This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Gilana Sutta, the Buddha gives a concise teaching about the impermanent nature of human experience. As the sutta begins, a monk comes to the Buddha and tells him that another monk is gravely ill. The ailing monk, it seems, has been recently ordained and is “not well known.” The Buddha immediately goes to see the monk. (It’s worth noting the Buddha’s compassion and his willingness to spend time with a newcomer. The Buddha wasn’t a teacher who put himself on a pedestal or reserved his attention for a select few.)
At the start of his visit, the Buddha tells the monk that he hopes he’s feeling better. But the monk responds that, no, unfortunately he is not; to the contrary, his “extreme pains are increasing.” The Buddha then says, “I hope you have no anxiety, monk. I hope you have no remorse.” Here, the Buddha is referring to one of the tenets of his teaching: if we don’t develop virtue—if we don’t make an effort to refrain from harmful actions—then, when we’re dying, we’ll be plagued by feelings of anxiety, remorse, and fear.
However, the monk replies that he does have these feelings—and “not a small amount” of them. So the Buddha follows up, “I hope you can’t fault yourself with regard to your virtue.” Yes, the monk reports that he has, in fact, been able to develop virtue.
If that’s so, the Buddha asks, “What are you anxious about? What is your remorse?” The monk answers that the Buddha did not teach that virtue is the goal of the path, but rather that followers of the dharma should seek the “fading of passion”—to which the Buddha replies, “Good, good, monk.”
This exchange is especially poignant because it demonstrates the attitude that the dharma student seeks to develop. The Buddha’s path requires ardency and enthusiasm; it requires that we have a goal in mind and an abiding wish to reach it. The monk is emblematic of that enthusiasm, for, even in his gravely ill state, he is concerned only that he may not reach that goal.
So the Buddha provides a teaching to help lead the monk toward his goal, the “fading of passion.” In this context, “passion” refers to a quality of wanting or craving. This wanting is painful. It evolves, in the Buddha’s schema, into suffering, and it manifests when we’re in conflict with the way things are. The Buddha often describes how we want things to be different when we’re “joined with what is displeasing” and “separated from what is pleasing.”
The Buddha begins by asking the monk to consider the experiences of his six sense bases: the eye, ear, nose, mouth, body, and intellect. The experience of the senses comprises our conditioned experience as human beings. The Buddha asks the monk to reflect, in a step-by-step manner, on each of the sense bases. He begins with the eye. He asks: “Is the eye constant or inconstant?” (Inconstant is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pali word anicca, which is often translated as impermanent.) Human experience, the Buddha’s teachings suggest, is inconstant. It arises, changes, passes—always in an ongoing state of flux. Nothing lasts long. Nothing lasts, period.
The monk acknowledges the inconstant nature of the eye, and then the Buddha asks, “Is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?” The monk realizes that inconstant experience is inherently stressful. It can’t be depended on, and if we do rely on the experience of the senses to be a certain way, then we’re bound to suffer. The lovely image of the sunset passes. The beautiful flowers rot and now smell terrible. The warm sensations in the body on a spring evening turn to an unpleasant chill when the sun goes down. Because sense experiences are inconstant, they are unreliable, unpredictable, and unsatisfactory; they can’t bring a lasting happiness…