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Part II – Chapter 10

Impermanence: the concept and the principle.

Buddhist meditators attach great importance to the principle of impermanence. They consider that if one but realizes that “everything is impermanent”, one is well on the way to or has already reached Realization.

However, the principle proposed by Buddhism should (in my view) be approached more critically than its proponents have hitherto done. They have taken for granted that such a principle is immediately knowable, in the way of a direct experience, and have not given enough attention to the epistemological issues this notion raises.

To be sure, we can and do commonly have direct experience of some impermanence: that of present changes. Whereas we might rationally analyze change in general (when it occurs) as an instant replacement of one thing by its negation, many phenomena of change evidently occur in a present moment (an extended amount of time). If, for example, you watch a dog running, you are not personally experiencing this sight as a series of successive stills of the dog in different positions, but as one continuous series of moves.

A good meditation on such evident impermanence is meditation on water[1]. One sits or stands calmly in front of a body of water (the sea, a river, a lake, a puddle), watching the movements on its surface – reflections on it, waves or wavelets, currents, droplets of rain, listening to the sounds. I find this practice both soothing and a great source of understanding about life.

But we must keep in mind that the concept of impermanence covers a wider range of experiences than that: it includes changes not sensible in a present moment, but only inferred over time by comparing situations experienced in distinct moments, whether contiguous or non-contiguous. Such inferences imply a reliance on memory, or an interpretation of other present traces of past events. Still other changes are known even more indirectly, through predominantly conceptual means.

Generally speaking (i.e. including all sorts of experience under one heading): we first experience undifferentiated totality, and then (pretty much automatically) subdivide it by means of mental projections and then conceptually regroup these subdivisions by comparing and contrasting them together. Buddhist philosophy admits and advocates this analysis: the subdivision and conceptualization of the phenomenological given is, we all agree, ratiocination (i.e. rational activity); it is reason (i.e. the rational faculty) that mentally “makes” many out of the One.

It follows from this insight (we may now argue) that impermanence cannot be considered as a primary given, but must be viewed as derived from the imagined subdivision and conceptual regrouping of the initially experienced whole. Even to mentally isolate and classify some directly experienced particular change as “a change” is ratiocination. All the more so, the “impermanence” of each totality of experience, moment after moment, is an idea, obtained by distinguishing successive moments of experience; i.e. by relying on memory, and comparing and contrasting the experience apparently remembered to the experience currently experienced.

The latter act, note well, requires we cut up “present experience” into two portions, one a “memory” (inner) appearance and the other a more “currently in process” (inner and/or outer) appearance. This is rational activity; so, “impermanence” is in fact never directly experienced (contrary to Buddhist claims). Unity phenomenologically precedes Diversity; therefore, the experience of diversity cannot logically be considered as disqualifying the belief in underlying unity.

This argument is not a proof of substance, but at least serves to neutralize the Buddhist denial of substance. It opens the door to an advocacy of substance[2] by adductive means, i.e. in the way of a legitimate hypothesis to be confirmed by overall consideration of all experience and all the needs of its consistent conceptualization.

Note well that I am not here denying validity to the concept of impermanence, but I am only reminding us that “impermanence” is a concept. Being a concept based on experience of change, it is indeed a valid concept. This is true whether such change be considered as real or illusory: it suffices that such change appears phenomenologically for a concept of it to be justified.

The principle of impermanence is more than that the mere concept. It is a generalization of that concept. It is not a mere statement that change exists – it is a statement that only change exists, i.e. that everything is continually changing and there is no underlying rest. Now, such a general proposition logically can simply not be validated with reference to experience alone. There is no epistemologically conceivable way that, sitting in meditation, the Buddha would be able to experience this (or any other) principle directly.

This principle (like any other) can indeed conceivably be validated as universal, but only by adductive methodology. It must be considered as a hypothesis, to be tested again and again against all new experiences, and compared to competing hypotheses as regards explanatory value. The result is thus at best an inductive truth, not a pure experience or a pure deduction from experience.

Furthermore, in addition to the generalization from particular experiences of change to a metaphysical principle of the ubiquity of change, the principle of impermanence involves a second fundamental generalization. Since it is a negative principle, it involves the act of generalization inherent in all negation; that is, the generalization from “I found no permanence in my present experience” to “There was no permanence to be found in my present experience”.

While the conclusion of negation by such generalization is not in principle logically invalid, it is an inductive, not a deductive conclusion. It stands ab initio on a more or less equal footing with the competing speculation that there might well be an underlying permanence of some sort. The latter positive hypothesis could equally well be (and sometimes is) posited as a postulate, to be gradually shown preferable to the negative assumption using adductive means.

