Paraphrase of “How to Meditate on Impermanence”

Gungthang Rinpoche’s (Gung-thang dKon-mchog bstan-pa’i sgron-me) (1762–1823) text, Training for How to Meditate on Impermanence, Written in Verse (Mi-rtag sgom-tshul-gyi bslab-bya tshigs-su bcad-pa bcas) begins with offering homage to all his gurus who manifest in numerous forms and give teachings in order to tame the mind:

Homage to the great union of bliss and voidness, which manifests in different forms and variations to suit the many needs and dispositions of limited beings.

This precious human body possessing the eight respites and ten enrichments is attained only once. There is danger of losing this opportunity, and going into the next rebirth without having been able to accomplish anything of lasting value. Now is the time to place ourselves on the path to liberation. In fact it is almost too late, as all of us here are between the ages of twenty and thirty. We must hold ourselves up with the iron hook-like reminder to practice Dharma and the vigilance that is likened to the stages of training an elephant. Trying to finish everything worldly and samsaric in this month, or at least in this year, or having the thought to postpone one’s practice of the Dharma and do everything else first this year, is a ghost alluring yourself. A teacher once said that religious people should never worry about having enough to live on. Some people make excuses that they have to make money in order to practice Dharma, but there has never been any serious practitioner of the Dharma who has starved to death.

Generate the thought to do a dedicated complete practice of the Dharma. The activities of this life are like waves on water. Like ripples the first one comes, then immediately another one follows. The more you do, the more new activities come: it is endless. Isn’t it better to be strongly determined to leave these things now, when there are no restrictions placed upon us, than to aimlessly go here and there? For example, if there is an emergency, you make the strong, determined decision to drop everything and go take care of it. This is like the story of Naropa going to see Tilopa. He decisively left his position as the abbot of Nalanda and went. Or like Tsongkhapa who, having received instructions from Manjushri to do a retreat of the preliminary practices, made the determination to do so, left his thousands of disciples, and went.

Don’t fool yourself. Before the Dharma practice of tomorrow takes place, the death of today may come sooner. Therefore if one wants to practice Dharma, do so from today onward.

Although the deeds of great teachers such as Tsongkhapa and Padmasambhava are spread in all directions of the world, all of these teachers are dead. Only their names remain, their bodies are gone, and we can only understand them through their teachings. All of this is an indication of their impermanence, just like the reclining statue of the Buddha in Kushinagar, which reminds us that even Buddha died. Shantideva says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behaviour (sPyod-’jug, Skt. Bodhicaryāvatāra) that if Buddhas, pratyekabuddhas and shravakas have all died, is there any question that we will too? This is also a teaching of the Eighth Dalai Lama, who, like the masters who wrote all of these teachings, is also no longer alive. It should be noted, however, that if and when the forms of these great beings do disintegrate, and they dissolve back into the Essential Nature Corpus of the Buddhas (Svabhavakaya), this is merely done in order to teach impermanence to deluded disciples.

Just like these great beings, in one hundred years none of us will be around either. Kings and statesmen as well, who are extremely proud of their wealth and strength and who can boast of garlands of lists of deeds, will also no longer be around. Only their names will remain. The same is true for the many famous world leaders of today: they will not be here in the future. People who are your own age and have the same physical strength as you also die. Suddenly they are kidnapped by the Lord of Death. So what gives you confidence that you will live forever? Not to be afraid of death even though one has been taught about impermanence is extremely stupid. Even dull, stupid animals like sheep, when seeing that other sheep are being killed by the butcher, shake, with their hearts beating fast.

There is a related story of Geshe Potowa. One person who lived in his village came and asked him, “When my death is about to come, could you send me a message?” Later on someone died in an upper village and a message about this was sent to the man, but he didn’t do anything. The same happened in relation to someone in a lower and then a middle village. Still this man did nothing. Finally the signs of his own death came, so he ran to Geshe Potowa and asked him, “Why didn’t you send me a message?” Geshe Potowa replied, “I did, but you didn’t understand it.” Geshe Potowa himself used to meditate on impermanence by keeping a count of all the deaths in Penpo, the valley in which he lived.

