Impermanence

Impermanence has been on my mind a lot lately. A core Buddhist principle, impermanence essentially means what it sounds like it does - nothing is forever.

It began a couple weeks back when an external hard drive stopped working. There was no warning at all; it simply up and quit. Ordinarily that wouldn't have been much of a big deal, since it was primarily a backup volume anyway. Just replace the drive and keep backing things up, right?

In theory, sure - but unfortunately that drive also had some data on it that I hadn't mirrored anywhere else, which meant that some 40 GB or so of data went poof.

Oops.

I was able to recover virtually all of it, but that's not the point. The point is that (surprise) nothing lasts forever, but it's easy to forget that.

Intellectually we all know that there is nothing permanent in the world. The pyramids are eroding; mountains crumble; tectonic activity converts valleys into new mountains; the sun will one day burn out. Animals are born, live and die; and so it is with people. We know this, but I think we tend to forget about it most of the time, at least until it becomes immediate. Then we end up feeling distressed.

Buddhists are encouraged to meditate on the topic of death from time to time. It's a way to viscerally become aware of the reality of impermanence, both our own and that of others. Even still, the facts seem to have a way of sneaking up on us.

As part of a project at work, I've been exploring the designs and art created about 1,000 years ago by a people called the Mimbres, who were a part of the Mogollon civilization. They're defined pretty much exclusively by their artistic style, which was primarily black-on-white paintings on earthenware. The style seemed to appear abruptly about 1000 CE and vanish just as rapidly somewhere around 1150 CE, possibly sooner. So for roughly 150 years, there was a blip in the Mogollon society that, in that time, managed to produce some striking and very lovely designs.

The Mimbres painted all kinds of things - some creatures were fanciful, but many more are immediately recognizable, though heavily stylized - and they did patterns, and even painted weather and sky objects. They didn't seem to be interested in plants or the landscape, which makes me think they only painted things they believed to be conscious (clouds, people, the sun, and animals all move on their own; plants and mountains generally don't).

They didn't have written records, so their earthenware (and a few petroglyphs) is all that remains as a record of their culture. They were there, and then they were gone, leaving behind only burial sites and empty bowls.

That's impermanence in a serious, culture-consuming way.

I don't think we're unique today in imagining that the way things are now is the way they always will be - though, of course, we must know this idea to be false. At some point in the future we will be just as gone as the Mimbres, with only the fingers of the wind fondling the eroding artifacts of our vanished civilization.

Absent though they are, the Mimbres did leave traces behind, and I can't think of a better example of karma. I've said before that the Buddhist notion of karma is that it's essentially action, or the product of action. Think of the missing Mimbres, and think of the way their artwork affected me. That's their karma - both as a culture and in the form of individual artisans' works - reaching through the veil of time to continue to have an effect in the world.

It might be said that karma is an artifact of consciousness, or even intelligence. Conscious will must be enacted to create karma, and consciousness must be present to receive it and respond to it. Certainly the birds that flitted and hopped among the Mimbres potsherds were, ultimately, unaffected by the people who had made those artifacts.

Each of us leaves a karmic wake behind us all the time, by everything we do or say - even by what we think, for thought is the precursor to volition, which is the source of action. We might never see all the effects of the fruition of that karma. We may never fully realize just how we've affected others by our behavior. Some would assert that every action we take eventually ends up affecting everyone else, everywhere, sooner or later. I don't know if that's true or not, but it's hard to escape that conclusion when you really think about it.

Thus it could be said that karma is the only thing which is permanent - or at least, for as long as consciousness lasts, so will karma.

Bearing that in mind, it may behoove us to consider what our legacy - as a culture and as individuals - will be. What will an archaeologist, digging up our remains 1,000 years from now, make of our silent race? And - more importantly - will we be deserving of whatever judgment may be passed upon us?