The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness

Major strands of western philosophy confidently assert the world can be investigated because it is empirical and we can use our sensory experiences as a toolkit to understand this reality. The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness subverts this notion by arguing that changes occur so quickly that ordinary perception would not detect that our underlying reality is impermanent, lasting only for fleeting moments. Moreover, our conventional reality is a superimposition, one which is inhabited by seemingly lasting entities such as earthen pots, cars, humans and their identities.

This post critically evaluates the Doctrine of Momentariness advanced by Sarvāstivādin Buddhist monk Vasubandhu in his seminal text Abhidharmakośakārikā. Vasubandhu was born in either the 4th or 5th century CE in the kingdom of Gandhara, now centred in modern-day northern Pakistan. Gandhara was a hotbed of fluctuating social practices and religions – enabled by its location on a critical geographical artery between the Indian Subcontinent, Central and West Asia. The Doctrine of Momentariness strongly engages in dialectical reasoning by drawing from Gautama Buddha’s teachings on impermanence (annica), discourses which by Vasubandhu’s era, had circulated the region for over half a millennia.

The illusion of permanence

Buddhist philosophical traditions argue the world is populated by many entities, but there is only one type of thing which is ultimately real; dharmas. Dharmas are irreducible properties which include colour, shape and texture. A combination of dharmas produces aggregates known as skandhas, which give rise to form, perception and consciousness. Following from Buddha’s teachings that everything is impermanent, the key proposition of the Doctrine of Momentariness is that dharmas decay as soon as they are created, thus they are only momentary. Vasubandhu contends that:

[…] it perishes just where it was born. Its movement to another place would be impossible. Thus, there is no bodily action of ‘going’[1]

For Buddhists, these indivisible momentary dharmas are the basis of our reality. Dharmas give rise to substances such as pots, flames, humans, the world; but these are not stable entities because everything is momentary. So, a stationary earthen pot when observed at a particular moment is not the same object in the next moment. How could this possibly be?

To understand this we must consider Gautama Buddha’s Doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpāda); everything that exists arises and passes as a matrix of interdependence. Hence, although everything is momentary,  there is a causal interconnectedness. Material similarity provides material continuity – thus, the destruction of a bundle of dharmas which pertain to a man, will not lead to the subsequent creation of a bundle of dharmas pertaining to a fly. Incidentally, in the science fiction film The Fly (1986), dependent origination is unwittingly countermanded when an error in the protagonist’s telepods triggers his metamorphosis into a petrifying human-fly hybrid.

Dependent origination acts as a constraint on the succession produced by momentariness and explains why we see a lasting image of a stationary pot when, in reality, everything lasts for a meagre moment. Buddhists argue that reality is only the configuration of dharmas in a causally-linked stream, giving the appearance of a subsisting permanent thing, when there isn’t. Just as a Hollywood film appears to be a continuous series, masking that it is an amalgamation of still images, so too is reality – although the frames according to the Buddhist are causally connected.[2] Our misconceptions of this world give rise to suffering (duḥkha), where Buddhists see suffering connected to the false continuity which we attach to this temporal life; whether coveting and cherishing material objects, dwelling on our emotional states or placing expectations on relationships.

Measuring realities

Conventional reality is one which is obscured by human cognition and assumes there is a world populated by stable entities which subsist through time. However, according to Buddhists, for something to be ultimately real, it must not disappear under analysis; also known as mereological reductionism. Vasubandhu argues:

[…] anything the idea of which does not occur upon division or upon mental analysis, such as an object like a pot, that is a conceptual fiction. The ultimately real is otherwise[3]

For instance, in a previous post I examined the argument that a laptop cannot be ultimately real as it can be broken down into parts, such as its screen, silicone chips and plastic keys. It is the configuration of these parts which gives rise to the convenient designator ‘laptop’, but the laptop is not found in any of its components. We can extend this analogy to many other objects we assign to conventional reality; whether they are cars, houses, cities, individuals and consciousness.

An object which cannot be analysed is said to have svabhāva; that it does not borrow its properties or parts from elsewhere. Because dharmas embody svabhāva, they are ultimately real. Furthermore, dharmas or property bearers, such as colour, are said to be units of ultimate reality because they do not disappear under analysis. Unlike our laptop they cannot be reduced to any parts. This characterisation of dharmas can be contested. To advance the notion of colour as a dharma Vasubandhu declares:

It is what is grasped by seeing and touch that is cognised. The ideas of wool, cotton, safflower and saffron only arise where there are different colours […] no such ideas [exist] when these are burnt[4]

“Safflower”, Johann Georg Sturm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, colour cannot exist without the property of shape and so by Vasubandhu’s definition, this dharma cannot be ultimately real as it does not occur in isolation.[5] Similarly, a safflower would change its colour depending on its life-cycle: the bud emerges as green, turns to a vivid yellow hue and eventually browns in senescence.

