In 1974 Cat Stevens released an album titled “The Buddha and the Chocolate Box”. The story behind the title was that as he was getting on a plane some fans gave him a couple of presents. One of the presents was a Buddha statue and the other was a box of chocolate. While sitting on the plane he pondered that if he were to die that these two items would be his last possessions, one spiritual and one material. Looking at the two in front of him in his hands the contrast was striking.
When I first heard this story I could help but think of that day in Korea when I discovered the Swastika’s on the bottom of the Buddha statue. The contrast of what I had only known as a symbol of power and hate engraved into a statue of something that represented understanding and compassion was very confusing. This started me off on a quest for an answer….
The Swastika (called svastika in Sanskrit) is a symbol that is thousands of years old. It is an ancient auspicious symbol that was often used as a talisman. It was adopted by Hinduism at some point in the very distant past. Although for our discussion we are interested in its use in Buddhism it has been used in many cultures all over the world including the Native Americans. In Japanese this symbol is referred to as a Manji. The Manji appears all over Asia at Buddhist temples and sites. It is still used today on Japanese maps to denote the location of Buddhist Temples. It is even seen on the chest of some Buddha images. Unfortunately most of the people in the west had never heard of this symbol prior to the 1930’s. This is when the Nazi party decided to use the Swastika as their symbol and in doing so tarnished the thousands of years of positive meaning that this symbol represented. Due to this in the west this symbol is almost entirely associated with the German Nazi Party of WWII. So just to avoid this confusion (which I had myself when I saw them on the Buddha statue) I will refer to it by its Japanese name Manji from this point on.
Anicca (in Pali, the language that the Buddha spoke) is the doctrine of impermanence, Anatta is the absence of an abiding or permanent self , and Dukkha is suffering (or as I believe “un-satisfactoriness” is much closer to the original meaning). These are collectively called the Ti-lakkhana or the “Three marks of existence”. The Three Marks of existence is one of the concepts that is common to all forms of Buddhism. So when wading through all of the Cultural trappings and intermingling of local traditions or religious beliefs that are found in all the various forms of Buddhism, you should concentrate on the commonalities first. This is the fastest way to make sense of a philosophy so foreign to our western minds.
The Manji was adopted in Buddhism to represent “Impermanence”. If you remove the lines at a 90 degree angle you are left with a plus symbol. You can put any two opposites on each end of the horizontal and vertical lines. This would represent duality, two opposite and opposing forces. It can be positive/negative, Light/Dark, Hard/Soft, Love/Hate, More/Less, Ignorance/Enlightenment, Life/Death…… this is a dualistic way of thinking. The Buddha taught that all things are in flux and never in one state for more than a period of time. So by nature non-dualistic. Everything in the universe is under constant change even though we may not be able to see it. What we perceive as duality is just simply what state these things are in at a given point in time. One of the things I immediately loved about Buddhism is that so much of it can be proven by science. If we pick Light/Dark, for example, we have to acknowledge that it is analog. In other words it is not Light (as in daylight) and then instantly Dark (In other words Digital or ON/OFF). There is a progression of change between the two states. Light gradually becomes darker and darker until it starts to become lighter and lighter again. So you see they are not opposite but change from one to the other and back again. We only choose to pick a point in time and call it Light or Dark. The point where the Manji bends at the end of the horizontal and vertical lines of the plus symbol is there to show that what we perceive as the two opposites are really under constant change or flux. This is true of all opposites that our mind can visualize. It is true for all phenomena in the universe including “US”! The picture of the Manji at the beginning of this post is an old form of a Manji. The lines are more gradually curved instead of bent at the 90 angle in the more common Manji. I don’t have any evidence to prove this theory but I find it interesting that if you remove one of the lines you will see the shape of the Yin/Yang symbol which is the Taoist version of the same concept. If you can see that this affects all phenomena simultaneously, you can visualize that the Manji starts to spin. In other words all phenomena in the universe are in motion at the same time. One interesting thing to note is that as it spins the point at the center is calm and un-moving. This is an important idea in understanding the process of meditation. The “still” among all the movement of the universe.
