The Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence (Anicca) and the Soul Theory

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 so-­called 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-per-during.

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, fugitive duality (of eye-cum visible objects), which is impermanent, changing and becoming other.Eye consciousness too is impermanent. For how could ‘I’ ­consciousness 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.

As indicative of a general characteristic of all phenomena, the term dukkha should not be understood in a narrower sense to mean only pain, suffering, misery or sorrow. As a philosophical terms it has a wider connotation, as wide as that of the term anicca. In this wider sense, it includes deeper ideas such as imperfection, unrest, conflict, in short unsatisfactoriness. This is precisely why even the states of jhana, resulting from the practice of higher meditation and which are free from suffering as ordinarily understood, are also included in dukkha. This is also why the characterization, dukkha is extended even to matter (rupa). The Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa recognizes these wider implications of the term when it explains it as three fold, namely dukkha (dukkha as suffering), vi pari nama-dukkha (dukkha as change) and sankharadukkha (dukkha as conditioned state).As a direct and necessary corollary of this fact of dukkha, we come to the third basic characteristic of all phenomena, namely anatta, which finds expression in the well known statement: Sabbe dhamma anatta. For the unsatisfactory nature of everything should lead to this important conclusion: If everything is characterized by unsatisfactoriness, nothing can be identified as the self or as a permanent soul (atta). What is dukkha (by that very fact) is also anatta. What is not the self cannot be considered as I am (ahan ti) as mine (maman ti), or as I am that (asmi ti).

According to Buddhism the idea of self or soul is not only a false and imaginary belief, with no corresponding objective reality, but is also harmful from an ethical point of view. For it produces such harmful thoughts of I, me and mine. Selfish desires, attachments and all other unwholesome states of mind (akusala dhamma). It could also be a misery in disguise to one who accepts it as true: Do you see, 0 Bhikkhus, such a soul-theory in the acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation? Certainly not Sir,” “Good, 0 Bhikkhus, I too 0 Bhikkhus, do not see a soul-theory, in acceptance of which there would not arise grief, lamentation, suffering, distress and tribulation” (I. 137 MAJJIMA NIKAYE). This brings into relief the close connection between the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and Buddhist ethics: If the world of experience is impermanent, by that very fact it cannot be made the basis of permanent happiness. What is not permanent (annicca) and therefore what is characterized by unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) cannot be considered as the self (annatta). And what is not the self (atta) cannot be considered as one’s own (saka) or as a haven of security (tana). For the things that one gets attached to are constantly changing. Hence attachment to them would only lead to unrest and sorrow. But when one knows things as they truly are (yathabutam) i.e., annicca, dukkha, and anatta, one ceased to get agitated by them, one ceases to take refuge in them. Just as attachment to things is to get fettered by them, even so detachment from them is to get freed from them. Thus in the context of Buddhist ethics, the perception of impermanence is only a preliminary step to the eradication of all cravings, which in turn has the attainment of Nibbana as its final goal.

It will thus be seen that the Buddhist doctrine of annicca, on which is also based the doctrine of dukkha and anatta, can rightly be called the very foundation of the whole edifice of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. This explains why the Buddha has declared that the very perception of this fact, namely that whatever comes to existence is also subject to dissolution (yam kinci samudayadhammam sabbam tamnirodh- dhammam) is indeed the very arising of the stainless Eye of the Doctrine (dhamnma­cakku).
The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, as explained in the canonical texts, does really amount to a theory of momentariness, in the sense that everything is in a state of constant flux. This becomes clear from a passage in the Anguttaranikaya (I 152), where the three sankhata-Iakkhamas (the characteristic of that which is compounded are explained. Here it is said that which is Sankhata (compound) has three fundamental characteristics, namely uppada (origination), vaya (dissolution), and thitassa annathatta (otherwise of that which is existing). From this it followsthat the Buddhist doctrine of change should not be understood in the ordinary sense that something arises, exists for some time in a more or less static form, and dissolves.

On the contrary, the third characteristic, i.e. thitassa annathatta shows that between its arising and cessation, a thing is all the time changing, with no static phase in between. Thus the Buddhist doctrine of change does really amount to a theory of universal flux.As far as the application of this theory of change is concerned, there is nothing to suggest that early Buddhism had made any distinction between mind and matter. However, some schools of Buddhism, notably the Mahasanghikas, Vatsiputriyas and Sammityas, while recognizing the momentary duration of mental elements, assigned a relative permanence to matter. Others such as Sarvastivadins, Mahasasakas and Sautranitkas objected to introducing any such distinction and declared that all elements of existence, mental as well as material, are of momentary duration of instantaneous being. (Article abridged)Introducing the writer: Prof. Y. Karunadasa Ph.D. is the Director of Buddhist Studies, Buddhist and Pali University Colombo. He is a well known academic and Pali Scholar.