3          contemplation of impermanence
This particular vipassana practice - or family of vipassana practices, since there are many variations - is designed as an antidote to the mental poison of craving.
addiction and creativity
We saw earlier (Chapter Five) that the nagging worry about `things not lasting' is a root cause of insecurity. Insecurity and craving always go together: craving - whatever it seems to be directed towards - is basically craving for security. Our ego-sense seeks security and yearns for sensations and possessions.
How can we best define the mental poison of craving? Craving is a kind of desire. But it is not the same thing as desire, for we can desire things in a healthy way. We can very usefully cultivate a desire for objectivity, compassion, and even Enlightenment itself. Craving is ignorant, self-centred desire. It is better known as the universal tendency towards addiction - the tendency to cling on to anything that seems to offer security. It is so harmful because no matter how much we indulge craving, we always feel that we must have more.
In this sense, everyone is an addict in certain ways and to certain degrees - unless they are heading irreversibly towards Enlightenment (and even then, they will not have completely eradicated the poison of craving). According to the Buddha, craving is the basic human predicament, and the primary cause of all human suffering. Part of the definition of Enlightenment itself is freedom from craving.
Craving for unrealistic, impossible satisfactions is at the root of so many of our tightly held attitudes, habits, hopes, fears, irritations, and passions. Essentially it is our addictive tendencies - the whole complex of clinging to whatever seems to give security - which stand in the way of our freedom and creativity. If we could loosen the knot, even very slightly, we would experience a great deal more happiness.
The only way to untie the knot of craving is to use vipassana to look into the basic predicament. We need to look clearly at impermanence, the reality that we are all running away from. If we can deeply acknowledge the impermanent nature of the objects that we crave, we shall eventually realize, in our heart, the possibility of complete freedom from craving.
reflecting upon death
Craving can go very deep, so strong antidotes may be required to overcome it. The basic form of impermanence meditation is to look it straight in the eye, as it were, and contemplate death - usually the most dreaded form of impermanence. There are other approaches too, as we shall see. There are a number of different ways of reflecting upon death, designed for the needs of different temperaments.
reflecting upon the impermanence of the physical body
The first method is rather radical: it is to contemplate the decomposition of a dead body. This may be done in one's imagination. (Tradition recommends using an actual corpse, which obviously may be difficult to arrange!)
People do, of course, die, and if you are present in these circumstances it may be natural and appropriate to spend some time with the body, which may be that of someone you have known. In spite of the fear or loathing that such an idea may arouse - usually as an idea, rather than as a real experience - at such times we may feel a deep sense of clarity and perspective, the very antithesis of craving.
In Eastern Buddhist lands where cremation and burial were not practised, human remains were often simply left in a charnel ground to decompose naturally or to be eaten by wild beasts. A meditator would go to such a place and mindfully observe the bodies lying there in various states of decomposition. Recollecting that his or her own body would go through similar processes after death, they would acknowledge their experience of these things and try to come to terms with whatever emotions might arise. Provided effective preparation had been made in terms of samatha practice, the effect would be the conquest of irrational anxiety through a deep sense of inspiration.
Clearly, anyone wanting to use this method will need to be an emotionally positive and well-balanced individual, and not someone prone to morbid depression. This proviso is particularly necessary in the modern West, which seems to be quite unlike the environment in which these practices arose.
India, in the Buddha's day, seems to have had an emotionally healthy atmosphere. Yet there is a story that even the Buddha misjudged the suitability of this practice for a particular group of monks; returning later, he found that they had all committed suicide, apparently due to depression.
So the `recollection of impurity', as this meditation is sometimes called, requires a firm basis in metta and mindfulness. If that basis is there, then we'll be able to engage with the universal fact of death with a real interest and inspiration. If the reflection is developed gradually within a balanced and happy frame of mind, it will loosen our small-minded clinging to security and create a tremendous sense of confidence and freedom.
general reflection upon death
The second method is less `confrontational', yet may be just as effective. It is simply to recollect, on the basis of a concentrated state of mind, the fact that we are one day going to die. Of course we all know this theoretically, but it's an extremely difficult fact for us actually to realize and fully accept.
