Buddhism has much to offer concerning impermanence and how understanding it helps in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. In order to approach this topic, we need to examine how Buddhism analyzes phenomena. Let's present this analysis in terms of examples that are relevant to our lives: to problems we might have and how the analysis might apply to them.
Buddhist Analysis of Phenomena: What Exists?
What exists? Buddhism defines existent phenomena as everything that can be validly known. This is actually a very important point, because it means that if something exists, it can be known correctly – we can experience it, either directly or indirectly, or we can infer it by correct logic. The corollary of this definition is anything that can’t be validly known doesn’t exist. How does that apply to anything for us?
Let’s take the example of close personal relationships, such as partnerships, since for most of us these are often problematic. An example of something nonexistent is “Prince or Princess Charming on a white horse.” Now, we can put those words together to form this phrase; we can have a cartoon that represents Prince or Princess Charming on a white horse; and we can have fairy tales about them. But there is no actual Prince or Princess Charming because we can never meet one; we can never validly know one. Conversely, no one has ever met such a Prince or Princess, and nobody will ever be able to meet one, because there is no such thing.
Why is that? It’s because Prince and Princess Charming comprise a set of impossible projections and expectations that we place on another person. When we project onto a partner that they are a Prince or Princess Charming, it’s hopeless. We project that we would like them to be a Prince or Princess Charming, but we get frustrated when they don’t measure up to our expectations. Then we go looking for another person who will be this Prince or Princess.
Certain things just don’t exist. They can never be validly known, and this is one of them. If nobody has ever met a Prince or Princess Charming, and it is illogical that one could ever exist, then we can conclude that we will never meet one. This is a sobering point, but one that we need to accept.
Affirmations and Negations
What exists can be validly known. It can be validly known as an affirmation or as a negation. For instance, we can know that there is a recorder on the table. There is something there. That is an affirmation. We can also know that there is no dog in this room. We are seeing an absence of something and know that that something is not here. That is a negation. The absence of a dog in the room is validly knowable negation phenomenon. The absence exists.
Similarly, we can know we have a relationship with a person, a partner. That is an affirmation phenomenon. We can also know that they are not a Prince or Princess Charming. The absence of their being a Prince or Princess Charming exists. That is a negation phenomenon. This gives us something to work with in relating to them. We know what they are and what they are not – and both are true. Both exist. Both can be validly known.
In order for a relationship to be healthy, we need to know both what it is and what it isn’t. A dog could be here, because dogs exist. But our partner as a Prince or Princess Charming could never be here, because there is no such thing. If we know that they could never be the perfect Prince or Princess who will fulfill all our dreams and bring ultimate eternal happiness into our life – if we know that this is a human being who snores or has other faults – then we have the basis for a healthy, realistic relationship.
The Distinction between Static and Nonstatic Phenomena
Within the realm of things that exist, we can divide them into things that are static and things that are nonstatic. These terms are usually translated as “permanent” and “impermanent,” but those words, in our usual usage of them, generally refer to how long something exists. The distinction here is not how long something exists; but, rather, whether or not something changes while it exists, however long that may be. In this sense, static phenomena are “permanent;” nonstatic phenomena are “impermanent.”
Static things – static phenomena – include facts about something. A fact never changes. A fact is always a fact; it will never change. It will always remain true. The most widely discussed one in Buddhism and the most profound example is called “voidness” (emptiness).
“Voidness” is a very confusing term. There is a lot of misunderstanding about it. Basically, it means an absence of an impossible way of existing. In our example, it would be the absence of somebody existing as a Prince or Princess Charming.
We need to make a distinction here so as to avoid confusion. The fact that a dog is not in this room today at 9 P.M. is a static fact that will never change. Even if a dog were to walk into the room tomorrow, it would not change the fact that there was no dog in this room today at 9 P.M. So a dog being present in the room is something that could possibly be true; but it is a static fact that it is not true now. That fact can never change.
When we talk about the absence of something impossible, then not only is the fact of its absence true now, its presence was never true and could never be true. So both the absence of a dog in the room now and the absence of a Prince or Princess Charming in the room now are static facts that can never change, but they are quite different types of static facts. One is an absence of something possible and the other is the absence of something impossible.
