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The Buddhist Doctrine of Annicca or Impermanence, and the Soul Theory

By Prof. Y. KARUNADASA Ph.D.
Courtesy - Vesak Lipi

The Buddhist doctrine of annicca, the transitoriness of all phenomena, finds classical expression in the oft-recurrent formula: Sabbe sankhara annicca and in the more popular statement: Annicca vata sankhara. Both these formulae amount to saying that all conditioned things or phenomenal processes, mental as well as material, that go to make up the samsaric plane of existence are transient or impermanent. This law of impermanence is not the result of any kind of metaphysical inquiry or of any mystical intuition. It is a straight forward judgement arrived at by investigation and analysis, and as such its basis is entirely empirical.

It is in fact for the purpose of showing the unsubstantially and impermanence of the world of experience that Buddhism analyses it into a multiplicity of basic factors. The earliest attempts at explaining this situation are represented in the analyses into five khandhas, twelve ayatanas, and eighteen dhatus. In the Abhidhamma we get the most detailed analysis into eighty one basic elements, which are introduced by the technical term, dhamma. These are the basic factors into which the empiric individuality in relation to the external world is ultimately analysed. They purport to show that there does not exist a "unity", "substance", "atta" or "jiva". In the ultimate analysis the so­called unity is a complex of factors, "one" is really "many". This applied to both mind and matter equally. In case of living beings there is no soul or self which is immortal, while in the case of things in general there is no essence which is ever-perduring.

What is revolutionary about the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is that it is extended to include everything, including consciousness, which is usually taken to be permanent, as the soul or as one of its qualities. The Majjhimanikaya records how Bikkhu Sati misunderstood the Buddha's teaching to mean that consciousness is a permanent entity, which passes from one existence to another, like the nirasrayavijnana of Upanisads. This led Buddha to formulate the well known principle Annatra paccaya natthi vinnanassa sambhavo. There is no arising of consciousness without reference to a condition. This is further explained to mean that consciousness comes into being (sambhoti) in dependence on a duality. "What is that duality?" it is eye, which is impermanent, changing, becoming other, and visible objects, which are impermanent, changing and becoming other: such is the transient, fugative duality (of eye-cum visible objects), which is impermanent, changing and becoming other.Eye consciousness too is impermanent. For how could eye­consciousness arise by depending on an impermanent condition being permanent? The coincidence, concurrence and confluence of these three factors which is called contact and those other mental phenomena arising as a result are also impermanent." The same formula is applied to the other sense organs and the consciousness named after them. (XXXV 93-SAMYUTTA-NIKAYE) Because of its acceptance of this law of universal impermanence, Buddhism stands in direct opposition to sassatavada or eternalism, which usually goes hand in hand with atmavada, i.e. belief in some kind of immortal soul.

The Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya alone refers to more than ten varieties of eternalism, only to refute them as misconceptions of the true nature of the empirical world.But this refutation of eternalism does not lead to the acceptance, on the part of Buddhism, of the other extreme, namely ucchedavada or annihilationism, which usually goes hand in hand with materialism. The Buddhist refutation of both these extremes finds classical expression in the following words of the Buddha: "This world, 0 Kaccayana, generally proceeds on a duality, of the 'it is' and the 'it is not.' But 0 Kaccayana whoever perceives in truth and wisdom how things originate in the world, for him there is no 'it is not' in this world. Whoever, Kaccayana, perceives in truth and wisdom how things pass. away in the world, for him there is no 'it is' in this world." (11, 17-SAMYUTTANIKAYA).


This statement of the Buddha refers to the duality (divayata) of existence (atthita) and non-existence (natthita).According to Buddhism, everything is the product of the antecedent causes and therefore of dependant origination (paticcasamupanno). These causes themselves are not ever lasting and static, but simply antecedent aspects of the same ceaseless becoming. Every event is the result of a concatenation of dynamic processes (sankhara). Neither being nor non-being is the truth. There is only Becoming, happening by way of cause, continuing without identity, persistence without a persistent substance. "He who discerns origin by way of cause he discerns the Dhamma, he who discerns the Dhamma he discerns origin by way of cause."Thus by accepting the theory of causation and conditionality, Buddhism avoids the two extremes of sabbam natthi (everything is) and sabbam natthi (everything is not), and advocates "sabbam bhavati" "everything becomes" i.e. happens by way of cause and effect. It is also because of this theory that Buddhism could avoid the two extremes of niyativada (Determinism) and ahetu-appaccaya-vada (indeterminism). According to the former everything is absolutely pre-determined, according to the latter everything happens without reference to any cause or condition. According to both there is no room for free will and as such moral responsibility gets completely ruled out. By its theory of causation Buddhism avoids both extremes and establishes free will and moral responsibility.The second basic characteristic of the world of experience, namely dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is but a logical corollary arising from this law of universal impermanence. For the impermanent nature of everything can but lead to one inescapable conclusion" as everything is impermanent, they cannot be made the basis of permanent happiness. Whatever is transient is by that very fact unsatisfactory - yad anniccam tarn dukkham. Since every form of samsaric existence is impermanent it is also characterized by unsatisfactoriness. Thus the premise: sabbe sankhara annicca, leads to the conclusion: sabbe sankhara dukkha.

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