Sunday, May 17, 2009

“Impermanence, suffering and non-self”

Impermanence is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The term expresses the Buddhist notion that all compounded or conditioned phenomena (things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything we can experience through our senses is made up of parts, and its existence is dependent on external conditions. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.

According to the impermanence doctrine, human life embodies this flux in the aging process, the cycle of rebirth (samsara), and in any experience of loss. The doctrine further asserts that because things are impermanent, attachment to them is futile and leads to suffering (dukkha).

Suffering or Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha; according to grammatical tradition derived from dus-kha “uneasy”, but according to Monier-Williams more likely a Prakritized form of dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted”) is a central concept in Buddhism, the word roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.

Although dukkha is often translated as “suffering”, its philosophical meaning is more analogous to “disquietude” as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, “suffering” is too narrow a translation with “negative emotional connotations” (Jeffrey Po), which can give the impression that the Buddhist view is one of pessimism, but Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic. Thus in English-language Buddhist literature dukkha is often left untranslated, so as to encompass its full range of meaning.

Anatta (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the notion of “not-self”. In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, “soul” or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence conceived by virtue of existence. This concept and the related concept of Brahman, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate ātman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. Buddhists reject all these concepts of ātman, emphasizing not permanence, but changeability. Therefore all concepts of a substantial personal self are incorrect and formed in the realm of ignorance.

In the Nikayas, anatta is not meant as a metaphysical assertion, but as an approach for gaining release from suffering. In fact, the Buddha rejected both of the metaphysical assertions “I have a Self” and “I have no Self” as ontological views that bind one to suffering. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (”skandhas“) of a person or object, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a Self.

Dependent arising

The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit; Pali: paticcasamuppāda; Tibetan: rten.cing.’’; Chinese: 緣起), often translated as “Dependent Arising,” is an important part of Buddhist metaphysics. It states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as “dependent origination”, “conditioned genesis”, “dependent co-arising”, “interdependent arising”, or “contingency”.

The best-known application of the concept of Pratītyasamutpāda is the scheme of Twelve Nidānas (from Pali nidāna “cause, foundation, source or origin”), which explain the continuation of the cycle of suffering and rebirth (Samsara) in detail.

The Twelve Nidānas describe a causal connection between the subsequent characteristics/conditions of cyclic existence, each giving rise to the next:

  1. Avidyā: ignorance, specifically spiritual
  2. Saṃskāras: literally formations, explained as referring to Karma.
  3. Vijñāna: consciousness, specifically discriminative
  4. Nāmarūpa: literally name and form, referring to mind and body
  5. Ṣaḍāyatana: the six sense bases: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-organ
  6. Sparśa: variously translated contact, impression, stimulation (by a sense object)
  7. Vedanā: usually translated feeling: this is the “hedonic tone”, i.e. whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  8. Tṛṣṇā: literally thirst, but in Buddhism nearly always used to mean craving
  9. Upādāna: clinging or grasping; the word also means fuel, which feeds the continuing cycle of rebirth
  10. Bhava: literally being (existence) or becoming. (The Theravada explains this as having two meanings: karma, which produces a new existence, and the existence itself.)
  11. Jāti: literally birth, but life is understood as starting at conception
  12. Jarāmaraṇa (old age and death) and also śokaparidevaduḥkhadaurmanasyopāyāsa (sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and misery)

Sentient beings always suffer throughout samsara, until they free themselves from this suffering by attaining Nirvana. Then the absence of the first Nidāna, ignorance, leads to the absence of the others.


Mahāyāna Buddhism received significant theoretical grounding from Nāgārjuna (perhaps c.150–250 CE), arguably the most influential scholar within the Mahāyāna tradition. Some of the writings attributed to him made explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, but his philosophy was argued within the parameters set out by the agamas. Nāgārjuna asserted that the nature of the dharmas (hence the enlightenment) to be śūnya (void or empty), bringing together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman (no-self) and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). His school of thought is known as the Madhyamaka. He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha’s doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system.