What can you name in the universe that is “permanent”? You can try and come up with some things but each and every time if you look deeply you will see that it is an illusion. The only difference between this or that is the period that it stays in one state. It doesn’t matter if it is some insect that is born and lives for a matter of hours and then dies or a large boulder you see out in a field. Will the boulder stay a boulder forever? It certainly seems “more” permanent. If you look closely it will over a long period of time weather away until it is just a pile of dust. The period may be longer but the result is just the same. What was the boulder before it was a boulder? Did it just one day appear as the same boulder sitting out in the field? How about you, did you come from nothing and suddenly become something? There is nothing in the whole universe that is that way. You can see the same thing even for something that seems as permanent as the Sun in our solar system. It may be around for millions of years but eventually it will burn itself out and then become something completely different, maybe a Super Nova or a Black hole? Does it go from a Sun one day and then a Black hole the next? Of course not it is constantly undergoing change. Everything in the universe is this way. Why is it that when it comes to ourselves we somehow think that these universal rules don’t apply.
There is an old Chinese saying “When a flower dies, no one cries. What they mean is that everyone knows and understands perfectly that when a flower is cut and put into a vase within a day or two it will start to wither and then turns brown, dries up, and eventually falls off its stem. Everyone accepts this, it is not questioned, so when it happens it is expected, it is no surprise, it is natural. This is why there is always a flower on a Buddhist altar. It is a living symbol of impermanence. Why is it then when a person dies it is a complete shock? Do we not understand that this is just another change in the constant stream of changes that we have undergone since birth, before birth? We cannot believe it has happened! And our own death, we don’t even want to consider that more than just a passing thought. I am not trying to equate the death of a flower with the death of a loved one. There is a much more subtle (but profound) point here. We create the illusion in our minds that our friends and family will just always be there. This is due to two reasons. One is that the thought of losing someone we care about scares us and we just do not want to face it. The other is that we do not really understand impermanence and that it does apply to us.
Imagine you could go back in time and take a photo each year from when you were born until your last birthday. Then lay out these photos on the floor in sequence. As you look through these photos ask yourself the question, “Which one is me”? Of course you will probably exclaim “They are all me”. Let’s go back to the science. If you are 30 years old not a single cell in your body that was there on your first birthday is there on your 30th. So it is not accurate at all to say that physically all these “people” in the photograph are you. Every cell that makes up your body has been replaced several times over. What about your mind. Do you think that your mind in the photo when you were five is the same as when you were 25? Of course not. Well then what is it that makes all these “people” you? Is it the shape of your head? The color of your eyes, that mole on your cheek? What exactly is it that is ”YOU”? This may sound a bit morbid but if I have a sword and I slice off your hand, is the hand you? Are you still you without the hand? If I keep slicing and take off a arm, a foot, a leg…. Which part is your essence, which part is truly you? Well a lot of folks think that it is their experiences or memories that makes them who they are. When you are sixty years old you will still be having new experiences and creating new memories but the vast majority of your previous experiences you will have forgotten! I can’t even remember some of the things I did last week! Does that mean “I” didn’t exist then?
Sometimes Buddhist concepts can sound kind of negative. You probably don’t want to give up the “idea” of this “self” that “you” have always been. This is a very hard thing to swallow. I have found that you will often need to take the Buddhist idea that seems negative and turn it on its head and then you can see the beauty in the truth that it exposes. We go through our lives in kind of a cloud taking so many things for granted thinking they will always be as they are now . If you truly understand the reality of Impermanence you should wake up! Realize that your friends and family won’t always be there so cherish and make the best of the time that you have with them. If you realize that they could be gone tomorrow don’t you think that you would spend today more wisely? If you feel that you want to express your feelings toward someone or tell somebody your sorry for something you have done in the past, do it now, don’t wait for tomorrow.
The Manji and Anicca (Impermanence) that it represents have a profound meaning. It is a core idea no matter what type of Buddhism you practice. A life where you cherish and spend time with people you care about and leave nothing unsaid is a beautiful one. There is nothing negative about it!
The Buddha said:
“I am of the nature to grow old,
I cannot avoid growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health,
Sometime during my life I will be sick.
I am of the nature to die,
I cannot avoid death.
All that I love and all that is dear to me is subject to change,
I cannot avoid being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings,
I can’t escape the consequence of my actions. My actions are the womb from which I have sprung. The fruits of all my actions, both wholesome and unwholesome, skillful and un-skillful I will inherit.
(Anguttara Nikaya, Pancaka Nipata Pali)