IV. The Law of Change (or Anicca)

Visit to a CemeteryWe have seen how reflections on the great law of Kamma and the great law of Aggregates or Sankharas can assist us to form a correct view of death and help us to face death in the correct attitude. Now there is a third great law, a knowledge of which can assist us in the same way, namely, the law of change or anicca.

It is the principle behind the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha or Disharmony. It is precisely because there is change or lack of permanency in anything and everything in this world, that there is suffering or disharmony in this world.

This principle of change is expressed by the well known formula Anicca vata sankhara — “all sankharas are impermanent.” Nothing in this world is stable or static. Time moves everything whether we like it or not. Time moves us also whether we like it or not. Nothing in this world can arrest the ceaseless passage of time and nothing survives time. There is no stability anywhere. Change rules the world. Everything mental and physical is therefore transitory and changing. The change may be quick or the change may be perceptible or it may be imperceptible. We live in an ever changing world, while we ourselves are also all the while changing.

A sankhara, we have learned, is a combination of several factors. These factors are also subject to the law of change. They are changing factors. Hence a Sankhara is not merely a combination of several factors. It is a changing combination of changing factors, since the combination itself is changing. It is because there is change that there is growth. It is because there is change that there is decay. Growth also leads to decay because there is change. Why do flowers bloom only to fade? It is because of the operation of the law of change. It is this law that makes the strength of youth give way to the weakness of old age.

It is on account of the operation of the law that though great buildings are erected, towering towards the sky, some distant day will see them totter and tumble. It is this aspect of the law of change, the process of disintegration, that causes color to fade, iron to rust, and timber to rot. It is such reflections that must have led the poet Gray, contemplating a burial ground in a country church yard, to say:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, All that beauty, all that wealth ever gave, Await alike the inevitable hour. The path of glory leads to the grave.”

Sometimes the working of this law is not apparent. Even that which looks so solid and substantial as a rocky mountain will not always remain as such. Science tells us, that maybe after thousands of years, it will wear down by the process of disintegration, and that where a lake now is, a mountain once was. If things arise they must fall, Uppajjitva nirujjhanti, says the Buddha — “having arisen, they fall.”

Aeons and aeons ago the earth and the moon were one. Today, while the earth is still warm and alive, the moon is cold and dead. The earth too, science tells us, is very slowly, but surely losing its heat and water. Gradually and slowly it is cooling down. Aeons and aeons hence it will cease to support life. It will be a cold and lifeless planet. It will be a second moon. This is just one of several instances where the mighty law of change works imperceptibly. The Buddha also has foretold the end of the earth.

Just as the law of change can cause decline and decay it can also cause growth and progress. Hence it is that a seed becomes a plant and a plant becomes a tree, and a bud becomes a flower. But again there is no permanency in growth. Growth again gives way to decay. The plant must die. The flower must wither. It is an unending cycle of birth and death, integration and disintegration, of rise and fall. Hence it is that Shelley has aptly said,

“Worlds on worlds are rolling over from creation to decay, Like bubbles on a river, sparkling, bursting, borne away.”

It is no arbitrary power that brings about these changes, progressive and retrogressive. The tendency to change is inherent in all things. The law of change does not merely declare that things change but also declares that change is of the very essence of the things. Think of anything, and you will find it to be a mode of change and a condition of change. Change (aniccata) is the working hypothesis of the scientist. One of the mightiest tasks of the scientist, also his proudest boast, was to destroy the idea of stability and fixity in the organic world. We have heard of the supposed entity of the atom being shown up as a combination of energies.

While science has applied the law of change to the physical domain to split up unity into diversity, the Buddha has applied the self-same law to the entire mind-body complex and split up the seeming unity of being into the five aggregates known as “Pañcakkhandha.” The Buddha has gone further and explained why this aggregate is temporary, why it should some day disintegrate and why a fresh integration should arise upon the disintegration. Everything works upon a triple principle of uppada, thiti and bhanga — arising, remaining and passing away. Even in the case of a thought these three stages are present.

When the Buddha dealt with the four chief elements of the world of matter and showed that they too are subject to the great law of change, he proceeded to show that the human body which is also formed of the same elements must necessarily be subject to the same great law of change. “What then of this fathom-long body” asked the Buddha. “Is there anything here of which it may rightly be said, ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘am’? Nay verily nothing whatsoever.”

The sooner one appreciates the working of this law of change, the more will one be able to profit by it, attuning oneself to that way of living, that way of thinking and speaking and acting, where this law will work to one’s best advantage. The person who knows the subtle working of this law of change, will also know how “nama” (mentality) can change by purposeful action. However deeply they get involved in evil, they will not regard evil as a permanent obstruction because they know that the evil mind can also change.

The person knows that by constant contemplation on what is good, good thoughts tend to arise in the mind. The constant contemplation of good will cause kusala sankharas (good tendencies) to arise in the mind and these kusala sankharas will dislodge the akusala sankharas (evil tendencies) — a process which hitherto appeared to the person to be impossible. When their thoughts and tendencies change for the better, when their mind is permeated thus with good tendencies, their speech and deeds automatically change for the better — a pleasant surprise for them. With purer and purer conduct (sila) thus acquired, deeper and deeper concentration (samadhi) is possible.

Increased power to concentrate accelerates the pace towards the achievement of that Highest Wisdom known as pañña. Thus the bad in a person changes into good. A bad person changes into a good person. By purposeful action the law of change is made to operate to their highest benefit. They now become a good person in the truest sense of the word. The good person is always a happy man. They have no fear of death because they have no fear of the life beyond. Of such a person has it been said in the Dhammapada:

“The doer of good rejoices in this world. He rejoices in the next world. He rejoices in both worlds.”

The powerful change brought about in their life will ensure upon its dissolution, the birth of a more fortunate being — a result which they can confidently expect at their dying moment. Not for them then are the fears and terrors of death. Furthermore when one follows minutely the working of the Law of Change in respect of one’s own body and mind and also in respect of another’s body and mind, one begins to acquire so close a familiarity with change that death will appear as just one more example of the process of change to which one has been subject all along since birth. It will appear as something to be expected, something that must occur to fit in with what had occurred earlier. To one who can thus reflect on death, there is nothing to fear. Cheerful and unafraid, they can face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.