Are the Buddha’s views permanent?

This post started out as a reply to a question originally raised by Glenn Wallis, and raised to my attention again by Buddhadhamma. Thanks for bringing it up once more. There are a lot of questions raised here, and I try my best, but don’t always get to answer them all. Time moves on, and sometimes I overlook or forget things. So if you have raised a question and I haven’t answered it, please do remind me.

Glenn Wallis’s original question was:

Do you not believe, furthermore, that the Buddha’s–or Gotama’s–views changed over time, even after his “awakening”? Does anicca apply to everything in the universe but the Buddha’s cognition?

If I remember the context rightly, I had asked Glenn whether his views had changed, because in some places he wrote about ‘A Buddhist Manifesto’, while elsewhere he wrote about ‘speculative non-Buddhism’.

Anyway, regardless of the original context, the question is an interesting one, and I’d like to discuss it from a few angles.

Well, now the vassa of 2011 is over. It’s over now, it will be over tomorrow, and it will always be over. The state of “having ended” is, if you like, a permanent state. But that doesn’t mean that my cognition of that state is permanent. Sometimes I think of the ending of the vassa, sometimes I remember it, and sometimes I don’t.

It seems to me that the same applies to Nibbana. At its simplest, this just means the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion. For the Buddha, or any arahant, these have ended. Tomorrow they will still be ended, and they always will be ended. So in this sense Nibbana is “permanent” – although this isn’t quite what we normally mean by the word “permanent”. However, the Buddha doesn’t always think of Nibbana. Sometimes he does, sometimes he thinks or reflects or remembers or is aware of other things. So the Buddha’s cognition is changing – which is to say, for the Buddha or any other arahant, this life is still a conditioned process of the five aggregates.

So to speak of Nibbana as “permanent” in this sense is not problematic, it seems to me. It only becomes problematic when we conceive of Nibbana as some kind of existing “state”: an unconditioned reality or consciousness. But, as I have discussed in earlier posts, I don’t subscribe to such a view.

As to whether the Buddha’s views change, we have to carefully distinguish what we mean here. A “view” is a somewhat abstract notion, and it is not always, or perhaps ever, actually present in consciousness. What is present is a specific thought or idea that is representative of that view.

For example, I am of the view that 2 + 2 = 4. I have held that view for a long time, and will, in all probability hold that view for the rest of my life. It’s possible, I suppose, that something might come along and convince me otherwise, but apart from some exotic context in advanced mathematics or physics, this is so unlikely that we can rule it out. So this view is, for practical purposes, “permanent”.

But this statement needs to be held lightly – hence my pomo “quote marks”. It is not permanent in the sense that it is an existing structure that stays forever without any change. It’s permanent in the much more limited and vague sense of being a pattern that recurs in recognisably similar ways that are reasonably consistent and predictable over time.

Of course, the actual manifestation of the view will change. I know that 4 people will fit in a car that has 2 lots of 2 seats. I know that 2 train tickets of $2 will cost $4. Each time I think of this, the exact thoughts will be different. But the pattern is the same, and it is that pattern of thought and idea and so on that we call a “view”.

This is why some schools of Buddhism argued that “concepts” (pannatti) are permanent or unconditioned. Even the Theravadins, usually so strict in such doctrinal matters, wavered a little on this position, sometimes suggesting that concepts were in some sense not impermanent. The actual manifestation of a concept is of course impermanent, but the concept itself is just an abstraction so it does not really “exist” and so cannot be impermanent.

It is in this sense that I would say the Buddha’s views on important matters of Dhamma are “permanent”. He has arrived at his profound insight into the truth, and the view will only change if the truth turns out to be something other. But, as the Buddha’s insight was actually correct, there is no need to change his view, just as I have no need to change my view that 2 + 2 = 4.

This is not to say that he wouldn’t have changed his views on things that are not intrinsic to the Dhamma. On the contrary, the early texts record him changing his mind many times. Take for example the case when he initially decided not to teach the Dhamma, but was persuaded to change his mind by Brahma. Leaving aside the question of the historicity of that passage, it certainly records that the early Buddhist tradition thought that the Buddha could change his mind. But this was not on a fundamental question of Dhamma. It was on a pragmatic point: will attempts to teach Dhamma actually be effective?

Is this really a change in view? Well, maybe, or maybe not. It really depends on what we are referring to when we speak of views. While this can have a much lighter or more vague sense in everyday language, in the Buddhist context, it usually refers to the fundamental conceptual framework of the Dhamma.

If we look at the Buddha’s actual Dhamma teachings, I can’t see any particular evidence that he changed what he taught over time in any fundamental way. There have been various attempts to show that he did, most famously based on the notion that the Atthakavagga of the Suttanipata represents a specially early strata of the Buddhist literature. But I am not persuaded by those arguments, both because I don’t think the Atthakavagga is any earlier than many of the mainstream prose Suttas, and because I don’t think it teaches a substantially different doctrine.

What is likely to have happened is that the Buddha changed the way he taught. This would be quite appropriate given the rapid change and development of his following over the years. In the early times there was a small group of dedicated, attained followers, while in later years you had many less dedicated, less intelligent followers. In addition the seniors had already learnt the basics thoroughly and wanted more detailed teachings (e.g. the Mahanidana Sutta); and there was increasing specialisation in different areas like Vinaya, systematic analysis (proto-Abhidhamma), or lay teaching. Unfortunately, while it seems almost inevitable that such changes would have happened, the lack of any internal chronology in the Suttas makes it difficult to evaluate just how or when this took place.

So to sum all this up, I think we can speak of the Awakened experience as “permanent” in a at least couple of senses. It is “permanent” in the sense that there is a permanent cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion. And it is “permanent” in the sense that it forms a view of reality that is essentially correct and does not need to change over time.

