07 March 2013

All Experiences Are Ephemeral

This "verse" occurs several times in the Nikāyas. It sums up a great deal in the space of just a handful of syllables. Like other celebrated verses it was no doubt composed as a short text to memorise and reflect on. It seems to be the same style of verse that we find at the end of Udāna texts, or in the Dhammapada. This particular verse occurs in two variations which I analyse below.

One version is found in two places in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (S i.6 & S i.200):
1. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti,  tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.
All experiences are ephemeral; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.

The metre is old vatta. ( . = short,  _ = long )

. _ _ _ | _ _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _

This is a fairly flexible metre of eight syllables in two lots (padas) of four syllables (a & b). In this case two lines are combined into lines of 16 syllables (four padas), with both lines ending with short-long-short-long (in fact there is an introductory line in the same metre at S i.6 that I have not included in this post). This is similar to the "epic" styles that doesn't organise lines into verses (thus this is not actually a verse, just two lines of metrical writing). Lines in this metre need not rhyme, but here the final syllable of the final padas do.

The variant is found at DN ii.257, S i.158; Ap i.64, 274, ii.385, & J 1.95 (Mahāsudassana)
1. Aniccā vata saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino;
2. Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Ephemeral indeed are experiences; rising and perishing according to their nature;
Rising, they cease; and quenching them is happiness.
Again the metre is old vatta.
_ _ _ . | . _ _ _ | _ _ . . | . _ . _
_ _ _ _ | _ _ _ . | _ _ _ . | . _ . _
My studies of Pāli metre are cursory to date, so I cannot comment on the comparitive aspects of the two versions. However we can say that this metre is associated with the early days of Pāli composition. Vatta metre went out of fashion by the later parts of the Canon. So these lines are old compared to the rest of the Canon. (See: Pāli Prosody)

Most of the terminology in the lines is familiar, but it's worth revisiting it. It makes a useful frame work for restating the view that the Buddha was talking about experience, and shows how we can apply this hermeneutic to an unfamiliar text.

Line 1a. Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā

Aniccā (Skt. anitya) means 'impermanent'. The word appears to derive from the preposition ni 'downwards, inwards'. The route to the meaning of 'constant, continuous, permanent' is not clear, but the usage is consistent. Here it is in the nominative plural and thus goes with (and is predicated of) saṅkhārā.

The difference between the two version is in this second word either: sabbe or vata. The version with sabbe may well be related to the Dhammapada verse 277, which has a similar metrical pattern:
sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā
_ _ _ _ | _ . _ _
Sabbe means 'all'; while vata is an exclamtion suggesting emphasis or certainty 'indeed, surely, certainly'. Here sabbe is declined as a pronoun in the masculine plural and vata is indeclinable.

Lastly saṅkhārā means 'contructs' (nominative plural - the 'subject' of the sentence). The etymology is sam- 'together, complete' + khāra (Skt. skāra) an action noun from √kṛ 'to make'. Literally it means 'putting together', hence 'construct'. I take this word to refer to a particular model of knowing - sense organ meets sense object in the light of sense awareness which is called phassa (Skt sparśa) 'contact'. From contact we get 'data' or 'knowns' (vedana). Vedanā is a passive past participle from the causative form of the verb √vid 'to know, to find'. Thus vedanā means 'caused to know, making known'. It is through vedanā that we known our world (loka). So saṅkhārā are what are put together for us to know, or have an experience of, the world. Or to put it another way our experience is a construct. The English word 'experience' conveys the meaning, while highlighting my way of reading the texts (my hermeneutic).

So this pada reads 'all experiences [i.e. 'all knowledge arising from contact' or 'all that results from putting together sense object, organ and awareness'] are impermanent. And we understand this to apply to the domain of experience, not to the domain of 'what is'. It is a statement about the ontology of experience, not the ontology of objects. Experience is empheral even when objects are not.

Line 1b. uppādavayadhammino

This pada consists of a single long compound uppādavayadhammino. We can analyse this in the following way: it is made up of three words: uppāda + vaya + dhammino and would scan as uppādāya ca vayāya ca dhammī or uppādāya dhammī vayāya ca dhammī. "whose nature (dhammin) is to arise (uppāda) and perish (vaya)." Dhammino is a nominative plural because it qualifies saṅkhārā which is in the same. 

