The Buddha on Time and the River

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The Buddha said to the great king, “Let’s talk about your body as it is right now. Now I ask you, will your physical body be like vajra, indestructible and living forever? Or will it change and go bad?”

“World Honored One, this body of mine will keep changing until it eventually perishes.” The Buddha said, “Great king, you have not yet perished. How do you know you will perish?” “World Honored One, although my impermanent, changing, and decaying body has not yet become extinct, I observe it now, as every passing thought fades away. Each new one fails to remain, but is gradually extinguished like fire turning wood to ashes. This ceaseless extinguishing convinces me that this body will eventually completely perish.”

The Buddha said, “So it is. Great king, at your present age you are already old and declining. How does your appearance and complexion compare to when you were a youth?”

“World Honored One, in the past when I was young my skin was moist and shining. When I reached the prime of life, my blood and breath were full. But now in my declining years, as I race into old age, my form is withered and wizened and my spirit dull. My hair is white and my face is wrinkled and not much time remains for me. How could one possibly compare me now with the way I was when in my prime?”

The Buddha said, “Great king, your appearance should not decline so suddenly.” The king said, “World Honored One, the change has been a hidden transformation of which I honestly have not been aware. I have come to this gradually through the passing of winters and summers. How did it happen? In my twenties, I was still young, but my features had aged since the time I was ten. My thirties were a further decline from my twenties, and now at ‘sixty-two I look back at my fifties as hale and hearty.

“World Honored One, I now contemplate these hidden transformations. Although the changes wrought by this process of dying are evident through the decades, I might consider them further in finer detail: these changes do not occur just in periods of twelve years; there are actually changes year by year. Not only are there annual changes, there are also monthly transformations. Nor does it stop at monthly transformations; there are also differences day by day. Examining them closely, I find that kshana by kshana, thought after thought, they never stop. And so I know my body will keep changing until it has perished.”

The Buddha told the Great King, “By watching the ceaseless changes of these transformations, you awaken and know of your perishing, but do you also know that at the time of perishing there is something in your body which does not become extinct?”

King Prasenajit put his palms together and said to the Buddha, “I really do not know.”

The Buddha said, “I will now show you the nature which is neither produced and nor extinguished. Great King, how old were you when you saw the waters of the Ganges?”

The King said, “When I was three years old my compassionate mother led me to visit the goddess Jiva. We passed a river, and at the time I knew it was the waters of the Ganges.”

The Buddha said, “Great King, you have said that when you were twenty you had deteriorated from when you were ten. Day by day, month by month, year by year until you reached sixty, in thought after thought there has been change. Yet when you saw the Ganges River at the age of three, how was it different from when you were thirteen?”

The King said, “It was no different from when I was three, and even now when I am sixty-two it is still no different.”

The Buddha said, “Now you are mournful that your hair is white and your face wrinkled. In the same way that your face is definitely more wrinkled then it was in your youth, has the seeing with which you look at the Ganges aged, so that it is old now but was young when you looked at the river as a child in the past?”

The King said, “No, World Honored One.”

The Buddha said, “Great King, your face is wrinkled, but the essential nature of your seeing will never wrinkle. What wrinkles is subject to change. What does not wrinkle does not change. What changes will perish, but what does not change is fundamentally free of production and extinction. How could it be subject to your birth and death? Furthermore, why bring up what Maskari Goshaliputra and the others say: that after the death of this body there is total annihilation?”

The king heard these words, believed them, and realized that when the life of this body is finished, there will be rebirth. He and the entire great assembly were greatly delighted at having obtained what they never had before.

From the Śūraṅgama Sūtra (translated 705)

Photo by Lucien Clergue

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