Also, we need to make another distinction. The fact that this dog is not a cat is something that is not only true now; it never was and could never be true. It is also impossible that this dog could be a cat when it is with someone else, even though it is not a cat with us. This is absurd. Now, some other animal could be a cat, because cats exist. But it is not the same with respect to Prince or Princess Charming. Because such a Prince or Princess does not exist, no one could ever be one – neither now, in the past, or the future, nor with us or with anyone else.
So, it is not that someone was a Prince or Princess Charming with their previous partner, but that they are not so with us. Or that there could be someone else who will be a Prince or Princess Charming. It is not that there is something wrong with us, and if we change it, they or someone else will become the Prince or Princess for us. That will never happen; but we think like that, don’t we? There is no way in the past, present, or future that anybody can exist as a Prince or Princess Charming. This is a static fact regarding something impossible that does not exist at all.
When we understand these points, then we can avoid what I call “living in the subjunctive world,” if we can borrow an idea from grammar: “What if they had done this or that? What if they had lived longer? What if they hadn’t gotten sick? What if we had gotten married?” These “what ifs” constitute the “subjunctive world.”
One common fantasy, then, is that, if our partner had lived with us longer, it could have worked out. If we had gotten married, if things had been just a little bit different, maybe it would have worked out. Maybe then they would have been our Prince or Princess. But since someone being a Prince or Princess Charming is totally impossible and cannot be affected by anything, there is nothing we or the other person could do or could have done that would make them different. The whole fairy tale story is impossible; that’s reality.
Facts are also neutral, neither good nor bad. That someone does not exist as Prince or Princess Charming is just a neutral fact. Because it is neutral, there is nothing to get upset about. Whether we like it or not is another thing. But it is something that we have to accept. It is just the way that it is. It’s like accepting one plus one equals two. It is just what is so. There is nothing good or bad about it.
Also, facts themselves cannot do anything, they cannot produce any effect. But knowing and accepting a fact can do something. It can help us avoid frustration and problems in a relationship, for example. Confusion and denial of facts, on the other hand, can also produce the effect of causing us to create problems. Whether we accept or deny facts, it will have an effect on us. Facts are just facts. There is no reason to complain about them.
These metaphysical, philosophical categories and their descriptions may seem forbidding when we study them abstractly. But if we can actually apply them to our own lives, it becomes easy to see what they are talking about. Then they are very helpful in terms of understanding what is going on in life and how to deal with it. This subject matter does not have to be dull theory that has no relevance to anything in our lives – in fact just the opposite.
Nonstatic phenomena are things that arise from or are supported by causes and conditions. They change from moment to moment and produce effects. There are four different types of nonstatic phenomenon. Recognizing and understanding them can be very helpful:
- Those that have a beginning and an end
- Those that have no beginning and no end
- Those that have no beginning, but have an end
- Those that have a beginning, but no end.
What can this be talking about? Let’s look at examples of each. These distinctions are very helpful in dealing with relationships, so let’s look at them in terms of relationships.
An example of something that has a beginning and an end is a relationship with somebody. The youthful beauty of someone or an episode of anger also has a beginning and an end.
An example of something that has no beginning and no end and changes from moment to moment is the mental continuum of an individual. From a gross point of view, we talk about rebirth having no beginning and no end when it is based on confusion.
An example of something that has no beginning, but has an end is the unawareness or confusion that accompanies our mental continuum. Our beginningless mental continuum has always been accompanied by unawareness and confusion. But that confusion will end when we become liberated and enlightened.
An example of something that has a beginning, but no end is the functioning of our mental continuum as the omniscient mind of a Buddha. An easier example is someone's death. It has a beginning; will go on forever, and it has effects.
Let us first look at things that have a beginning and an end, such as relationships. And here, let’s not just look at lover or marriage or family relationships, but at a broader range of relationships, such as those with friends, schoolmates, and co-workers. All of these types of relationships are subject to gross and subtle impermanence, which are two different things. In Buddhism, when we work with impermanence, we are normally working with these two aspects, but they are just a small part of the discussion of impermanence. I want to give a much larger picture.
