The Futile Human Search for Permanence: The Impermanence of All Things Human

Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Be it jade, it shatters.
Be it gold, it breaks.
Be it a quetzal feather, it tears apart.
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

Although other living organisms create a variety of different things – wood, shells, skeletons, leaves, fruits, seeds, horns, tusks, nests, coral, feathers, mounds, dams, burrows, flowers, and eggs – the desire to create something that is permanent, meaning something that will remain unchanged for the rest of eternity, is a desire that is probably only possessed by us very peculiar and, in many ways, highly unnatural human beings. Whereas all other organisms are content to live their lives within the ceaseless ebb and flow that characterize all Life, we restless human creatures seek something more than this constantly changing, shifting, and self-renewing process.

We think of time in linear terms, whereas in ancient China they thought of existence as a burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change. And this constant birthing goes on both in the physical world and in human consciousness, for consciousness is as much a part of that process as surf or a rainstorm or blossoms opening in an almond orchard . . .  existence is alive . . . Things perpetually move and change, appear and disappear. Clouds drift. Wind rustles wildflowers and trees. Day fades into night, and night into day. Seasons come and go, one after the other. You die. Other people are born. On and on it goes. Everything is moving all the time without pause, without beginning or end  . . . We resist that change here in the West. We want permanence, an immortal soul that allows us to escape death . . .[2]

Because we have not been able to find anything permanent here on Earth, we have created an immaterial realm of existence which we have populated with gods and angels, which realm is believed to exist forever, unchanging, just as it is believed to have existed since the beginning of time. We call this celestial vision “Paradise,” while designating it as the spiritual reward and eternal resting place for all those who have shown their worthiness, through their exemplary lives here on Earth, to join these perfect, immaterial beings.

Perhaps these fanciful beliefs give comfort to some people, while giving meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives, but I for one declare that I neither believe in them, nor do I have any desire for them to be true. For surely it is better to be content with what you have than constantly to yearn for something that you cannot have, or be, as in this case. This is the lesson of Aesop’s fable about the dog and the two bones, the one real and the other illusory, being only an immaterial reflection of the first bone. It is also the essence of the Buddha’s teachings – to be content with what you have, and not to seek to multiply or strengthen your desires for things that are unimportant, unworthy, unattainable, or unreal.

In childhood and youth, many of us entertain desires for things or accomplishments that we later come to realize are impossible, at least for us, even if they may be possible for some other, more fortunate individuals. This realization has different effects on different people, ranging from disappointment, depression, frustration and anger at life’s unfairness, resignation, hopelessness, and disgust or weariness with life. However, most of us recover from these youthful disillusionments, and go on to make the most of the opportunities that are available to us, or perhaps we simply resign ourselves to our particular, mundane, and ordinary situation in life.

It is very important that we understand the following basic truth about all life: nothing living can be permanent, a truth that applies just as much to everything that is created by living organisms, including all the many human creations of which, and to which, we are so inordinately proud and attached. For once we understand this important truth, we will then be able to see that nothing that we clever humans can ever create will equal the truly grand mystery and magnificence of the living forms that abound on our planet, forms that, because of our extreme selfishness, thoughtlessness, confused priorities, and inordinate pride in our dead human creations, have been greatly reduced, damaged, poisoned, altered, and exterminated during the very brief period of our species’ catastrophic ascent to global dominance.

It is not individual things and organisms, but species and, ultimately, Life itself that endures over long periods of time, periods that are measured in millions and billions of years. There is absolutely nothing that we vain humans can create that will endure anywhere near as long as Life has existed on Earth. Yet the truly amazing thing about Life is that, in spite of its extremely old age, it appears continually young and vital because it constantly renews itself through the processes of rebirth and death, when the old, worn-out, and decayed forms are decomposed and replaced by newer and younger forms. It is this simple, endlessly recurring fact about Life that has tricked so many religious people into mistakenly believing that the Earth, as well as the Life which it supports in such variety and abundance, are relatively young, measuring only a few thousand years in age, when in fact they are very, very old, having lasted for the inconceivably long period of billions of years.

