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From the Bodhinyanarama newsletter, October 2008

While visiting Thailand recently I was frequently reminded of one of the fundamental Buddhist teachings. In the Thai language this is mai nae, meaning uncertain; not sure – the living expression of the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anicca, or impermanence. This is how we directly experience impermanence in our daily life; emotionally, we experience impermanence as uncertain, unreliable, undependable, unstable.

Sala bell tower
Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Wellington, NZ.
(Photo by John Johns)

When we make plans or have an idea about something, it seems to be so certain. Then we build our expectations and hopes on it, giving it even more certainty, often forgetting that it is merely a fragile, uncertain thought.

I think for many people contemplating impermanence usually relates to things, or occasionally to thoughts or moods. However, translating it as ‘uncertain’ can help us to see the direct emotional effect of impermanence in our everyday lives and thus come closer to a direct realization of its immediacy and universality.

On the practical side, a deeper contemplation and realization of this ultimate uncertainty of all aspects of our life helps to lubricate the inevitable tensions. We can easily get caught up in thinking that life should conform to some definite plan. But by keeping a close connection with the truth of uncertainty we can soften the resulting frustration and negativity when the plan doesn’t unfold the way we think it should.

We may even gain a clearer understanding of the real nature of plans: mere concepts about possibilities, rather than concrete programmes of actualities. Then whenever we find ourselves having to make plans we do it in pencil with an eraser in hand, and with the clear understanding that many other possibilities are available as well. The overall effect, is that we can relax more and flow with the inevitable changes of life.

Of course, in order to be of use it must be lived. Ajahn Chah would frequently remind us of mai nae. When someone would come to him enquiring about some pressing need or problem he would frequently respond with mai nay. And often that was more of a helpful answer than actually responding to the problem, since many problems are the result of us expecting that there should be a solution. When we can let go of the whole dynamic of problem/solution, the whole issue of ‘problem’ falls apart – it is not a problem but just the way things are, and they are all just passing phenomenon.

In order to bring this teaching into our life it may be useful to often remind ourselves of uncertainty. Whenever we hear ourselves say ‘should’ or ‘must’, say instead: ‘uncertain’ and see what effect this has.

Sometimes you may notice the mind stop, a deeper level of relaxation is experienced and another way of responding may emerge. It is there all the time, but we have become so focused on ‘should’ we forget the ‘maybe’. Which is better for you, and which is more true? 

Ajahn Tiradhammo

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