The Beauty of Impermanence

When I was growing up, I used to love reading the National Geographic. The descriptions and the pictures of far off, exotic places fascinated me. Long before Indiana Jones captured my imagination, reading the National Geographic led me to dream of becoming this great adventurer who would one day explore the dark corners of the world illustrated on its pages and then return home with great stories to regale my friends and family.
One of the places that especially intrigued me was Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia was this vast, crumbling temple complex dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses that was virtually unknown to the Western world. The article gave the reader some sense of urgency to go and experience the great splendors of Angkor Wat ASAP, because the place was quickly deteriorating due to nature’s forces – a rising water table and the encroaching jungle.
National Geographic planted this idea in my head of some day visiting Angkor Wat, but then came the Vietnam War. Cambodia became heavily involved in that conflict. Because of its geographic proximity to South Vietnam, the Communist North Vietnamese hid out in Cambodia and launched raids on our American troops in South Vietnam. During the 60’s and 70’s, the last place a young American male would dream of going was Southeast Asia.
Then in the 70’s and 80’s the brutal dictator Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge came to power. Cambodia became synonymous with “The Killing Fields” and any thoughts of ever getting to see Angkor Wat, if it even existed anymore, were pretty mush extinguished – given the destruction we heard that the Khmer Rouge was inflicting on the country.
Fortunately and surprisingly, in these last few years Cambodia has managed to establish a relatively stable form of government, a constitutional monarchy, and today it is considered relatively safe to travel there. So I began to dream once again of going to Angkor Wat – not as the swashbuckling Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, but more like the balding Jack Nicholson in “The Bucket List.” When a dear friend of mine decided to move to Cambodia’s neighboring Thailand for a 2 year stint teaching English, I saw the chance to finally make my dream a reality. Better late than never, you might say. So much for the background on all that conspired to bring about this trip.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Its outer wall encloses an area of 203 acres. And it is only one of many temple complexes in the area. Today I want to focus on another of Angkor’s temple complexes – the one called Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm was built by a Khmer King in the 12th Century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. In its day it was home to as many as 12,500 people, with an additional 80,000 people in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies to Ta Prohm.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned and was neglected for nearly 500 years.
When restoration efforts began in the early 20th century, it was decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found, as an example of how most of Angkor looked upon its discovery by Europeans in the 19th century. The strangler figs and silk cotton trees that are gradually overtaking the ruins have prompted more writers wax poetic than any other feature at Angkor.
The temple is crumbling and being absorbed back into the jungle in a manner that is both beautiful and frightening. The giant banyan trees are spilling, at glacial speed, over the tops of temple walls, wrapping around pillars, and pouring into the nooks and crannies between the stones. In the words of the author H.W. Ponder,
“Everywhere around you, you can see nature in its dual role of destroyer and consoler. Strangling on the one hand, and healing with the other; no sooner splitting the carved stones asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils; a conflict of moods so contradictory and feminine as the prove once more how well nature merits her feminine title. ”
Here at Ta Prohm, perhaps more than anywhere in the world, one can visualize and experience the Buddhist idea of impermanence (“anicca” in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.) The principle of impermanence is the supreme and most fundamental of Buddha’s teachings. In essence, this principle instructs us that the things of this world are always changing, never stopping for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, yeah, “things change,” well, DUH! How obvious is that? It may be obvious to our rational mind, but it’s human nature to resist this idea – emotionally – with ever fibre of our being. We cling to our possessions, our youth, our health, and even our very lives with all our will. Think of virtually any advertisement on TV, billboards or the internet. Most all of them capitalize on our fear of change, of impermanence, and seduce us to spend billions on everything from beauty products to insurance to vitamin supplements to medical devices. We see that our bodies or the things we cherish are impermanent, we perceive that they are threatened or are deteriorating, and we immediately want to preserve them and resist the impermanence, to postpone any change.
When I first read about Angkor Wat, remember I said that I felt this sense of urgency to go see it before it crumbled and got absorbed into the jungle. This is another way our clinging shows up. My sense of urgency was just another way that us humans manifest our fear of and resistance to impermanence. I could acknowledge rationally that this grand religious monument created by enormous human effort is, of course, impermanent, as are all compounded things in the universe. But what I thought to myself was this: If Angkor Wat can’t be restored or preserved, at least I want to see and experience it before it is gone.
Then I get to Ta Prohm and see firsthand what nature is doing to the place. And again, my first instinct was to say to myself, “Someone needs to do something about these trees destroying this magnificent temple.” Well, someone has.

One wing of the temple, destroyed by the jungle and other forces of nature, has been completely restored to its original state as seen in this before and after picture. It was so interesting to do some self observation as I walked through this restored wing of the temple. For the first few moments my attention fixated on the way the restoration team had recreated the architectural techniques of the original stonemasons in reassembling this part of the building. But I was barely halfway down the first corridor before I realized how quickly I got bored with this restored, “perfect” building. I was soon ready to go back and see the rest of the neglected temple where nature has been allowed full rein to put the idea of impermanence on display.
Leaving Ta Prohm pretty much in its natural state was an inspired decision. Tourists to Angkor Wat seem to agree, as it is one of the most visited sites in the Angkor temple complex. Wandering around Ta Prohm, you realize that no empire will last, no structure will persist. Not only will kingdoms perish, but even the stones they are built from are destined to crumble. Once you accept this and let go of the desire to struggle against it, it becomes a peaceful realization, not at all accompanied by the angst we so often experience when confronted with change, decline, deterioration, and death. Then, and only then can the true beauty of Ta Prohm come through to you.
The Buddha realized that it was not the impermanence of things, of our bodies, that caused suffering. It’s our stubborn pursuit and our clinging to things as they are or the way we want them to be that causes us to suffer. In Buddhist practice, the path to freedom from suffering lies in the acceptance, even coming to see the beauty of impermanence. Accepting that, understanding that, coming to know that deep down in our very bones – this is the source of all freedom and the end of all suffering.
To follow the path of the Buddha is to begin regarding impermanence not as a curse, but as a gift of existence. This creates a fundamental mind-shift within us. Suddenly, we struggle against impermanence a little bit less. We come to accept it a little bit more. Slowly, inch by desperate inch, we begin to let go of our cravings and desires, to let go of our suffering. We cherish life as it is, fleeting and ever changing, as good – just as it is. In doing so, we come to terms with it and experience a peace that can transcend our clinging and our reactive emotions. We cultivate equanimity, a stability of character that can transcend our fickle emotions and our reactive clinging to things as we want them to be. The goal is not to make the world changeless, which obviously we can’t do, but work at what we can do – which is to change our acceptance of life as it is. Finally then, it is not the world that becomes changeless, but rather our acceptance of it. If nothing else, becoming more mindful of impermanence makes us more aware of the importance of the here and now, and the value of today. Perhaps, if we keep working at it, we can even come to see the beauty of this impermanence. When this happens perhaps, just perhaps, we have will have achieved the nirvana of the Buddha.
It was so special for me to be granted this chance to visit Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm and to share a little of my experience of it with you. Never before have I seen such a display of the disintegration of all our grand human endeavors and the poignant beauty of simply accepting it and simply being present in the moment. If ever there was a geographical manifestation of impermanence, Ta Prohm was it for me. Walking through Ta Prohm was like a stroll through a garden of enlightenment, a chance to see the impermanence of the world and be captivated by the beauty of it.

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About lfhoward

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta
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