Theravāda budistička zajednica u Srbiji

The Buddhist Theory of Impermanence

An Approach from the Standpoint of Modern Philosophy [1]

Bhikkhu Ñanajivako

Samo za besplatnu distribuciju, kao dar Dhamme

“Is the eye… the shape… visual consciousness, permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, reverend sir.”

“But is what is impermanent, anguish or happiness?”

“Anguish, reverend sir.”

“Is it right to regard that which is impermanent anguish, and liable to alteration as ‘This is mine, this am I, this is my self’?”

“No, reverend sir.” [2]

Insights and discoveries revealed to human minds 2500 years ago, at the time of the Buddha (or even several centuries before that time), may have caused deep and revolutionary effects in the evolution of existing world views, no less important than the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus have been for the eventual collapse of the world-view of medieval Christian civilization. These latter discoveries, which mark the outset of modern civilization, have become so much a part of commonplace or general information that they can be imparted to children in the lowest grades of elementary education, and are normally absorbed by them without difficulty.

The idea of impermanence and of ceaseless change, due to the never-ending “chain” of causes and effects (the subject which we are attempting to approach in its Buddhist version of aniććaṃ) has, in its broad meaning, become one of our stereotyped and oversimplified truisms, reduced, both in its formal and substantial significance, to a mere rudiment of conventional word-meaning. As such, it may still have impressed us on the level of nursery rhymes and even of some grammar-school classics in the history of literature. (If I had to choose a deeper adequation [3] founded on a modern poet’s more complex philosophical intuition, I would not hesitate to select the lines from T.S. Eliot’s Quartets;

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.)

We might hope to rediscover the original significance and historical purport of such truisms only if we were to look for them purposively, guided by some subjective impressions of individual or particular cases, and by the consequences of their concrete application in actual scientific or philosophical theories. This is what I am about to hint at in a few examples.

One: As a young teacher, when for the first time I tried to explain to children of about twelve years of age the biological process of growing cabbages and potatoes, my emphasis on the importance of dung (I did not use the technical term “fertilizer”) happened to be so impressive that the next day a mother came to complain against my “direct method” and “drastic naturalism” in visual teaching. Her child had been so affected by my discourse as to develop an acute loathing against food. Thus I was impressed how easily our most commonplace truisms about the laws of nature — whose discovery, once upon a time, may have been treated and even punished as revolutionary by respectable and authoritative social institutions — can still reveal themselves unexpectedly in their full overpowering force to the fresh and innocent minds of new generations.

Two: In my own generation of teenagers, between the two wars in Europe, the deadlock between science and religion was so complete that secondary school curricula were bound to provoke in our minds an unavoidable crisis of conscience. Teachers on the whole were totally involved in this struggle of convictions, keen to win us over to one side or the other. The side of science against religion was normally the stronger. Since that time religion, defeated in Europe, has become more and more a prohibited fruit, and has therefore acquired a new attractive force for juvenile minds. This is true not only in the eastern parts of Europe, since science is far from being a privilege of Communism. An anti-scientific tendency in Europe (“continental”) philosophy has even become predominant, on account of the moral catastrophe which still preoccupies the minds of our generation beyond any other problem of “man’s position in the universe.”

The central issue in this conflict between science and religion, at least from our youthful bias at that time, was of course the problem of anattā (“no-soul”), to express it by the corresponding Buddhist term. Laws governing processes of causes and effects were, however, scientifically explained — or at least so understood by our unripe minds, under the impression of the open dispute between science and (Christian) religion. The explanations were not yet in terms of the scientific equivalent to a pure anićća-vādo (theory of impermanence), which would imply a denial of the underlying material substantiality of the world. Instead of that, explanations given to us at that time still followed the classical Greek pattern of mechanistic materialism or static atomism, which was the closest to the Buddhist understanding of the uccheda-vādo (theory of destruction), whose believers are described in Pali texts in the following terms:

He then hears the Perfect One expounding the teaching for the removal of all grounds for “views,” of all prejudices, obsessions, dogmas, and biases, for the stilling of all processes, for the relinquishment of all substrata of existence, for the extirpation of craving, for dispassion, cessation, extinction. He then thinks, “I shall be annihilated, I shall be destroyed! No longer shall I exist!” Hence he grieves, is depressed and laments; beating his breast, he weeps, and dejection befalls him. Thus, bhikkhus, is there anxiety about realities. — MN 22

