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The Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence, and the Soul Theory (contd.)

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.


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