Everything the Buddha Ever Taught in 2 Words.

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Great Wave

When asked to sum the Buddha’s teachings up in one phrase, Suzuki Roshi simply said, “Everything changes.”

Everyone and their mom knows, at least intellectually, that the whole of creation is in a state of endless revolution. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No same man could walk through the same river twice, as the man and the river have since changed.”

Impermanence is the very nature of life.

In fact, change is just another word for living—“to live” means “to change.” But few people go through life truly conscious of this fact. We “get it” but this knowledge fails to affect our behavior. We simply ignore the way things actually are. So the point of this discussion is not to explain impermanence to you, but to point it out; to wake you up to the truth of change.

Alan Watts used to compare life to music. The point of music is music, he would say. People enjoy listening to music for the rhythm, the stream of melody. No one is listening to music to hear it end. If they were then, as Watts pointed out, their favorite songs would be the ones that ended abruptly with one single uproar of noise. Life is the same way.

The point of Life is Life, to participate in the melody. Melodies are streams; they are flowing. You cannot frame them or dam them up. When you do there is no flow. That is death.

The only way to participate in the melody is through simple awareness. Simple awareness is fluid. A simple mind loses its sense of self in the music, whereas a self-centered mind keeps trying to pause the music. We are trying far too hard to hear what we want to hear, rather than moving to the music, living. We stand back as a spectator, a listener trying catch the beat. We want to grab a hold of it, own it, identify with it.

It is not enough to enjoy the music. We have to know the words. So, we keep pausing the song and rewinding it, in order to commit it to memory and claim it as our own.

The ego derives a sense of identity or meaning from its interactions with “other.”

These interactions produce vouchers, which the ego tries to collect and preserve. Rather than enjoying the concert firsthand, the ego takes pictures and films the concert, so it can talk about it and share the pictures later. The river of life is forever flowing, but for the ego, whose very existence is dependent upon freezing this stream of change, fluctuation is terrifying, which is why we call it impermanence.

From the pessimistic point of view of ego fluctuation represents a threat to its stability, but in the centerless state of basic awareness the space that enables flow or change is the womb of vitality. Life, adaptation emerges from this space. The ego seeks to ignore this space by stuffing it full of credentials and solicited testimonials.

The ego is the ultimate hoarder.

It keeps every voucher, every memory it stands to profit from. In an ego-centric mind there is no space, no room to breathe. But deep down the ego knows the whole thing may come crumbling down at any moment. It remembers the space, the silent gap between each note that enables the music to flow. This memory haunts the ego. It breeds paranoia and insecurity.

This insecurity is the benefactor that finances the ego’s obsession with collecting vouchers. An ego-centric mind is a co-dependent, and this co-dependency is all about avoiding space, fluctuation. The ego is dependent upon relationship or entertainment, which requires separation.

So, the ego has to think of itself as a distinct entity. It has to separate itself from life. Upholding this segregationist strategy is necessary, if any sort of exchange is to be possible. Separation is the foundation upon which the ego’s empire is built. As a result, it is chronically discontented or lifeless.

In addition to chronic discontentment, consider for a moment the problems one is bound to acquire, if they view themselves as an island or a solid entity in a fluid world.

Things change. However, the river is not the only thing that changes. According to Heraclitus, so does the man. But the ego sees itself as unchanging. When we stand in the river of life with our feet planted, like we are an island, life begins to feel like an overwhelming wall of water bearing down on us.

Take for example, the transition between being single and in a relationship. When you are single you develop a lifestyle that that doesn’t have to take into consideration another person. You can wake up in the morning drink your coffee, read the paper, have breakfast, go to work, go to the gym, hang out with friends, and watch whatever you want on TV. But when you bring another person into the mix you cannot continue to operate on the same schedule. The situation has changed, so your old schedule is outdated.

When ‘I’ is a fixed entity or a habit of thought, this transition is difficult. If you cling this expired image, the relationship will begin to feel claustrophobic. There will be one confrontation after the next. The intensity will continue to build over time until everything, your self image and the relationship—the man and the river—washes out.

What we think about ourselves is challenged by change. Many people say, “I shouldn’t have to give up who I am in order to be in a relationship.” I say, if you do not give up who you are, then you are not in relationship.

