Aniccatā or 'impermanence', in the Buddha's Teaching, is sometimes taken as a 'doctrine of universal flux', or continuous change of condition. This is a disastrous over-simplification—see PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [c].
In the Khandha Samyutta (iv,6 <S.iii,38>) it is said of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhārā, and viññāna: uppādo paññāyati; vayo paññāyati; thitassa aññathattam paññāyati. ('Arising (appearance) is manifest; disappearance is manifest; change while standing is manifest. (Cf. Anguttara III,v,7, at the head of FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE.)')[a] These three sankhatassa sankhatalakkhanāni (Anguttara III,v,7 <A.i,152>), or characteristics whereby what is determined (i.e. a sankhata dhamma) may be known as such (i.e. as sankhata), concisely indicate the fundamental structure in virtue of which things are things—in virtue of which, that is to say, things are distinct, one from another. It is also in virtue of this structure that all experience, including the arahat's, is intentional (see CETANĀ) or teleological (i.e. that things are significant, that they point to other, possible, things—e.g. a hammer is a thing for hammering, and what it is for hammering is nails; or, more subtly, a particular shade of a particular colour is just that shade by pointing to all the other distinct shades that it might be, while yet remaining the same colour, but actually is not [cf. Spinoza's dictum 'Omnis determinatio est negatio']).[b] The arahat's experience, as stated above, is teleological, as is the puthujjana's; but with the arahat things no longer have the particular significance of being 'mine'. This special significance, dependent upon avijjā, is not of the same kind as a thing's simple intentional or teleological significances, but is, as it were, a parasite upon them. Detailed consideration of this structure and its implications seems to lead to the solution of a great many philosophical problems, but these are no more than indirectly relevant to the understanding of the Buddha's Teaching.[c] Some people, however, may find that a description of this structure provides a useful instrument for thinking with. (See FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE.)
For a discussion of sabbe sankhārā aniccā see DHAMMA.
[a] Cf. 'La "chose" existe d'un seul jet, comme "forme" [Gestalt], c'est-à-dire comme un tout qui n'est affecté par aucune des variations superficielles et parasitaires que nous pouvons y voir. Chaque ceci se dévoile avec une loi d'être qui détermine son seuil, c'est-à-dire le niveau de changement où il cessera d'être ce qu'il est pour n'être plus, simplement.'—J.-P. Sartre, op. cit., pp. 256-7. ('The "thing" exists all at once, as a "configuration", that is to say as a whole that is unaffected by any of the superficial and parasitic variations that we may see there. Each this is revealed with a law of being that determines its threshold, that is to say the level of change where it will cease to be what it is, in order, simply, to be no more.' [The occurrence of the word parasitic both here and in (c) below is coincidental: two different things are referred to. Should we not, in any case, prefer the single word subordinate to superficial and parasitic?])
The third characteristic, thitassa aññathattam, occurs as 'Invariance under Transformation' (or similar expressions, e.g. 'Unity in Diversity' or 'Identity in Difference') in idealist logic (Bradley) and in relativity and quantum theories. The branch of mathematics that deals with it is the theory of groups.
This third characteristic answers the question What? —i.e. 'Is this the same thing that was, or is it another?' (see ATTĀ)—: it does not, as the argument Na ca so na ca añño in the Milindapañha mistakenly implies, answer the question Who? If the answer were quite as simple as that, it would not take a Buddha to discover it—a Bradley would almost do. In other words, the question of impermanence is not simply that of establishing these three characteristics. See NA CA SO for a discussion of the illegitimacy of the question Who? (It is perhaps being over-charitable to the Milinda to associate its argument with the three sankhatalakkhanāni: the Milinda is probably thinking in terms of flux or continuous change. Bradley, while accepting the principle of identity on the ideal level, does not reject a real continuous change: we may possibly not be wrong in attributing some such view to the Milinda in its interpretation of the Dhamma. See PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [c].) [Back to text]
[b] McTaggart, in The Nature of Existence (Cambridge 1921-7, §§149-54), remarks that philosophers have usually taken the expressions 'organic unity' and 'inner teleology' as synonymous (the aspect of unity becoming the end in the terminology of the latter conception), and that they distinguish 'inner teleology' from 'external teleology', which is what we normally call volition. Without discussing McTaggart's views, we may note that the distinction between 'inner' and 'external' teleology is simply the distinction between immediate and reflexive intention. Every situation is an organic unity, whether it is a cube or bankruptcy we are faced with. [Back to text]
[c] Some description of the complex parasitic structure of appropriatedness, of being mastered or in subjection ('mine'—see PHASSA), seems not impossible; but it is evidently of much less practical consequence to make such a description—supposing, that is to say, that it could actually be done—than to see how it might be made. For if one sees this (it would appear to be a matter of describing the peculiar weightage—see CETANĀ—of the special unitary intention 'mine', superposed on all other weightage, immediate or reflexive), then one already has seen that appropriatedness is in fact a parasite. [Back to text]