The Doctrine of Impermanence & The Buddhist Self
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

I would like to speak to you this afternoon about one of the most fundamental, and yet confounding, doctrines of Buddhist philosophy. One that runs counter-intuitive to our Western mind which has been influenced for centuries by Western philosophical and theological thinking. The doctrine of impermanence and no-self. (Anatman) While this doctrine was fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching, it also confounded the contemporary Hindu mind-set, and was perhaps one of the most controversial topics that arose from the awakened mind of Siddhartha Gotama as he began to engage others in his community of followers. Even today among Buddhist teachers, these principles that each tradition has adopted specific language to transmit how they are to be understood, differ widely in how best to give clear meaning to a subject that is at best nearly indescribable. And as a result, can be greatly misunderstood. Yet, it is important that Buddhist teachers speak often and early to their Sangha’s of these doctrines, in order to bring great doubt into the light of awakening. If you want to understand Buddhism it is necessary for you to forget all about your preconceived ideas. To begin with, you must give up the idea of substantiality and the notion of a permanent self.

One of the most fundamental questions of human thought is “Who am I”. Or if I may re-phrase the question, “Who am I in relationship to the Universe I have come to experience in this moment?” To that question all philosophers have been seeking answers, and Siddhartha Gotama was no exception. And I am grateful for his insight and keen awareness as reflected in his subsequent transmitting of the Dharma. And as I take up that tradition of awakening in my own Buddhist practice.

In order to understand not-self, the concept of impermanence in Buddhism must also be considered. All is impermanent. Everything is in a state of perpetual change. Nothing remains the same for long. It is because things transform themselves ceaselessly that they cannot maintain their identity. Impermanence is another name for not-self. Not only are physical phenomena impermanent and without a separate self, but the same is true of physiological phenomena and mental formation. The theory of impermanence in Buddhism has been generally misunderstood because it came to be confused with a later theory known as the ‘doctrine of moments’ which was formulated from a logical analysis of the process of change by the later Buddhist scholars belonging to the scholastic tradition. But it is interesting that this theory of moments is absent in all of the early discourses as recorded in the Pali Nikaya’s. According to the Buddhist scholar, David Kalupahana, the theory of impermanence as stated in the early suttas could be described as one based on observance and awareness of our own experience as found in everyday life. A passage found in many of the discourses runs like this: “Impermanence indeed is the compounded condition of things; they are of the nature of arising and passing away. Having come into being, they cease to exist. Hence their pacification is tranquility.” According to these statements, things are impermanent not because they are momentary, but because they are characterized by arising and passing away. In other words, it is based on the causal nature of the Universe, not based on time. An extended definition is sometimes met with in the early texts which categorizes the process of change into three stages: arising, passing away, and decay or change of what exists. Whatever is born is considered to be impermanent since it is sure to perish. In short, impermanence is a synonym for ‘arising and passing away’, or ‘birth and destruction’. It is not a result of metaphysical inquiry or of any mental intuition, but a straightforward judgment arrived at by our own investigation and verification.

From the Buddhist perspective of the impermanence of the world, it follows that all things are unsatisfactory (dukkha). Early Buddhism never denied the satisfaction that man can derive from worldly things. The nature of man is such that he craves for eternal or permanent happiness. But the things from which he hopes to derive such happiness are themselves impermanent. Happiness or satisfaction derived from impermanent things would have to be temporary and therefore fall short of his expectation, or permanent happiness. Hence his suffering. Thus it seems that human suffering is due to attachment to things that are themselves unsatisfactory. But the Buddha realized that everything in his world is impermanent. While realizing that there is no permanent entity called the ‘self’, he also found that belief in such an entity led to further suffering. Belief in a permanent entity such as the self often led to selfishness and egoism. This, for him, was the root cause of craving and its relationship to unsatisfactoriness. Considering this reality, led the Buddha to the teaching of ‘not-self’. Notice that I am using the word ‘not’ rather than ‘no’ self. If I can re-phrase it, I would say ‘the idea of self is NOT it’. No matter how one wants to define it. Even if we want to consider whether consciences can be applied to defining what constitutes a self, the Buddha insisted that this consciousness is itself causally conditioned. The Buddha said that it is better for a person to take his physical body as self rather than mind, thought, or consciousness, because the former seems to be more solid than the latter, because mind, thought or consciousness changes constantly every moment, even faster than the physical body.