An understanding of impermanence does not have to be based on scriptural references; you can see it through bare perception from the death that afflicts all living beings. People who see the obviousness of death, but don’t apply this realization to themselves are like blind people with their eyes open, or someone with glass eyes. In the future our friends, relatives, servants and retinue will all pass away. While you are together with them, it is like a collection of leaves brought together by the wind, only to be scattered later. Although we are together now, when we meet again in future lives we will be in different forms and will not even recognize each other. It is very rare for someone to think about impermanence, but we should at least have a balance of worldly and spiritual life, as this creates stability.

The changing of the seasons, the falling of the leaves and other natural phenomena give lessons on impermanence. As Milarepa said, “I see everything around me as a teaching.”

Another metaphor for impermanence is a fair. People from different villages come together for these events and then they all disperse. We don’t know where they go and they will never be brought together like that again. These collections of friends and relatives that we are surrounded by are like people at a fair or flies in autumn. They will disperse.

Things like spring and summer may be alluringly beautiful, but are all teachings of impermanence and constant change, as are the elements themselves. Plants are first green, then orange and then barren. The temperature of the water in streams, its color and the sounds it makes all change with the seasons. Streams that were strikingly green-blue with beautiful dance-like ripples making pretty bubble sounds eventually freeze on their surfaces and the white ice and waters emit a noise like the sound of someone muttering. The same happens to people. When people are young they go to many parties and enjoy dancing, singing and drinking. But when they get older their habits change. Just as in the previous example, they also make muttering sounds!

In the summertime, singing bees extract the essence of flowers in beautiful gardens. This is like when we are young. We indulge in the pleasures and comforts of the world. But in autumn the flower garden becomes like a desert and by winter, when the wind blows through the garden, it makes a sad sound. People don’t want to go there and see everything as bare. Sometimes an entire hill is covered with flowers, then in winter it is completely barren. It is the same with houses: they weather and get old. Thus all of these are examples of impermanence. The most immediate teacher of impermanence, however, is one’s own physical form. As we get older we can no longer do what we did in our youth: we get slower and our appearance changes.

Impermanence applies not only to animate beings, but also to inanimate things such as buildings, nature, gardening and time. Places like the great monasteries at Nalanda, where Nagarjuna and Asanga studied, and Bodh Gaya, have long since disappeared. The same has happened with Ganden, Sera and the other great monastic universities in Tibet. Even the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives where we are now will eventually disintegrate and become ruins. Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend (Skt. Suhṛllekha), “If the whole universe will be destroyed by the burning of seven suns, there is no doubt that our bodies will likewise be destroyed,” as the destruction will destroy everything through the first-level constancy Brahma realm of the plane of ethereal forms.

A black and a white mouse take turns eating a rope that binds a bundle of hay. In this example the black and white mice represent night and day, the bundle of hay is our lifespan and the rope around the hay is its duration. Before this rope is completely destroyed, and the bundle of hay, which represents our lifespan, collapses, we should take the opportunity to do as many constructive actions as possible.

Every moment of time is chasing us into the presence of Lord of Death. Just like an animal being taken to a slaughterhouse, each step brings us closer to death. Every breath we take brings us closer to death. How much closer have we come since waking up this morning? Feeling that we won’t die because we are young is silly. Age makes no difference to the Lord of Death. If very old parents with white hair and shaking bodies bent like bows can take the bodies of their children to the cemetery, how can we say that the Lord of Death discriminates with regard to age? Thus we need to practice Dharma regardless of age, not just when we are old. The only thing that is beneficial is Dharma.

The only reliable friend is your own practice. People are not reliable. When one’s crop of wealth is destroyed by the hail of bad circumstances, it will be difficult to get any response even from the circle of dependents whom you took care of before. When we become poor, everyone will let us down and abandon us. This is basic human nature. When we are old and poor, people won’t even pay attention to us. When we are wealthy and famous, people will always seek our attention. When someone is wealthy, people come and pretend they contributed to his fame. People try to share your happiness, but not your sorrows. When they can’t get anything from you, they ignore you. Buddha acted the opposite way and paid more attention to the poor and needy.

If someone influential tells your most trusted friend that you are no good, they will change their minds and be fickle. Just a few words can cause him to dislike you the next day. This proves the saying: “Something may not be reachable by one yard that could previously be reached by a few inches.” This means that a few words can cause people who used to be close to become distant. We need to find a stable friend in the Dharma. Friends are careful with one another and are hesitant to point out your mistakes and weaknesses. One’s enemy, however, is more helpful as he points out one’s faults.