However, neither of these senses of “permanent” are really what we mean when we speak of permanence. There are plenty of ordinary things around us that are “permanent” in the same sense. This is not a permanence of existent things.

This is a difficult question in Buddhist philosophy, which has been raised and discussed many times over the years. I hope this little post helps makes things a little clearer.

About these ads

9 thoughts on “Are the Buddha’s views permanent?

  1. “Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. ‘Reappears’ doesn’t apply. ‘Does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Both does & does not reappear’ doesn’t apply. ‘Neither reappears nor does not reappear’ doesn’t apply.”

    MN 72 PTS: M i 483
    Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire
    translated from the Pali by
    Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    Or not?

    Regards,

    Joyce

  2. Interesting post. I would just note that when you say of ‘views': “While this can have a much lighter or more vague sense in everyday language, in the Buddhist context, it usually refers to the fundamental conceptual framework of the Dhamma.” I think you are missing half the picture.

    In a “follow this path to enlightenment” sort of “Buddhist context”, yes, the word “view” is describing something that, once seen, isn’t going to change (until human beings change their natures). It is a view in the sense of what we have seen with our own eyes, of something we have solid evidence for. The language we use to describe it may only approximate what it is we are seeing — so the methods we use to describe it change — but the thing itself doesn’t change. We may only glimpse parts of it, and develop distorted theories about what the whole is, as we are learning to recognize it, but once we’ve seen the whole of it, what we have is not an opinion but a view in the metaphorically-physical sense, like “I see a mountain over there, that’s the tallest mountain I see in the range” is not an opinion-view but an accurate statement.

    But the Pali canon has a great deal to say about a different sort of view in the Buddhist context, and that is “wrong view” — in which people think they have enough information to be able to state facts based on what little they know — the eternalist view, for example, or the annihilationist view, but it is really only an opinion, stated as fact.

    So I’d say there is a view representing what we know, which would include the Dhamma once we have seen it for ourselves, and there is a view which is opinion. It is hard to tell the difference between the two on first glance, which is why the methods of Buddhism help, because they give us tools to pay attention to what we know, and what we just think we know.

    • Hi Star,

      Thanks for that clarification. it’s interesting that the two aspects of ‘view’ that you describe here are similar to the first two meanings of ‘theory’ as found on Dictionary.com:

      1. a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity. Synonyms: principle, law, doctrine.

      2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact. Synonyms: idea, notion hypothesis, postulate. Antonyms: practice, verification, corroboration, substantiation.

      In debate with fundamentalists, scientists are often frustrated because their use of ‘theory’ in the first sense, as the ‘theory of evolution’ or the ‘theory of global warming’, is misconstured in the second sense : ‘it’s just a theory’.

      Similarly, as you point out, ‘views’ are used in a variety of nuanced ways in the Suttas, so we have to distinguish between, say, the stream-enterer who has ‘attained to view’ (ditthipatto) from the person who is lost in the ‘wilderness of views’.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I’d been looking for another word for “view” for a while, and “theory” is perfect just as you describe it — but of course both have the same problems in that they need a modifying word so we know which we are talking about.

  3. May I response to Glen Wallis’s questions as follows:
    After awakening, the Buddha attained the 8 Fold Paths, one of which is “Right View” and Right View cannot be changed at any time. “Anicca” (impermanence) does not apply to everything in the universe because the universe is a “concept” encompassing space and time, and the mind of an ordinary human being cannot comprehend such phenomena’s except Buddha’s and Arahants who had attained “Nibbana” (the unconditioned state of mental consciousness).
    Metta
    A fan of Sujato

  4. Hi Ajahn Sujato,

    Abit off this topic, but i was wondering what you think, or Theravarden Buddhists think, of the Lotus Sutra? Is it a genuine teaching of the Buddha or a least a good Sutta?

    Metta

  5. One year on it would appear that Glen Wallis is adjudeged as superior to the Buddha – to the vulnerable people on his blog he is better than any Buddha – the battle fought and the war won by experts and the man-made ego establishment of “academia”.

    It would appear on his formative blogsite that deviation from the “word of Glen Wallis” or agreement with the actual teachings of the Buddha is seen as a type of desecration of the “teaching of the apparently great Glenn Wallis” and is met with almost immediate banishment to the moderators graveyard, most posts or posters not in agreement with wallis or even in agreement with Buddhism rather thanhis band of supporters are banned or moderated off the site – supporters of course are supported and encouraged.

    Women if they exist on the blogsite are mere decoration, whose main purpose if they have any at all it seems is to stroke the egos of the self proclaimed great writers and artists that use this blogsite to endlessly flog their “stuff”; the women it appears are one step up from the odalisque.

    Right speech is apparently no longer associated with such ideals as; not gossiping, harsh speech or lying. But right speech is speech that acts as a tutalory to supporting the self-proclaimed guru status of the “experts” entangled like mesh in each others back slapping support of each other, like a communist country any dissented met with a harsh and brutal banishment.

    The hypocrisy of those damning the Buddhas teachings and claiming it is wrong – while at the same time plagerising the name of Buddhism for themselves and replacing it with worshipping of themselves, is a little overwhelming and should leave most sane, intelligent humans speechless,

    Plagerism itself use to be the biggest sin a student or academic could make. Yet here it is held as a trophy and Wallis as a hero for undertaking such plagerism.

    And all this paid for by the workering masses – the tax payers – just so they can be kept down as the tax payers by yet another self-proclaimed dictator who of course lives a life of adulation, luxury and leisure.

  6. Lets hope that they offer Sujato a job as resident monk – in america – no doubt that would be a good thing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s