Taken from Four Foundations of Buddhist Practice by Thrangu Rinpoche, published by Namo Buddha Publications, Boulder, Colorado © 2001

Once we understand how rare and precious human existence is, we must also understand the need to use it to practice the dharma. Some people may feel that they can take their time, practicing little by little without much rush. This is a real mistake because nothing lasts. Everything passes, everything changes including our precious human existence, so we must grab this opportunity while we have it. That is why the second reminder to practice is impermanence. Once we know just how much everything changes, we realize we can’t afford to waste time, so the study of impermanence helps turn our mind quickly to dharma.

Some people might think impermanence is just a clever device used by the Buddha to scare people into practicing right away. But this isn’t so. Impermanence is an intrinsic feature of life; our lives are changeable and destructible. So the idea of impermanence wasn’t made up, and believing everything will last forever is a mistake. We may think that meditation on impermanence is unpleasant because it means that everything will disintegrate and end. This is true and extremely important. Being aware that everything passes away will not make us feel wonderful and happy. But suppose we go to a place where there’s a tiger and don’t know there is such a danger lurking. We might enjoy the place, thinking how nice it is, but when the tiger appears it’s too late. We have to suffer the terrific fear of suddenly seeing a tiger jump out at us and the possibility of being eaten by it. But if we knew in advance the tiger was there, we could have avoided that place and thus avoided the whole problem. Of course, hearing about the tiger means that from the beginning we will fear it. Thinking there’s a tiger there and how we can avoid it, we will have the unpleasant sensation of being afraid. But being aware of the tiger’s presence will enable us to avoid its real danger.

Normally we are involved with daily activities, taking life as it comes and goes. Beset by many things to do, we don’t think about how everything changes and moves along. Our life may feel very pleasant, undisturbed by thoughts of how everything is disintegrating, changing, or being lost. In fact, it doesn’t make any difference whether we are aware of impermanence or not. Not knowing about impermanence is not going to stop it. Impermanence occurs and if it takes us by surprise, it will be extremely painful. However, if we know about, we will be prepared and, with practice, able to overcome whatever difficulties it causes. From the Buddha and the long lineages of lamas who came between him and us, we have instructions to see how everything around us changes, and is impermanent. Nothing remains the same forever. Although at first this thought might generate a lot of unhappiness, if we are prepared when impermanence comes and strikes us, it won’t be so painful.

Meditation on impermanence is useful at all stages of practice. It’s useful when we just enter the path of dharma because it turns our minds very quickly. But it is also useful when we’ve been practicing and come under the influence of laziness, for it renews our wish to practice. So thinking about impermanence renews our enthusiasm. Thinking about impermanence is useful for reaching our goal very quickly. It is like a friend.