Transience and meaning

During a question and answer period of a lecture, the late Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi was asked “ Suzuki, I have been listening to your lectures for years, and I just don’t understand. Could you just please just put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism into one phrase?”

Suzuki Roshi laughed and responded: “everything changes”. Then he asked for another question.

Anicca, or impermanence, is one of the principal teachings of Buddhism. The Irish Poet, Author, and priest, John O’donohue, uses the world transience to speak about this teachingThe etymology of the word means, “to pass through without staying”. I prefer the word transience because it acknowledges life as a process; and that even though everything in life is impermanent, we cannot deny the fact that life does indeed touch us. Below is a beautiful excerpt from his book Anam Cara:


Transience is the force of time which makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless of how beautiful or promising, that did not not grow into noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade towards evening. There never was a day which did not get buried in the graveyard of the night. In this way transience makes a ghost out of everything that happens to us.


All of our time disappears on us. This is an incredible fact. You are so knitted into a day. You are within it; the day is as close as your skin. It is around your eyes; it is inside your mind. The day moves you, often it can weigh you down; or again it can raise you up. Yet the amazing fact is: this day vanishes. When you look behind you, you do not see your past standing there in a series of day shapes. You cannot wander back through the gallery of your past. Your days have disappeared silently and for ever. Your future time has not arrived yet. The only ground of time is the present moment.


While this may seem like a somber topic to reflect on, acknowledging the truth of transience helps us to:

1) let go

When we contemplate the changing nature of reality it helps us relax into the flow of life. Trying to hold tightly onto something that is continually changing is like trying to hold onto a moving rope- what happens when we hold onto a moving rope? We get rope burn! We suffer less when we let go. We suffer less if we can learn to dance with life, rather than trying to hold onto it or place it neatly into a small box. If we truly understanding the changing nature of reality, it begins to make more sense to live a life of an open palm, rather than a closed fist.

2) become more present

If we truly acknowledge that everything is subject to change and that life is transient, would we not be called more into paying attention? Would we not bring more attention to the time we have with our loved ones, and enjoying our life, both in its profundity and in its mundane routines? Life is precious because we are passing through it. What quality of attention would you bring to this moment, if you knew this was the last of its kind?

3) Live a life of meaning

Validating the transient nature of things also encourages us to reflect on what matters. Just because life is transient, does not mean we don’t bring our full attention and care to the preciousness of our time. As the Japanese poet Issa says:


This dewdrop world

is but a dewdrop world,

and yet


Life is transient “and yet” it does not mean we don’t care. It does not mean we don’t show up fully for our life and create something beautiful, help others, or share our unique gifts to the world.

Perhaps asking yourself this week: How do I pass through this world with meaning? What brings me meaning?

Below is a simple guided meditation exploring the transient nature of things. May your passing through be beautiful. May your understanding of transience awaken the most full and meaningful life.