Change: 1. Impermanence is central

We will no doubt all agree that the notion of change, or impermanence (anicca), is central to the Teaching of the Buddha. We are told repeatedly, in the oldest texts as well as later ones, that attachment to the impermanent results in woe. Purity, desirelessness, freedom from unhappiness in all its forms — in short, full enlightenment — is achieved by non-attachment. Non-attachment is inseparable from perception of impermanence. And conversely, it is through failure to perceive impermanence that beings continue to cling to this and that. Thus we remain mired in the slough of greed, hatred, delusion, and misery .

But what exactly can all this mean? For it is plain from the start that we already perceive impermanence, all of us. I see a sheet of white paper gradually fill with black marks. I hear various sounds (chirps, hums, gurgles) begin, endure for some time, and then fade. I perceive bodily percepts (warmth, a faint giddiness, an itch) change in character or cease altogether either rapidly or slowly. I think a succession of thoughts, images, ideas. All manifestly impermanent. And all of this is, undeniably, perception of change. “But,” it must then be asked, “if you’re so perceptive why aren’t you enlightened?” So it is clear at once that the Buddha’s Teaching, if it means anything at all, must mean something other than this by the term “perception of impermanence.” What is that “other than this?”

The usual reply — the answer we find in almost all accounts of Buddhism, both popular and scholarly — is to the effect that this perception of change is merely conventional (sammuti). There is a higher, or ultimate (paramattha) truth, a perception other than this which we must develop: not only do things change; they always change, i.e. they are in flux. By “flux” is meant either of two essentially equivalent ideas. “Pure flux” asserts that all things always change: they do not endure unchanged for any time whatsoever. “Impure flux” holds that just as matter is composed of basic units, known as atoms, so too, time consists of basic units, known as moments. These moments are the rate at which everything changes. They are, it seems, extremely brief. Various figures are bandied about, but a common one is 176,470,000,000 moments (more or less) “in a single flash of lightning.” With such phenomenal speed material phenomena whiz past our awareness. Mental events, it seems, occur about seventeen times faster.

Clearly, only enlightened beings could hope to perceive such a flux. We commoners must live out our lives in blissful (or not-so-blissful) ignorance of this truth. Nevertheless we can hardly refrain from trying to imagine what the world must be like when everything — everything! — is seen to change and flicker and dance about always, and in all ways, with such incredible rapidity that its very reality seems to be at best merely tenuous. Yesterday I wrote some words, black marks on white paper. Today that paper melts into an evanescent and fluctuating whirl. No longer white — no longer even rectangular (for both color and shape now change ceaselessly) — it seems indefinable, perhaps even impalpable. And those black squiggles, now illegible, are no longer meaningful or, the same thing, they contain all meaning, O paradox!

The wall, once so solid and immobile, now resembles a broiling impasto, as vermiculative in its ceaseless and pervasive mutations as a seething mass of maggots shrouding an overripe corpse. And this chair, once so firm and supportive: how is it that I don’t now plunge through its insubstantial flimsiness to fall endlessly down some unutterable abyss? Could this be the perception we are admonished to strive for, as being valuable above all else? In such a world how could we even brush our teeth, let alone experience the unalloyed bliss of non-attachment? Before such a vision we can readily develop a sympathy for the view, sometimes encountered, that enlightenment may be all very well and good as a future aspiration, but not now!

Of course it might not be that way at all. Imagination is not reality. A perception of universal flux might be but a gentle rippling of the surface, so to speak. A sort of universal vibration more akin to, say, a mild acid trip than to the demented visions of a psychotic madman. This would be a vast improvement over the former conceptualization, to be sure. But it is not at all clear that it would be an improvement over our everyday perception, however drab and mundane and conventional that perception might be.[2] But even if we allow that it is (as we are assured) quite free from any such disquietude as arose when we tried to imagine what perception of universal flux might be like, and even if we allow that such a perception might be (in some way) beatific, yet as a vision of reality it is still unsatisfactory.

It is not just a matter of declining to accept that perception of impermanence is co-extensive with a disdain for common sense. More importantly, the Buddha proposes, does he not?, that perception of impermanence stands in an organic relationship with relinquishment (as does non-perception of impermanence to attachment). And leaving aside (for now) the question of whether flux is a valid concept in its own right we still must ask: In what way is this notion holistically connected to letting go? After all, an ordinary person, even were he to assent to the doctrine of flux, would not thereby see (even conceptually) a connection with the ideas of attachment and unhappiness. This is demonstrated by the many non-Buddhist thinkers, from Heraclitus to Henry Burlingame III, who are in exactly this position. Of course one can argue a connection. But the fact that an argument is needed is already evidence that the connection is more a matter of reasoning than of self-evidence. And however reasonable the argument may seem it is still an argument.

This is in striking contrast to the notion of conventional or “everyday” change. Even an ordinary person (let alone an enlightened one) can readily see how that notion is connected to attachment and woe. No argumentation is necessary (for who has not loved and lost?), albeit he might not thereby see the way to free himself from such attachment, or even wish to do so. When non-Buddhists write about impermanence in its “everyday” sense it is common for them to conclude their remarks with cries of “Alas!” and “Alack!” however much they may then increase their distress by advocacy of strategies of attachment and indulgence — “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” “Eat, drink, and be merry…,” and so on.

To give a concrete example, if I accept that this concrete slab (which is dear to me) is changing “all the time” there is in that no arising of anxiety. My ownership is not thereby affected. Nor is there any a priori reason why this belief in (or even perception of) flux should induce in me an attitude of relinquishment. It could as well lead me to cling all the tighter. If, for instance, I were to choose to regard this concrete slab as “always changing” then that very “always” could lend it (in my eyes) a sort of backhanded permanence which discrete change would not. But suppose I see that my slab could be broken or stolen, that it must be polished and protected, and that in any case it will inevitably be destroyed like all concrete slabs before it. Then it is clear at once, to enlightened and unenlightened alike, that attachment to such a thing must lead to disappointment. And, on a subtler and more immediate level, the awareness that this is so must necessarily produce in me a present apprehension of that disappointment even though the concrete slab may now be undergoing no apparent (or even actual) change.

The common man may neither wish to nor be able to apply the observation of discrete change to the generality of his experience. But he is certainly capable of applying it at least to the specific case, and may even succeed thus in freeing himself from a debilitating dependency on concrete slabs. But however much he may strive to apply a belief in flux to his experience, it will necessarily remain separated from that experience by a gulf of rationalization. For flux differs from discrete change not only in that its connection to dissatisfaction is (at least for you and me) a matter of concept, not of percept, but also in that its relation to experience itself is ultimately a matter for conjecture.


2. “Most of us want some kind of deep, marvellous and mystical experience; our own daily experiences are so trivial, so banal, so superficial, we want something electrifying. In that bizarre thought of a marvellous experience, there is this duality of the experienced and the experience. As long as this duality exists there must be distortion….” — J. Krishnamurti, The Impossible Question (London: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 75. [Back to text]

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