Value and Impermanence

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The essence of Buddhism can be found in the Four Noble Truths. These are:

  1. Suffering/anxiety/frustration exist
  2. The cause of suffering is attachment of “clinging”
  3. It is possible to be liberated from suffering
  4. Liberation may be found by following the Eight-fold Noble Path

For purposes here I’d like to focus on the first three of the Four Noble Truths.

Suffering Exists

With this declaration the Buddha was not introducing a novel concept to his earliest disciples. Nor is he revealing anything new to us. Rather, the Buddha stated what is 1) self-evident and 2) the primary motivation for seeking out the spiritual life. Regardless of any amount of human effort, action, or intention, all things arise and then fall away. Everything is impermanent. Existence itself is an ebb and flow, what the Buddha, relying heavily on the Hindu cosmology known to him, called the wheel of birth and death or the wheel of suffering.

The Buddha is not attempting to address the so-called “Problem of Evil.” Nor is he proposing that any given act or attitude can spare us from suffering. He is simply stating things as they are. In this sense the Buddha is the ultimate realist. It is essential to understand existence as it is — rather than how we wish it to be. Human existence is defined by happiness and sadness, love and loss, youth, old age, sickness, and death. Regardless of whether we recognize or accept it, existence is both beautiful and terrifying, fair and unfair, just and unjust.

A concept closely related to impermanence is dependent origination. This is the idea that nothing arises of itself. That is to say, every emotion, experience and action is the result of a confluence of events that came before. Such a view is not strict determinism nor is it fatalistic. The great wonder of sentience – and especially human consciousness – is the ability to recognize the relationship between cause and effect. Sentience is also be a great burden as we piece together causal relationships and instinctively act, as consequentialist thinkers might say, in such a way as to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Our continued inability sustain those things enjoy and value results in frustration that leads to suffering.

The Cause of Suffering is Attachment

The Buddha’s key insight was that such action is a fool’s errand; not due to any human failing but rather, the result of the incredibly myopic lens of consciousness and discriminatory thought. The Buddha recognized that there are numberless causes leading up to any given action or state of being. Yet, in a type of delusion we reduce this vast turning of the wheel to a handful of causal relationships we can both categorize and describe. This results in anxiety, frustration and suffering as we feverishly work in vain to make permanent that which is impermanent. It is not necessarily desire itself that causes suffering. Rather, it is the attachment to any given object of desire which leads to dissatisfaction.

Another implication of the Buddha’s insight is that existence in or appreciation of the present is hindered by attachment to our conceptions or expectations of the future. We ignore what is present now as we fixate on future outcomes. In my view this introduces a unique type of suffering wherein we find no joy in the present moment because our minds are too busy planning and plotting for a future state of affairs. The problem, of course, is that even if that state of affairs is achieved, we are very likely to be distracted by expectations and plans for the future. In other words, we are in a constant state of looking ahead such that we remain completely unaware of the present. This tends to breed a general dislike of the present as we operate under the faulty assumption not only that the future must be better than the present but also, that we are capable of a steady march towards an increasingly better future. In some regards this outlook is similar to the overly and, in retrospect, naive progressive ideas about the human condition commonly expressed from the late 19th century up until the horrors of WWI. WWI once again illustrated the tremendous horrors human beings were capable of creating and perpetuating. All in spite of the progress made in philosophy, government, and technology in the preceding centuries.

Liberation from Suffering is Possible

As mentioned above, desire itself is not the cause of suffering. Rather, it is the attachment which breeds a desire to maintain or sustain the impermanent which breeds suffering and frustration.

Consider a fan of the NFL following her favorite team. If the team has an excellent season, breaks through the playoffs and wins the Super Bowl, the fan will be excited and happy. The experience of watching a winning season with family and friends and then celebrating with the broader community is a great experience.

But what if this fan’s favorite team does not win the Super Bowl the following year or perhaps they have terrible losing season. Does this diminish from the experience of the winning season and Super Bowl win the year before? Of course not! That experience was good in itself and has absolutely no connection to what came before, nor what comes after. It is a wonderful moment of celebration. But simply because this moment is fleeting and impermanent, does not mean that the experience is somehow diminished or less-valuable.

Things must not persist in order to be inherently valuable.

Acting for the Future

While suffering may result by being attached to future outcome this does not mean that human beings should not be concerned with these outcomes. In the present we can identify injustice and act with a desire to make things better. But we must tread carefully. It is easy to become so focused on “fixing” what is presently broken as to create a skewed perspective of the present.

I have often heard it said that “if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” But is anger the state in which we expect to work for positive change? Can we effectively promote increased kindness, tolerance, and justice through anger? Perhaps anger aids in sparking our initial desire to be an agent of change. But anger is neither sustainable nor effective in the long-term. At some point we must act out of pragmatic concern if we expect to influence positive change. Even in the most oppressive and egregious circumstances it is peaceful kindness and incredible patience which eventually leads to the easing of oppression and an improved state of affairs.