To this, the only authentic answer is:

Since in this very life a Tathāgata (in this case generally understood as a human being in the widest sense) is not to be regarded as existing in truth, in reality, is it proper for you to assert: “as I understand the doctrine taught by the Exalted One, insofar as a bhikkhu has destroyed the āsavas [life’s “intoxicants” or passions] he is broken up and perishes when body is broken up, he exists not after death.”?SN 22.85

The logical possibility of such an answer is excluded by the premise. The same premise, however, excludes also the opposite, affirmative, possibility. (We shall return to this problem, as understood by contemporary philosophy, in section Five.)

Is important to underline here that, on the same premise, uććheda-vādo, or simply the materialistic belief in a substantial “destruction” of any form of being, is the extreme opposite of any authentic nihilism in ontology and epistemology (theory of being and theory of knowledge). Only an explicitly idealistic philosophy, “looking upon the world as a bubble, as a mirage” (Dhp 170) can be nihilistic in some respect, while uććheda-vādo as a “theory of destruction” necessarily presupposes an existentially rooted belief in material substance.

It was just in this sense, in the midst of the battle-ground between science and religion, and on the eve of a world war, that the children of the first half of the 20th century had to face the fatality of a physical and moral destruction, scientifically and infallibly precalculated, as experience was about to prove. Yet just over the edge of our intellectual horizon was dawning a time, for science at least, of acquiring a completely different position vis-a-vis the problem of impermanence and relativity as affecting the deepest subatomic structure of the world — a position considerably closer to the Buddhist idea of aniććam.

Three: Since 1927, Bertrand Russell’s book, An Outline of Philosophy, has been widely quoted as one of the best popular presentations of the radical change in the scientific world-view stemming from Einstein’s theory of relativity and of the resulting development of nuclear physics. I shall try to elicit from Russell’s statements, as far as the present draft of pointers to our essential problem may permit, the rejection of the substance-view by modern science, because it is the rejection of the substance-view that constitutes the core of the Buddhist anićća-vādo as a foundation (at least in the ti-lakkhaṇam scheme) of both dukkhaṃ and anattā.

To start with, let us define the idea of physical “substance” by means of its basic description and philosophical implication has stated in the Sutta-piṭakam sources. The problem of substance, as defined by scientific (lokāyatam) theories at the time of the Buddha, finds its classical formulation, categorial delimitation and solution in concise terms in his concluding answer to Kevaddho:

Where do earth, water, fire, and wind; long and short; fine and coarse; pure and impure, no footing find?

Where is it that both name and form die out, leaving no trace behind?

When intellection (viññānaṃ) ceases they all cease, too. — DN 11

For the categorical relation of mind and matter (or “name and form,” naamaa ruupam, as implied in the foregoing formulation), the following statement of the Buddha is the most adequate and also the best-known in connection with our subject:

It would be better, bhikkhus, for the unlearned worldling to regard this body, built up of the four elements, as his self rather than the mind. For it is evident that this body may last for a year, for two years, for three, four, five or ten years… or even for a hundred years and more. But that which is called thought, or mind, or consciousness, continuously, during day and night, arises as one thing, and passes away as another thing. — SN 12.61

Now, let us get a few quotations from Bertrand Russell. [4] First, as regards substance-matter, he says:

In former days, you could believe it on a philosophical ground that the soul is a substance and all substances are indestructible… But the notion of substance, in the sense of a permanent entity with changing states, is no longer applicable to the world.

A wave in the sea persists for a longer or shorter time: the waves that I see dashing themselves to pieces on the Cornish coast may have come all the way from Brazil, but that does not mean that a “thing” has traveled across the Atlantic; it means only that a certain process of change has traveled.

[Einstein’s theory of relativity] has philosophical consequences which are, if possible, even more important. The substitution of space-time for space and time has made the category of substance less applicable than formerly, since the essence of substance was persistent through time, and there is now no one cosmic time.

We found that matter, in modern science, has lost its solidity and substantiality; it has become a mere ghost haunting the scenes of its former splendor… The notion of matter, in modern physics, has become absorbed into the notion of energy.

We cannot say that “matter is the cause of our sensations.”… In a word, “matter” has become no more than a conventional shorthand for stating causal laws concerning events.