Gross impermanence is the final destruction of something. For example, a relationship with somebody will certainly have an end. One of us may move or lose our job; we might graduate from school; our interests might change. Ultimately, either they will die, or we will die, or some circumstance in life will cause us to part. That’s a fact.
To go back to the definition of an impermanent phenomenon, a relationship is something that arises from and is supported by causes and conditions. That means that it is only going to last as long as the causes and conditions that support it are gathered together and continue. The causes and conditions come together, but they were not always together, so they will not always stay together.
There are so many causes and conditions that support a relationship – two people having similar type of interests, being in the same city, working in the same office, and so on. If there are sufficient continuing causes and conditions, the relationship will last.
Because these conditions and circumstances are changing all the time and are very fragile, eventually there will not be anything supporting the relationship and it will end. That is quite profound, if we think about it. For example, if a relationship between two people is based solely on a physical or sexual attraction, then if this circumstance changes as the two become older, the relationship might end, right?
What does this imply? It implies that because the supporting conditions for a relationship are going to change over time, if we want a relationship to continue, we cannot just rely on the conditions that started it, such as when we were more attractive, youthful, and vigorous, or when we were at the same school or worked together. This gives us a clue as to how to make a relationship grow. We have to continue to find more and more conditions to keep us together and support the relationship, because inevitably our interests and our paths will diverge.
We come from different pasts, different upbringings, different cultures, etc., and so it is natural that conditions come together just briefly, allowing us to share things in common. But because there is so much diversity to each of us, we will eventually go in different directions. We cannot sustain a relationship for long, based just on shared memories. If we cling to a relationship as though it will last forever, our attachment and confusion will cause us enormous pain when it inevitably ends. If we accept the fact of gross impermanence – that the relationship came together when certain conditions came together and will inevitably end when those conditions end – then we can enjoy the relationship as long as it lasts without deluding ourselves that it will last forever.
This is not only relevant to relationships with business associates, friends, and lovers, but with marriage partners and even with our children as well. It’s helpful to realize that someday our children will leave the nest. They are just with us for a short time. We can enjoy the beauty of that time, but it’s important not be attached to it, because it cannot last forever.
The Problem of Change
This takes us to another topic, the problem of change, usually called “the suffering of change.” Our usual, common sense experience of happiness is problematic. What’s the problem? The problem is that happiness never lasts. It makes us feel better for a little while, but it doesn’t cure everything. Most insidiously, there is no certainty or reliability to it. We can feel very happy now, but there is no guarantee that five minutes from now we will not feel terrible. We never know what’s coming next. This is relevant to the moment-to-moment changes in relationships.
When we begin a relationship, not only do we need to accept that it will eventually end; we also need to have a realistic attitude about the happiness that we experience while the relationship lasts. It too will end and we will undoubtedly feel sad when we part. Of course when we start a relationship, we want all the happiness that will come from being together. But we will also have to experience sadness when it ends. Are we willing to be brave enough to accept and experience that? Is it worth it? This is not a paranoid projection, but a reality that, when the relationship ends – for whatever reason – it will be sad. We need to be brave enough, without being naive, to accept that fact.
In addition, the happiness that we experience in a relationship will not persist throughout the time that the relationship lasts. It will fluctuate. We will have nice times together, but we’ll also have difficult times together. It will change from moment to moment. That’s the nature of life. In Buddhism, we say that’s the nature of samsara: it goes up and down. Are we willing to accept that?
In addition, finding the “right partner” can never be the key to happiness that is going to solve all our problems. Having the “right partner” is not going to make our difficulties at work disappear, for example, although we might temporarily feel a little better when we come home. But that won’t happen every day, will it? Often we have the romantic view that if only we could find the “right partner,” everything would work out. This is going in the direction of Prince or Princess Charming.
Do we have the courage to accept the fact that even if we’re happy now, we have no idea how we or our partner will feel five minutes from now? Everything is going all right and suddenly someone’s mood changes and they get upset. No one is the Prince or Princess who is always in a wonderful mood. We ourselves can be perfectly happy in the presence of someone we love and then in the next moment get depressed. It’s important to realize that this is not the fault of the other person, but just the nature of what we call “worldly feelings.” They go up and down for countless complex reasons. We, of course, choose our partners and some will be more pleasant than others. The point is that it will never be perfect.