It is said that the Earth and all its many wonderful living inhabitants were created expressly for our human use, and that we are the guardians or custodians of this earthly paradise. There is no greater lie than this – first, because the Earth and its many non-human inhabitants existed for a very long time before our appearance and very recent rise to dominance; and second, to judge by our collective actions, we cause far more harm than good to the Earth’s other living creatures. If we stupid, dangerous, and extremely destructive human beings cannot learn to live in harmony with the many other living creatures who have just as much a right to live and perpetuate their kind as we do – a fundamental fact that we egotistical and unenlightened humans have yet to recognize, then the best thing – and, in my opinion, the only just and sensible solution – is for our species to disappear, never again to deface, disfigure, destroy, diminish, and dishonour God’s Great Creation, by our manifest unworthiness of the great intellectual gift that God has given to our kind, which gift has enabled us, alone of all living creatures, to understand in all its details the magnificence and splendour of God’s Creation.

One of the salient features of modern human societies is the very rapid rate at which our customs, languages, and ways of life are changing. Before, there was a constancy in human societies so that, even during the course of a single individual’s lifetime, one could maintain the belief that there was a permanence in these things, which did not vary appreciably from one human lifetime to the next, especially given the inaccuracy of human memory when it is not aided by written records. But now, even over the course of a few years or decades, significant changes can occur in our behaviours, traditions, and the physical landscape we inhabit.

And yet, even with the increasing rapidity and ubiquity of change, changes that are enthusiastically embraced by many people, in particular the young, we nevertheless seek for a permanence in our worlds. Thus, things that are old and have endured in an unchanging state – at least to our less discriminating human senses – are highly valued by many of us, especially if they are rare. And so we marvel at large human creations like the Egyptian pyramids, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Medieval European cathedrals, Machu Picchu, and other remains of human industry and creativity both because of their age and their relatively well-preserved state.

But this uniquely human desire for permanence goes against the basic fact of existence, namely that all living things, including the many different things which they produce during their lifetimes, will not endure. During our lives, we see only a tiny sliver of reality. When we are young, and even as we grow older, we take this sliver to be the unchanging state of the world that has been there for all time, and will continue to be there for the rest of eternity. But this is a great error, in mistaking things that are, by their very nature, temporary and mutable for things that are permanent and unchanging. Even the continents have not remained forever in their present state, size, shape, and relative location, and islands that seem stable and enduring to us were not there if we go back far enough in time, and may not be there at some time in the future.

Other animals show by their behaviour that they understand the impermanence of everything living, for none of them seek to preserve indefinitely either themselves or the things they fashion, as if they were sacred relics that must be protected against the irresistible forces of physical transformation and decay. The butterfly does not value the chrysalis which was its protective home, from which it emerged, transformed; the crab does not collect and preserve, as mementos of its development, all the different shells, in gradually ascending size, that have protected it during its lifetime; male moose and caribou do not keep their impressive antlers, which fall off at the end of each mating season and grow back before the next, in a private collection; and predatory birds and animals such as eagles, falcons, owls, lions, tigers, wolves, snakes, and seals do not keep the beaks, tails, feathers, skeletons, or fins of all the animals they have hunted, caught, and devoured as a testament of their hunting prowess, as vain and boastful human hunters are wont to do, as if it were any testament of their skill, valour, or ingenuity to kill a large animal at a safe distance with an artificial weapon that they did not even manufacture themselves. All other organisms are strictly pragmatic in their behaviour. It is only we humans who have a fondness for keeping and amassing things that are completely useless from a practical point of view.

We save the “best” human artifacts – buildings, books, symphonies, artworks, tools, films, weapons, structures, etc. – which survive just as, through longer periods of time, certain species survive while others become extinct. But the survival of these cherished human artifacts is due mostly to artificial human selection, and not to natural selection. However, as we continue to produce more and more things, all the while wanting to preserve everything that is old, we will continually increase, at a faster and faster rate, the Grand Total Of Valuable Things That Shall Be Preserved, Forever – in museums, libraries, art galleries, storage units, and our own homes – until there will be no more space left. We have a foolish, childish pride in our creations that is not shared by any other living organisms; for these organisms, in their greater non-human wisdom, understand the impermanence of all living things, which includes their many different creations.