In fact, if you do not have to give up who you are every moment of every day, then you are not alive. To be alive is to be in a constant state of revolution. Changing situations should affect our behavior. That is sanity; allowing new information to inform my point of view. My point of view—the man in Heraclitus’ example—must remain open or fluid. “Everything changes.” That is the basic point, according to Shunryu Suzuki. Everything—the economy, politics, the weather, relationships, our beliefs, our very sense of identity—is in state of fluctuation. When we are open to change, the transition is relatively smooth. We are going with the flow. On the other hand, when we try to save all of our vouchers we drown.

We cannot swim with our hands full.

An open mind is a sane mind. An open mind is not a mind that gives due consideration to any idea, regardless of how ridiculous it is.

An open mind is a swinging door. It is a mind that does not resist change.  An open mind allows thought to be a reflection of change. From this point of view, thought is always fresh, because life is always changing. This is original thought, imagination. In basic awareness, the man and the river pour into one another.

We have to accept the fact that we cannot wrestle happiness out of this world simply by putting life in a head-lock and forcing it to play with us. We have to see that life is change, change is life; that they are one in the same thing.

Trying to organize impermanent phenomena into permanent categories of thought is like trying to herd cats. Furthermore, we are not somehow other than this change, we are Life. We are change. Confusion and discontentment arise from the mistaken belief that we are a noun. Contentment is realized when we stop swimming against the stream and settle into the fact that we are a current in the stream. The current is not other than the stream. It is the movement of the stream.

We are not a co-dependent noun standing on the bank watching life flow by, but a verb emerging out of the stream of life.



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annie23jain Mar 23, 2019 10:07pm

Loved this article… So true… So awakening…

anonymous Nov 10, 2015 5:17am

Does anyone name know the title and artist of this painting?

    anonymous Nov 10, 2015 8:18am

    Hi Michelle,

    This is a woodblock print by the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai. It's called The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

    With elephant love,

anonymous Aug 19, 2015 10:32pm

Eternal Life

anonymous Aug 1, 2015 11:52pm


anonymous Jul 26, 2015 6:03pm

Lao Tze said the two words were “stop craving” I am Muslim and most of your article is Islam. Most scholarship now points to Buddha perhaps being one of the thousands of prophets who came with the truth but we’re not mentioned in Quran or hadeeth. As for terror, that reference refers to the state of the hearts of the enemy who fights Islam and Museums.

anonymous Jul 14, 2015 4:55pm

Yes!! pay attention to the fact that everything changes.

anonymous Apr 27, 2015 9:55pm

I'm kinda partial to these two words: pay attention

anonymous Mar 31, 2015 11:31am


anonymous Mar 3, 2015 2:35am

Nice article. Very nice.
But, as Buddhists and Christians, and gays and women, and Hindus and Jews, and children, and Zoroastrians and Baha’i, are all being subjugated and slaughtered, blown up and battered, immolated and decapitated, we should be mindful of everything Muhammed ever taught in 7 words:
Sahih Bukhari (52:220) – Allah’s Apostle said ‘I have been made victorious with terror’

We who seek a greater human consciousness built upon love must be honest about the threat, the evil, that Islam poses to our ideal. And we must resist it. And we must expose it. And we must reject it.

~ The Infidel Alliance

anonymous Dec 24, 2014 11:12am

I am going through changes in my life. It’s scary. I am learning to let go and this article helps me to do so.

anonymous Aug 21, 2014 9:43am

Thanks! True words, great writing. Thanks for sharing

anonymous Aug 3, 2014 7:02am

"An open mind is not a mind that gives due consideration to any idea, regardless of how ridiculous it is."
Anybody catch this bit? Seems like a great due consideration, regardless of how ridiculous it is.

    anonymous Aug 3, 2014 8:18am
    anonymous Sep 18, 2014 12:31pm

    I noticed this too. I strongly concur that an open mind will always give due consideration to any idea.