Thus we are committed to causation as an a priori belief without which we should have no reason for supposing that there is a “real” chair (or any thing) at all.

Next, as regards the theory of events, we note that the idea of fixed and static elements of “matter” has been replaced by that of undeterminable “events” corresponding to the quantum electrodynamic field theory in nuclear physics, which comes very close to the conception of a non-physical but purely phenomenological idea of dhammaa, implied in its primitive significance by khaṇika-vādo, or theory of momentariness, of the Abhidhamma-piṭakam. (This latter aspect, explicitly philosophical, will be sketched in Five, below.) Of this Russell writes:

Everything in the world is composed of “events.”… An “event” is something occupying a small finite amount of space-time… Events are not impenetrable, as matter is supposed to be; on the contrary, every event in space-time is overlapped by other events.

I assume that every event is contemporaneous with events that are not contemporaneous with each other; this is what is meant by saying that every event lasts for a finite time… Time is wholly relational.

Space-time order, as well as space-time points, results from the relations between events.

Compare with this last statement, and with those that follow, the assertion of Buddhaghosa in Atthasālini: “By time the sage described the mind, and by mind described the time.”

Lastly, Russell says of mental events:

An important group of events, namely percepts, may be called “mental.”

Mentality is an affair of causal laws, not of the quality of single events, and also, mentality is a matter of degree.

What is mind?… Mind must be a group of mental events, since we have rejected the view that it is a single simple entity such as the ego was formerly supposed to be… Its constitution corresponds however to “the unity of one ‘experience.'”

As a result of these considerations, Russell concludes that “first of all, you must cut out the word ‘I’: the person who believes is an inference, not a part of what you know immediately.”

Finally, the logical possibility of an uććheda-vādo (theory of destruction) “heresy” is explicitly eliminated even on this level of merely scientific considerations: “Is a mind a structure of material units? I think it is clear that the answer to this question is in the negative.”

We can conclude this survey by accepting without any further reserve Russell’s statement: “The problems we have been raising are none of them new, but they suffice to show that our everyday views of the world and of our relations to it are unsatisfactory.”

Four: Recently, field theory, as a replacement for the abandoned substance theory in physics, has found increasing application — at least as a hypothetical analogy — in other spheres of scientific thought, and even more in philosophical speculations limited to possible (and sometimes to impossible) extensions of “special sciences.” Its application to parapsychology is of particular interest, for the extension of the subject in which we are interested is beyond the strictly physical sphere of being.

It is Gardner Murphy who has given us the most consequent and exclusive elaboration of a parapsychological analogy of field theory, as far as I know. A summarized recapitulation of his thesis is as follows:

The action of living matter on living matter is never a case of single cell acting only on single cell. The structural whole or field is always involved. The field principle may hold in psychics as well as in physics, and a psychic field may extend backwards and forwards in time as well as onwards in space. The question, “Does personality survive death?” is therefore in Murphy’s view not a reasonable question to ask. If any psychical activity survives, it will become an aspect of different fields and will thus take on new qualities and new structural relationships. It is evident that for him “all personal activities are constantly changing context and interacting with those of others, and it may be that each one becomes part of the cosmic process.” [5]

Another worker in the field of parapsychology, C. G. Broad, investigating The Mind and Its Place in Nature from the standpoint of a possible “survival” of the “PSI component,” draws the conclusion, from the same basic analogy with physics, that “we need no longer suppose that, although a surviving PSI component may be bodiless, it is necessarily unextended and unlocalized, for we are nowadays well accustomed to such phenomena as electro-magnetic fields which cannot be called bodies in the ordinary sense but which still have structure and definite properties and dispositions. We must not think of it (i.e., of the surviving PSI-component) as something on which an experience makes an impression as a seal does on a ball of wax. On the contrary, such a substanceless theory implies a greater degree of survival than the mere persistence of an inactive PSI component.” [6]

Exponents of the same parapsychological theory also maintain that their hypothesis might offer a more adequate basis for explanation of subconscious phenomena investigated by psychoanalysis, particularly Jung’s archetypes, than the initial Freudian attempts, which have been characterized since the first as a scientifically untenable Platonic analogy with “pigeon holes” as the basic structure of the soul.

