If you could sum up the whole of the Buddha’s teaching in a single word that word might be ‘impermanence’: the fact that everything around us is changing all the time and that therefore we can change ourselves.
That’s easy to say, but knowing that things are impermanent is not the same as really understanding the significance of the fact. There is an Arabic saying: everyone knows they must die, but acts as if they will live forever.
For the Buddha wisdom was not believing a set of doctrines or endlessly accumulating knowledge – it was understanding more deeply what we already know. And like every great teacher the Buddha was faced with the question of how to communicate his insight so that it became understanding and not merely belief or knowledge. He had to find ways of speaking to hearts as well as to minds.
If you read the scriptures which record the life of the Buddha you see him continually searching for ways to get through to people. In this extract from The Sutra of Twenty Four Sections he is like a poet, stretching language and hunting out the most powerful images.
The Buddha said ‘You have not understood’ and asked another man who said ‘It is like the time taken to eat a single meal.
To this the Buddha replied in the same way and asked a third: ‘How long is the span of a man’s life?’ ‘It is like a single breath’ was the reply.
‘Excellent’, said the Buddha. ‘You have understood the Way.’
Why is the span of life like a breath? A breath is very short and to describe life in this way emphasises its brevity. But there is more than that. The French writer Flaubert says ‘ the more you look at something, the more interesting it becomes.’ And the breath is the same.
Breathing is an experience – a tangible, physical experience. It’s with us all the time. All the time we are breathing in and breathing out in a continual cycle of inhalation and exhalation. We breathe in from the atmosphere and the body absorbs oxygen. We exhale the breath back into the world and we return carbon dioxide. Through the breath we are linked to the rest of life, we are bound up with the world.
And having breathed in, we must breathe out. Like death, it is natural and inevitable. If you pay attention to the breath you can feel directly within your own experience that we die each moment and that each moment we are reborn.
Understanding comes if we look deeply enough into simple things and dwell attentively on our actual experience.
So Breathe in. Breath out. And pay attention.