This simply expands on the first point about impermanence. The nature of experience is that it constantly arises and passes away. It does this because our attention is always on a single aspect of the very broad range of input from our senses. We live in sensory information like a fish lives in water. So much of it that we hardly notice most of it. The Buddhist view is that we process this information one bit at a time. But we constantly scan our senses at such a rate that our experience seems to broadly take in our surroundings and proivides the illusion of smooth continuity. In fact our experience is grainy or lumpy in the same way that a film is made up of a series of still images. Projected onto a screen rapidly enough so that we cannot see them individually, but cognitively blur them into motion. 

It's worth reminding ourselves at this point that the sense of selfhood or first person perspective is subject to these same limitations. It is something that arises and passes away depending on where the attention is. In deep sleep and deep meditation there is no sense of self. In waking we can sometimes catch the sense of self being assembled. Some practitioners report that it is possible to operate without any overt sense of self or a first person perspective. Though I recall Sangharakshita's quip that before you can transcend the self, you have to have one. 

Line 2a Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, 

These are two verbs, the first a gerund and the second a finite verb in the 3rd person plural. The gerund forms a subordinate clause indicating an action which precedes the main verb. Here the plural number of the main verb makes it clear that we are still talking about experiences (saṅkhārā).

The verb uppajjitvā comes from uppajjati (Skt utpadyati). The root is √pad 'to go'; with the preverb ut- 'up' it means 'to go up' i.e. 'to arise, to come forth or out, to be born.'  There are two strategies for translating gerunds. We can either says 'having arisen...' or allow the order of the words to imply the order of the action and say 'arising...'

The vern nirujjhanti (Skt. nirundhati) comes from the preverb ni 'down' with the root √rudh 'to stop'. So it is literally 'to shut down, to cease, to be destroyed.'.

So this phrase says 'having arisen, they are destroyed' or 'arising, they cease'. All that can happen when a saṅkhārā arises is that it ceases. The duration of any particular sensation is a fraction of a second. The number of 25 frames per second for a film to fool our eye into seeing smooth motion may be a clue to the duration of any particular experience. However the early Buddhists did not have films!

Line 2b tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Having established the facts of the matter the verse gives us the punch line: happiness (sukho) is the quenching (vūpasamo) of them (tesaṃ); i.e. in the quenching of saṅkhārā. The word sukha is familiar enough not to need much comment: it is the opposite of disappointment and misery, i.e. contentment, happiness, and/or bliss. Sometimes, as I discussed some time ago in commenting on the Dhammapada, sukho seems to be a synonym for nibbāna.

The word vūpasama (Skt vyupaśama) combines the two preverbs vi 'apart' and upa 'up' with the verbal root √śam 'to labour or toil'. On its own upaśam means 'calm, quiet' and is not not predictable from the combination of preverb and root (this is very often the case). Here the vi preverb is being used in its sense of intensifying the verb. Thus vūpasama means 'allaying, calming, supression, quenching (especially of thirst).'


Where nibbāna means 'blown out or extinguished' using the metaphor of fire; vūpasama references the metaphor of thirst (taṇha Skt tṛṣṇa). And the thirst metaphor is familiar stuff for Buddhists. We thirst for experience because we think that pleasurable experiences amount to happiness. That this is not so was apparently obvious 2500 years ago in India, but this knowledge of the basic falseness of the idea has not quashed it. Indeed I would say that this idea is more prevalent, more powerful than ever and driving industrialised, first-world, 'Western' societies close to madness and destruction. The pursuit of pleasure through sensory stimulation or through appropriation of objects or wealth has damaged not only us humans, but many other species and the very biosphere itself. And our pursuit appears to show no signs of slowing down.

And here is this text telling us that happiness is the quenching of experience - the very opposite of what we believe. Happiness is found through quenching our thirst for experience, not by trying to satiate it. Because the thirst for experience can never be satiated. We'll never get so much pleasure that we don't want any more. And though the Buddha could not have known this, it is also the conclusion of people who study the brain and to some psychologists.

And even in these few syllables we find the key to quenching that thirst. It comes about through examining the transient nature of experience. Our practice consists in various techniques to produce various experiences. Firstly we try to calm down - the take the edge off the restlessness of our thirst. Then we turn our attention to experience itself - watching it arise and pass away. Noting the speed and duration of change. Noticing how there is never stability. The continuity that we experience on an every day level is grainy. And in the still depths of samādhi we can see the dynamics of experience arising and passing away. We can come to understand right to the core of our being the utter pointlessness of pursuing pleasure. Which is not so say we ought not to enjoy our food or sex or whatever. We enjoy whatever pleasurable experience that comes along. But we know it as it is (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). even our cherished self is just another experience arising and passing away. There is nothing in experience that can be grasped. Forms are like soap bubbles - an outline of something which when we take it in our hands simply vanishes.

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