Start the practice with a good session of Metta Bhavana, taking the practice towards dhyana, or at least access concentration. Then turn the fact of death over and over again within your concentrated mind. Traditionally, one repeats inwardly the word `death', or some phrase that will keep the fact of death in the mind. The main thing is to keep a receptive and peaceful quality of attention upon this phrase, or idea, until the fact of death really does sink in.
As a preparation, you will probably find that metta alone is not enough to contain the power of this practice. Concentration is also important, because the mind may well make attempts to evade the issue, throwing up smoke-screens of distraction and dullness. (These, in fact, are the commonest problems.) If you find these hindrances arising then go back for a while to samatha meditation before returning to the vipassana.
reflection on the root verses from The Tibetan Book of the Dead
A variant of the `phrase' approach is to repeat slowly to oneself, from memory, these Root Verses from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
58 Consider the following lines.

O now, when the Birthplace Bardo [i.e. the Bardo of Life] upon me is dawning!
Abandoning idleness - there being no idleness in (a devotee's) life
Entering into the Reality undistractedly, listening, reflecting, and meditating,
Carrying on to the Path (knowledge of the true nature of) appearances and of mind, may the Trikaya
59 be realized:
Once that the human form has been attained,
May there be no time (or opportunity) in which to idle it away.
O now, when the Dream Bardo upon me is dawning!
Abandoning the inordinate corpse-like sleeping of the sleep of stupidity,
May the consciousness undistractedly be kept in its natural state;
Grasping the (true nature of) dreams, (may I) train (myself) in the Clear Light of Miraculous Transformation:
Acting not like the brutes in slothfulness,
May the blending of the practising of the sleep (state) and actual (or waking) experience be highly valued by me.
O now, when the Dhyana Bardo upon me is dawning!
Abandoning the whole mass of distractions and illusions,
May (the mind) be kept in the mood of endless undistracted samadhi,
May firmness both in the visualizing and in the perfected (stages) be obtained:
At this time, when meditating one-pointedly, with (all other) actions put aside,
May I not fall under the power of misleading, stupefying, passions.
O now, when the Bardo of the Moment of Death upon me is dawning!
Abandoning attraction and craving, and weakness for all (worldly things),
May I be undistracted in the space of the bright (enlightening) teachings,
May I (be able to) transfuse myself into the heavenly space of the Unborn:
The hour has come to part with this body, composed of flesh and blood;
May I know the body to be impermanent and illusory.
O now, when the Bardo of Reality upon me is dawning!
Abandoning all awe, fear, and terror of all (phenomena),
May I recognize whatever appears as being my own thought-forms,
May I know them to be apparitions in the intermediate state;
(It has been said), `There arrives a time when the chief turning-point is reached;
Fear not the bands of the Peaceful and the Wrathful, who are your Own thought-forms.'
O now, when the Bardo of (taking) Rebirth upon me is dawning!
One-pointedly holding fast to a single wish,
(May I be able to) continue the course of good deeds through repeated efforts;
May the womb-door be closed, and the revulsion recollected:
The hour has come when energy and pure love are needed;
(May I) cast off jealousy and meditate upon the guru, the Father-Mother.
O procrastinating one, who thinks not of the coming of death,
Devoting yourself to the useless doings of this life,
Improvident are you in dissipating your great opportunity;
Mistaken, indeed, will your purpose be now if you return empty-handed  (from this life):
Since the Holy Dharma is known to be your true need,
Will you not devote (yourself) to the Holy Dharma, even now?

Our lives nowadays would benefit greatly from a more positive view of death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a guide for skilful dying, places the notion of death in a very inspiring context. Death is conceived of as just one of six bardos or `in between states', states of being that come `in between' other states of being. For example death is a bardo between this life and the next, just as life itself is a bardo between a previous death and the coming one. The dream state is a bardo between last night's and this morning's waking state, and meditation (in the sense of dhyana) is a bardo between states of more ordinary consciousness.