Some people spend a lifetime collecting wealth and, as a result, they change a lot and have much suffering. Because it is a cause of so much suffering, we should not be attached to riches. Wealth has the appearance of happiness, but is not. Our attraction to wealth is similar to the attraction of a moth or a butterfly to a flame: if it goes too close, it will be destroyed. Wealthy people seem happy, look good, have a nice house, and appear to have no worries about money. This looks attractive, but when we get fully immersed in this situation, we see its troubles and disadvantages. For example, some people are religious, but once they become rich they lose interest in religion and their minds become focused on accumulating more wealth. We always tire of accumulating virtue, but never tire of accumulating more wealth.

In short, life is impermanent and death is bound to come, therefore we must be prepared for it. There is no certainty when death will come, but once it has come, it is impossible to turn it away. Rich people can’t bribe it, the beautiful can’t allure it, and the muscular can’t wrestle it. It seems that in some places money can buy an extension to a visa or a residence permit, but it cannot buy an extension to our life span.

When we are caught by the Lord of Death, we have to leave behind the body which has been with us since birth. Although we die in a warm bed, when our consciousness goes, there isn’t even a moment’s chance to look back at our relatives, friends and wealth. This is the reality of life and we must make preparations for it. We have to leave behind everything we’ve accumulated, enduring every hardship tirelessly. We have to go beyond this life by taking on our backs the baggage, burden and responsibility of our constructive and destructive acts. Some old parents build houses for their children and grandchildren, but when they die they take the burden of the destructive behaviour on their backs for having built it, killed worms and so forth, while the children simply enjoy living in the house. Thus by such acts, we just accumulate the weight of negative karma.

When we travel on the dangerous paths of the bardo and encounter or are stopped by the military forces of the Lord of Death, we realize the uselessness of the efforts we have made to accumulate wealth. Even if we have much regret at that time, this will not be of much benefit. One proverb says: “If one can think in advance, one is wise; if one regrets afterwards, one is stupid.” The true guide for a stranger in an unknown place is Dharma; the provisions for a long journey are Dharma; the oarsman who brings us safe to other shore of ocean is Dharma. From today on, apply your body, speech and mind to the Dharma.

While it is within our own power to secure our own happiness, we must do so. If we don’t, there will be a time when we will be confused and won’t know what to do. There is a lot of difference between a religious person and a non-virtuous person who dies. The latter dies with no awareness and in pain. The former dies in peace and has prepared for the moment in advance, has divided his wealth amongst the poor, his relatives, the objects of refuge and so forth. In order to be like the religious person we should try to learn from these teachings as much as we can. We shouldn’t have wrong renunciation and give up all food, sleep and wealth, but instead have a balance of spirituality and material concerns, and try to practice as best as we can.

The practice of Dharma isn’t about wearing costumes and following customs, but is to have a warm, compassionate heart. There is a story about a Tibetan lady who dies, goes to hell and meets the Lord of Death. She tells him that although physically she had caused harm, mentally she had done so with a good motivation. Because of this, she was sent back to her life in the same old form. This shows the need of having a kind heart, regardless of how our actions may appear outwardly.

A proverb says: “People who talk much about Dharma, do little practice.” Atisha always emphasized this and whenever he met a person he always asked, “Have you a good heart?” When Dromtonpa heard of Atisha’s death, he was very sad that he hadn’t been at with Atisha when he died. Atisha, however, left a message telling his disciples that if he himself was no longer there, if they have a good heart, it was the same as seeing him. It is also good to remember the Kadampa teaching that although now we complain about not being able to benefit others, if we can restrain ourselves from simply harming others, it is of great benefit at our level. Try not to make anyone unhappy.

While one’s stream of breath is not broken one still has the opportunity and power to accumulate positive potential and to secure one’s future. You are simultaneously your own best friend and your own worst enemy. Whatever happiness comes to you in the future depends on you. Someone who dies with no practice of Dharma is the same as a dying dog, especially in the bardo. It will have made no difference that you were born a human. There is no difference between a Chakravartin emperor who does not practice Dharma and a dog who dies on the street. In fact, when they are dead, it may well turn out that the dog created less negative karma. Therefore thinking about impermanence is important in the beginning, middle and end of practice. Even the most realized and experienced masters meditate on impermanence.

Out of all footprints, the largest is that of elephant. Out of all thoughts, that which leaves the best impression is that of impermanence.

