Change: 5. What the Suttas say

It is generally agreed by both traditionalists and scholars alike that no Buddhist texts predate the four major Nikāyas of the Sutta Pitaka, and that these Nikāyas originate either with the Buddha himself or within a few score years of his decease.[9] Therefore the way to discover what the Buddha meant by change (or for that matter any other doctrinal concept) it is necessary to examine these texts and learn what is said therein.[10]

Rather than trying to be exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) it will be adequate herein to offer but one quotation from each of the four Nikāyas, chosen from a host of congruous alternatives. Those who read the Suttas will discover for themselves the additional evidence that is to be found therein. Those who do not may prefer to consider the discussion which follows rather than peruse numerous citations of Canonical authority.

1) And which, friends, is the development of concentration which, developed and made much of, leads to mindfulness and awareness? Here, friends, feelings arise known to a monk, known they persist, known they go to an end. Perceptions arise known, known they persist, known they go to an end. Thoughts arise known, known they persist, known they go to an end. Friends, this is the development of concentration which, developed and made much of, leads to mindfulness and awareness. — D. 33: iii,223.[11]

2) And those things in the first meditation — thinking and pondering and gladness and pleasure and one-pointedness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, mind, wish, resolve, energy, mindfulness, equanimity, attention — these things are analyzed step by step by him. These things arise known to him. Known they persist, known they go to an end. He understands thus: Thus these things, having not been, come to be. Having been, they disappear. — M. 111: iii,25.[12]

3) Friends, the arising of matter […of feelings; …of perception; …of conditions; …of consciousness] is manifest, ceasing is manifest, change while standing is manifest. — S. XXII,37: iii,38.[13]

4) But indeed, sir, whatever is existent, conditioned, intended, dependently arisen, that is impermanent. What is impermanent is unpleasurable. What is unpleasurable is [to be regarded as] “This is not mine; I am not this; this is not my self.” Thus this is correctly seen with right understanding as it really is. And I understand as it really is the uttermost refuge from that [suffering]. — A. X,93: v,188.[14]

All these statements are positive assertions that things not only arise and pass away but that they also endure. They are not statements that everything (or even anything) is in a state of flux. Indeed, although the four Nikāyas occupy some 5,500 pages of print in their abbreviated roman-script edition, there seems to be not a single statement anywhere within them that requires us to understand thereby (in opposition to the above passages) a doctrine of flux. On the contrary, the Suttas are wholly consistent on this point (as on others). Therefore even in precisely those passages where we would most expect to find such a doctrine, if it were to be found in the Nikāyas at all, the assertion is conspicuously absent. Thus for example at M. 28: i,185, we find:

There comes a time, friends, when the external earth element is disturbed, and then the external earth element vanishes. For even of this external earth element, great as it is, impermanence will be manifest, liability to destruction will be manifest, liability to decay will be manifest, liability to become otherwise will be manifest. What then of this body, which is held to by craving and lasts but a little while?…[15]

Here the impermanence of even the earth element (and, farther on, of the elements of water, fire, and air) is emphasized precisely to demonstrate the yet-greater impermanence of this body. If the notion of flux was congruent with the essence of the Buddha’s Teaching would this not be a perfect opportunity to point out that even the four elements (let alone this body) are so impermanent as to be changing all the time? But no, all that is asserted is that even this body lasts “but a little while.” Is “a little while” more than a single moment? Apparently so, for — apart from what is implicit in this Sutta — at S. XII,61: ii,94-5, it is said that, in contrast to the mind, “this body, formed of the four great elements, is seen enduring one year, two years, …fifty years, a hundred years or more….”[16] And if the body lasts more than a moment, what then of the four external elements (i.e. external to the body), which the M. 28 passage asserts by implication to be longer-lived than the body? Why, if these elements were believed to be changing all the time, would it be said that “there comes a time?” Why too would the liability to change be asserted, rather than the posited moment-to-moment change itself? Why, if these elements were taken to be changing right now, is the future tense used, “will be manifest?”

Again, when we turn to S. XXII,99: iii,149-50 we find…. Ah, but let us not seek further, for in this matter of textual evidence examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. Yet in spite of such evidence (or perhaps because of it) there will still be those who will assert that the doctrine of flux is nevertheless central to the Buddha’s Teaching. They will point to passages which, in speaking of impermanence, do not absolutely disallow an interpretation of flux. And it is certainly true that not every reference to change is so rigorously qualified as to eliminate every possible mis-reading. Unlike this essay, each Sutta was addressed to a known audience, with known attitudes and ideas. There would have been no need to correct misconceptions that those particular individuals did not hold. (And, unlike today, it seems that in the Buddha’s time the notion of flux was neither widespread nor deep-rooted. This is evidence of the influence scientific materialism has had on contemporary thought, if not evidence of the “inevitable progress of mankind.”)

That some texts do not specifically disallow a certain understanding, then, is insufficient as evidence that such an understanding was intended. What is needed if flux is to be demonstrated as centrally important to the Teaching is at least one single passage somewhere in those 5,500 pages of text which requires us to accept impermanence as meaning continuous change. This, and also a reconciliation between flux and the passages (such as those just quoted) which would seem to rule out such an understanding. Both of these things, and also a satisfactory response to the objections, both conceptual and philosophical, already raised to the doctrine of flux. All of these, and also a rigorous demonstration of the relevance of flux to attachment, and to the experience of dissatisfaction.