Here death is seen not only as inevitable, but as part of life - with its own positive value. Moreover, not only can spiritual progress be made during life, it can also be made in the bardo after death - provided there has been adequate preparation in the form of mindfulness and meditation.
meditation on change
This is another, even more general, way to reflect on impermanence. With this practice we simply reflect on the basic truth of change. Once you are established in a concentrated state of mind, mindfully observe your mental states as they change from moment to moment, always flowing on and on like a river. Observe objects in the outer world as, little by little, they grow old and begin to break up, always turning into something slightly different. Reflect on the fact that things are never solid and fixed, as they appear to be.

The lovely flowers of turquoise-blue
Are destroyed in time by frost
This shows the illusory nature of all beings,
This proves the transient nature of all things.
Think, then, you will practise Dharma.
The precious jewel that you cherish
Soon will belong to others
This shows the illusory nature of all beings,
This proves the transient nature of all things.
Think, then, you will practise Dharma.
A precious son is born;
Soon he is lost and gone
This shows the illusory nature of all beings,
This proves the transient nature of all things.
Think, then, you will practise Dharma.


This reflection can also be done in conjunction with the walking meditation outlined at the end of this chapter.
4          the six element practice
dissolving habitual self-identification
The next of the Five Basic Methods, the Six Element Practice, is an antidote to the mental poison of conceit.Conceit is an emotion which arises out of a very strongly held self-identification. In this meditation we try to experience what this `self' really consists of, and we do so in terms of six `elements’ - earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness. Everything that we could possibly identify with as a self - whether physical, mental, conscious, or unconscious - is included in the six elements.
In the practice, we dwell upon each element in turn. First of all, we see the way it manifests naturally in the outside world. Then, as we look at the way it also manifests in us, we reflect that we cannot regard this manifestation as truly our own, even though that is how it feels.
In reality, neither our body nor our mind was consciously created by us, and we have almost no control over their continual change. What, then, in our experience, can we call `I'? By questioning in this way, we start to experience ourselves more as we really are: as a continually changing flux of impersonal processes.
the stages of the meditation
The practice begins, at least ideally, in the first dhyana - certainly we need to be in a state of clear concentration and positive emotion. Then we reflect on each element in turn, as follows.
the earth element
This represents everything we perceive as solid and resistant, whether it is out in the world or inside our own body. For example, in the world outside ourselves there are houses, cars, roads, trees, and rocks. All these consist of hard, solid matter. We also find this element of `earth' in the solid parts of our own body, in its bones and sinews, muscles, hairs, skin, etc.
In the meditation practice, we first of all generate samatha. Then we establish a general awareness of the earth element - of the fact that it exists both outside us and inside us, and of its qualities of relative hardness, opacity, and impenetrability.
We then reflect that, although we conventionally regard these relatively solid parts of our body as `mine', we cannot say that we really possess them. The earth element in our body has naturally formed itself out of the earth element in the outer universe. Our body has been built up and constantly replenished by the solid food we have put into it. We have certainly played no conscious part in its creation: it is as though we had `borrowed' it for a while. Which means, of course, that one day we shall have to return it. One day - we cannot say when, or predict how - we shall have to die. When that happens, the earth element in our body will once again become a part of the `outer' universe. But now we can see that both the `inside' and the `outside' of us have always been exactly the same in nature, being equally of the nature of earth.
the water element
This refers to every form of liquid - everything that flows downwards, that drops, that dribbles and splashes, that oozes, drips, or forms into puddles. In the outer world, for example, we have seas, oceans and great lakes, rivers and streams, clouds and raindrops.
In our own body too there are many varieties of fluid, such as tears, joint-lubricant, sweat, urine, blood, mucus, saliva, and digestive juices. Again, all these have been `borrowed' from outside; and again, in the meditation practice we reflect that all will inevitably have to be `returned' when the body breaks up and becomes part of the universe at large. Though we may feel a sense of identification - even possessiveness - about it, we nevertheless cannot claim any real ownership over the water element.
the fire element
This comprises everything to do with relative heat and cold - it is the element of temperature. In the outside world there is, above all, the sun. There is hot and cold weather; there are volcanoes, hot springs, frozen seas, glaciers, icebergs. Nearer home, there are man-made fires and heating systems.