But to the Buddha, the ‘self’, whether it is identical with the body or different from the body, is a metaphysical entity. It is a metaphysical entity solely because it is unverifiable, either through sense perception or through extrasensory perception. In short, it is not known in human experience, and therefore the Buddha left the questions undeclared or unknowable. According to the Buddha, even what came to be considered mystical experience does not give us a knowledge of a transcendental ‘self’. Even in the contemporary Hindu world of the Buddha’s time, it is significant that some popular beliefs such as heaven and hell were common, which for the Buddha were nothing more than pleasurable and painful feelings one experiences to ease this life, were considered useful in that they regulated the moral and religious behavior of man, but belief in an immoral soul was looked upon as causing great harm.

What exactly then is ‘the self?” And what is meant in Buddhism by ‘NOT-self?” These are two very critical questions for us as we develop a serious Buddhist practice and work toward self-cultivation, or human flourishing, while at the same time becoming awakened to the notion that there is no self to cultivate. This is one of the Buddhist doctrines that is so confounding; because it is a paradox. From a pragmatic point of view, we come to realize that the language we use to convey what we mean about ‘the-self’ from a Western perspective anyway, does not help understand who we are from a Buddhist perspective. This is one of those terms that you have heard Ven. Wayne and I speak about that can benefit from creative-re-description. NOT-self (anatman in Sanskrit) is the denial of the existence of a permanent and unchanging self. It is not to imply that there is literally a no-person. We only need to pinch ourselves to quickly realize pain is real in this moment. So, in one sense, a self does exist. We call it mind-body. However, the nature of this self is what we often hear describe as “empty of an essential existence”. In other words, I am unique, but I am not permanent and immune to the laws of the causal Universe. We are expressions of this Universe, and thus interconnected and interdependent of it. Like all things, we are subject to change and impermanence, and this is what the Buddha meant by NOT-self. Siddhartha, the philosopher, was refusing to acknowledge the permanence of a self, but was not refusing to acknowledge the reality of our every day existence. It is the reality of a changing self, that’s all. We are both unique, and continuous at the same moment. We are void of a duel nature. The self is simply a bundle of perceptions and dispositions. Perceptions themselves, and things perceived, are without substance, as the Heart Sutra tells us. Yet at the same time, who we are our agents for change in the setting of a serious practice. The Buddha pointed out that it is difficult to be born a human being and difficult then to find the Dharma. When we reflect on the infinite number of happenstances that coalesced to produce us, then we come to understand how unique we really are. But this too is an illusion. Even so, our task is to cultivate our uniqueness, for this short period of time we have in human form, to cultivate an awakened mind that reflects back, like a mirror, the nature of the Universe around us moment to moment.

As a result of this consideration, we can begin to recognize that there is an issue with some incomplete translations of the terminology used in Buddhism of self and there is an issue with our language, which is so far unable to convey the mutual existence of the contingent self with the ultimate lack of foundation of its existence. That is why you will hear me speak often of the ‘social-self’, a phrase that I think conveys what I have come to be aware of as an aspect of our human nature – or Buddha nature of self. This is one of the pillars upon which Engaged Dharma stands.

This brings us to another question that often comes up when discussing these doctrines, the question of Free Will, which has occupied an important place in Western thought and philosophy. When we consider the importance that interdependence plays in the doctrine of Dependent Origination, we come to realize that Free Will does not arise in Buddhist philosophy. If the whole of existence is relative, conditioned and interdependent, how can will alone be free? Will, like any other thought, is conditioned; even the so-called notion of ‘freedom’ itself must be considered as conditioned and relative. From a Buddhist perspective, there can be nothing absolutely free, physical or mental, as everything is interdependent. Therefore, it is quite clear that, according to this Cannon text: ‘All dharma are without self, there is no self, no Atman, but nowhere else too outside them or apart from them’ which speaks for it’s self.