All these more or less ad hoc analogies with the field theory in physics can be brought down as well to an earlier metaphysical hypothesis, formulated on a broader philosophical basis already by William James, in his Pluralistic Universe (1909). [7] Speaking of the structure of “our inner life,” James says:

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self… May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, though we now know it not?… The analogies with… facts of psychical research, so called, and with those of religious experience, establish… a decidedly formidable probability in favor [of the following pluralistic hypothesis:]

Why should we envelop our many with the “one” that brings so many poisons in its train?… [instead of accepting] along with the superhuman consciousness the notion that it is not all-embracing; the notion, in other words, that there is a God, but that he is finite, either in power or in knowledge, or in both at once.

This is exactly the basic distinction between the Vedantic and the Buddhist conception of God, or gods, implying also the reason why James, in some respects, was in favor of a polytheistic conception, as a “result of our criticism of the absolute,” in the same context.

Five: Such adaptation of hypotheses borrowed ad hoc from heterogenous fields of science could and should be ultimately verified and explained only by proper philosophical investigation, using autonomous methods and established on its own, purely anthropological ground. Since the beginning of the 20th century this has indeed been done, always more clearly and explicitly. The results have been considerable, at least as far as the problem of our primordial concern is involved: the human value aspect of aniććaṃ, its fundamental significance in connection with both dukkhaṃ and anattā.

The proper philosophical attitude was defined, not as pertaining to the physical but rather to the historical world-view, as early as the end of the 19th century, by Wilhelm Dilthey, founder of the modern philosophy of culture:

The final pronouncement of the historical world-view is that human accomplishment of every sort is relative, that everything is moving in process and nothing is stable.

And yet this historical orientation has not maintained a position of predominant importance in 20th century European philosophy. The most prominent philosopher of culture in the middle of this century, Karl Jaspers, in discussing the priority of the question “What is man?” (As formulated by Kant) points out that this priority “does not mean that the knowledge of being is to be replaced by the knowledge of man. Being still remains the essential, but man can approach it only through his existence as a man,” i.e., through his historicity. [8]

Following Edmund Husserl, who established the most widely adopted logical and epistemological platform for European or continental philosophy in this century, the problem of being has acquired and sustained a role of central importance. In order to avoid its gross misunderstanding it is necessary, especially from our Buddhist standpoint, to note that Husserl’s basic postulate, “Back to the things themselves,” does not in any way imply a substantialist meaning of “things” in the classical, physically oriented ontology or theory of being, which has been rejected by modern physics. The significance of “being” has been radically changed with the achievement of a deeper insight into both its physical and historical structure. This is revealed very clearly in the analysis of being by Nicolai Hartmann who, more than Husserl and his closer followers, concentrated on implications of the ontological problem in the natural sciences.

In this respect the standpoint of A.N. Whitehead in Anglo-American philosophy comes closest to that of N. Hartmann. Russell’s theory of infinitesimal “space-time events” was not much more than an attempt to reduce to a pale rationalized scheme Whitehead’s metaphysical conception of “actual occasions” and “throbbing actualities,” understood as “pulsation of experience” whose “drops” or “puffs of existence” guided by an internal teleology in their “concrescence” (analogous to the Buddhist saṅkārā in karmic formations) join the “stream of existence” (bhavaṅga-soto).

The core of the abhidhammo conception of the “stream of existence” consists in its “theory of momentariness” khaṇika-vādo. Its modern analogy has found its first and best formulation in plain terms in the philosophy of William James, especially in his essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” where the “stream of consciousness” or “stream of thinking” (which, “when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing”) is elicited from his basic theory of “pure experience,” defined as “the instant field of the present… this succession of an emptiness and fullness that have reference to each other and are of one flesh” — succession “in small enough pulses,” which “is the essence of the phenomenon.” In the same connection, as “the result of our criticism of the absolute,” the metaphysical and metapsychical idea of a “central self” is reduced by James to “the conscious self of the moment.” [9] The well-known Buddhist thesis of “no-self” (anattā), or of a soul-less psychology, is based on the same background of the “theory of momentariness.”

This is also one of the points — and the most significant one — on which the philosophical conception of James coincides with Bergson. Terminologically at least, Bergson’s designation of the same “stream” as “flux du vecu,” the word “vecu” (“lived”) seems to come closest to the meaning of the Pali bhavaṅgo, suggesting the “articulated” (aṅgo) texture of life-experience.