It is only human beings who engage in this activity, which is another example of our great stupidity, by thinking that we can preserve the things we cherish and value from the forces of transformation, deterioration, and annihilation that await and act on everything in the Universe. Not even stars, those mighty, gigantic, and extremely long-lived entities, will endure forever in their radiant state, no matter how unchanging and eternal they may seem to our flickering human eyes.

It is generally true that the more artificial something is, then the more hideous it looks as it decays, which is the fate that awaits everything in this impermanent, terrestrial existence. Natural wood, such as the totem poles carved by native people in Western Canada, ages and decays gracefully, fits harmoniously, and does not look out of place in the landscape where it exists. But treated or painted wood, which means wood that has been chemically treated or coated with artificial substances in order to protect it from the elements, looks terrible as it slowly ages and decays. The same holds true of all the other material creations with which we inundate our lives and the natural world: the more unnatural they are, then the more hideous and out of place they look in the natural environment. Some common examples are plastic, metal, and glass containers and bags that have been carelessly discarded in fields and forests, pieces of printed paper, advertising signs, and the discarded furniture, mattresses, cars, and other human detritus that no longer serve their original function, and instead sadly litter the natural landscape during the remainder of their material existence, or at least until they are carried away to, and hidden from our sight in, a garbage dump.

Another example of our failure to understand the impermanence of all our human accomplishments is the widespread belief that we can eradicate disease, or at least some kinds of disease. But like all life forms, microorganisms constantly change because it is part of their nature to adapt themselves to a changing environment, which they are able to do because of their tiny size, rapid rate of reproduction, and their ability to exchange genetic material with each other in a beneficial and adaptive manner. Even if we manage to eradicate one kind of death or disease-causing microbe, there will soon develop another kind to keep our numbers in check. We have witnessed this development in recent decades, when new microbes and viruses that did not exist before have arisen to show us how futile is our quest to free our species from the primordial Law of Balance.

In a sense, this is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism – not to resist the inevitable changes that will sweep over all of us and slowly eradicate everything we cherish, but to accept these changes and live our lives in harmony with the great, natural, and inescapable forces that regulate all Life on Earth. However, this attitude is not morbid or fatalistic – a meek surrendering to the forces of physical corruption, disorder, and death – but realistic and generous: as I have partaken of your flesh, tissues, and blood to nourish myself and keep this body alive, O my living brothers and sisters, many of whose lives I have curtailed because of my selfish desire to live, so may you, after my death, likewise partake of my flesh and blood in order to nourish yourselves and keep your bodies alive. After all, when we are dead, we have not the slightest need or use for our bodies any longer.

This is the great and eternal Continuum of Life in which we who are alive have the immense privilege to take part. To understand our proper place in this ancient and vital Continuum is also to understand the futility, not to mention the great immorality, of wanting to live forever. The refusal to accept and abide by the inviolable Conditions of Life that apply, without exception, to all living creatures is an example of our truly monstrous human selfishness and egotism.

Our desire to impose an artificial human permanence on materials that are, by their nature, impermanent, is the cause of a great deal of the human destruction of the natural world that is so prevalent and increasingly visible all over the planet. We would be far less destructive if we accepted and lived our lives in accordance with the fundamental existential fact that nothing that we make will last forever, and this includes our lives and the lives of those we love. For it is one of the unalterable conditions of the divine Gift of Life that we will all eventually age, atrophy, diminish, wither, and die – a fate that also awaits every single one of our cherished creations, which will all, without exception, also eventually decay, decompose, and disappear – so that other life forms may in turn have their chance to be born and live on this tiny, fragile, and yet incredibly resilient planetary oasis that is the Earth.

[1] 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, pp. 121-122 (excerpted from a Nahuatl poem attributed to Nezahualcoyotl). Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005.

[2] One-Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka by Larry Korn, chapter 1. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2015.