By Alex Chong Do Thompson
Everything changes. These two words seem simple on the surface. But Buddhist teachers have spent the last 2,500 years explaining them to students.
It’s almost so obvious as to be laughable. Day turns to night, winter changes to spring, and people grow older with every passing year. One is tempted to respond with a sarcastic, “Thanks, Captain Obvious” when they’re told by 100 different teachers in 100 different ways that everything changes. And yet, it’s a lesson that needs to be taught over and over again. Why is that?
Personally, I think it’s because while the lesson of impermanence is easy to read, it’s harder to embody and understand. A more complete reading might go “Everything changes, and sometimes it changes in ways that we don’t like.” Hmm… That’s a little rough. Or what about, “Everything changes, and that includes the things we like exactly as they are.” Now, we’re getting somewhere.
Case in point, I’m fighting against impermanence even as I write this article.
I recently got a new tattoo. For anyone who has ink of their own, you know that the pain of sitting in a chair and having a needle jabbed into your skin repeatedly is only a small part of the process. The hard part is the aftercare. You must wash the area with scent-free soap three times a day, and keep it moist with lotion in order to prevent scabbing for three to four weeks. Failure to do so could result in faded colors and blurred lines that may require touch-ups in the future.
When I first started getting tattoos I thought that they’d be a permanent expression of my “self.” Anyone who saw me shirtless would know instantly that I was in the Marines, that I like poetry, and a host of other things about me. I thought my ink would be a permanent record of who I am and where I’ve been. But this isn’t entirely true. Taking care of my new tattoo has caused me to take a look at some of my older ones.
Honestly, I’m a little troubled by what I see. I’m sure that no one will notice the changes but me, but there are definitely changes. Some of the text has become harder to read, and the color is a lot less vibrant. If my tattoo-based expressions of self are fading as I get older, what does that mean about the self that they’re supposed to represent? Will my personality become faded and blurred as I age until it’s hardly recognizable to my loved ones? Or can I keep it vibrant and alive with the liberal use of moisturizing lotions and fragrance-free soap?
Are we born just so we can fade away?
It certainly seems that way sometimes. Maybe the teaching of impermanence is meant to help us be okay with that fact. As the life slowly bleeds out of us like the ink in a tattoo, maybe the teachings are here to help us smile as our lines begin to blur and our lettering becomes harder to read.
We can’t stop the steady flow of change that will run roughshod over our lives. But maybe with further study, we can learn to enjoy it.
Editor: Dana Gornall