When I was a boy, I had a headmaster who took us on nature walks. He was an entomologist and introduced us to all the birds, insects and plants on our way, and encouraged us to collect specimens.
Every early summer we put butterfly boxes along the space above the sports room and fed the caterpillars carefully. Then came the chrysalis stage, and after much waiting, the imago. The butterfly opened its iridescent wings and fluttered. It was sheer magic.
Then the boys prepared their jars of chloroform, put the butterflies in them and drew out the dead insects, hopefully with wings spread. Then they pinned them onto a board with all the previous victims—all except for one witless boy who, when the butterflies emerged, simply let them out of the windows into the garden and watched them flutter away, pursued by running boys with butterfly nets.
To me, they were much more interesting fluttering about in the rose gardens than stuck dead on a pin. I vaguely understood even then that robbing them of life also robbed them of interest. Their little lives were short enough, and to be able to enjoy that somehow set me free as well.
I did not know then the lines of the great English poet, William Blake:
He who binds to himself a joy,
Doth the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
We are often told of impermanence (anicca) as if it were a grim law we must learn and by which we must be bound. But the Buddha’s whole teaching was about freeing us; not freeing us to do anything we like (as the Venerable Punna mistakenly assumed) which is no freedom at all, but liberating us from the bonds by which we shackle ourselves. All our fears, all the negative states in our lives, are at least partly caused by our blind attachment to the apparent stability of the conditioned world, which is constantly changing and passing away. So joy often comes unsung and unheralded, like a spring morning after rain. You can ascribe it to this cause or that, but you cannot fathom it, because it is a reflection of the unconditioned. It appears to come and go, but only because our desires and fears obscure it as clouds obscure the sun. No wonder we so often remember great childhood happiness. As we grow older, the childhood openness to change becomes an armoured covering protecting us from change—and life itself—to make us safe and invulnerable at the expense of all that is most precious to us.
‘Sabbe sankhāra anicca,’ the Buddha said, ‘All compounded things are impermanent.’ And the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: ‘All is flux. You cannot step into the same river twice. Change alone is unchanging.’ The continents themselves shift and change; the Himalayas were thrust up as the vast island of India collided with Central Asia, and still they rise. All existence is impermanent, and this is part of its shining splendour: continents, blossoms, butterflies, all arising and ceasing boundlessly. Seeing this (the anicca-sannā) is of the highest merit, the Buddha said.
Because life itself as it unfolds is unbound, and as the barriers to our understanding fall away, the simple uncompounded freedom that the Buddha taught becomes our life, and our happiness. This is not a goal, but a realisation; not an addition, but a seeing of the nature of things and the nature of the unconditioned itself.
‘Just as the great sea has one taste, so has this teaching one taste, the taste of liberation.’
Buddha, The Udana.
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