In ourselves, there is body temperature: there is the heat caused by physical exertion and the digestive processes. Heat is involved in the body's processing of food as its fuel, and in the need for clothing to keep our body warm or cool.
But when death comes, our body will gradually lose all its heat. That heat was not really our `own' heat, in any real sense, for it was entirely dependent on the natural processes involved with maintaining a body. So accepting this fact, coming to terms with it, we let the fire element go back, in our imagination, to its source. Without clinging on to it, without thinking that it is ours, we let the borrowed fire element in our body return to the fire element in the universe.
the air element
Air fills the outside world, giving life and breath. In this part of the meditation we imagine the all-pervasiveness of air and its qualities of lightness and transparency, perhaps visualizing the vast movements of air through space, through streets and city buildings, across immense areas of land - mountains, oceans, deserts - sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes moving, sometimes still, carrying with it fumes and fragrances of every kind, coloured by every kind of light and shade.
Air moves inside our body too. In fact we may reflect that life - our life - is dependent on air in a very immediate way: we are either inhaling or exhaling air all the time, and when we come to die, we shall breathe in, and then breathe out - for the last time. This is inevitable, and at this stage of the six element practice we try to accept it.
We also reflect that we cannot own the air, or the process of breathing, in any way. We cannot identify ourselves with the air element any more than earth, water, or fire. It is not ours, it is not us; it is not part of us, and we are not part of it. In spite of the fact that we feel that it is ours - feel, above all, that we would be losing something if it stopped! - we try to realize the illusion, and accept the fact that breathing is an impersonal process which goes on regardless of our feelings of ownership.
the space element
Space is that in which all the other elements exist, including even air. Space is infinite: we are surrounded by its inconceivable vastness which includes all living beings and all worlds, out of which our own body occupies a tiny portion.
There is a `me'-shaped space here, which we identify with. But if we reflect, we will have to acknowledge that this space cannot really be said to be ours, except in a very temporary sense. Like the other elements, it is `borrowed', just for the time that our body exists. When we die, the earth, water, fire, and air elements dissolve, and the space which was `me' will simply join with the space which was `not-me'. So at this point in the meditation we reflect upon all this, accepting the fact that we cannot identify with the space which our body presently occupies.
the consciousness element
Consciousness, in its conscious and unconscious aspects, is rather complex compared with the physical elements, so it is easiest (at least when we start this meditation) to limit our practice of the sixth stage to the normal consciousness which we experience through our five physical senses and ordinary thinking mind.
We are of course surrounded by other people who also experience this kind of consciousness. We all experience the outer world of earth, water, fire, air, and space, either in immediate sense-experience (i.e. via the senses) or in terms of memories, theories, and ideas (i.e. via the thinking mind).
First of all we contemplate all these aspects of our mind, trying to get a feeling for the element of consciousness.
Then we reflect that when our physical body no longer exists, our sense organs - eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin (i.e. touch) will also no longer exist. Without sense organs, the external world will no longer exist either, at least not for us; so then we will no longer have any frame of reference for our experience. We should try to imagine what this could be like - imagine how, without a physical, sensory frame of reference for its ideas and images, the ordinary thinking mind must also cease to exist; or at least, it must surely cease to exist in the way that we currently experience it.
Since this change is beyond our control, even this consciousness cannot be said to be ours. So once again we try to accept the fact that our consciousness is `borrowed' and will have to be `returned'. What exists is just consciousness itself. It is neither our consciousness, nor is it something other than consciousness. All that exists is ownerless consciousness.
By the end of the Six Element Practice we have dissolved - in our imagination - our attachment to every part of our experience. We have allowed ourselves to abandon, to a certain extent, the limitations of our idea of a `self'.
