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Impermanence, also known as the philosophical problem of change, is a philosophical concept that is addressed in a variety of religions and philosophies.
The Pali word for impermanence, anicca, is a compound word consisting of "a" meaning non-, and "nicca" meaning "constant, continuous, permanent". While 'nicca' is the concept of continuity and permanence, 'anicca' refers to its exact opposite; the absence of permanence and continuity. The term is synonymous with the Sanskrit term anitya (a + nitya). The concept of impermanence is prominent in Buddhism, and it is also found in various schools of Hinduism and Jainism. The term also appears in the Rigveda.
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(mi rtag pa)
|Glossary of Buddhism|
Impermanence, called anicca (Pāli) or anitya (Sanskrit) appears extensively in the Pali Canon as one of the essential doctrines of Buddhism. The doctrine asserts that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is "transient, evanescent, inconstant". All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.
All physical and mental events, states Buddhism, come into being and dissolve. Human life embodies this flux in the aging process, the cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara), nothing lasts, and everything decays. This is applicable to all beings and their environs, including beings who have reincarnated in deva (god) and naraka (hell) realms. This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is Nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.
Anicca is intimately associated with the doctrine of anatta, according to which things have no essence, permanent self, or unchanging soul. The Buddha taught that because no physical or mental object is permanent, desires for or attachments to either causes suffering (dukkha). Understanding Anicca and Anatta are steps in the Buddhist’s spiritual progress toward enlightenment. Anicca doctrine is one of the foundational premises of Buddhism, which asserts that all physical and mental events are not metaphysically real, that they are not constant or permanent, they come into being and dissolve. Impermanence is one of trilakshana (three marks) of existence. It appears in Pali texts as, "sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta", which Szczurek translates as, "all conditioned things are impermanent, all conditioned things are painful, all dhammas are without Self".
According to Buddhism, everything in human life, all objects, as well as all beings whether in heavenly or hellish or earthly realms in Buddhist cosmology, is always changing, inconstant, undergoes rebirth and redeath (Samsara). This impermanence is a source of Dukkha. This is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is Nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.
As long as there is attachment to things that are
unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent,
there will be suffering –
when they change, when they cease to be
what we want them to be.
If craving is the cause of suffering, then the cessation
of suffering will surely follow from 'the complete
fading away and ceasing of that very craving':
its abandoning, relinquishing, releasing, letting go.
The term Anitya (अनित्य), in the sense of impermanence of objects and life, appears in verse 1.2.10 of the Katha Upanishad, one of the Principal Upanishads of Hinduism. It asserts that everything in the world is impermanent, but impermanent nature of things is an opportunity to obtain what is permanent (nitya) as the Hindu scripture presents its doctrine about Atman (soul). The term Anitya also appears in the Bhagavad Gita in a similar context.
Buddhism and Hinduism share the doctrine of Anicca or Anitya, that is "nothing lasts, everything is in constant state of change"; however, they disagree on the Anatta doctrine, that is whether soul exists or not. Even in the details of their respective impermanence theories, state Frank Hoffman and Deegalle Mahinda, Buddhist and Hindu traditions differ. Change associated with Anicca and associated attachments produces sorrow or Dukkha asserts Buddhism and therefore need to be discarded for liberation (nibbana), while Hinduism asserts that not all change and attachments lead to Dukkha and some change – mental or physical or self-knowledge – leads to happiness and therefore need to be sought for liberation (moksha). The Nicca (permanent) in Buddhism is anatta (non-soul), the Nitya in Hinduism is atman (soul).
