causes us to put things ‘on the back burner’ to deal with at a later date. We think there is always time to do it tomorrow or next week. We will get around to writing that book when the NFL has played its final championship game of the season or I’ll get to work on that sculpture I’ve been working on after just a couple more episodes of Outlanders on Netflix, but time is fleeting and what few years are allotted are too often wasted.
The Gods Go Away
When the Greeks built temples to Zeus or Athena, they were utterly convinced in the permanence of these gods and goddesses. They believed, fervently, that their gods would be around for ever to help them in their daily lives. When the ancient Romans built the Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, they had no doubt that Jupiter was infinite and permanent. Yet where are these gods today? A mere 2500 years has passed and the gods have fallen out of favour and been left to the history books. The same happened with Minerva, Isis, Ra and Inana to name only a few.
The same will happen to the gods we call upon today. As hard as it will be for some people to swallow, It’s very likely that 2,000 years from now, our descendants will only come across Vishnu, Krishna, Mahavira and maybe, (lalthough never a god) even Buddha in dusty history books, having been replaced by gods or religions that will have greater relevance to the people of that future time.
That’s the way it is. Religious practices always reflect the needs of the society, culture and times in which they were created. Of course not all gods are invented out of thin air. Some gods, in fact most gods, we know of today are reincarnations of previously known gods. For example, the Titans precede the Olympians, Apsu and Tiamat precede Marduk and Enki. Just about every god we know today has some ancient equivalent and is thus a recycled version of a previous deity.
What we think of as everlasting, permanent and timeless is anything but.
Where’d That Restaurant Go?
The city of Toronto has a lot of great restaurants. I have a few favourites that I like to go to frequently. The owners know me and often call me by name. About a month ago, I went down to one of the locals and it was papered over! It had been there for years. I was there only last month and there was no sign it was closing. Upon enquiry it turns out that the owner had died and his wife and family weren’t that interested in the service industry, so they closed up the shop and put a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window.
The entire city is like this really. Buildings that were constructed in my lifetime have been torn down to make way for condos. What were once surface parking lots are now skyscrapers. The Bercy Park I knew and loved in the 90s is now a dog park - OK, it’s not really a dog park, but when you put up the biggest fountain in the city that’s dedicated to dogs, that’s what people are going to call it.
I used to frequent a couple of jazz clubs like The Colonial Tavern and Burbon Street (where I heard Paul Desmond record a live album. Ed Bickert also recorded in the venue). I used to meet my friends on a Friday night. As the evening progressed, we might even take in a couple other clubs like the Montreal Bistro or Top of the Senator, (where I first heard Dianna Krall perform) but those are also long gone. Thankfully, The Pilot is still there, moved from its original location on Yonge to Cumberland and they still get a jazz crowd.
As a young man I spent too many nights at the Northgate Hotel, previously the Rosedale Hotel, now gone. I liked the Bali Hai room at The Ports of Call, now also gone. My misspent youth is no longer memorialized in stone … ah, maybe that’s a good thing.
Reflecting even upon my own life, it’s clear that everything has changed and will continue to do so, long after I’m gone. As painful as it may be, change and impermanence are the central theme of all our lives. Everything that ever was or ever will be, eventually comes to an end, falls to dust and is blown away in the winds of time.
Other books about Buddhism from Off the Dock,
an imprint from Canadian Outdoor Press
Certainty in Buddhism
Life of the Buddha (FREE)
Life of Milarepa (FREE)
Pain and Suffering in Buddhism