As we saw earlier, self-view is the basis of conceit in the specifically Buddhist sense (mana). If no self is found to reside in earth, water, fire, air, or consciousness, where else could it possibly reside? So we sit in meditation experiencing the constantly changing phenomena of our mind, seeing that it is all perfectly ownerless. This may be a very liberating experience. We can see that even our perceiving mind is an impersonal process, and that the whole phenomenon of personal existence, though thoroughly real as an experience, is conditioned by our view of reality.

There is no doer of a deed
Or one who reaps the deed's result;
Phenomena alone flow on
No other view than this is right…
The kamma [i.e. action] of its fruit is void;
No fruit exists yet in the kamma;
And still the fruit is born from it,
Wholly depending on the kamma.
For here there is no Brahma God,
Creator of the round of births,
Phenomena alone flow on
Cause and component their condition.

Quoted by Buddhaghosha



resolving intellectual doubts
This reflection is very deeply challenging, and has many implications for our life. So if you want this meditation to be effective, you'll need to think through any such implications at times when you are not meditating. Otherwise, when you actually sit down and do the practice, you may waste your energies wrestling with intellectual doubts - which would be using the thinking mind in a way that is not compatible with vipassana. In vipassana you need to be as clear as possible about the conceptual meaning of the particular topic being reflected upon.
Let's try a common example of a doubt. Do you really see that when your body no longer exists, your present mode of consciousness will likewise no longer exist? If you do, then you will be able simply to dwell upon that idea and to let its implications pervade your inspired, dhyanic consciousness. But if you don't, you'll quickly lose concentration.
Such a concept is like the single irritating speck of grit which eventually causes a pearl to be formed. It needs to be one potent, meaningful idea rather than a bundle of unclear, perhaps conflicting, ideas. You need to be able to trust it, at least provisionally. Otherwise you may start wondering and doubting: `Well, does consciousness end at death then? How can I be sure that it does? I can't actually know that from experience,’ - and so on. Doubts are arising here because we have not clearly defined what we mean by consciousness. There is no point in attempting vipassana meditation until we can settle these doubts to some extent; and when new doubts arise in the course of practice, as they will, we should examine and settle them too. This means that a certain amount of intellectual preparation and back-up, in terms of thought and study, is necessary in conjunction with the practice. Some contact with an experienced teacher is also essential.
clarifying uncertainty about the nature of consciousness
That question about the nature of consciousness often arises during the final stage of the six element practice. If it does so for us, then we have the opportunity of taking our meditation significantly further than the non-selfhood of ordinary waking consciousness. We can now plunge more deeply into this profound truth.
When we ask whether consciousness really ceases when it no longer has the support of a body and physical senses, we are at a point where we can also take into consideration the unconscious mind, and even the collective unconscious. Once we have a clear understanding that we do not `own' our ordinary consciousness, we are in a position to perceive that we do not own our unconscious mind either, for both the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious are, by definition, out of our conscious control, and we cannot be said to own something outside our control. The individual and the collective unconscious can only be experienced after death, in dreams, and sometimes in meditation - situations in which the superficial, conscious personality is dissolved.
The unconscious mind is such a mysterious thing that we can understand how so many religions identify it in some way with a `soul'. But after some application, one who contemplates within the Buddhist tradition may begin to see things differently.
Certainly, it is only natural to want to find a `self'. Indeed, most of us seem to need to develop more of a sense of individuality. For the greater part of our development, we definitely need the self - other framework, ultimate illusion though it may be. As we have seen, the fundamental stage of the path of samatha represents a progressive strengthening and refining of the personal ego.
But once a certain foundation of refining and strengthening has taken place, it is time for vipassana meditation to show us the true nature of this ego: that it is impermanent and insubstantial. Even so this does not mean that it is completely non-existent: at least our experience is real, even if our interpretation is mistaken. Yet the practice continually refers us back to the totally insubstantial nature in everything we call ourselves. Thus, through the Six Element practice, we can gradually come to an understanding of the profundity, richness, and magic that is inherent in our immediate experience.