In Husserl’s interpretation, “things” are simply taken to mean “whatever is given,” that which we “see” in consciousness, and this “given” is called phenomenal in the sense that it “appears” to our consciousness. The Greek word “phenomenon” does not necessarily indicate that there is an unknown thing behind phenomena (as in Kant’s philosophy or in the Vedanta), or a “back-stage” being, as Nietzsche ironically exposed it. From our standpoint, it is important to emphasize that Husserl’s phenomenological method “is neither deductive nor empirical, but consists in pointing to what is given and elucidating it.” [10] It claims, in other words, to be yathā-bhūtaṃ, or “adequate to [actual] being.”

The analysis of the original meaning of the Greek term “phenomenon” has been performed in masterly fashion by Martin Heidegger. [11] The word “phenomenon” (from the verb phainesthai, “let see,” which is similar to the Pali ehi-passiko) has two meanings relevant for philosophy. The first is “to show itself,” the second, “to seem as.” Contemporary phenomenological philosophy uses it in the first sense, as “merely letting something be seen, letting entities be perceived.” The secondary meaning, indicating something which seems to “remain hidden, or which relapses or gets covered again, or shows itself only ‘in disguise,'” points to the historical process of constructing theories and “views” (Greek doxa, Sanskrit driśti, Pali diṭṭhi) by which the primordially “uncovered” phenomena are rather concealed again, or kept in disguise.

The same basic idea is adopted by Nicolai Hartmann: “That a being is ‘in it-self’ means to say that it exists actually and not only for us… Being-in-itself does not need to be proved, it is given as the world itself is given.” [12] Hartmann’s most valuable contribution, however, is his entrance into the profound analysis of what was above called the secondary meaning of the philosophical term “phenomenon.” His analysis distinguishes “spheres” and “levels” of being: Broadly, there are two primary spheres, designated as real and ideal being. In the sphere of the real, four structural levels are distinguished: matter, life, consciousness, and mind.

In contexts eliciting such statements, it appears more and more obvious, from a Buddhist standpoint, how closely the meaning of the term phenomenon, as used in contemporary philosophy, approximates the basic meaning of dhamma in the abhidhamma theory. (The last instance quoted from Hartmann may remind us even more specifically of the khandhā structures.)

However, beyond the possibility of extending this analogy of phenomenon as disclosure of “being-in-itself” understood as a process, it is felt more and more by several contemporary European philosophers (just as was the case in the original Buddhist counterpart) that the ontological purport of being, thus understood as phenomenon or dhammo, must still be limited by a critical principle of essentially deeper significance. This principle has found its first — and until now its clearest — logical formulation in the cātu-koṭikam (tetralemma) rule by the Buddha, as he regularly applies it to the avyākatāni or “not-designated” problems, or “dialectical antinomies” [13] of speculative thought: “Neither being, nor non-being, nor both being-and-non-being, nor neither-being-nor-non-being” can express the existential purport and content of human reality. The word “being,” or any other derivate from the verb “to be,” cannot adequately express the immediate intuition (vipassanā) of existence, or the essence of actuality (as paramattho).

This deficiency of the basic ontological term “being” has been subtly analyzed by Heidegger in his Introduction to Metaphysics. Yet with him the philosophy of existence (or human actuality) has taken a prevalently ontological direction (as a phenomenological analysis of being). It has become a philosophy of our human being-in-the-world, and consequently a philosophy of “anguish” or dukkhaṃ, even though it was soon felt that this ontological turning does not, and cannot, adequately reflect either the primordial motives or the ultimate scope of existential thinking. Without entering into the historical background of such inner divergences in contemporary philosophy, I should like to point out a few symptomatic objections which can be compared in their radically anti-ontological attitude with the principle of the Buddha as formulated above.

According to the Buddha, the person reaping the fruits of good and bad actions (in a future life) is neither the same one who has committed these actions nor a different one. The same principle applies to the structural identification of a person in any other respect and circumstance, in the stream of one single physical life.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, discussing the problem of the structural unity of human personality, comes (at least on the basic level) to the conclusion that “the relation between my body and myself cannot be described as either ‘being’ or ‘having’: I am my body and yet I cannot identify myself with it.” [14] “Existing” does not mean being an object. On this supposition, Marcel develops his critical analysis of the two inadequate extreme terms of existence in his main work, Being and Having.

