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.

That Shining Prince: reflections on Vesak 2011

In days of old, before the telescope shrunk the sky, people used to think the stars, sun, and moon were gods. They hung in the sky, radiant, contemptuous of worldly concerns like gravity. While they might be hidden for a time by the clouds, or the cycles of day and night, they remained true, permanent.

Now we’ve been to the moon, trodden her under our big boots, declared the superiority of our human technology. The celestial bodies still shine, but they just aren’t so special any more. As our world has grown it has become more barren, more empty.

The Buddhist tradition says that at certain times, such as the birth and Awakening of the Buddha, a tremendous light appears in the sky, outshining even the sun and moon. Even the abysmal void of intergalactic space is filled with radiance. Long before technology reduced the sun and the moon to big rocks in the sky, the Buddha knew that there was a light that outshone them.

Western science has not stopped with dethroning the sun and the moon. Our entire world, from the cosmic evolution to the mysteries of DNA, is being relentlessly poked and prodded, analyzed and classified. There are few, if any, things left that are truly mysterious. Perhaps this is why we, more than any generation previous, search for mystery in the irrational: in conspiracies, UFOs, or the Bermuda Triangle.

There is, however, a mystery that still remains, one whose implications far outweigh any other. That is the mystery of Awakening. The idea, so incredibly powerful, that any ordinary human being can actually perfect themselves. That all of us have the seed within ourselves to realize the perfect, liberating Truth.

In the 2500 years since the Buddha first realized and proclaimed this, not a single person has come up with a more radical or important idea. Freedom: it is possible. We are not trapped in this suffering. There is a way out. And that way out is nothing more than self-realization through the eightfold path.

While our world grows ever more weary and cynical, this is one light that never dims. That shining prince, Siddhattha, whose story and example still exerts such a fascination on us, he realized this for himself. Though he has long been dim and uncertain as a historical figure, behind the clouds of time there is an unmistakable glory. His words, preserved for us due to the unstinting efforts of generations of Buddhists, convey the ring of truth. And his path, though overgrown with weeds, is still clearly visible.

The Buddha would not have wanted us to celebrate Vesak with big ceremonies. He would have looked for those who practice his Way. Each person who takes the path to heart and truly embodies it becomes a light for the world.

May that person be you!