Last year a visiting Soto Zen priest visited our local Sangha. She has studied Zen for many years and was trained at the San Francisco Zen Center. She told a story of how Zen students in San Francisco would often participate in anti-war rallies and in support of equal rights and social justice. During one of these events these students carried signs and chanted slogans like “Fight for Peace!” In a moment of reflection some of these students saw the incongruity of such slogans and actions. At the next event, these students chose not to carry signs or chant but rather, brought their Zafus and Zabutons and sat in Zazen. The effect was immediate and positive. This act of sitting in quiet meditation brought a sense of calm and respite even to those not participating directly.

Of course, these students of Zen did not end their activism. Rather, they redirected their efforts to promote peace and understanding between ideological divides. Were these students “successful?” In bringing peace and compassion to a highly-charged, emotional, and potentially violent debate, they were a smashing success.

I believe we could all benefit from taking this approach, even in the face of great injustice, for two primary reasons. First, it would encourage a holistic view of the present wherein we can learn from both past failure and success rather than make hyperbolic claims either negative or positive. And second, it frees us from the notion that our present actions are valued based on some future persistence of outcome. Emerging evils in no way diminish the work of good moral women and men of the past. As such, our own present actions are not diminished by whatever may happen in the future. If human history teaches us anything, it is that human beings and civilizations prosper and fall. Governments now free will see future tyrants. Where there is peace will eventually be conflict. Likewise, where there is now war, peace will prevail. Those who suffer under oppression will freed from their oppressors. This is neither pessimism, nor optimism. It is simply the fundamental nature of existence.

Refusing A Surgeon: Abstraction as Impediment to the Spiritual Life

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In the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta — a sutta found in the Pali Canon — Malunkyaputta is described as contemplating abstract cosmological ideas and being frustrated that the Buddha (The “Blessed One”) has not addressed/declared some of these very theoretical ideas, notions, and questions.  For example:

  • The cosmos is eternal
  • The cosmos is not eternal
  • After death a Tathagata (Buddha) exists
  • After death a Tathagata does not exist
  • Etc.

After expressing frustration at the lack of clarity provided by the Buddha on these subjects Malukyaputta declares if the Buddha will not address his questions “then [he] will renounce the training and return to the lower life.”

Malukyaputta approaches the Buddha, lays out his concerns and reiterates his intention to renounce. The following exchange ensues:

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?

The Buddha goes on to explain that Malukyaputta’s position is like that of “a man … wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison” whose “friends, companions, kinsmen, and relatives [would like] to provide him with a surgeon.” But before accepting the life-saving services of this surgeon the injured and dying man insists:

I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.

Succinctly the Buddha states: “The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

The Buddha continues:

In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.

The reason such abstract and theoretical concepts are left undeclared by the Buddha is “because they are not connected with the goal, [and] are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are left undeclared by [the Buddha].”

And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.

I think that too often we become fixated on the abstract to the point where we lose sight of the goal or spiritual or moral living. As the Buddha points out, if our interest in, fascination with, or discussion of the abstract prevents us from seeing immediate spiritual and moral needs right in front of our nose, we have fundamentally missed the point.

Membership in the LDS Church

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Over the past 7-8 years I have written and spoken publicly about Mormonism and the LDS Church many times. And, while I have at times been critical of LDS Church policy or practice, my primary focus has been on retaining faith (not necessarily belief or knowledge) in the face of doubt. I have advocated a pragmatic approach to religion and spirituality wherein the spiritual life is not necessarily tied to specific beliefs, doctrines, or dogmas but rather, is defined by the cultivation of charity and an experience with the divine. As a life-long member of the LDS Church I have benefited from both the faith and example set by family, friends, ward members, and Church leaders – both past and present. There is an overwhelming abundance of compassion, selflessness, and kindness found within the membership of the LDS Church.

Recently, policy changes were made by the LDS Church regarding the children of parents in same-sex relationships. After considering these new policies, I have made the difficult decision to resign my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As I say, this has been a difficult choice and one not taken lightly. I love and respect both my Latter-day Saint family and friends and will continue to pray for the Church, its members, and its leaders. Although I may no longer be a Latter-day Saint, I will always be a Mormon.

Since the policy was made public there has been vigorous, thoughtful, and insightful debate. Unfortunately, I have also seen mean-spirited accusations and name calling coming from those on both sides of the issue. Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the issue I think there is now an opportunity to practice both humility and compassion. Humility in the sense that we can recognize the the intentions, values, and sincerity of those with whom we may vigorously disagree. Words like “hate”, “bigot”, and “apostate” have been thrown around so wildly as to deprive them of all substantial meaning. We can exercise compassion in recognizing that this policy change has wide ranging effects which present challenges to Mormons of all stripes.

My hope is that we do not allow disagreements to obscure that fact that we are all brothers and sisters, each doing the best we can. Let’s work to support one another rather than tear each other down and show the same patience and kindness to others we would like to receive ourselves.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Mt 5:21–24. NRSV