Keeping a "Record of Impermanence"

Dr. Yutang Lin


On February 10, 1988 it occurred to me that keeping a record of the names of all those deceased people whom I had met in person would help awaken in me a keen sense of impermanence. To a full-time Buddhist practitioner like me it would be very beneficial. I found a small blue-covered 1987 daily notebook in my drawer, so I made use of this unused but outdated notebook. On the first page I entitled it A Record of Impermanence and in the daily blank I filled in names that I remembered

Tara

As I put down each name, past events began to emerge in my mind one by one. There were some whose names were no longer remembered, so instead I put down a name for the relationship; some whose names were unknown to me, so I put down a brief description; and some even passed away before they were named. Some I met only once; some I was with for years. Some whose death came as a surprise from thousands of miles away; while others' were a gradual daily face-to-face good-bye. Some died of sudden illness; while others died of lingering sickness. Some committed suicide because of difficulty in school; while others because of an unhappy marriage. Some were murdered by business partners; while others were killed by romantic competitors. Some died in the womb; some died in infancy; some died a teenager, like a flower in bud; some died suddenly in their prime years; some died in the snare of old age and sickness; some died in the quietness of a long and peaceful life. At age forty-one I, as just one individual, had witnessed such a vast variety of cases of impermanence.

Facing the fact of impermanence and considering that every moment there are thousands of people passing away, I intuitively realized the futility of worldly arguments and competitions. How I wished to use such a transient and precious life-time to offer some positive contributions to the world!

I put this Record of Impermanence, with its pages open, on the altar near the lotus seat of Green Tara—a transformation of the great compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin). I lit an incense stick and prayed that these deceased ones would be blessed by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, especially by the Green Tara, and thereby attain liberation from the sufferings of transmigration.

That night, just before I fell asleep, as my thoughts had quieted down, suddenly I sensed that I had held a subtle delusive thought in the past that death was not my problem. Such a delusive thought might well be present in the minds of many of us without our realizing its presence. After all, death seems to be so distant from the reality of our on-going daily life. Earlier that day I came to face the concrete cases of impermanence and thereby unintentionally shattered the delusive thought I had carried. Delusive thoughts are hiding deep down in our consciousness and obscuring our perspectives, hence they are hardly recognizable. Only at the moment of their shattering can we get a fleeting glimpse of them.

Immediately following this intuitive realization came another: At the moment of death we are to separate from everything in the world. This may be obvious to anyone who reflects on death; nevertheless, I had never had such an awareness arising from the depth of my mind. We need to practice being detached from all things lest we suffer at the end. Otherwise, as we look back, at the moment of death, we will realize that our lives have been infested with worries and quarrels over insignificant trivialities. What a waste it is! Whenever I am entangled by sorrows in my mind I would think: If this is the final moment of my life and I am entangled by these matters, would my life be worthwhile? Such a reflection usually pulls me right out from my sorrows, and the sky looks blue and sunny again!

The next morning I discovered that the incense stick I had lit and offered for my prayer, although completely burned, remained whole with its body turning in a recurving way and its head pointing toward the right hand of the statue of Green Tara. Her right hand extends downward with an open palm, signifying her salvation activities. I took a picture of it and the photo is reprinted at the end of this article. In this photo the blue cover of my Record of Impermanence can be seen at the seat of the Green Tara. To me, this inspiring occurrence indicated Buddha's compassionate blessing in answer to my prayers for the deceased ones, and approval of the practice of keeping a Record of Impermanence.

Since that day I have continued to keep my records of impermanence. Whenever people ask me to do Powa (a Buddhist tantric practice to transfer the consciousness of deceased ones to the Pureland of Buddha) I also enter the name of the deceased in my book. Although I had not met all of them in person, by doing Powa for them I established a wonderful Dharma connection. Besides, Powa is for the benefit of the deceased ones, and naturally reminds us of the reality of impermanence, of its immediacy and unpredictability. (By the way, sometimes when I did Powa for deceased people, I saw them appear before me.) Some of the names in the record were entered sporadically later because only then they sparked my memory. This shows that although impermanence of life is a reality, nevertheless, in our normal daily life it is very easy for us to neglect and forget about it. The practice of keeping a Record of Impermanence would constantly remind us of the reality of impermanence, lest we indulge ourselves in insignificant worldly pursuits and suffer from resulting turmoil. It would help safeguard the purity and freshness of our minds so that wholesome ideas would sprout and grow into kindness and compassionate activities.

To learn arithmetic thoroughly we should not only be able to do exercises in the book but also be able to apply it in real-life situations. Keeping a Record of Impermanence is not only to practice Buddha's teaching of being mindful of impermanence but also to connect the teaching with our personal experiences to benefit us on a down-to-earth level. Only by unifying the theoretical with the practical can we actually receive the essence of Buddha's teachings. Since the cases of impermanence that we put into writing are ones that we have actually witnessed, been personally involved in, and even suffered for, they have tremendous impact on us and carry with them supreme power of persuasion. My awakening to the presence of delusive thoughts in me is a good example of the effectiveness of this practice.

There are many practices of impermanence in Buddhism. For example, meditations on death (to meditate on the certainty of death's arrival, the unpredictability of the time of death, one's helplessness and loneliness at the moment of death, etc.), observation on the changing scenes of our mental activities, chanting Buddha's name near someone who is passing away, and visiting cemeteries to pray for the dead. Keeping a record of impermanence can be an easy but helpful addition to the other practices. This record is to be placed on the altar so that the deceased ones are under the blessing of Buddha and thereby we may practice an act of great compassion. As we write down the names, we do not distinguish between friends or foes, family members or acquaintances; therefore, it is also a practice of equal-love-for-all.

I hope that everyone who reads this article will adopt this practice and thereby share its effective benefits.


Originally written in Chinese
on April 4, 1988
Chin-Ming Festival, the Chinese Memorial Day
translated on May 8, 1992
both in El Cerrito, CA, U.S.A.


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