These are factors which, if we’re aware and prepared to accept them, can become rich resources. So remember gross impermanence: a relationship is going to end at some point.
Subtle impermanence is more than merely the fact that something nonstatic changes from moment to moment. It’s more than merely the fact that at every moment something nonstatic is drawing closer to its ultimate end, like a time bomb. Although these are two aspects of subtle impermanence, subtle impermanence also has a third aspect, namely that the cause for a relationship's final disintegration is its coming into being, its arising. The cause for its ending is its beginning.
Let’s look at these three aspects. First, a relationship is changing every moment. That’s important to realize. It is like a movie. Yesterday's scene is finished. Give the person a chance to be in today’s scene. Today’s scene is a continuity of the past. We’re not saying that past scenes have no effect on today’s scene; but it’s important to adapt, to flow with the ever-changing circumstances and situations of a relationship. For example, many people need to have their own space from time to time; they need to have some room for themselves. We won’t always want to be together, 24 hours 7 days a week. There are times when we will want to be apart, when each of us wants to be with our own friends, and so on. We need to flow with that or it will be a disaster.
Secondly, in every moment, the relationship is getting closer to its end. That means we don’t take the relationship for granted. We need to make the most of the time we’re together, because that time is very precious and limited. The time bomb is ticking. It doesn’t mean we need to feel doomed and depressed; but, realistically speaking, the time we have together is short. It is going to come to end at some point. Let’s really try to make the most of it – but without being overly intense. If we feel we have to make every single moment deep and meaningful, it will ruin the relationship. There’s a lovely Zen koan: “Death can come at any time – relax.”
The third and last aspect of subtle impermanence is one of its most profound points: the cause for something’s ending is its beginning. The cause for us to stop living with somebody is that we started living with them. If we didn’t start living with them, we couldn’t stop living with them.
What does this imply? An argument with someone, or even the death of the person, is only the circumstance for the relationship with that person to end; it is not the deepest cause. The actual cause for the end of the relationship is that we entered into the relationship. Something will act as the catalyst for it to end, but that’s just the circumstance.
When we realize and accept this fact, we can enjoy the growth of a relationship and not place the blame for its ending on a mere circumstance. If it had not been this circumstance, it would have been another one. Nor do we need to question what will happen when we get into the relationship. If we get into a relationship, it will go up and down while it draws ever closer to it its end, and then it will finally end. If we have a realistic understanding of these facts, we can experience the relationship fully without expecting something that can never be.
Approaching the Unknown in a Relationship
How do we approach the unknown? Here’s a person. Do we enter into a relationship with them or not? This is a big unknown.
In general, we’re uncomfortable with the unknown. We want to have everything under control, everything in order. But it’s impossible to have everything under our control in a relationship. We might consult astrology charts to know what’s going to happen. That’s one extreme: trying to be in control by hoping to find out beforehand what will happen, so that we’ll be prepared. Another extreme is to be spontaneous, just jump in the deep end. A middle path would be to get a little information and then jump in. A relationship will be an adventure. It’s something we need to explore.
The specific details of what will happen in a relationship will certainly remain an unknown beforehand, although information about the other person and ourselves is helpful – whether from astrology charts, direct observation, introspection, or whatever. But information about the basic facts of life – what is real, what is totally nonexistent, and so on – allows us to approach the unknown, the adventure, realistically. It allows us to deal with whatever unfolds much more appropriately. Let’s look at some specific points that will help.
Remember I mentioned that an example of nonstatic phenomena with no beginning and no end is the mental continuum, the continuity of our experience from moment to moment. From a Buddhist point of view, we speak of past and future lives, but let’s limit our discussion here to the present life. A relationship will have a beginning some time in our life and an ending some time in our life, but the general continuity of our mental continuum – in other words, the general continuity of our experience of life – will continue without a break, from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. Life goes on. It’s not the end of the world when a relationship ends and it’s not that we didn’t exist before we met the other person.
Why is this so? What's the difference between a relationship and our continuity through life? Both change from moment to moment and both are affected by many things. But there’s a big difference. Let’s analyze this.
