Most spiritual traditions have a practice of contemplating the unpleasant. Often the practice is to actually embrace it: Sun Dance for the Lakota, the care of lepers for some of the saints, Amma Chi’s life story of an abused Cinderella while chanting Krishna’s name as her solace. In the Buddhist tradition there are a few options: meditating in a charnel ground or on one’s body decomposing, not running away from an inner demon, or simply meditating on impermanence.
At root, compassion and impermanence are what we are to understand from such practices. Mother Theresa’s work with the poorest of the poor and those left to die unattended is clearly both an act of compassion and a constant dance with impermanence. She, like the Buddha, interacted with suffering as it visits every human being through sickness, aging, and death. Her devotion to the soul of each human being is a radiant expression of a bodhisattva. Amma is too and, thankfully, many others in the world. Most don’t get Time magazine cover photos or world scale funerals, but the wish to increase compassion and decrease suffering is lived by more people than not, thank human goodness.
Impermanence is a kicker, but only if we cling to something. When impermanence happens, it seems to take many people by surprise and feel like a kick in the gut. But how is that? Impermanence is. Everything changes. The human need for stability has become the human dilemma of security with an often desperate use of methods that ensure eventual destabilization. An addiction cannot stay a secret, a covert government action cannot ensure a lasting regime, unethical business practices produce a seeming constant flow of gain but only loss is truly being racked up if all factors are accounted. Impermanence is a given, a reckoning, and a gift.
In this understanding, the Tibetan people have taken refuge while their entire culture of over 1000 years is being destroyed. Some Native nations had a similar solace, not that it has made anyone’s pain and loss less. However, the suffering – the emotional and mental dealing with the pain and loss – there a difference is found. If we look at world history or contemporarily, will we find a similar grace to the way the Tibetan people overall have lived through these 60 years of occupation and diaspora? The understanding of impermanence is instructional: cultures come and go, isolation and security do too, and no celestial or incarnated buddha-beings can change that. Instead, one can contemplate the benefit(s) that can come from embracing change into the heart of compassion.