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Impermanence, Desire and Non-Attachment by Peter Morrell

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Impermanence, Desire and Non-Attachment
by Peter Morrell

"Whoever are not attached to the pleasures of mundane existence,
Whoever strive in order to make leisure and fortune worthwhile,
Whoever are inclined to the path pleasing the Conqueror Buddha,
Those fortunate ones should listen with a clear mind. [1]

The self-actualised and liberated person [‘superior’] moves on, eschews riches, fame and such transient matters and is unfazed by this world. S/he regards this world as transient and illusory, having fundamentally found little of any deep interest in it. They regard even pleasures as hollow, unsatisfying distractions that are not worthy of much investment of our time and effort. All things must pass - only love, compassion, wisdom and skilful means are worth pursuing with any vigour and cultivating to exhaustion. These are worth our investing effort and time and go forward as lasting valuables we carry with us forever.

Such a person strives to cultivate a profound indifference to this world and its entire works, but cultivates instead a love of wisdom and compassion, of kindness, which forms the ultimate essence of a good life. All forms that are attractive to the eye, or that have repulsive qualities, to these some form of nullification is required, some internal negation of their power to pull or push the mind. The ‘superior’ thus stands aloof from and is unaffected by them. To accomplish this, some mental effort must be made in order to ignore attractive things and to draw closer to ugliness, sickness and death. In this way, one negates the alluring power of beauty and beautiful forms and creates a deliberate attraction to repulsive things. In time, this process disengages one’s mind from a strong interest in the world, and in worldly matters.

It can be easily confirmed, through direct observation, that people’s behaviour changes radically when they come into close proximity with attractive or repellent forms. Whenever they come into close contact with something they hate or desire very strongly, you can see an immediate change in their behaviour and attitude. It is especially noticeable if they encounter a very attractive man or woman, someone with extremely good looks, or in the case of a famous or very rich person, again we can see their behaviour changes.

In the case of coming close to a person with a very big expensive car, or wearing much gold jewellery and all the trappings of wealth, or someone of high social status, then again we see that their behaviour changes quite markedly. Desires become clearly manifest, rushing to the surface, as if oozing out of them. These changes in behaviour are very interesting to observe at work in the world around us, because they illustrate Buddhist ideas about mind. They act as examples of where we can view the mind at work. What we see is the action of desire and hatred as impulses that drive the mind, but which manifest as changes in externally observable behavioural terms.

Basically, the more important a person or thing is to us, the more it can cause our behaviour to change. We adjust our behaviour slightly to suit whoever we are with, but we adjust it a lot if we like or desire something or if we strongly dislike it. Nevertheless, the Buddhist approach here aims to dampen all such reactions to external forms. We need to build into our mental structure some mechanism, which prevents the mind swinging so wildly all over the place: we need some mechanism to disengage desire and hatred. Without doubt, this is a major aspect of Buddhist practice. The Buddhist rejects the ‘mood swing’ approach and tries to achieve or actualise a form of behaviour that is more constant, that sits quite peacefully independent and aloof from external influences. That is the aim. It aims to reach a state of much greater mental equanimity, of being imperturbable. This was also the permanent mental state of Buddha after his Enlightenment.

‘...the mental factor of desire...accompanies the perception of an attractive object...’[2]
‘Non-attachment...views desire as faulty, thereby deliberately restraining desire...’ [3]

The swings in our behaviour that we can observe occur because of a change in our inner mental state. Without the internal change, there would be no externally visible change in behaviour; the one depends entirely on the other. Without the change in mental state, there would and could be no external change. This therefore illustrates how the mind is dictated to by different impulses of desire and aversion, and which constantly swing it this way and that. By disengaging desire and hatred, the Buddhist strives to achieve a much greater level of equanimity of mind, which is independent of external influences.

This example also illustrates the plastic and adaptable nature of the mind, as a form of ‘clear light’ that bends with any influence and takes on the tincture or colour of anything it carries; rather like flowing, clear water, it can acquire the stain or power of any other influence. This in turn also illustrates how it can be transformed.

‘The definition of consciousness is that which is luminous and does not have any shape or is open. Its nature is luminous, clear, and capable of knowing any object through reflecting the aspect of that which it comes into contact.’ [4]
‘...the conventional nature of mind is clear light, and thus defilements do not reside in the very nature of mind; defilements are adventitious, temporary, and can be removed...we have a mind that has a nature of mere luminosity and knowing, all of us have the fundamental substances necessary for the attainment of Buddhahood.’[5]

The underlying purpose of this practice is to constantly keep in mind the basic unattractiveness of the world, its emptiness and unsatisfying nature, to realise continuously the fundamental impermanence of all forms. The attraction to death and ugliness acts as an effective antidote [a sobering influence], which combined with a distaste for beautiful forms, acts to generate a constant awareness of the presence of death and of the transient nature of reality. This dispels the passion of attraction towards pleasing forms. It encourages both non-attachment and equanimity and when practised over a long period of time, as a life habit, it eventually builds into a mountain of both. In this way, enjoyment decreases, non-attachment increases and one avoids the emotional vicissitudes created by being constantly pulled towards ‘nice things’ and repelled by ‘ugly things’. The result is a form of mental stability, or a state of indifference and equanimity, which is an ultimate aim of Buddhist practice.

If we do not adopt such a policy then we are always liable to succumb to the attraction of alluring forms.