Milarepa entered the Dharma when he saw the death that he caused of his black magic guru’s teacher. Gampopa entered the Dharma when his wife died. Similarly, when the Buddha saw death for the first time, he was inspired to enter the Dharma and to find a solution to this suffering. Impermanence is referred to as the central path (not to be confused with Madhyamaka, or Middle Way). It is the central path that has the function of obstructing attachment to this life and establishing positive thoughts to the whole of one’s practice. This line on impermanence as the “central path” has a more profound interpretation as well. It can be explained in terms of Madhyamaka as well. Impermanence is the foundation for developing insight into Madhyamaka philosophy, which eliminates concepts of false self and helps to establish us in the reality of the conventional self.

After we have been able to take the mind away from distractions and focus it on the Dharma, we must do the following. Although in this world there are many traditions of practice famed for being profound, after we are completely receptive to the practice of Dharma, it would be best to try to follow the complete essence of the teachings of the Buddhas of three times through the well-established tradition of Tsongkhapa. For this, we need to follow the combined, unified methods of sutra and tantra, which include both explanation and practice. In order to follow this, we must know the nature, stages and divisions of the path and follow them properly. For example, we should not practice tantra before sutra, or study bodhichitta without knowing about the precious human rebirth, safe direction (refuge), dependent arising, and so forth.

We should try to plant the instincts for the complete unmistaken path and its essential teachings in our minds day by day. Just like merchants who try to sell as much as they can each day, we should try to plant as many white seeds as we can each day in order to build up as much positive potential as possible. In actual practice we can engage in a glance meditation on a short text of the paths common to sutra and tantra, such as The Foundation for Good Qualities (Yon-tan gzhi-gyur-ma), which is usually memorized, recited slowly and meditated upon and can also be found in the Jorcho (sByor-mchod) preliminary practice. Another such text is The Abbreviated Points of the Graded Path (Lam-rim bsdus-don), which mentions the six far-reaching attitudes. This text is not as explicit as The Foundation for Good Qualities, but includes the three types of ethical self-discipline, which in turn include the six far-reaching attitudes. Another text we can use for this type of glance meditation is the lam-rim graded stages portion of The Guru Puja – Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa). Glance meditation is an efficient method to review what we have learned and helps to organize it collectively in our minds. It is similar to reviewing a map in order to see where everything is or having an aerial view from a mountain of the whole plain.

It may be difficult to gain an experience of the lam-rim now, but doing glance meditation each day plants the instructions for the whole collection of teachings in our minds. When we meditate on the lam-rim, we need to follow the correct procedure given in the instructions. First, we should set the motivation of bodhichitta and at the end, make a dedication. When we set our motivation at the beginning of the session, we should think that we are engaging in meditation for the sake of all others. If this is not possible, then at least we should have renunciation. At the end of our meditation, we should dedicate the positive potential we created for the happiness of all limited beings and their attainment of Buddhahood. I urge you to take the essence of your precious human life by engaging in this type of practice. “Taking the essence” has three levels of interpretation: great, intermediate and small. The great is to become a Buddha in this life, the intermediate is to attain liberation from all gross forms of disturbing emotions, and the small is to attain freedom from lower rebirths.


By the force and power of the mass of positive force built up by this, may we be able to destroy the sources of suffering: grasping at permanence, attachment and aversion. May we especially be able to destroy the forces of grasping at true existence, which is the root of suffering samsara. May everyone attain the state of great auspicious immortality that is Buddhahood.

The practice of the Dharma for one day now when the Dharma is degenerated is better than hundreds of ethical acts done when the Dharma is flourishing. The practice of the Dharma means having a good heart, being kind, considerate, compassionate and restraining from harming others. This is the way to pay back the kindness of the gurus. Instead of pretending to be compassionate while harboring hate in one’s heart, practicing the Dharma unpretentiously is best. Milarepa said, “Do not only work for your own happiness, but for that of others. This is the way to repay the father-guru.”

The best way for beginners to get into the Dharma is first to learn about the ten destructive actions and restrain oneself from them. Then one can slowly build up one’s practice and get into meditation. Doing meditation instantly from the beginning may just lead to frustration, “lung” and confusion and thus one can easily develop aversion to meditation. This is the most harmless, the most firmly established, and not phony foundation for Dharma practice. In practicing the ethics of the ten constructive actions, we need to develop moral self-dignity, care for how our actions reflect on others, mindfulness and alertness. We shouldn’t just do anything that pleases us, but think of the effects of what we wear, do, think and say has on others. Most importantly, we should not harm anyone.