The True Foundation of Practice
By Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

People usually have the attitude, "Things do last; we live for quite some time." Of course, they know that there is impermanence, but they think that it does not pertain to the present; that it is something that 'comes later on.'

For example, we might think, "This particular object will finally disintegrate; right now, however, it does exist and continues to do so. Things are therefore permanent." This attitude is contrary to how things really are.

Taking impermanence to heart means to acknowledge that nothing whatsoever lasts even from one moment to the next—especially our life. Our existence here in a physical body has no real permanence. We will die. We should develop this attitude, "I will die. I do not know when and I do not know how; but it is unavoidable!"

Keep this feeling so acutely in your mind that you cannot bear to sit idle. Instead you will feel: "I have to do something truly worthwhile. I cannot let the time fly by. As each day and moment passes, I'm closer to death. Not only me—it's like this for everyone, but no one pays any attention."

The measure of having taken to heart the thought of impermanence is a genuine understanding of our mortality and everyone else's. When you have this painfully acute understanding of the "suffering of being conditioned" and of the fact that time is continuously running out, you refuse to waste a single second on anything that is not dharma practice.

As a further argument for impermanence, consider the universe in which we live. Usually people believe that the world is solid and real but this is not true. It will not last forever, and in the meantime it is constantly changing with each passing moment.

When the universe finally disintegrates, there will be an end to this world as we know it. It will be destroyed by the "seven suns," and the "one water" until the only thing remaining is space. Since space is uncompounded, it can never disintegrate, but everything within space vanishes—everything!

Then a period of voidness will endure for a while until a new universe is formed. It in turn remains for a while—which is the time we are experiencing now—and again disintegrates and vanishes. The four major cycles—formation, abidance, destruction, and voidness—a world goes through constitute a great aeon and this process is repeated again and again. Nothing material is exempt from this endless process. By pondering this, our normal tendency to cling to permanence will naturally fall away.

Also consider the great noble beings who have appeared in this world. All the bodhisattvas of the past as well as all the buddhas who possessed incredible clairvoyance, wisdom and the capacity to transform an aeon into a second and a second into an aeon have passed away. The bodily forms of great noble beings are not permanent either. Please ponder this.

Consider the people who possessed great merit, power and dominion. Universal rulers, chakravartins,who wielded the "wheel of gold" controlled all four continents. Those possessing the "wheel of silver" reigned over three continents. Those possessing the "wheel of copper" governed two continents, and those possessing the "wheel of iron" still held command over one entire continent.

They had the power to rule over all peoples. They could even dine with Indra on the summit of Mount Sumeru, seated on thrones of equal height, and then fly back into the human realm. But where are they now? They are all gone. Please realize that even people of great might also vanish.

Next, consider the many causes of death and the few circumstances for staying alive. There are 404 kinds of diseases, 80,000 kinds of attacks from evil spirits, and many other obstacles for life as well. All these surround us like gusts of wind in a great storm, while our life-force is like the flame of a candle or a butter lamp.

There are very few reasons for this flame to remain without being extinguished. We usually believe that medicine prolongs life, but sometimes medicine administered in the wrong way can become the cause of death. Even the means of healing can cut life short. Please consider the many causes of death and the few circumstances that sustain life.

It is a small miracle that we wake up each morning. It is said that the difference between being alive or dead is a single breath. If you exhale and don't inhale, you are dead. That's all it takes. Nagarjuna said, "Since this is the case, it's amazing, a wonder, that one wakes up in the morning." It is not enough to merely hear or read about impermanence; you need to take it to heart.

In the cycle of teachings given by Padmasambhava called Karling Shitro—the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities revealed by Karma Lingpa—there is a very vivid image of the inevitability of our death.

Imagine that you are standing on a half-inch-wide ledge on a sheer cliff overlooking an almost bottomless abyss, with a roaring river raging below. You cannot bear to look down. Only your toes can rest on the ledge, while your hands grasp two handfuls of grass the size of a goat's beard. You are hanging onto these two handfuls of scrub-grass that represent your life-span and life-force.

At the same time, impermanence, in the form of two rats representing the Lord of Death and the Lord of Life, gnaw away the grass you are clinging to, piece by piece. Once the grass is consumed, there will be nothing left to hold onto. There is only one way to go: to plunge into the nearly bottomless abyss and the raging river.

Your guardian spirits are present in the form of two crows who hover above you; but how can they help your desperate situation? So, you hang on while the rats eat up the grass, blade by blade. You have no chance of survival whatsoever.

This is our current situation. We as practitioners must vividly imagine Padmasambhava's teaching, which clearly points out our mortality and inescapable death. Please contemplate this well, because it represents how it truly is. Below is the "abyss" of the three lower realms. We do not have to think of anything other than that. Then ask yourself,"What can I do?" A true practitioner should take this to heart and meditate on it!

Our clinging to sense-pleasures, the desirable objects of the fivesenses, causes us to spin around in samsara. Here's another example from the Karling Shitro regarding attachment to sense-pleasures.

Imagine you are sentenced to death and have been dragged before the executioner. Your head now lies on the chopping block and he raises the axe in the air above your neck He's just about to strike when someone steps up to you and says, "I would like to present you with a beautiful consort a magnificent palace, and countless luxuries and enjoyable experiences."

How will you feel, knowing the axe is about to fall? Is the prospect of enjoying all these sense-pleasures enticing in the least? This example from the Karling Shitro illustrates in a very vivid way the futility of our attachment to the five sense pleasures of samsara. Do we really think they will last? Practitioners, combine the metaphor with the meaning

Trust in the consequences of your karmic deeds. All that takes place—the formation of the universe, its abiding changing and disintegration—occurs without any creator or maker to initiate it. It is all the result of the karmic actions of sentient beings. This is an unfailing law.

Next, among the six classes of beings, all the different life-forms are basically painful. There is no place of permanent happiness within samsara, regardless of where you are reborn. As a hell being you suffer from heat and cold; as a hungry ghost you suffer from hunger and thirst; as an animal you suffer from stupidity and being enslaved or eaten by others; while as a human being, a demigod or a god, you still suffer from various imperfections. If you reflect deeply upon these different samsaric states, you will find that none offers any sanctuary free from suffering and pain.

Longchen Rabjam meditated for many years in a place called Gang-ri Tokar, White Skull Snow Mountain, where he even lacked a proper cave. He took shelter for three years under a cliff overhang. His only possession, in terms of bedding and clothing was a hemp-cloth sack. During the day he wore this as his garment, while at night it became his bedding. This single scrap of sackcloth also served as his seat during meditation sessions.

At the entrance to this rock overhang grew a huge thorn bush. Whenever he had to go out and relieve himself, the thorns pierced his body in numerous places. While he was urinating outside, he would think "It's really uncomfortable having to push past this thorn bush every day. I should hack it down!"

Then, on his way back in, he would think "On the other hand, maybe this is the last day of my life. Why should I spend it cutting down a bush? That's meaningless—I'd rather do something that has real significance, like train myself in the view, meditation and conduct. If this is my last day, I should spend it practicing. One never knows how much time one has left in life."

So he would forget about cutting down the bush and go back inside to continue his practice session. This went on day after day, and after three years he attained complete realization. And he never cut down the thorn bush. This is an example of how the reflection on impermanence can manifest itself in a great realized master like Longchenpa.

From Rainbow Painting by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang Schmidt. ©1995. Reprinted by arrangement with Rangjung Yeshe Publications. “The True Foundation of Practice” appeared in the May 1996 issue of the Shambhala Sun.