Inasmuch as a straightforward reading of those Suttas clearly requires an understanding inconsistent with the notion of flux an argument has been concocted to get around this difficulty. The Buddha, we are told, certainly did speak of impermanence in terms of discontinuous change, which, after all, is an aspect of the ordinary experience of ordinary people. But when he did so he was speaking in conventional terms, whereas when he taught about flux he used ultimate terms, a distinction which herein we have failed to make.

The acceptance of this dichotomy between conventional and transcendental language is widespread today, as is the suppositious parallel distinction between conventional and absolute truth, or reality. Therefore some may be surprised to learn that such a distinction (whether with regard to language, truth, or reality), like the notion of flux itself, is of later invention and is not to be met with in the Suttas. Quite the contrary, it is specifically and repeatedly condemned. At M. 99: ii,202, for instance, the Buddha goes out of his way to lead his listener to acknowledge the superiority of conventional speech (as well as of speech that is well-advised, spoken after reflection, and connected with the goal) over unconventional speech (and also over speech that is ill-advised, etc.). And consistent with this, at M. 139: iii,230 the monks are advised that when teaching they should (among other things) “not deviate from recognized parlance.”[17]

The Suttas, then, clearly assert that they are to be understood as saying what they mean. They are not to be interpreted, for to do so must result in misunderstanding them. Inasmuch as the texts themselves advocate the use of everyday language, and nowhere suggest the validity of some superior form of expression (known, like some arcane password, to only the few) such a dichotomy must be rejected.


9. This point is discussed in detail in my essay, Beginnings: The Pali Suttas (Buddhist Publication Society, Wheel series no. 313/315). [Back to text]

10. This procedure is not proposed as a substitute for the practice of the Teaching but as a part of it. For only thus may we be confident that we are proceeding correctly and in accordance with right-view guidance. [Back to text]

11. Katamā ca āvuso samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satisampajaññāya samvattati? Idhāvuso bhikkhuno viditā vedanā uppajjanti, viditā upatthahanti, viditā abbhattham gacchanti; viditā saññā uppajjanti, viditā upatthahanti, viditā abbhattham gacchanti; viditā vitakkā uppajjanti, viditā upatthahanti, viditā abbhattham gacchanti. Ayam āvuso samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satisampajaññāya samvattati. [Back to text]

12. Ye ca pathamajjhāne dhammā vitakko ca vicāro ca pīti ca sukhañ ca cittekaggatā ca phasso vedanā saññā cetanā cittam chando adhimokkho viriyam sati upekhā manasikāro tyāssa dhammā anupadavavatthitā honti, tyāssa dhammā viditā uppajjanti, viditā upatthahanti, viditā abbhattham gacchanti. So evam pajānāti: Evam kira ‘me dhammā ahutvā sambhonti, hutvā pativentīti. [Back to text]

13. Rūpassa [Vedanāya; Saññāya; Sankhārānam; Viññānassa] kho āvuso uppādo paññāyati, vayo paññāyati, thitassa aññatthattam paññāyati. [Back to text]

14. Yam kho pana bhante kiñci bhūtam sankhatam cetayitam paticcasamuppannam, tad aniccam; yad aniccam tam dukkham; yam dukkham tam n’etam mama n’eso ‘ham asmi na m’eso attāti: evam etam yathābhūtam sammappaññāya sudittham, tassa ca uttarim nissaranam yathābhūtam pajānāmīti. [Back to text]

15. Hoti kho so āvuso samayo yam bāhirā pathavīdhātu pakuppati, antarahitā tasmim samaye bāhirā pathavīdhātu hoti. Tassā hi nāma āvuso bāhirāya pathavīdhātuyā tāva mahallikāya aniccatā paññāyissati, khayadhammatā paññāyissati, vayadhammatā paññāyissati, viparināmadhammatā paññāyissati, kim panimassa mattatthakassa kāyassa tanhupādinnassa…. [Back to text]

16. Dissatāyam bhikkhave cātumahābhūtiko kāyo ekam pi vassam titthamāno, dve pi vassāni titthamāno…, pannāsam pi vassāni titthamāno, vassasatam pi titthamāno, bhiyyo pi titthamāno…. This Sutta goes on to point out that although the body can last a century or more, yet the unenlightened commoner is able to be disenchanted with, dispassionate towards, and freed from the body. But on the other hand “what is called ‘heart’ (citta), ‘mind’ (mano), ‘consciousness’ (viññāna) day and night arises as one thing and ceases as another,” and yet “the unenlightened commoner is unable to be disenchanted with that, to be dispassionate, to be freed. What is the reason? For a long time, monks, the unenlightened commoner has subjectivized, identified with, and manipulated this [mind]: ‘This is mine; I am this; this is my self.’ Therefore the unenlightened commoner is unable to be disenchanted with that, to be dispassionate, to be freed.” Evidently, then, it is not by perceiving the brevity of a thing’s endurance that a liberative insight can arise: it seems to be more a matter of perceiving that however long a thing endures it cannot properly be identified as “mine,” as “I,” or as “my self.” [Back to text]

17. Samaññam nātidhāveyyāti: I. B. Horner’s rendering is used. Ven. Ñānamoli translates as: “he should not override normal usage.” Elsewhere I use my own translations. [Back to text]

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