Sarvāstivāda teaching, which was criticized by Nāgārjuna, was reformulated by scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asaṅga and were adapted into the Yogācāra (Sanskrit: yoga practice) school. While the Madhyamaka school held that asserting the existence or non-existence of any ultimately real thing was inappropriate, some exponents of Yogācāra asserted that the mind and only the mind is ultimately real. Not all Yogācārins asserted that mind was truly existent, Vasubandhu and Asaṅga in particular did not. These two schools of thought, in opposition or synthesis, form the basis of subsequent Mahāyāna metaphysics in the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

In the Mahayana school, emphasis is also often placed on the notions of Emptiness (shunyata), perfected spiritual insight (prajnaparamita) and Buddha-nature (the deathless tathagatagarbha, or Buddha womb, inherent in all beings and creatures). In the tathagatagarbha sutras the Buddha is portrayed proclaiming that the teaching of the tathagatagarbha constitutes the “absolutely final culmination” of his Dharma—the highest presentation of Truth (other sūtras make similar statements about other teachings). This has traditionally been regarded as the highest teaching in East Asian Buddhism. However, in modern China all doctrines are regarded as equally valid. The Mahayana can also on occasion communicate a vision of the Buddha or Dharma which amounts to mysticism and gives expression to a form of mentalist panentheism (God in Buddhism).

Speculation versus direct experience: Buddhist epistemology

Decisive in distinguishing Buddhism from other schools of Indian philosophy is the issue of epistemological justification (from epistemology, Greek: theory of knowledge). While all schools of Indian logic recognize various sets of valid justifications for knowledge, or pramana, Buddhism recognizes a smaller set than do the others. All accept perception and inference, for example, but for some schools of Buddhism the received textual tradition is an equally valid epistemological category.

According to the scriptures, during his lifetime the Buddha remained silent when asked several metaphysical questions. These regarded issues such as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal (or whether it is finite or infinite), the unity or separation of the body and the self, the complete inexistence of a person after nirvana and death, and others. One explanation for this silence is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith. Another explanation is that both affirmative and negative positions regarding these questions are based on attachment to and misunderstanding of the aggregates and senses. That is, when one sees these things for what they are, the idea of forming positions on such metaphysical questions simply does not occur to one. Another closely related explanation is that reality is devoid of designations, or empty, and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate.

Thus, the Buddha’s silence does not indicate misology or disdain for philosophy. Rather, it indicates that he viewed these questions as not leading to true knowledge. Dependent arising is, according to some[who?], one of the Buddha’s great contributions to philosophy, and provides a framework for analysis of reality that is not based on metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or non-existence, but instead on direct cognition of phenomena as they are presented to the mind. This informs and supports the Buddhist approach to liberation via ethical and meditative training known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

Accordingly, most Buddhists agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, words are inadequate to describe the goal of the Buddhist path, but concerning the usefulness of words in the path itself, schools differ radically.

In the Pali Canon and numerous Mahayana Sutras and Tantras, the Buddha is portrayed stressing that Dharma (in the sense of truth) cannot truly be understood with the ordinary rational mind or logic—reality transcends all worldly concepts.

In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra’s self-styled “Uttara-Tantra”, the Buddha insists that, while pondering upon Dharma is vital, one must then relinquish fixation on words and letters, as these are utterly divorced from liberation and the Bodhi nature. The Tantra entitled the “All-Creating King” (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra, a scripture of Tibetan Buddhism) also emphasizes how Buddhist truth lies beyond the range of discursive/verbal thought and is ultimately mysterious. The Supreme Buddha, Samantabhadra, states there: “The mind of perfect purity … is beyond thinking and inexplicable ….” Also later, the famous Indian Buddhist practitioner (yogi) and teacher, mahasiddha Tilopa discouraged any intellectual activity in his six words of advice.

Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth: doctrines are “true” in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. In modern Chinese Buddhism, all doctrinal traditions are regarded as equally valid.

Theravāda promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally “Teaching of Analysis”. This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. As the Buddha said according to the canonical scriptures:

Do not accept anything by mere tradition … Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures … Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions … But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly.