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this too shall pass

The Story Of King Solomon’s Ring


This is a popular Jewish wisdom folktale as told by David Franko from Turkey. It contains a very important lesson that relates to the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.”


“One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”

“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah,

“I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?” “It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.”


The Lesson of Impermanence

The lesson of King Solomon’s story is impermanence; nothing remains forever, everything is passing, rising and decaying, appearing and vanishing in this whirlwind of space-time. King Solomon, after being presented with the ring, realizes this lesson is true for all of life’s conditions – not just the fluctuating, and sometimes unpredictable arousal of mental feelings such as happiness and sadness – but also the impermanence of physical beings as well, including our own possessions and body.

Impermanence has a dualistic nature depending on the mind that becomes aware of it. As the story of the ring suggests: “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” For those who think of life as a burden and associate many negative feelings towards life, they may see nothing but happiness in death. But for those who are living a life of luxury and wealth, they will see nothing but sadness in death.

The ring symbolizes the impermanence of life, it’s typical understanding being death. Some wish to live forever in the hand’s of God, but the hand of this God gives life and takes life – this is nature. Observing nature is a lesson in impermanence, change, life, and death. These are things to be accepted. The lessons of impermanence are also clearly stated by the Buddha as of paññā (Pali) or prajñā (Sankskrit), meaning: “wisdom”, “understanding”, “discernment”, “cognitive acuity”, and “know-how.”

The 5th-century Indian Theravadin Buddhist commentator and scholar, Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa, states that the function of paññā is “to abolish the darkness of delusion” and that it is “manifested as non-delusion.” Its proximate cause is “Right Concentration,” as part of the Buddha’s “Noble Eightfold Path” to enlightenment [1]. Buddha describes paññā (translated as “discernment” here) as.

    “And what is the faculty of discernment? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is discerning, endowed with discernment of arising & passing away — noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of stress. He discerns, as it is actually present, [the Four Noble Truths]: ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’ This is called the faculty of discernment.” [2]

The principles of paññā, and specifically the wisdom of impermanence, is also associated as a part of “Right View,” on the Noble Eightfold Path, so it is a teaching that has a clear theme in the Buddha’s teachings, sometimes in varying complexities.


Experiencing Impermanence

Impermanence is easy to perceive. Life always feels like it is changing – at the very least – time gives us the constant perception of moving forward – this is a very consistent kind of change, and it is almost always present in our everyday, waking consciousness.

Time is the birth place to impermanence. Time is the dimension of reality that allows things to have the space for change, it gives physical events a space to “take place in”, and gives physical and mental beings the capacity to evolve.

One of the revelations as a result of meditation is that, even in the stillness of sitting on the cushion, life is coming and passing right in front of our senses. The conditions of life, both mental and physical, are constantly being re-conditioned and re-molded into newer bits of reality. Our existence is always reassembling itself in the face of new experiences, from an itch on the nose, to the special feeling we might get before the life-changing words “I do,” are spoken at the wedding altar.

All experience has a different flavor, movement, and intensity of meaning – but they are all similar in so far as they are impermanent. In practice, this knowledge can keeps one from clinging to negative thought patterns and re-living bad memories (when the ring brings one from sadness to happiness). But this knowledge can also be a downer when we are in the midst of so much beauty and joy in the world. However, by remaining mindful of impermanence – in the face of both the Good and the Bad – we can give our self the space to make it through the appearance of Bad, as much as we can use this space to make it through the vanishing of Good.

The lesson of impermanence, if applied correctly, can limit the suffering of life; because one can just be in a moment – not clinging to good or running from bad – but experiencing both as they are, with nothing else but acceptance and equanimity.

At first, this attitude of distancing one’s self from the impermanence of reality can seem boring and dull, as if it will take the zest out of life’s array of experiences. However, I have found the lessons of impermanence to, in fact, increase my zest for life by allowing me to fully experience moments as they arise, letting them pass me, and then as they letting them decay and vanish. These experiences of mindfulness (which can be applied to any experience) are the building blocks to strengthening one’s will, our ability to direct and apply attention – with the observer’s best discretion – along with the sense of wonder and bewilderment of a child, but the concentration and clarity of a good scientist.

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