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Impermanence first appears in Greek philosophy in the writings of Heraclitus and his doctrine of panta rhei (everything flows). Heraclitus was famous for his insistence on ever-present change as being the fundamental essence of the universe, as stated in the famous saying, "No man ever steps in the same river twice" This is commonly considered to be a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of becoming, as contrasted with "being", and has sometimes been seen in a dialectical relationship with Parmenides' statement that "whatever is, is, and what is not cannot be", the latter being understood as a key contribution in the development of the philosophical concept of being. For this reason, Parmenides and Heraclitus are commonly considered to be two of the founders of ontology. Scholars have generally believed that either Parmenides was responding to Heraclitus, or Heraclitus to Parmenides, though opinion on who was responding to whom has varied over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Heraclitus' position was complemented by his stark commitment to a unity of opposites in the world, stating that "the path up and down are one and the same". Through these doctrines Heraclitus characterized all existing entities by pairs of contrary properties, whereby no entity may ever occupy a single state at a single time. This, along with his cryptic utterance that "all entities come to be in accordance with this Logos" (literally, "word", "reason", or "account") has been the subject of numerous interpretations.
Impermanence was widely but not universally accepted among subsequent Greek philosophers. Democritus' theory of atoms entailed that assemblages of atoms were impermanent. Pyrrho declared that everything was astathmēta (unstable), and anepikrita (unfixed). Plutarch commented on impermanence saying "And if the nature which is measured is subject to the same conditions as the time which measures it, this nature itself has no permanence, nor "being," but is becoming and perishing according to its relation to time. The Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations contains many comments about impermanence, such as “Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.” (10.18)
How can that be a real thing which is never in the same state? ... for at the moment that the observer approaches, then they become other ... so that you cannot get any further in knowing their nature or state .... but if that which knows and that which is known exist ever ... then I do not think they can resemble a process or flux ....
Change was one of the chief concerns of the Eleatic school of thought founded by Parmenides. Parmenides considered non-existence to be absurd, and thus asserted that it was impossible for something to come into existence out of nothing, or for something to pass out of existence into nothing. By "something", he was referring not just to material, but to any general predicate; rejecting, for instance, changes of color, as they involved the new color arising from nothing and the old colour passing into nothing. He therefore rejected all change as impossible, and claimed that reality was an undifferentiated and unchanging whole.
These ideas were taken up by various followers of Parmenides, most notably Melissus and Zeno, who provided additional arguments, specifically for the impossibility of motion. Melissus claimed that reality was "full" (nonexistence being impossible), and that therefore nothing could move. Zeno gave a series of arguments which were particularly influential. Among the simplest was his observation that to move from A to B, one must first reach the halfway point between A and B; but then in order to do this, one must get halfway from A to this halfway point; and so on. Thus all motion involves an infinite number of steps, which Zeno held to be impossible. A similar argument involved a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise. The tortoise is given a head start. Achilles quickly reaches the point where the tortoise stood, but by this time the tortoise has moved on a little, so Achilles must now reach this new point, and so on. A different argument involved the flight of an arrow. Zeno observed that if one considers a single moment of time, the arrow is not moving in that moment. He then claimed it was impossible that an arrow in motion could arise as the result of a sequence of motionless arrows.
Responses to the Eleatics
The atomism of Democritus and Leucippus can be seen as a response to the Eleatic denial of change. The atomists conceded that something coming from or becoming nothing was impossible, but only with respect to material substance, not to general qualities. They hypothesized that every visible object was in fact a composite of unseen indivisible particles of different shapes and sizes. These particles were held to be eternal and unchanging, but by rearranging themselves, the composite objects which they formed could come into and go out of being. These composite objects and their properties were not taken as truly real; in the words of Democritus, "by convention sweet, by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold; by convention color: but in reality atoms and void." Any perceived change in an object's properties was therefore illusory and not susceptible to the objections of Parmenides.
Anaxagoras provided a similar response, but instead of atoms, he hypothesized a number of eternal, primal "ingredients" which were mixed together in a continuum. No material object was made of a pure ingredient; rather, it had its material character due to a preponderance of various ingredients over every other. In this way, Anaxagoras could assert that nowhere did any ingredient ever fully come into or go out of being.
