Ananda Coomaraswamy (Photo: Alvin Langdon Coburn)
The idea of Anitya or Anicca* or Impermanence has captured my imagination for as long as I remember. That it is at the core of Buddha’s philosophy is something I discovered only when I was 18 or 19. I have since reflected on it many times, including the whole of yesterday and this morning. Hence this post.
It is a spectacularly brilliant explanation of everything there is as long as you understand that everything there is is there in that passing moment and hence it is really not there. The idea of Anitya can be deeply disturbing; especially because it removes what we like to call the essence. It can be deeply affecting for those stuck in the morass of corporeal certitudes about reality.
As part of my overall reading for the Dalai Lama biography ‘Man Monk Mystic’ I read many books. However, the one that has managed to make an impact is the 1916 edition of “Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism” by the extraordinary scholar of Indian culture and arts Ananda Coomaraswamy (22 August 1877 − 9 September 1947).
There is a lot to reflect over in this book first published in London by George G. Harrap & Company. For the purposes of this post I would like to reproduce a brief passage about Anitya or Anicca. I must caution that it may sound rather abstruse at first but invest some thought in it and the idea will stand utterly illuminated. Of course, your comprehension will disappear as soon as you have attained it.
How essential in Buddhism is the doctrine of the eternal succession of causes appears from the fact it is often spoken as the gospel:
“I will teach you the Dhamma,” says Gautama, “That being present, this becomes; from the arising of that, this arises. That being absent, this does not become; from the cessation of that, this ceases.”
We read again that “Dhamma-analysis is knowledge concerning conditions.”
What he thought was designed to avoid the two extreme doctrines of realism and nihilism, the belief in phenomenal being and the belief that there is no phenomenal process at all. “Everything is: this, O Kaccana**, is one extreme view. Everything is not: this is the second extreme view. Avoiding both these extremes the Tathagata*** teaches the Norm by the Mean.” This doctrine of the Mean asserts that everything is a becoming, a flux without beginning (first cause) or end; there exists no static moment when this becoming attains to beinghood—no sooner can we conceive it by the attributes of name and form, it has transmigrated or changed to something else. In place of an individual, there exists a succession of instants of consciousness.
“Strictly speaking the life of a living being is exceedingly brief, lasting only while a thought lasts. Just a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way, the life of a living being lasts for the period of one thought. As soon as that thought has ceased, the living being is said to have ceased.
“As it has been said:
“The being of a past moment of thought has lived, but does not live, nor will it live.
“The being of a future moment of thought will live, but has not lived nor does it live.
“The being of the present moment of thought does live, but has not lived, nor will it live.
We are deceived if we allow ourselves to believe that there is ever a pause in the flow of becoming, a resting place where positive existence is attained for even the briefest duration of time.”
Life as a series of moments always transmigrating is an astounding concept. Think about this assertion: “In place of an individual, there exists a succession of instants of consciousness.” It is poetic, profound and purely cerebral. Look at his explanation of moments which have passed, which are, and which are yet to to be. It is so finely sliced. This is the mind of someone to whom everything stood fully explained.
I am willing to assert that as a purely cerebral living goes, there has been nothing that has surpassed Buddha since Buddha with the possible exception of Albert Einstein. In the timeline that we understand, that would be some 2500 years. It is ironic that for someone who emphasized the idea of Anitya or Anicca or Impermanence above all else seems to have lasted quite a while.
I would strongly recommend Coomaraswamy’s outstanding book to anyone who is interested in, for want of a better word, the gospel of Buddhism. I have always found it odd that a philosophy of impermanence should be given a traditional structure. But that is a separate discussion.
* Words such as Anicca or Dhamma are the Pali language versions of Anitya and Dharma
** Kaccana is Pali for Katyayana who was a disciple of Buddha.
*** Tahtagata is how Buddha referred to himself. It is interpreted to mean many things but mostly it is The one who has thus gone” or “The one who has thus come.”