Paper: Katie Reinsmoen
Impermanence and the Self

The belief of impermanence is instrumental in the understanding of Buddhist traditions. Impermanence, the continually changing nature of all beings and objects, affects the view of self. The Buddhist story of the monk Channa gives us a look at important aspects that relate to the idea of Self in Buddhism. Channa begs the elders to explain this concept to him. Strong quotes the elders saying, "Brother Channa, physical form is impermanent, perceptions arelimpermanent, karmic constituents are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent" (Strong 96). We learn, as Channa learns, that the idea of impermanence (anitya) is essential for one to understand the Buddhist theory of Self. One must not only understand the idea of impermanence, but also be willing to fully accept it to pass from sam sara and suffering to nirvana.

The story about Channa shows how the self is actually just a momentary experience in the Buddhist view. One can think of a single candle as the momentary experience that represents the body or a separate life. Looking at the example of lighting one candle from another one can see how impermanence affects the self. The energy from the flame of the first candle ignites the second, but the flame on the second is not the same flame. Similarly, karma causes the effect which is the self . Although the cause created the effect, it is no longer the same thing, and is thus, impermanent.

Revealing the impermanence of the self raises questions concerning karma. "The doctrine of impermanence, which viewed the elements of existence (dharmas) as momentary phenomena, arising and passing away in a single present instant, was causing many thinkers to reflect on the problem of how to account for the apparent continuity of things, for the relationship of such distinct, momentary dharmas to one another" (Strong 129). (* The Buddhist saint Nagajuna used the candle allegory to explain Karma and reincarnation without transmigration.) The Buddhist tradition states that this is possible due to the power of karmic activity to affect the next being, but to not carryover with it as with the candle lighting example. Following this belief, reincarnation takes place without transmigration, the carrying over of something from one life to the next. Karma affects the next life (like the energy from the candle igniting the second wick), but nothing remains of the karma once it has caused the effect of the next life.

Buddhism has explained how karma exists yet does not transmigrate. Karma, therefore, changes. Likewise, the doctrine of impermanence says that everything is constantly changing. Impermanence can lead to suffering as one fails to accept the continuously changing nature of the world. This means that as one tries to relive an event or strives to keep things the same, suffering is caused by the discrepancy between impermanence and desire for permanence. It is the desire for sameness that causes suffering, so by understanding and accepting impermanence one can be free from suffering.

As one strives for nirvana, it is essential to accept the impermanent nature of things. With this comes the impermanent nature of self. Self is just a momentary experience, but what one does will affect tomorrow. The idea of karma causing one's next life is important, but one must realize that they need to view the self as impermanent in the pursuit of nirvana. By realizing the impermanence of self, desires, appearances, and describable things, one is closer to reaching nirvana.

Channa learned that as part of the answer to his question on self, he must understand impermanence and how impermanence causes the constant change or causal continuity of experiences. As nothing is permanent, one must understand that nothing survives eternally and that all things are continually changing.

Strong, J. S. The ExDerience of Buddhism. California. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995, 96, 129.