Living together with somebody has a beginning. Why? Because the causes and conditions for its arising are not naturally together. They come together at a specific moment. When they are all together, that’s the start of our living together. Because the conditions supporting the relationship were not naturally together, inevitably they will come apart, like leaves blowing in the wind. These are very profound points to think about in terms of our relationships.
It’s quite different with the continuity of our individual, subjective experiencing of things. Of course, our experiencing of something specific, like a specific event in a relationship, arises anew when the event occurs. But our experiencing of things in general is not created newly at any specific moment. A natural feature of being alive is that we’re experiencing something all the time. It’s not that some new circumstances have to come together in order to cause our ability to experience things. Moreover, our experiencing things is not gradually wearing out, falling apart, and coming closer to its end every moment. Our experiencing things just continues. The content of what we experience changes, of course, but experiencing just goes on and on and on.
If we know that we have this fundamental basis of always experiencing things, we don’t overestimate the importance of a relationship and we’re not afraid of the unknown. This is because we know that life will go on when the relationship ends and we will continue experiencing more things.
In addition, this relationship is not the only thing that is happening in our lives during the time when the relationship is lasting. We have many other relationships too, and that will be the case even after this relationship ends. We must not lose sight of that fact and fixate on the importance of some specific relationship and feel that when it ends, we have nothing left. We already have other relationships. They may be different types of relationships and they may play different roles in our lives, but still it’s not that we have nothing. Because of that, we don’t need to feel that after a relationship ends we have to replace it with another relationship, because without this relationship we have nothing.
Also, it’s important to realize that even if we get into another relationship with someone else, it will be different from the one that just ended. If a relationship with one person changes and is different from one moment to the next, there will be an even greater difference between a relationship with one person and another. We need extreme care not to project expectations that the new friend or partner will behave and react in the same ways as the previous one did.
By way of contrast to our experiencing things in general, an example of a nonstatic phenomenon with no beginning, but an end is our confusion – for example, confusion about relationships. Confusion goes on and on, but it is something that is subject to gross impermanence. It can end when we replace it with correct understanding of reality. But it will not naturally end by itself, like a relationship will. If we do not replace confusion with correct understanding, the confusion will persist.
Correct understanding, on the other hand, is an example of a nonstatic phenomenon with a beginning, but no end. Basically, the mind is like a mirror that can reflect and understand everything. If the mirror is covered with dirt, it doesn’t reflect. The mirror begins to function when the dirt is removed, but the removal of the dirt doesn’t create the mirror's ability to reflect. The mirror was able to reflect all along. It was just covered, obscured.
Similarly, removing the confusion doesn’t create the ability of the mind to understand correctly. Our mind is able to understand the reality of relationships perfectly well. Once our confusion is removed, naturally we will be able to see reality. Although this removal of confusion has a beginning, it will go on forever. Moreover, since correct understanding is supported by reality, it too can go on forever, unlike confusion, which is based on unreality. Correct understanding is not like a relationship that is created newly and has to fall apart.
If we know all these facts and all these possibilities, then, we have nothing fear about the so-called “unknown” when getting into a relationship with someone.
Why does every relationship necessarily have to end? Aren’t there relationships that go on forever? We meet somebody and have a feeling that we’ve known them from a previous life. As we grow together, age together, and so on, we have a feeling that even if one of us should die before the other, the relationship will continue on into future lives with all the changes.
What you say has a certain truth to it. I was limiting our discussion to just this lifetime. Once we open up the door to past and future lives, it’s a little bit different. There are certainly relationships that continue from one lifetime to another, although in slightly different forms in each lifetime. From a Buddhist point of view, as well as my own experience, that is certain. But that does not mean a relationship with someone will be eternal.
If there is beginningless life and a finite number of beings, it does follow that we have interacted with everyone. It’s highly unlikely, however, that we have been in a special relationship with any one specific person eternally and not with everybody else. There must have been some time when we first met and formed a special relationship.
Regardless, this brings us back to the point that the relationship with someone will last only as long as the supportive circumstances and conditions are there. Therefore, just as in this life we cannot rely on the conditions that brought us together to last for the rest of our lives, and just as we need to create more conditions and grow with the relationship in order to make it continue – so it is with relationships that span several lives.
My teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He died in 1983 and was reborn in 1984. I had a very close relationship with him in his last life, and I have a very close relationship with him in this lifetime too. But they are different relationships, and they are built on different circumstances and conditions. If I just relied on, “Well, in your last life you did this, in your last life you did that,” he would not at all be interested in continuing the relationship.
That is a terrible thing to do to a tulku, to an incarnate lama, to relate to them as if they were the exact same person as their predecessor. Only if we relate to them as they are in this lifetime can the relationship continue. The point is we have to work on a relationship. We cannot just assume that a relationship with someone will always be the same in each lifetime. If we do, the circumstances that brought us together will naturally fall apart and there will be no new circumstances to sustain it.
This is a very profound point. For example, we might have a déjà vu experience when we meet somebody: it clicks and we feel we have a deep relationship with the person. In a past life, the relationship might have taken the form of being married to the person or that we were lovers. In this lifetime, the circumstances that we find ourselves in are not conducive for that, for whatever reason – gender differences, significant age differences, etc. We could feel a leftover from a sexual partnership with this person in a previous lifetime that is not appropriate in this lifetime. If we continue to want to base our relationship on those previous parameters, it will not work. We have to change the circumstances of the relationship in this lifetime.
What about commitment and responsibility to other people?
Commitment and responsibility in a relationship is basically a very strong intention: “I intend to stay with you for the rest of my life.” There is a statement in Buddhism – a very harsh statement, but I think it has a lot of truth to it: “You cannot rely on samsaric beings, those who are filled with confusion. Inevitably, they will let you down.” Others inevitably let us down not because they are stupid, but because everyone, including ourselves, has beginningless confusion.
If we are very sincere in a relationship, we will want to bond with the other person. It is a very nice intention. The reality is that we have a lot of confusion and problems, and so do they. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are both going to be perfect, because we aren’t. We will inevitably let each other down, though we will try not to. We agree that we are going to work on it and try to be forgiving when the other person acts crudely out of confusion, since that will inevitably happen. But we cannot guarantee that it will always work and that our patience with each other and our commitment will last. Neither of us is a Prince or Princess Charming.
How much sense does it make, from a Buddhist point of view, to work on a relationship, to try to make it stable, lasting, and so on?
It makes a lot of sense, because relationships are the ground not only for working on developing various positive qualities, but they are the testing ground on which we see how far we’re developing. We can also try to benefit the other person and provide that ground for them as well. So, it’s very worthwhile.
The point is not to over-inflate our relationship, or think it’s the answer to everything and give up on our responsibility to deal with our own problems. We have to work on ourselves. But the relationship can be the supporting emotional ground from which to work on ourselves, and this can be very beneficial. However, a relationship might also be a hindrance if it’s one of confrontation or strong attachment. We sometimes need to be on our own in order to be able to work on ourselves.
One point about this I need to clarify. I’m always suspicious and don’t think it’s so helpful when we get into a relationship and say, “I’m very messed up and have a lot of emotional problems, and you’re really messed up and you have a lot of emotional problems. But we’ll work it out together.” That inevitably fails. If we really have problems, we need to work on them ourselves with professional help, even when we have the emotional support of being in a relationship with someone. We have to avoid thinking naively that the two of us can work it out together in our relationship. Mostly the neurotic patterns just take over.
In short, it’s important to know what a relationship is, what it is not, and what it can never be. It’s important to know the static facts involved, such as this person is never going to be Prince or Princess Charming. It’s also important to know all the facts about its impermanence:
- Because the relationship has a beginning; it has to have an end.
- It is going to change from moment to moment.
- It’s going to go up and down.
- It’s not going to bring ultimate happiness.
- We can never know what will happen next.
- It’s growing closer to its end all the time.
- The circumstance for it ending is just a circumstance; the real reason for it ending is that it began.
- This relationship is not the only relationship that we have in our lives.
- Our experiencing of life will go on regardless of this relationship ending.
- Our confusion about relationships has no beginning, but it can come to an end. This will not occur naturally, however, we have to make it happen.
- The ability to have correct understanding is basically there; so if we remove the confusion, correct understanding based on reality will go on for the rest of our life.
These are some practical pointers that can be derived from the rather sophisticated Buddhist analysis of phenomena – existent, nonexistent, static and nonstatic.