Making Uncertainty Clear

Luang Por Pasanno • June 2013

I received an e-mail the other day from Ajahn Ñāṇiko and Tan Ṭhitābho, who recently left on their tudong from here to Oregon. They had arrived safely at Steve’s place in Willits and were camped out on the floor of his shrine room, sore and aching because it was their first day of walking. They weren’t used to carrying all their gear for such a long distance, but they’ll get used to it. They were planning to leave Willits yesterday and head up north. Who knows how far they might get today and where they’ll be going on alms round. That is part of the adventure and part of the practice of taking on uncertainty, anicca.

When we are out on the road walking like that, uncertainty is a constant presence. In fact, wherever we are and whatever we are doing—whether on tudong, walking back to our hut, or working on a project—uncertainty is a constant companion. But often we don’t acknowledge its presence. We tend to fall into assumptions of certainty, assumptions that this is a sure thing or this is going to be a certain way. We assume that everything is laid out clearly, such as how our day is going to go, who will be here, and what can happen. There is, of course, a certain fallacy to those assumptions. It is important to remind ourselves of the uncertainty of our existence, the uncertainty of what is happening around us, and the uncertainty of the things we rely on for comfort, security, and well-being. As a part of practice and training, it is essential to keep bringing up the reflection of impermanence.

When the Buddha speaks about the universal characteristics of all phenomena, anicca is the very first quality he points to. In many suttas, the Buddha expresses that it is essential to bring awareness to the truth of impermanence. When we bring awareness to the truth that everything is changing, it doesn’t make us more anxious or fearful. Rather, it brings a sense of clarity and immediacy. But uncertainty and change are often not engaged with, and so they slip into the background. When something is in the background, it tends to be fuzzy and imperceptible, and we can have all sorts of incorrect assumptions about it.

Aniccā vatta saṅkhāra—all conditioned things, all phenomena, are impermanent—that phrase begins one of the suttas in the Dhammapada. By making an effort to bring to mind this reflection on uncertainty and change, we have an opportunity to brighten and clarify the mind with the truth of impermanence, the truth of our conditioned experience.