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BUCZEK, E. L. (2008). Impermanence As a Form of Buddhist Coping with Stress . National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 11. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 6, 2023 .

Impermanence As a Form of Buddhist Coping with Stress

Sponsored by: RUSSELL PHILLIPS (rphillips2@gmail.com)
Research has not explored religious coping in Buddhism as it has other religions. Impermanence, an important Buddhist concept, has only been examined qualitatively. The current study gave 550 Buddhists in the United States a quantitative measure of Buddhist coping, which included items dealing with impermanence. Factor analysis revealed 14 types of Buddhist coping, including the idea of impermanence. Reminding oneself of the concept of impermanence predicted outcomes from stress, over and above general religiousness and demographic variables. Individuals who used the idea of impermanence reported better outcomes from the stressful life event. Implications of the study are examined.

It is estimated that 600,000 to 1.8 million Buddhists live in the United States (Smith, 2002). Yet, no reliable measure of religious coping has been developed for Buddhism, as it has for Christian, Jewish, and Hindu populations (Pargament, Koenig & Perez, 2000). One essential part of Buddhist coping is the belief in impermanence. Impermanence is the idea that nothing lasts forever (Kong, 2003; Scotton, 1998). Qualitative studies have found that Buddhists use the idea of impermanence to deal with stress (Cassaniti, 2006; Phillips et al., under review; Soonthornchaiya & Dancy, 2006). For instance, four of seven monk participants in one study (Cassaniti) spoke of how they used the concept of impermanence in their lives to deal with personal issues such as the coming and going of friends Only the Phillips study interviewed Americans, asking 24 Buddhists how their religion helped them deal with stress. Using thematic analysis, they found that impermanence was one of the most popular concepts of coping. No quantitative research has been conducted on how impermanence is a method of religious coping stressing Buddhists. The present study will create a reliable and valid measure of Buddhist coping, including items dealing with the idea of impermanence. It is hypothesized that the items dealing with impermanence will form their own subscale through factor analytic procedures and will be related to the alleviation of stress.


The participants in the study consisted of 550 Buddhists, 42.4 percent were men. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 75 (M=45, SD=13.6). The ethnic background of the participants varied, with 85.8% of the sample being Caucasian, and the largest ethnic minority being Asian American (6.9% of the sample). The most commonly reported Buddhist sect was Vajrayana (39.6%), followed by Mahayana (28.4%), and then Theravada (24.2%). The participants ranged from 1 to 59 years practicing Buddhism (M=12.4, SD=10.6). The sample rated their spirituality on average a 3.42 out of 4 (SD =0.72) Eighty-seven percent of the participants were from the U.S., while the other 13% had been in the U.S. an average of 17.4 years (SD=15.2).

To measure Buddhist coping, 95 items (18 different subscales with 5-8 items each) were generated based on a literature review and participant responses in a qualitative study that examined how Buddhists use their religion to cope with stress (Phillips et al., under review). Five items dealt with impermanence (example item: “Remembered it won’t last forever”). Participants in the present study were asked to consider a stressful life event they were currently experiencing, and answer how much they were presently using each item to deal with that stressor on a four-point rating scale (‘Not at All’ to ‘A Great Deal’). To measure adjustment to the life stressor, participants completed the General Outcomes Scale, which has demonstrated good reliability and validity (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). This scale contains five items (e.g., “I felt better about myself after dealing with my stressor”), rated on a five-point Likert scale from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 5 (“strongly agree”).

The study was approved by the University Institutional Review Board. An online survey was created on surveymonkey.com listing the measures noted above, as well as demographic variables, and other outcome measures that will not be detailed given the focus of the present study. Participants were contacted by emailing sangha leaders across the United States, found at the website Buddhanet.net, and asking them to distribute the website for the online survey to other sangha members. Some participants were found through messaging members of a Buddhist social group on the social-networking site, Facebook. Participants who wished to be eligible for one of three $50 gift cards were directed to a second online survey to provide their email address.

