09 September 2011

Everything changes, but so what?

Heraclitus
Heraclitus
πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.
Everything flows and nothing stays.

Heraclitus quoted in Plato. Cratylus. 402a. Perseus Digital Library.
[translation
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations]

IT CAN SOMETIMES SEEM that Buddhists take the great insight of the Buddha to be that "everything changes". It can sometimes seem that "everything changes" is equated with paṭicca-samuppāda. While it is certainly true that everything changes, I think we Buddhists are often wrong in the way we present change. In particular we present this idea that everything changes are some kind of revelation from the exotic East, previously unknown to the mundane West. But the fact that everything changes is actually passé in the West, at least as old in our intellectual history as in Indian. So here I want to present a few quotes on the subject from pre-Buddhist Europe:
Nothing endures but change. Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
What can we take on trust in this uncertain life? Happiness, greatness, pride—nothing is secure, nothing keeps. Euripides, Hecuba.

Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD),

ὁ κόσμος ἀλλοίωσις, ὁ βίος ὑπόληψις. The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, V, 3.
I have never come across any credible suggestion that these Greek and Roman thinkers were influenced by Buddhism, and indeed Heraclitus most likely predates the Buddha. And yet some of these observations are indistinguishable from the phrases repeated by Buddhists as representing our most profound wisdom. I want to take this a little further by quoting a paragraph from David Sedley's stimulating commentary on Plato's Cratylus Dialogue—here he is actually talking about the Timaeus Dialogue:
According to the Timaeus, the sensible world is gignomenon, something which constantly 'becomes' but never 'is'. It is therefore not an object of knowledge, on the Platonic principle that the contents of knowledge should not, even in theory, admit of being falsified at a later date: items of knowledge are permanent possessions, not subject to revision; their objects must therefore be entities incapable of change, that is primarily at least, the Forms. The sensible world is, by contrast, the domain of opinion, doxa, which shares the instability of it's objects and which, even if true now, can be falsified at any time. [Plato's Cratylus, Cambridge University Press, 2003; p.101]
A similar kind of distinction is made in Buddhism. Our views (dṛṣṭi) about experience are expressed as opinions on the world, and on reality. But with insight and wisdom we begin to see that what we comment on is merely perception which is subject to change even when the object being perceived does not change. However it is possible to see experience just as it is (yathābhūta) and this kind of insight has certain characteristics which do not change. The knowledge gained is called prajñā. I would see this in terms of knowledge about the underlying dynamics and processes of perception - it has no object as such, hence it is without condition (asaṃskṛta). And I see no hint that Sedley is in any way familiar with, let alone influenced by, Buddhism in his reading of Plato. So it seems that Platonists also see the world as something which is always 'becoming' but never 'is'.

I think this is sufficient to establish that "everything changes" is not an observation unique to Buddhism. There are two possibilities. Either the statement tells us that the Greeks were on the same wavelength as the Buddha; or the statements are both equally banal. And I suggest it is the latter. I don't think that observation that everything changes is very profound; or that the Greeks were awakened in the Buddhists sense; or that "everything changes" is what the Buddha was on about.

Hopefully this opinion doesn't come as a surprise. I've written a number of times that I do not think that paṭicca-samuppāda was intended to be a theory of everything. This is argued at length in my commentary on the Kaccānagotta Sutta, and summarised in my blog post: A General Theory of Conditionality? The theory paṭicca-samuppāda was intended to explain the arising of experience, and guide us towards insights into why we suffer, with suffering distinguished from painful sensations. It might be argued that this is an attempt to discover 'the original Buddhism' which I myself have described as folly, and criticised others for. However I think there are good doctrinal and methodological reasons for adopting this approach and these are set out in many previous blog posts, and longer essays.

I've gathered many quotes from Westerners who, as far as I know, were not aware of or influenced by Buddhism.

All things change, nothing is extinguished. There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement. Ovid (BC 43-AD 18) Roman poet.

In human life there is constant change of fortune; and it is unreasonable to expect an exemption from the common fate. Life itself decays, and all things are daily changing. Plutarch (46-120) Greek essayist, and biographer.

The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead? Thomas Paine

Today is not yesterday: we ourselves change; how can our works and thoughts, if they are always to be the fittest, continue always the same? Change, indeed is painful; yet ever needful; and if memory have its force and worth, so also has hope. - Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) British historian and essayist.

Change doth unknit the tranquil strength of men. Matthew Arnold, A Question.

Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, novelist and dramatist.

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) British political writer.

Change is inevitable. Change is constant. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) British politician and author.

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. William Somerset Maugham

When you're finished changing, you're finished. Benjamin Franklin
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"Everything changes". Amongst Buddhists "everything changes" has become a cliché. But, so what? Awareness of it should, and does affect the way we choose to live, however I do not think it was the radical insight seen by the Buddha. I have tried to show in my essay on the Kaccānagotta Sutta that the idea of that everything changes was, from the Buddha's point of view, demonstrably false. With only his bare senses and mind he couldn't have imagined that gem stones for example changed imperceptibly over millions of years: they simply did not change. However our experience of everything is always changing, even when presented with an apparently unchanging object, and here we are closer to the mark.
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