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Can you quickly explain "everything is impermanent"? Is it metaphysical or ontological claim, that nothing that "exists" will exist forever?

Or is it a claim that nothing can always be (meaning having that nature, rather than 'exist') anything? If not that latter, does Buddhism universally agree that there is no awareness of something being what it is, without existence?


Can I be aware of, for example, a shape being red without existence and "permanently" in the standard way of using that word, even if "everything is impermanent"?

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I think the assertion is that all sankharas are impermanent -- Three marks of existence -- more specifically "all conditioned things".

The idea is that most things are "conditioned" -- they have conditions in which they come into being, or are fabricated -- and they cease when those conditions cease to be.

So "a sight" (for example) is conditioned -- the conditions for seeing are an "eye" plus a "visual object" plus an "internal sense of sight" -- sight arises when these make contact, and any or every sight is impermanent (i.e. when that contact ceases). The same is true for other sense-impressions (including thoughts).

Physical objects are impermanent too, they're created from other things and eventually destroyed.

In summary, "all that arises, ceases".

Conversely whatever is "unconditioned" isn't impermanent.

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  • This wasn't targeted enough to the question, but thanks for the thought/s
    – anon
    Jul 12 at 16:34
  • There were a lot of words I didn't understand in the question: metaphysical, ontological, "have nature" as opposed to existing, what "nothing" means in that context, and the whole sentence after that. And I don't understand what you could be calling "permanent" or "permanently" in the last sentence.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 12 at 18:01
  • @ChrisW I think they mean the in-and-of-itself quality of the red shape, the objective quality that is, e.g. the red shape will always be red whenever present
    – blue_hefe
    Jul 12 at 18:22
  • Well I don't understand the syntax or the vocabulary of the question. But I think this answer is a quick explanation or a summary of what the suttas say.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 12 at 19:45
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Anicca according to wisdomlib means:

anicca : (adj.) not stable; impermanent.
(Source): BuddhaSasana: Concise Pali-English Dictionary

From the AccessToInsight Glossary for A:

anicca: Inconstant; unsteady; impermanent.

This is elaborated by the Buddha in DN 17 (translated by Bhikkhu Sujato):

See, Ānanda! All those conditioned phenomena have passed, ceased, and perished.

So impermanent are conditions,
Evaṃ aniccā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā;

so unstable are conditions,
evaṃ addhuvā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā;

so unreliable are conditions.
evaṃ anassāsikā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā.

This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.
DN 17

You may be happy and confident today, based on your close-knit family, dependable friends, good looks, fantastic health, abundant wealth, productive career or business etc. But all these will not last forever. They are impermanent (aniccā), unstable (addhuvā) and unreliable (anassāsikā). To peg your happiness or sense of self to these things will bring suffering. That's the relationship of impermanence to suffering. Also see SN 22.93 below.

The purpose of seeing conditioned things as impermanent, unstable and unreliable, is so that you can become disillusioned, dispassionate and free from clinging.

It's not metaphysics or ontology. It's pragmatism and methodological.

“Suppose, mendicants, there was a mountain river that flowed swiftly, going far, carrying all before it. If wild sugarcane, kusa grass, reeds, vetiver, or trees grew on either bank, they’d overhang the river. And if a person who was being swept along by the current grabbed the wild sugarcane, kusa grass, reeds, vetiver, or trees, it’d break off, and they’d come to ruin because of that.

In the same way, an uneducated ordinary person has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen good persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the good persons.

They regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form. But their form breaks off, and they come to ruin because of that. They regard feeling … perception … choices … consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness. But their consciousness breaks off, and they come to ruin because of that.

What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.” …

“Is feeling … perception … choices … consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“So you should truly see … Seeing this … They understand: ‘… there is no return to any state of existence.’”
SN 22.93

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A red square will always be a red square. The term "red" defines a certain frequency range. The term "square" defines a certain geometrical relationship. These are abstractions which we use to name what we see. So "red square" is a name.

Yet when we see a red square, we actually see only a form that matches the name "red square". And these forms, such as a printed or painted red square are impermanent. The printing or painting of a red square is always impermanent. Printings and paintings fade and crumble away with time.

So we can talk and talk about red squares forever. But all that we see as a red square will crumble away. These perceived forms are impermanent. Understanding that these forms are impermanent leads us to question our restless grasping for such forms (as in "that's MY red square!").

SN22.157:1.10: Is form permanent or impermanent?”
SN22.157:1.11: “Impermanent, sir.” …
SN22.157:1.13: “But by not grasping what’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, would fetters, insistence, and shackles arise?”

Names are intangible. Forms are tangible yet unsatisfactorily impermanent. Grasping and holding on to impermanence is suffering.