Even within meditation, note, constancies do appear side by side with changing phenomena, if we pay attention to them. Thus, for instance, if I meditate on water, I may reflect on the inconstancy of its surface; but I may also reflect on the underlying constancy (during my period of meditation, at least) of the horizon or shoreline, or of rocks in or around it, or simply of the fact of water, or its color and consistency, etc. I may, moreover, later discover that water is uniformly composed of H2O.

Seen in this light, the status of the principle of impermanence is considerably less sure. To present such a principle as an absolute truth knowable directly or obtained by some sort of infallible analysis of experience would be dishonest.

All this is not said to annul the important moral lessons to be drawn from observation of impermanence. A “principle” of impermanence may still be proposed, if we take it as heuristic, rather than hermeneutic – i.e. as a useful “rule of thumb”, which helps us realize that it is useless to attach importance to mundane things, and enjoins us to strive for higher values. Beauty is passing; pleasures are ephemeral. Life is short, and there is much spiritual work to be done…

With regard to predication of impermanence, it is relevant to ask whether the concrete data (experiences, appearances) referred to are phenomenal or non-phenomenal, i.e. whether they can be physically or mentally seen, heard, felt, smelt or tasted, or instead are intuited. To indicate that the data at hand is phenomenal, and so particularly transient, does not in itself exclude that relatively less transient non-phenomenal data might also be involved behind the scenes. That is, while current objects might be perceivably transient, it does not follow that the one perceiving them is equally transient.

Of course, whether the data is phenomenal or not, it may still be transient. However, transience has degrees. Data may be merely momentary, or it may appear more continuously over a more extended period of time. The issue here is not “transient or eternal”, as some Buddhist philosophers seem to present it. The issue is “momentary or continuous” – with the eternal as the extreme case of continuity. It is analytically erroneous to ignore or exclude offhand periods of existence that are longer than a mere ‘moment’ of time and shorter than ‘eternity’.

Moreover, as already pointed out, the underlying claim that all phenomena, or for that matter all non-phenomenal events, are transient is not something that can be directly observed – but can only be based on generalization. There is no a priori logical necessity about such ontological statements – they are epistemologically bound to be inductive. Even if all appearances experienced by me or you so far seem transient, there might still be eternal existents our own transience makes us unable to observe.

Conversely, only an eternal being could experience eternity – and it would take such a being… an eternity to do so (not a mere few hours, days or years of meditation)![3] This however does not exclude the possibility of ascribing eternity to certain things on conceptual deductive grounds. For example, I can affirm the laws of thought to be eternally true, since they are incontrovertible; or again, I can affirm all contradictions or exclusions of a middle to be eternally false.

Furthermore, Buddhists implicitly if not explicitly ascribe some sort of eternity to the existential ground in or out of which all transient phenomena bubble up. That is, although particular existents may well all be transient, the fact of existence as such is eternal. Therefore, their argument is not really intended as a denial of any permanence whatsoever (as it is often presented), but more moderately as a denial of permanence to particular existents, i.e. to fragments of the totality. And of course, in that perspective, their insight is right on.

[1] The Greek philosopher Heraclites must have practiced this meditation, when he reportedly wrote “you cannot step into the same river twice”. This meditation is commonly practiced, even unwittingly. Other similarly natural meditations consist in watching rain falling, wind blowing through trees, clouds shifting in the sky, candlelight flickering, or the sparks and flames of a camp or chimney fire. “Watching” of course here means, not just being aware of sights (shapes and colors), but also awareness of sounds, touch-sensations, temperatures, textures, etc.

[2] Note well that an issue within the thesis of substance is whether we advocate a single, undifferentiated substance, or a multiplicity of distinct substances. To admit of substance is not necessarily to uphold the latter, pluralist view. In Physics, the unitary substance view would be that matter is all one substance, vibrating in a variety of ways.

[3] I am not sure of the truth of this statement of mine. I have in the past argued (among other reasons so as to provide an argument in favor of the doctrine that God can tell the future) that this issue hinges on the span of time an onlooker can perceive in one go. The higher one is spiritually placed, the longer a ‘moment’ of time covers. God, who is “above it all”, at the peak of spiritual perspective, can see all time (all the things we class under the headings of past, present and future) as the present moment. Proportionately, when we humans meditate, the present is longer, i.e. the ‘moment’ of time our attention can include at once is enlarged. Thus, one (conceivably) need not wait forever to experience eternity, but may ultimately do so through spiritual elevation. This may be the “eternal now” experience many people have reported having. Note additionally that, if we accept this hypothesis, we have to apply it not only to external events (i.e. phenomenal physical and mental experiences) but also to inner experience (i.e. intuitions of cognitions, volitions and valuations by self). The latter is more difficult, more problematic, because it implies that one’s own being and experience is already consumed, i.e. all telescoped into the present. Still, why not.

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