Change: 4. Impermanence and desire

Philosophically, then (as well as conceptually), flux is an utterly unsatisfactory doctrine, inasmuch as it totally ignores the fundamental hierarchical nature of experience. It fails to see the difference between the forest and the trees. If, however, one adopts the attitude, “So much the worse for philosophy,” then it must be noted that flux was intended to explain not only discrete change but also attachment and its resultant unhappiness (“…it is because we fail to see flux that…”). Thus, it is not enough to assert that the small cracks on my concrete slab are the result of its being of the nature to be “always changing.” We must also say that had I only been aware of this flux (as distinct from my indubitable awareness of perceivable changes) I would have known how pointless it must be to choose attachment to what is so changeable. Only thereby would I now be impervious to any apprehension that might be occasioned by the deterioration of the slab.

However, it is not the case that apprehension (which is internal) would be mitigated by a perception of flux (which is external). Flux neither gives rise to apprehension nor accounts for it: we need to look towards attachment for that understanding.[8] Further, if flux is to explain unhappiness due to one sort of change then it must explain it with regard to other sorts of change as well. Wear is not the only hazard to my concrete slab. It might fall and shatter irreparably. And while we might accept the explanation of sub-perceptual change, or even of flux, in the case of the gradual appearance of cracks, it is more difficult to do so in the case of breakage by sudden impact. The connection to an accumulation of a vast number of infinitesimal changes is tenuous. But this is not all. It is also possible that the slab could be stolen: slab-thieves lurk everywhere. Are we to suppose that the unhappiness occasioned by the theft of what is dear to me is also explicable meaningfully in terms of flux? But if flux is not relevant to the unhappiness resultant from loss by theft then it also cannot be relevant to loss by wear or tear, for both the loss and the unhappiness are in each instance of the same order.

After all, it is not change as such that is a source for unhappiness (in which case there would be no escape from sorrow), but change from the way I want things to be. A skillful repairing of my concrete slab is a change, but it is of itself cause not for anxiety but for gladness.

My electronic clock functions dependent upon a vibration rate of some thousands of cycles per second (admittedly, a long way from the enormous figure of 176,470,000,000, but not bad for all that), and the rapidity of its vibrations causes me no alarm (unless the alarm function is switched on). Rather, I would be perturbed if the clock were to stop vibrating, to stop changing (and registering) “all the time:” to become other than the way I want it to be.

A hundred-rupee note is no less negotiable today than it was a month ago, for all that it may be said to have changed 457,410,240,000,000 times in the interim. Where is the sorrow in that sort of change?

The sun courses daily across the sky; the seasons progress annually; and this in itself does not induce anxiety. Rather, I should be disconcerted and grieved if the sun were to stop transiting the sky, or if it were to remain always winter, or even always summer. This would be truly upsetting. Yet this is not so much a matter of change as of becoming otherwise, i.e. other than the way I want or expect things to be. The sun’s position has stopped changing “all the time;” the seasons have ceased their advancement. This is the sort of change I turn from and wish to deny. For even if matters were not arranged in their most perfect possible order they were at least arranged: day followed night, winter followed autumn. There was not the threatening anxiety of uncertainty: if this, what next?

But the doctrine of flux is a doctrine of certainty: everything is always changing. It is therefore a falsification of our manifest awareness of the world’s unreliability: things change when we expect (and wish) them not to. The need to hold to and proclaim this doctrine is thus revealed for what it is: not a coming to truth but a fleeing from it. In the face of the world’s insecurity the doctrine of flux is an attempt to retreat into a position of certainty.

Yet despite our efforts we cannot change the fact that things change and become otherwise. What can be altered is our attachment to the things of the world whether or not they are in a state of flux. To make observance of flux the basis of one’s efforts, then, at minimum misses the point by going too far (atidhāvati: to overshoot the mark). It is a misdirection of effort. It diverts us from the task of recognizing our own inappropriate efforts to appropriate the world, steering us to a less relevant (but far easier) effort to perceive in the world our own notions about the world.

Rather than perceive impermanence as the decay and decrepitude of old age, as the weakening of the faculties, the loss of control over the body, the gasping for air as life ebbs, the fearsome uncontrollable slide from light to darkness as our very identity — body, perception, consciousness, all — fades away and breaks up — rather than perceive impermanence as that, how much more comfortable to blandly assert that everything is always changing, and thereby to move from the threatening and vertiginous perceptual realm to the safely exorcised sphere of the conceptual, while at the same time concealing this entire movement by a dialectical dance of complacency. No, change is involved with suffering not because of change per se but because things do not remain the way we wish them to remain even when the way we wish them to be is “to be changing.”

So then, even if conceptual and philosophical considerations carry no weight there are still other difficulties that must be faced by any who would have their beliefs (and disbeliefs) based on something more profound than somnolence. For we have seen that at the very least the question, “What is meant in the Buddha’s Teaching by the term ‘impermanence’?” is not so easily answered as has been sometimes supposed.

And yet, this same Teaching repeatedly insists that perception of impermanence is a necessary condition for uprooting the basis of human dissatisfaction. So it is clear that regardless of difficulties, complexities, or the length of our inquiry, we must explore, with openness and diligence, the question: Does the Buddha’s Teaching of impermanence mean a teaching of flux, or does it not? For if it does then either we shall have to find a way to accommodate the objections already raised, or else we shall have to abandon the Buddha’s Teaching as untenable. And if it does not then we shall have both to decide what it does involve, and also to account for the widespread and long-lived endurance of a misconception which cannot be regarded as trivial.

For it is not only nowadays that we find expositors setting forth the doctrine of continuous change as being what the Buddha taught. As far back as fifteen centuries ago we find this doctrine already firmly embedded in the perspective proposed in various expositions that have come down to us. But what do we find if we go back yet another ten centuries, to the oldest Buddhist texts extant? To those texts which represent, if any at all do, the actual Teaching of the Buddha?


8. He who is subject to craving, alas!,
his sorrows increase like abounding grass.
But he who surmounts this base craving sheds pain
just as the lotus sheds droplets of rain. — Dh. 335-36 [Back to text]

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