In arts and culture
- Akio Jissoji's Buddhist auteur film Mujo (also known as This Transient Life) owes its title to the doctrine of Impermanence.
- Impermanence is the title of a novella by Daniel Frisano.
- Reality in Buddhism
- Mono no aware
- The Tale of the Heike
- Philosophy of space and time
- Process philosophy
- Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 355, Article on Nicca. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
- Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. pp. 47–48, Article on Anitya. ISBN 978-1-4008-4805-8.
- A. C. Paranjpe (2006). Self and Identity in Modern Psychology and Indian Thought. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-306-47151-3.
- Martin G. Wiltshire (1990). Ascetic Figures Before and in Early Buddhism: The Emergence of Gautama as the Buddha. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 136 note 14. ISBN 978-3-11-009896-9.
- Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravada Buddhism. Routledge. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-134-90352-8., Quote: "All phenomenal existence [in Buddhism] is said to have three interlocking characteristics: impermanence, suffering and lack of soul or essence."
- Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. pp. 42–43, 47, 581. ISBN 978-1-4008-4805-8.
- Anicca Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013);
Anatta Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013);
Grant Olson (Translator); Phra Payutto (1995). Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life. State University of New York Press. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-0-7914-2631-9.
- Anicca Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013)
- Damien Keown (2013). Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 32–38. ISBN 978-0-19-966383-5.
- Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 32–33, 38–39, 46–49. ISBN 978-0-521-85942-4.
- Anatta Buddhism, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013)
- [a] Christmas Humphreys (2012). Exploring Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 42–43. ISBN 978-1-136-22877-3.
[b] Brian Morris (2006). Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-521-85241-8., Quote: "(...) anatta is the doctrine of non-self, and is an extreme empiricist doctrine that holds that the notion of an unchanging permanent self is a fiction and has no reality. According to Buddhist doctrine, the individual person consists of five skandhas or heaps - the body, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. The belief in a self or soul, over these five skandhas, is illusory and the cause of suffering."
[c] Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravada Buddhism. Routledge. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-134-90352-8., Quote: "(...) Buddha's teaching that beings have no soul, no abiding essence. This 'no-soul doctrine' (anatta-vada) he expounded in his second sermon."
- Brian Morris (2006). Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. pp. 51–53. ISBN 978-0-521-85241-8.
- Ray Billington (2002). Understanding Eastern Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 56–59. ISBN 978-1-134-79348-8.
- John Whalen-Bridge (2011). Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature into the Twenty-first Century. State University of New York Press. pp. 154–155. ISBN 978-1-4384-3921-1.
- Richard Francis Gombrich; Cristina Anna Scherrer-Schaub (2008). Buddhist Studies. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209–210. ISBN 978-81-208-3248-0.
- Paul Williams (2005). Buddhism: Buddhism in China, East Asia, and Japan. Routledge. pp. 150–153. ISBN 978-0-415-33234-7.
- Damien Keown (2004). A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-19-157917-2.
- Rupert Gethin (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-19-160671-7.
- Katha Upanishad 1.2.10, Wikisource; Quote: जानाम्यहं शेवधिरित्यनित्यं न ह्यध्रुवैः प्राप्यते हि ध्रुवं तत् । ततो मया नाचिकेतश्चितोऽग्निः अनित्यैर्द्रव्यैः प्राप्तवानस्मि नित्यम् ॥ १०॥
- Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, page 283 with footnote 1
- Max Muller (1884). The Upanishads. Oxford University Press (Reprinted Dover Press, 2012). p. 9, verse 1.2.10. ISBN 978-0-486-15711-5.
- Frank Hoffman; Deegalle Mahinda (2013). Pali Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 162–165. ISBN 978-1-136-78553-5.
- This is how Plato puts Heraclitus' doctrine. See Cratylus, 402a.
- John Palmer (2016). Parmenides. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
- Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (PDF). Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781400866328.
- Plutarch, On the “E” at Delphi
- Cratylus Paragraph 440 sections c-d.
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