Both the Theravada and Mahayana teaching maintain exactly the same position, without the slightest difference, on this point, putting the emphasis on NOT-self. Although there are significant differences on how ‘impermanence’ is translated between the two traditions. In the past there has been efforts by some Buddhist traditions, and even by some scholars, to introduce the idea of a permanent essence of self, mostly to do with consciousness. And these beliefs are still taken up by some traditions even today. One example is that of Substratum Consciousness adopted by the Yogacara School based on references in the very early Mahayana text known as the ‘Explanation of the Profound Secrets Sutra’, and of course similar doctrines in Tibetan Buddhist tradition as well. Ch’an and Zen lineage doctrines may stand in a more traditional light when observing a more strict acceptance of the meaning of Siddhartha’s teaching of not-self, as they sit in great doubt and focus their practice on what we can know and experience in this very moment, and avoid metaphysical entanglements.

Never-the-less, some might say that it is this vague feeling ‘I AM’ that creates the idea of self which has no corresponding reality, and to see this reality is to realize Nirvana, which is not very easy or useful either when you get down to it. According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion ‘I have no-self’ as to hold the opinion ‘I have self’, because both are attachments, both arise out of the false idea ‘I AM’. The correct position with regard to the question of self is not to take hold of any opinions or views, but to try to see things objectively as they are without letting our personal preferences get in the way.

A question might come to mind when you think about a NOT-self, “who gets the merit of our actions?” No one can answer this question better than the Buddha himself. When this question was raised by a monk the Buddha said as reported in the Majjhima Nikaya in Sutta 3 Heirs in Dhamma : “I have taught you, O monks, to see conditionality everywhere in all things”. Here he is speaking of how the causal Universe works, and applies it to his doctrine of impermanence.

So, what does this all mean to us as we strive to live a happy life? First remember that our causal world is defined by processes and transformations rather than existence and non-existence. There are no meaningful beginnings and ends in Buddhism only transformations with continuity. This is a good definition to remember, by the way, of what it means to be ‘expressions of the Universe.’ Next consider, and this is very important, the emphasis Buddhism places here on the perception that nothing is created or destroyed, only transformed. This does not mean that a single form like our present human form of mind-body is eternal or preserved after death — death is just that. But the actions of mind-body of the deceased continues forward through many different causal avenues, not only the memories we have of them, but the actions and influences that their life generated. Also remember the lesson that the Universe expresses existential equality among all things. Only humans, because of our peculiar but meaningful ability to see ourselves as self-aware, requires this experience of thinking of ourselves as special and ever-lasting. Another useful and productive consideration is that if you allow yourself to accept the notion of impermanence, then your meditation practice will also improve, as well as your ability to handle the pressure life throws your way.

Finally, the Buddha denied the teaching of an UTLMATE because human experience and human language is far too limited to get us to any meaningful understanding. The Buddha understood deeply that he would not be a prisoner to language. We talk not about ‘Truth’ as we like to think we do when expounding on doctrine, but about the correct use of language, that endeavors to express preferred understanding of the Dharma. Just for myself, language is not all that helpful, but it is the only tool I have to convey myself to others. We cannot therefore neglect the fact that language is necessarily a social experience, and is often the cause of misunderstanding. When I teach these complicated Buddhist philosophical principals I can only do so through the use of language, but language itself is only a tool for communication, and not “truth” itself. This reminds me of the finger pointing to the moon, where the Zen master informs the student that ‘reality’ is not the finger! When we argue over the correct way to interpret the meaning of the Dharma, we are arguing over the finger and not the moon itself. Understanding that language was just an imperfect tool in which to express the Universal Dharma, the Buddha cleverly employed pragmatic means throughout his life as a teacher and guide on the path. It is a lesson we should never forget.


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