"Without a complete thought definitely to leave cyclic existence (samsara)
There is no way to stop seeking pleasurable effects in the ocean of existence.
Also, craving cyclic existence thoroughly binds the embodied.
Therefore, in the beginning determination to leave cyclic existence should be sought."[6]

The liberated or self-actualised person can go anywhere, mix with anyone, has no residue and can mix and converse with all the common ordinary people. Such a person wishes for nothing, has an abiding tranquillity and affection for all types of beings, is aware of their faults but mentions none; s/he cultivates a benign affection for all beings, but at the same time a form of detachment from the attractive and ugly forms of the world. In essence, they have disconnected from the world. They are in it but no longer of it.

People in general, so many of them, are keen to prove something. They fall over themselves and become obsessed with wanting to prove themselves and waste a tremendous amount of mental effort in such useless, futile and unfulfilling pursuits. Such truly is a futile approach to life, as it leads nowhere except to frustration and disappointment. If only they could realise the power and value of being easier with themselves.

By indulging in the abandonment of pleasure, desire is severed at its root. By not delighting in pleasant forms, desire eventually fades and withers. By adopting humble means and manners, ego (self-love) fades and withers. In this way, one becomes more truly contented and peaceful within. By this means, one increases one’s non-attachment. By this method, one stands closer to ugly forms, to drabness and plainness, and avoids and refuses to gaze at or consider beauty. This method sounds crazy and hopeless, but it is in fact a supremely powerful weapon against the alluring things of samsara. It is powerful at nullifying both desire and hatred side-by-side. Over time, it is without doubt a very sound method, which establishes and reinforces a new habit of mind whereby the ‘pulling power’ of beauty is always avoided and, even in ugliness, one sees at times some forms of beauty.

When combined with meditation on death and impermanence, compassion and joy, this technique reaps great rewards. Much greater than a simple glance at it would indicate. The essential product of such practice is extremely precious - detachment, equanimity and inner peace. In all the great texts, these qualities are prized and encouraged above all others. Their cultivation and attainment is paramount in every form of Buddhism. Thus, to achieve them is an urgent goal if one is to make sense of the world and settle down to a more peaceful and contented life.

These methods feed and feed off each other. Detachment and equanimity in turn lead one to a more sceptical view of the world in general. Hence, meditation on impermanence and emptiness become increasingly real and vivid. Thus, non-attachment acts as a precursor for meditation on emptiness. The more sceptical one becomes of the world, about external reality, the less real it seems and thereby it can tend to dissolve into a mere dream of no consequence.

‘Nothing truly existent, all things a great falsity:
Sights and sounds I now understand as scenes in a play.’[7]
Dream objects in the mind of one drunk with sleep,
The horses and elephants conjured up by a magician:
Only appearances...
Nothing real; merely mental imputations...
‘Similarly, all things in the world and beyond
Are simply projections of names and thoughts;
Not even the tiniest atom exists by itself,
Independently and in its own right.’ [8]

This also means that the focus of one’s life shifts away from the outer world of forms, and more inwards to the inner realm of vision, which becomes correspondingly boosted in power, significance and vivid reality. It becomes one’s natural abode and in which one lives in new peace and confidence. This position also comes to have major philosophical implications:

‘….no Mahayana philosopher would assert that external phenomena have real existence.'[9]
'...a Mahayana philosopher is a person who expounds Buddhist philosophy while not accepting the existence of an external world having true existence.'[10]

All my writings are thus forms of illumination that reflect my delight in certain subjects of study and an impulse to share that joy with others. They also reflect my own desire to write more fluently, with greater elegance and clarity on any subject I wish to. They reflect my own path to personal salvation and feeble attempts to become and be a better person every day and at all times. One’s writings, and the act of writing, become a new reality in which one increasingly dwells. It becomes one’s realm of consciousness as a replacement for the engagement with the outer world of forms. This is the mentally transformative nature of writing for any individual. It is a type of spiritual path. An internal reality is so formed that becomes more real and precious than the outer world. That is the power of artistic vision. It doubtless is a path of personal salvation and allows us to be a good person and become better, to be continuously engaged in self-improvement.

‘Do good, avoid evil and keep the mind pure; this is the teaching of the Buddha.’ [11]

Buddhists regard every living being as precious and thus give rise to the thought that each is valuable and so equally worthy of our respect and affection:

"Whenever I see a being of wicked nature, who is overwhelmed by heavy non-virtue and suffering, I shall hold him near, as if I had discovered a precious treasure, difficult to find."[12]

Meditation on impermanence leads also to the realisation that we can accept any reality as being real. If one thus wishes to believe in a realm of Buddhas, a ‘heavily adorned land of great bliss’ (akanishta), then this is perfectly valid. Similarly, we can regard all beings as our precious brothers and sisters.


  1. Je Tsong Khapa, The Three Principal Aspects of the Path.
  2. Geshe Lhundup Sopa & Jeffrey Hopkins, Cutting through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, 1989, Snow Lion, USA, 188.
  3. The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 1988, Snow Lion, USA, 76.
  4. ibid, 49-50.
  5. Kindness, Clarity & Insight, Dalai Lama, 1985, Snow Lion, USA, 18-19.
  6. Tsong Khapa, op cit.
  7. Song of the Direct View, Dalai Lama VII, in Glenn H Mullin, 1985, Songs of Spiritul Change, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama VII, Snow Lion, USA, 49
  8. Meditations to Sever the Ego, ibid, 53
  9. The Selected Works of the Second Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso, Glenn H Mullin, 1982, Snow Lion, USA, 157.
  10. ibid, 168.
  11. The Dharmapada.
  12. Dalai Lama, Eight Verses for Transforming the Mind, 1982;


By Peter Morrell