    In fact, it is not "regardless" of an idea being ridiculous that an open mind must consider it. It is especially BECAUSE of it. Any idea that provokes a visceral positive or negative response suggests further layers to be explored.

anonymous Aug 1, 2014 4:16pm

Great piece!!! THIS is what I love about Elephant Journal. Thought provoking. More philosophy, less snarkiness!

anonymous Jul 1, 2014 11:41pm

amazing post

anonymous Jun 28, 2014 6:05pm

Great post. Buts its funny we need so many words to explain 2 words.

anonymous Jun 4, 2014 5:52am

This was awesome. Making a concious effort to let go and go with the stream does make life happier.

anonymous May 30, 2014 9:09am

Just what I needed today.

anonymous May 29, 2014 3:52pm

Let Go

anonymous May 28, 2014 4:27am

Everything changes… except for the fact that everything changes?

So if this statement is true, then everything does not change (namely the truth of the statement itself) which means the statement is untrue.

So if it is always true then it is also always untrue.

anonymous May 27, 2014 6:48pm

typo in the first sentence? "Everyone and their mom knows, at least intellectually, that the whole of creation is in a state of endless revolution." is it meant to say "endless evolution."

anonymous May 27, 2014 6:13am

Best article I've read here in quite a while. I needed to be reminded of this fact. We do often resist what is so. Thanks.

anonymous May 26, 2014 10:34pm

Ben! This is great. Too many helpful statements to praise them all.

anonymous May 22, 2014 11:46pm

Great piece. I'm new here courtesy of link from my wife and a couple of writings have hooked me to read this site. Thanks!


anonymous May 14, 2014 10:35am

Thank you so much for posting this, I needed to read this today, two of my favorite representations of change, flowing water and beautiful music

anonymous May 14, 2014 8:53am

thanks for the teachings Ben.

anonymous May 13, 2014 2:51pm

Benjamin Riggs, thank you! I was in need of a well-phrased reminder such as this today. As you say we know it, we ''get it'' but we carry on behaving as though we don't.

anonymous May 13, 2014 1:49pm

"Confusion and discontentment arise from the mistaken belief that we are a noun."
That was beautiful. Thank you 🙂

anonymous May 13, 2014 1:49pm

Absolutely love this!!! This article is exactly what I needed at this time. I'm dealing with a dramatic life changing experience where everything is now different all at once. Your words help me see what i already knew from the Buddha's teachings. Thank you

anonymous May 13, 2014 1:04pm

amazing post!!

anonymous May 13, 2014 9:51am

Great writing Ben, thanks for reminding us about our ever flowing nature it truly is a blessing.

anonymous May 13, 2014 9:32am

Know Thyself

    anonymous May 17, 2014 8:38pm

    Tom! Good to see you on here.

Claudia Araujo Sep 30, 2018 7:43pm

Thanks very true facts of life we tend to forget.

Ana Laura Moreira Sep 28, 2018 10:05am

Congratulations. Awesome writing. Clear and reflecting. Powerful.

Caren Garcia Sep 27, 2018 4:31pm

Thank you for this wonderful article. Very well-said and insightful.

Mudra Love Aug 6, 2018 7:40am

Happy to set aside my ego to read this one!

Navaneetham Chandrasekharan Jan 27, 2018 5:26am

Buddhism in a single sentence is Do no Evil Always do good action Be Mindful

Amy Fugate Sep 7, 2017 11:26am

Thank You! Difficulty getting others to realize that essential sacrifice in relationships. The giving up of oneself. How do you deal with those that want to do their own things as a result of being secure in a relationship?

Ceci Trigos Aug 14, 2017 5:06pm

This is so amazing because it´s so "simple", almost like an amazing mantra we can use every day or when we feel overwhelmed. Thanks!

Stacey Cornelius Apr 29, 2017 1:11am

Omg. This is so me! And it makes me sad because it's all I've ever been and will be. I cannot change this at 50. I can try. But life seeming to be a free for all scares me. I am not wired that way. I would rather not play. I need some rules that we all can agree to play by.

Karen Laviolette Apr 28, 2017 1:07am


Jennifer Snyder Hoch Feb 15, 2017 6:38pm

Great article!!

Stephen Fraser Dec 27, 2016 2:26pm

A deeply thought provoking article...thank you ..

Chris Haarz Jun 20, 2016 6:34pm

Love, love, love this!

Paul McDonnell May 14, 2016 1:57pm

Thank you.

Stephanie Van Orden Apr 13, 2016 3:43pm

I love this, it deserves much pondering! Thank you.

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Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.