DN15:3.1: So: name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress

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  • Even the concept of a red square is impermanent -- though you may imagine (at least temporarily) that what you're imagining is some eternal platonic ideal.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 13 at 13:56
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    @ChrisW actually, in Ven. Sujato's translations, the Buddha does not (!) talk about permanence or impermanence with regard to "name". Instead, "form" is what is associated with impermanence. So we have to be very careful when talking about names being impermanent. This was quite a surprise to me and led to this answer.
    – OyaMist
    Jul 15 at 0:48
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  1. Everything is not impermanent. All composite phenomena are impermanent. It is an important distinction to be made. It is not a claim. It is an assertion about the nature of reality. That makes it an ontological claim. I am unaware of any such claim "nothing exists will exist forever". But here are my two points about it- If you are trying to understand the 'claim' within Buddhist perspective first, which is what I am assuming you are attempting to do (for you have posted a question on this site). Something which doesnt exist may come into existence at some point or it may not. There would be other conditions that determine that. The impermanence does not say anything related to anything that doesnt exist exist forever. YOu may find it useful to understand impermanence without such idea. Once you get what buddhists mean by impermanence, you may think about other problems as and how you like.

  2. Your second question is also a question which is trying to understand something through buddhism but not understanding buddhism first. Your questions wil change.

  3. As to answer you example question, yes we can and in fact that is how we live in the world. We are aware of a red apple as a red apple without thinking of it in terms of existence or permanence. These are conceptual categories that are applied according to specific rules. I again implore you to read about the concept of impermanence from reliable scholars and books of buddhism with wheich you can then think about particular problems.

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Red can not always remain red. Everything is impermanent. Nirvana is neither permanent or impermanent.Sight is impermanent. Sound is impermanent. House is impermanent.Jobs are impermanent. All forms are impermanent. All feelings are impermanent. Impermanent not only applies to existence but also to current state. Nothing can remain in its current state forever. It is bound to change and vanish. Similarly impermanence also means it is bound to arise again. All things, processes,feelings,perceptions,choices,consciousness (all sanskaras) arise , change and vanish ; this is called impermanence. Nirvana is a mystery it is neither stable nor unstable. It is extinguishment.Buddha even gives up extinguishment and says I am not extinguishment, extinguishment is not mine or myself.Except Nirvana all is impermanent.

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By “quickly” I assume you mean an answer that does not take a lot of time to answer. One that is not TLDR; that goes on and on forever. But even overly long answers come to an end. Everything comes to an end. That’s neither metaphysical, nor ontological. It’s a fact. An event with a beginning and an end. We experience the start of the event and the end of the event. Some events are really short lived, others go on for millennia, like the erosion of a mountain, some even longer, like the Sun. But none continue ‘forever’ — not even the universe.

Do you grok the perspective here? It’s not some bullshit ‘objective’ conceptual view from nowhere, or a God’s Eye view overlooking all of metaphysical ‘eternity’. The Buddha wasn’t interested in metaphysics and he specifically eviscerated the ontological basis of Ontology.

And that is where there is a problem with your question: you are trying to twist impermanence into a metaphysical assertion, or an ontological one. It’s neither. It’s just the universal fact that no event lasts forever.

Emptiness is what you need to incorporate into your calculus, because impermanence and emptiness are two aspects of one truth. By not incorporating emptiness into your question, you are creating a golem out of impermanence.

Emptiness is a complex dialectical understanding about what “exists”, and different schools of Buddhism hold to varying applications of the doctrine. No ‘thing’ can be truly said to exist because no thing has an independent self-nature. You can say your fingers exist, but you’re really confusing yourself because fingers don’t exist on their own. I’ll leave it to you to expand on that.

I said “dialectical” because not even Emptiness exists as an independent thing.

And yet, though nothing exists in the naïve sense of that word, it’s not a void. It’s not nihilism. It is a plenum of events of varying durations. It is a fullness, rather than an emptiness. The point here being that Emptiness refers to the lack of independent selfhood, and that’s it.

It breaks ontology though.

“Exists” means being, in our common meaning of “to be.” And it implies that in being, something has an independent self-nature. It’s real. It’s material, etc., etc.

But that is just an illusion that happens because of our ignorance (lack of direct insight really).

So, can you experience “a shape being red without existence and "permanence"* in the standard way of using that word,” even if everything is impermanent? Of course! You do it anytime you look at something that is red.

Of course, the redness has little to do with the thing you are labeling as being red. (I’ll skip all the junior high-school physics lessons about why that is.) It has to do with the entire context of the moment, including the thing, you, and the light source, but also the time of day, the weather, etc. This is called codependent origination.

The crux of all this is that you have to distinguish between the common meaning of existence, and the Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness. Otherwise, you are just asserting erroneous interpretations of the very unique and very profound insights of the Buddha.

The End 😊 See?!

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