Transient Existence: Parallels in Buddhist Anicca and the Western Memento Mori

In both Eastern and Western philosophies, we find profound reminders of the transient nature of our lives. These reminders come in many forms – symbolic imagery, profound sayings, or philosophical tenets – but all serve the same purpose: to bring our attention to the inherent impermanence of life, urging us to live fully, mindfully, and with compassion.

In Western traditions, the ‘Memento Mori,’ Latin for ‘remember that you must die,’ is a potent symbol of our inevitable mortality. Rooted in the Latin words Memini (‘to remember, to bear in mind’) and Mori (‘to die’), it is a stark reminder of our finitude. As stated in Ecclesiasticus 7:40: “In all your works, remember your very end, and so you will not sin, unto eternity.”

One of the most recognizable symbols associated with the Memento Mori is the death’s-head, a grim token of our inescapable end. In contrast, we often see the image of a butterfly alongside it, symbolizing the fleeting soul. The contrast between the death’s head and the butterfly represents the delicate balance between life and death.

As Carl Jung points out, the butterfly, in its quick, changeful, twinkling movement, is likened to the soul – ever fleeting, ever changing. Like a butterfly, the soul is transient, highlighting the impermanence of our existence.

The depiction of these images over the Wheel of Fortune in various art forms further underscores this point. The Wheel of Fortune is a symbol of the unpredictable nature of life, indicating the ever-changing fortune that can elevate the lowly and bring down the mighty. The precarious nature of existence is emphasized here – with death lurking in the shadows and life hanging by a thread, the soul (symbolized by the butterfly) is ready to fly off. This humbling realization brings us to the understanding that, in the face of mortality, we are all equal.

Meanwhile, in Eastern philosophy, especially within Buddhism, the concept of ‘Anicca,’ or ‘Impermanence,’ mirrors the Memento Mori. It serves as a reminder of the inherent transience of all phenomena – life, emotions, thoughts, the universe itself.

Buddhists meditate on impermanence to cultivate detachment from earthly desires and to gain insight into the nature of existence. The knowledge of impermanence leads to an understanding of suffering (Dukkha), and ultimately, the realization of the self’s non-existence (Anatta). This profound understanding leads to liberation (Nirvana) from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (Samsara).

Whether it’s the stark symbolism of the Memento Mori or the profound philosophy of impermanence in Buddhism, both traditions compel us to confront our mortality. By doing so, we’re encouraged to live our lives with mindfulness, purpose, and with compassionate understanding of our shared human condition. This wisdom can inspire us to live authentically, compassionately, and fully, despite – or indeed because of – our inherent transience.