Another representative of the same trend in French philosophy, Jean Wahl, seems to approximate more nearly the actual meaning of the Buddha’s avyākatāni (specified above), not from formal logical or even linguistic considerations, but rather out of an essentially congenial understanding of the deeper problem: “We are concerned with questions which, strictly speaking, belong to solitary meditation and cannot be subjects of discourse.” [15]

Nicolas Berdyaev, an explicitly religious philosopher close to the same group, has given one of the clearest formulations of the point under discussion:

“The problem which faces us is: Is being a product of objectification? Is not the concept of being concerned with being qua concept, does being possess existence at all?… Why is ontology impossible? Because it is always a knowledge of objectifying existence. In an ontology the idea of being is objectified and an objectification is already an existence which is alienated in the objectification. So that in ontology — in every ontology — existence vanishes… It is only in subjectivity that one may know existence, not in objectivity. In my opinion, the central idea has vanished in the ontology of Heidegger and Sartre.” [16]

In agreement with Dilthey’s principle, quoted above, establishing the historical world-view of the cultural sciences independently from the scientific investigation of essentially objective physical nature, Heidegger has limited his inquiry on “time as the horizon for all understanding of being.” Against that background, he has criticized and abandoned the old substantialist ontology. For him, “temporality is the very being of human reality.” The relation time-mind, as quoted above from Buddhaghosa’s Atthasālini, is for Heidegger also exhaustive for both terms. And yet Berdyaev, like the other anti-ontologist philosophers mentioned here, criticizes even this essential turning in contemporary “anthropological ontology,” as at least a partial failure to understand authentic existential experience: “As a man Heidegger is deeply troubled by this world of care, fear, death, and daily dullness.” Despite this, and beyond that sincerity, his philosophy “is not existential philosophy, and the depth of existence does not make itself felt in it.” [17]

The reason for this was stated clearly and explicitly by Karl Jaspers, who was the first to criticize and abandon the ontological position in contemporary European philosophy, at the same time that Heidegger undertook his essential reform of its fundamental conception. In the view of Jaspers, “the ideal followed by ontologies is the perfectioning of the rational structure of the objectified world. Technical sciences have to help us bring about engineered existences.” Jaspers was, from the very beginning of his philosophical critique (about 1930), extremely aware of the danger of such scientific technicalization of human existence: “As an attempt to bind us to objectified being, ontology sublates freedom.” In his view, it is only “as potential existence that I am able to lift myself up from bondage. My chains will thus become the material of being…” The opposite way of an “engineered” civilization will transform me into a slave of that “material” and this actually is the typical form of suffering, of dukkhaṃ, by which “man in the modern age” is oppressed. [18]

In his advanced years, Jaspers has discovered the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārđuna as one of the most congenial minds, [19] while Heidegger, when reading D.T. Suzuki’s Essays on Zen Buddhism, confessed that this was exactly what he had tried to express all his life long.

Six: It was doubt of the material substance of the world which, to a considerable extent, provoked the problem of verifying the very idea of being, of the “selfhood” of the world, both in its exterior aspect and in that which is interior to the human being-in-the-world. What “doubt” was at the outset of critical philosophy in the period of its substantialist and objectifying orientation (following Descartes), disappointment, the “unsatisfactoriness” of the world, has become for the actual, subjectively oriented or introverted, humanistic philosophy of existence.

One of the best expressions of this turning can be found in some of the statements of Gabriel Marcel, who, by the way, defines his religious philosophy as a “doctrine of hope.” Its basic postulate is that philosophy must be “transobjective, personal, dramatic, indeed tragic. ‘I am not witnessing a spectacle’; we should remind ourselves of this every day.” [20] The Buddhist implication of this basic attitude may be pursued still further in the earlier formulation by Kierkegaard: “Life is a masquerade… Your occupation consists in preserving your hiding place… In fact you are nothing; you are merely a relation to others, and what you are, you are by virtue of this relation… When the enchantment of illusion is broken, when existence begins to totter, then too does despair manifest itself as that which was at the bottom. Despair itself is a negativity, unconsciousness of it is a new negativity… This is the sickness unto death.” [21]

It is only by abandoning the attitude of fascination for the “spectacle” of the statically staged “Being” of the world that man becomes sufficiently movable that he is fit to plunge into the stream of existence, no longer attached to some stage-prop or “remainder.” Is only then that he can really start swimming along that stream of saṃsāro, realizing that it is pure and simple aniććaṃ or impermanent flux, and that he can eventually become aware of the advantage of “crossing” it.