A Principal Components Analysis was conducted with a Promax rotation due to the fact that the factors were expected to correlate (Pett, Lackey, & Sullivan, 2003). Given the high number of cases that had at least one Buddhist coping item missing, cases were excluded by replacing missing values with the mean item score. Participants who skipped five or more of the 95 Buddhist coping items were eliminated (9 cases were dropped). The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin statistic for sampling adequacy was adequate at .928, and Bartlett’s Test of Sphericity was significant (÷2 = 25046.5, p < .01). The scree test revealed a cutoff of 3 factors, and the K-G rule would leave a total of 21 factors with eigenvalues over 1. Given the limitations of these two tests, statisticians have noted the importance of using theory to determine where to cut off the factor structure (Pett, Lackey, & Sullivan, 2003). The first 14 factors were interpretable when using the factor loadings minimum standard for oblique rotations of 0.45 and therefore kept. One item cross-loaded on the first 14 factors, and was eliminated. The final seven factors with eigenvalues over 1.0 were uninterpretable (i.e., multiple cross-loadings with previous factors, high load items with no particular pattern), or similar theoretically to the first 14 factors. Factor 4 of the factor analysis contained only five items with factor loadings greater than 0.45, all five of the impermanence items in the survey. Table 1 lists the factor loadings for impermanence. All 550 participants completed the impermanence items, with a mean of 15.8 (SD = 3.2) for the total subscale score and 3.2 for each individual item, falling between ratings of ‘Quite a Bit’ and ‘A Great Deal.’ Descriptive statistics for all major variables can be found in Table 2. Hierarchical regressions were conducted to determine the ability of impermanence to predict adjustment to stress over and above demographic and general religious variables (see Table 3 for results). To correct for Type 1 error, a Bonferroni correction was conducted, meaning for ÄR2 to be significant, p had to be less than .008 (.05/6). This was because there were originally six dependent variables – general outcomes and five other measures of adjustment to life stress. However, this study will only focus on the results of general outcomes from the stressor. Impermanence predicted general outcomes from a stressful life event (∆R²= .078, p<.008), over and above demographic (age, gender, US native or immigrant) and general religious variables (self-rated spirituality, years practicing Buddhism). Those participants who reported using impermanence to deal with a stressor reported better outcomes from the stressful event (â = 0.29, p < .008).

The purpose of the current study was to generate a reliable and valid measure of Buddhist coping, specifically to examine whether impermanence was a distinctive form of religious coping, and whether it was linked to better outcomes from stressful life events. Impermanence items formed their own factor in a factor analysis and exhibited evidence of sufficient reliability. Impermanence predicted outcomes from stress, after controlling for general religious and demographic variables. Individuals who used the concept of impermanence more when facing a stressor reported better outcomes from the event. However, causation cannot be determined due to the correlational nature of this study. The survey in the present study was only offered online, therefore eliminating potential participants who are not computer literate. The survey was also only offered in English. This may have affected the immigrant participants’ understanding of the questions being asked. The measures were all self-report, therefore a monomethod bias could exist. Nonetheless, the present study considerably adds to the research on religious coping within Buddhism. The study created a reliable and valid measure of Buddhist coping. Further research could investigate the Buddhist coping scale in a longitudinal study to examine the implications of Buddhist forms of coping over time. The current study holds clinical implications as well. Clinicians may find it useful to emphasize the concept of impermanence when a client is dealing with a stressful life event. Clinicians might learn Buddhist clients’ strengths and struggles if they provide such a measure, and discuss these within the treatment setting.

Cassaniti, J. (2006). Richard G. Condon prize toward a cultural psychology of impermanence in Thailand. Ethos, 34(1), 58-88.Khong, S.B.L. (2003). Buddhism and psychotherapy: Experiencing and releasing dis-ease. Constructicism in the Human Sciences, 8(2), 37-56.Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.Pargament, K.I., Koenig, K.G., & Perez, L.M. (2000). The many methods of religious coping: Development and initial validation of the RCOPE. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56(4), 519-543.Pett, M.A., Lackey, N.R., & Sullivan, J.J. (2003). Making sense of factor analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Phillips, R. E. III, Colvin, C.D., Abarr, A.N., Dunn, M.W., & Reed, A.S. (under review). A qualitative study of Buddhist forms of religious coping. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.Scotton, B.W. (1998). Treating Buddhist patients: In HG Koenig (Ed.) Religion and Mental Health (263-270). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Smith, T.W. (2002). Religious diversity in America: The emergence of Muslims, Budhists, Hindus, and others. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 577-585.Soothornchiaya, R. & Dancy, B.L. (2006). Perceptions of depression among elderly Thai immigrants. Issures in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 681-689.




Submitted 4/24/2008 12:49:30 PM
Last Edited 4/24/2008 1:07:30 PM
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