Change: 2. The usual argument for flux

The usual argument for flux runs like this: We can see that comparatively major changes (the manufacture and eventual destruction of my concrete slab, for example) occur infrequently. Subsidiary changes (e.g. cracks; chipping around the edges) are more common events. Minor changes (scratches on the surface, accumulation of dirt) can be noticed yet more often. It is easy enough to perceive in this progression a principle: less significant changes tend to occur more frequently than more general ones. There is the temptation to leap from this to the notion that below the threshold of perception changes are occurring, though we cannot observe them, with yet-greater frequency. It requires only one further extrapolation to reach the conclusion that ultimately (as opposed to merely conventionally) everything is changing, on an atomic level, all the time: flux. And, it is explained, it is because we fail to see this truth that we form attachments to the impermanent, thereby exposing ourselves to misery.

It is seen at once that this argument (which is certainly reductio, if not ad absurdum) bases itself upon the observation that things change at diverse rates, subsidiary changes occurring more frequently, and that it concludes with the view that things change at the same rate, constantly. Not everyone will accept a conclusion which contradicts its own premises, but those who will do so once must be prepared to do so twice. For the whole purpose of this double extrapolation from observed discrete change to hypothesized continuous change — based as it is upon analogy rather than upon necessity — is to then use this very flux as an explanation of that same discrete change. Manifest discrete impermanence is taken as the gross outcome of the extremely subtle hypostasized changes that constitute a Reality as yet hidden from our perception. Flux is thus conceived as a sort of primordial essence.

The histories of science and religion are littered with the failed remains of similar efforts to discover such a base. The 19th century scientific notion of an all-pervasive “ether” and the Christian concept of an all-pervasive “God” are examples. All such essences are self-contradictory, flux no less than the others. Out of uniformity we can never arrive at the diversity of the world we actually experience.

If everything changes at the same rate then how is it that we are aware of slow and fast, and base our lives upon this perception? Ketchup pours slowly, but a shooting star flashes across the sky. Are we to ascribe this to a misperception of reality? Do meteors fall slower for enlightened beings? Does ketchup pour faster? But if an enlightened being perceives different rates of change he cannot also perceive continuous universal change. If some things change faster then necessarily there must be some moments (if we insist upon this concept of “moments”) when other things do not change at all. Therefore if we posit a relationship between constant and variable change then that relationship is necessarily self-contradictory. However, if the relationship is severed then either the notion of flux must remain divorced from the realm of experience or else we must suppose a world in which continuous and discontinuous change are operative independently — a schizoid world!

Rather than such an impossible world, some — particularly those inclined towards mysticism — prefer none at all. They assert an essence — the Absolute, the All, or some other capitalized Concept — and deny the mundane lower-case reality which is our common lot. They find flux a handy and simple garb with which to conceal naked reality. After all, if everything is always changing then how could such evanescent ephemerae have more than an inferred or second-hand existence? Is not Ultimate Reality — a really real Reality — to be found by perceiving flux, or even by going beyond it?

Yet however much the evidence of immediate experience is denied, the world continues to exhibit, in the face of our will, the characteristic of resistance. Therefore, to lend support to the denial, recourse is sometimes had to a willful misreading of the texts, and in particular of the doctrine of not-self (anattā). After all, it needs but a slight familiarity with the Suttas to recognize their major concerns. Conceit, (mistaken) concepts of immutability and essence, the will to possess — these, and not a mere denial of the self-identity of the various things in the world (“a rose is not a rose is not a rose”) are their recurrent themes. The relevance of the notion of selfhood, and of the Buddhist response to that notion, is made clear in verse 62 of the Dhammapada:

“I have sons! I have wealth!”
Thus the fool concerns himself.
He has not his very self.
Whence sons? Whence wealth?

To transmogrify this notion of selfhood into a mere denial that things exist is an attempt to avoid the impact of the Teaching. Such a denial is the sort of wisdom the Suttas avoid: see S. XII,48: ii,77. They unequivocally assert that things (e.g. pleasure and pain — S. XII,18: ii,22) exist. “Matter (Feeling…; Perception…; Conditions…; Consciousness…) that is impermanent, woeful, and liable to change is reckoned to exist by the sages in the world; and of that I too say ‘It is.'” — S. XXII,94: iii,139.[3] “‘Everything exists:’ this, Kaccāna, is the first extreme. ‘Nothing exists:’ this, Kaccāna, is the second extreme. Avoiding these extremes the Tathāgata [= the Buddha] teaches the middle way….” — S. XII,15: ii,17 = S. XXII,90: iii,135. In other words, “This is mine” is illegitimate because “mine” is illegitimate, and not because of the supposed illegitimacy of “this is.”


3. F. L. Woodward’s translation of this passage — Rūpam (etc.) bhikkhave aniccam dukkham viparināmadhammam atthisammatam loke panditānam aham pi tam Atthīti vadāmi — in vol. 3 of Kindred Sayings (London, Pali Text Society,1955) entirely misses the point. [Back to text]

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