This is the point which contemporary European philosophy seems to be about to realize. It is essential for this realization that the principles of aniććaṃ and dukkhaṃ be inseparably reconnected through the intuition of their immediate interaction. In the actual situation, it will no longer even be necessary to deduce explicitly the idea of anattā as the dynamic resultant of the confrontation of the first two principles. Just like aniććaṃ, anattā has already become a truism for most Europeans, whom a standardized mental training, both scientific and philosophical has carried beyond the God and Soul dogma. [22] The phantom of the Western version of a materialistic uććheda-vādo is likewise about to be dispelled. The critical missing link has only been between impermanence (aniććaṃ) and suffering (dukkhaṃ). Due to the objectifying nature of scientific thinking, this link could never be revealed by a philosophy of nature subservient to science, not even of the type of Russell’s popular literary criticism quoted above. It is obvious that only an existential experience of dukkhaṃ, suffering or “anguish,” could bring about this realization.

Today we have to thank, for this realization, the catastrophic results and further consequences, still being suffered, of two world wars in the 20th century. That is why a new philosophy, already nascent on the eve of the Second World War, has emerged in Europe explicitly as a philosophy of conscience rather than of mere consciousness. It should appear equally obvious that in such a philosophy there is no longer any place for the stubborn false dilemma: philosophy or religion. This last problem, which concerns “philosophical faith,” is more important for Buddhism than for any other religion. It has found its best diagnostical expression in several essays of Karl Jaspers, from which we extract a few hints:

It is questionable whether faith is possible without religion. Philosophy originates in this question… Man deprived of his faith by the loss of his religion is devoting more decisive thought to the nature of his own being… No longer does the revealed Deity upon whom all is dependent come first, and no longer the world that exists around us; what comes first is man, who, however, cannot make terms with himself as being, but strives to transcend himself… The unsheltered individual gives our epoch its physiognomy… [Formerly] the authority of the church sheltered him and sustained him, gave him peace and happiness… Today philosophy is the only refuge for those who, in full awareness, are not sheltered by religion. [23]

Obviously, “faith” is here no longer understood as a belief in any revelation, but as reasonable trust in a qualified spiritual guide whose moral and intellectual capacities have to be carefully tested in each single case by a sound and mature criterion (apaṇṇako dhammo) such as was established by the Buddha in his critical discourses on religion, Apaṇṇaka-suttaṃ and Caṇki-suttaṃ (MN 60 and 95), in order to exclude empty and blind transmission of religious traditions “as a basket handed over from one to the other,” or in “a string of blind men.” “One oneself is the guardian of oneself; what other guardian could there be?” (Dhp 160)

Jean-Paul Sartre is another philosopher who, though himself not religious, realizes the tremendous importance of the religious problem from the bias of our critical age, and still more specifically from the bias of the deepest metaphysical implications of the idea of aniććaṃ, as non-substantiality, undermining the scientific foundation of 19th century materialism: The tragic situation of human reality in the world consists in the fact that due to his karmic “freedom” man “is not what he is, man is what he is not.” This statement, whose implications have scandalized many conservative Christian minds, nevertheless corresponds to the gist of St. Augustine’s thought as rendered by Jaspers out of a different deeply religious concern with the undeniable facticity of the same existential situation: “I am myself, but I can fail myself. I must put my trust in myself, but I cannot rely on myself.” [24]

As for Sartre, his first deduction from this basic realization of anićća-anattā is that as such “man is a useless passion.” “Human reality is the pure effort to become God without there being any given substratum for that effort… Desire expresses this endeavor… Fundamentally man is the desire to be.” As such, he is always only a “project” — ceaselessly “catapulted” from the past to the future (as Ortega y Gasset has formulated it), without a natural possibility of finding poise in his own present. This is the tragedy of his “temporalization,” whose ultimate meaning is aniććaṃ. This is how “the existence of desire as a human fact is sufficient to prove that human reality is a lack.” How, then, is a possibility of ultimate escape or “liberation” conceivable? It is because human reality “is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in the form of a project of being.” On this basis only, “We can ascertain more exactly what is the being of the self: it is value.” [25]

He who wants to delve deeper into such possibilities, it would seem, should follow the advice of Gabriel Marcel or of Berdyaev, and try to cross beyond the possibilities expressed in any philosophy of being. The Buddhist fitting, or “raft,” though considerably larger in its basic frame, is readily adaptable to their explicit requirements: “Neither being, nor non-being, nor both being-and-non-being, nor neither-being-nor-non-being.”


[1] This essay is a reprint from “Main Currents in Modern Thought,” Vol. 27, No. 5, 1971, revised and enlarged by the author. [Natrag]

[2] MN 146 and several other texts. Quotations from Pali suttas are adapted mainly from the Pali Text Society’s editions of the Translation Series. References in the text are to the Mađđhima-nikāyo (MN), Diigha-nikaayo (DN), Saṃyutta-nikāyo (SN), Dhammapadam (Dhp). [Natrag]

[3] Adequation: (obsolete) The act of equalizing or making equal or commensurate [OED, 2nd ed.] — ATI ed. [Natrag]

[4] Quotations from An Outline of Philosophy, 3rd impression. London, Allen and Unwin, 1941, pp. 309, 290, 304, 294, 290, 5, 287, 288, 289, 291, 292, 296, 297, 11, 300, 14. [Natrag]

[5] Quoted according to R. Heywood, The Sixth Sense, an Inquiry into Extra-Sensory Perception, London, Pan-books, 1959, pp. 205-210. [Natrag]

[6] See also his book, Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, and R. Heywood, op. cit., pp. 219-222. [Natrag]

[7] The following quotations are from Classic American Philosophers, General Editor M.H. Fisch, New York, Applenton-Century-Crofts, 1951, pp. 163, 164. [Natrag]

[8] K. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, ed. By R. Hart-Davis, London, 1962, p. 320. [Natrag]

[9] Quotations from Classic American Philosophers, op. cit., pp. 160, 155, 161, 163 n. [Natrag]

[10] Cf. I.M. Bochenski, Contemporary European Philosophy, Univ. of California Press, 1961, p. 136 (also for bibliography). [Natrag]

[11] The English translation of his main work, Being and Time, was published by Harper, New York, 1962. My references are from the 7th German ed., Tübingen, M. Niemeyer Verlag, 1953, pp. 28 ff. [Natrag]

[12] Cf. Bochenski, op. cit., p. 215. [Natrag]

[13] An astonishingly close analogy between the formulation of the four antinomies of the dialectical reason by Kant and the same basic structure of the four groups of “views” (diṭṭhi) in the Brahma-đāla-suttaṃ (DN 1) has been singled out in my papers, “Dependence of punar-bhava on karma in Buddhist philosophy,” and “My Approach to Indian Philosophy,” in Indian Philosophical Annuals, vols. I and II, 1965, 1966, under my lay name Chedomil Velyachich. [Natrag]

[14] Cf. Bochenski, op. cit., p. 183. [Natrag]

[15] Jean Wahl, A Short History of Existentialism, N.Y., The Philosophical Library, 1949, p. 2. [Natrag]

[16] N. Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End, Harper Torchbooks, 1957, p. 92. See also discussion contained in J. Wahl’s book (note 15, above). [Natrag]

[17] Op. cit., pp. 116 f. [Natrag]

[18] K. Jaspers, Philosophie, 2nd ed. Berlin, Springer, 1948, pp. 814, 813. Man in the Modern Age is the title of one of Jaspers’ books in English translation (London, 1959). [Natrag]

[19] In his history of The Great Philosophers, the chapter on Nāgārjuna is not included in the selection quoted above (note 8) in English translation. [Natrag]

[20] Cf. Bochenski, op. cit., p. 183. [Natrag]

[21] Cf. A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by R. Bretall, Princeton Univ. Press, 1951, p. 99 (from Either-Or) and p. 346 (from The Sickness Unto Death). [Natrag]

[22] Cf. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, London, Watts, 1967, an analysis characteristic for the necessary elimination of elements which an up-to-date definition of religion should not any longer postulate as essential. [Natrag]

[23] Man in the Modern Age, p. 142 ff., and The Great Philosophers, p. 221. [Natrag]

[24] Cf. The Great Philosophers, p. 200. [Natrag]

[25] J.-P. Sartre. Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen, 1966, pp. 615, 576, 565, 87, 92. [Natrag]