Vasubandhu may respond that these changing colours are momentary, they arise, last for an instant and then disappear. This however violates the principle of svabhāva as the colours themselves then derive their properties from origination, duration and cessation.[6] The argument that dharmas are ultimately real because they do not borrow their nature from elsewhere must be abandoned.

The momentariness of all things?

It is also worth sketching the doctrine’s core argument to demonstrate Vasubandhu’s reliance on extrapolation in his understanding of ultimate reality. We will examine the argument that all entities cease without any cause and last for a mere moment below:[7]

Premise 1) Cessation occurs without an external cause, thus nothing ceases without a cause, just as nothing originates without a cause.

Premise 2) Nevertheless, thoughts, flames and sound cease without any cause and are momentary.

Conclusion) Consequently, premise 1 can be rejected, and we should recognise that cessation occurs without any causation.[8]

This is an inadequate argument because it provides an example of some things (flames, thoughts) which ostensibly cease without causation and supposes that this will be the case for all things. Even with a brief flicker of a flame, the Śaiva Siddhānta opponent Rāmakaṇṭha maintains it is implausible for the observer to perceive the flame for long enough to then demonstrate it as an example of the momentary nature of all things.[9] In the next section we shall see a fundamental challenge to the Doctrine of Momentariness which posits that there is at least one thing which lasts for more than a moment – a memory.

Causal chains and consciousness

Parrot addressing Khojasta, commisioned by Akbar, Mughal dynasty, c1556-1565, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The mind according to the Buddhist view is merely a causal series of dharmas, which momentarily exist and cease as aggregates known as skandhas. So, what proliferates our cognitions?

Vasubandhu argues it is an interplay of three things: our senses, a sense-object and attention. For example, when you hear a parrot cawing loudly, your hearing (sense), the parrot (sense-object) and awareness of the sound (attention) cluster together to create a type of consciousness we could call a hearing-a-parrot cognition. Should we then want to look at the bird and, if allowed close enough, touch it – different cognitions would be created. We mistakenly assume the mind or consciousness produces these cognitions – when in reality, cognition is only a conditioned form, a manifestation of its momentary causes.

Importantly, the destruction of a conditioned form is not contingent on a cause because it occurs in an intrinsic, or self-perpetuating manner. Vasubandhu asserts:

[…] for the cessation of conditioned things is spontaneous. Why is this? A cause is of an effect. And cessation is an absence. What is there to be done with respect to an absence? Therefore, destruction does not depend on a cause.[10]

Vasubandhu’s opponent Adi Śaṅkara, hailing from the school of Advaita Vedānta, attacks this position of the Doctrine of Momentariness by affirming that if skandhas are momentary, by the time a new skandha arises to replace it, there would no longer be a previous skandha to cause it.[11] Consequently, effects cannot arise without any cause. If every object is a manifestation of instantaneousness, there cannot be a causal process which interconnects them.

However, a critical problem emerges when considering the example of thoughts as a phenomena which cease without causation. Here, Śaṅkara combines the problem of memory with dependent origination:

[…] human dealings cannot be said to be dependent on mere similarity, for the experience is of the existence of the entity itself [the self] (expressing itself as, that very person) and not of mere similarity with that (as would be expressed in, am like that person)[12]

If our memories are momentary then how can we perceive lasting entities which require recognition over time? For instance, my memories of a childhood summer trip to Bangladesh requires the invocation of myself as a seven year old. Admittedly, Śaṅkara’s attack simplifies Buddhist understandings of reality. Vasubandhu could rebuke Śaṅkara by arguing that dependent origination necessitates similar enough, but momentary experiences which can connect mental dharmas to give rise to a memory.

Furthermore, contending that every experience of memory requires a continued existence of the self is mistaken. For instance, simply remembering a friend’s birthday does not require any acknowledgment of the self. Nevertheless, there are many memories, such as childhood trips or recollections of traumatic and euphoric moments, which do require acknowledgments of myself. Keeping this in mind, appeals to dependent origination cannot be made because Śaṅkara has shown that the momentariness of dharmas and their aggregation into skandhas prevent them from creating causal chains which connect our memories through time.[13] Thus, we can conclude that at least some memories last longer than a short flash of time and consequently, not everything is momentary.

The Doctrine of Momentariness challenges our traditional understanding of the empirical world. In some ways it is comforting to recognise that our interactions and position in this reality are transient and that our suffering is a consequence of our attachment to the ephemeral. Nonetheless, the doctrine relies on some measure of inscrutability to advance this argument, especially with regards to the momentariness of dharmas, which hinders its analysis. Furthermore, mereological reductionism as a test of reality fails because dharmas, representing the basic units of ultimate reality, do not satisfy the svabhāva requirement. Finally, the doctrine faces a devastating attack when causality is linked with the phenomena of memory.


Featured image: The Conversion of Sundarananda, © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007, p.120-123

[2] Von Rospatt, Alexander. “The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness A Survey of the Origins and early Phase of this Doctrine up to Vasubandhu.” (1995), p.1

[3] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.111-12

[4] Ibid., 114

[5] Rasmussen, Will. “Lecture II. Buddhism: Abhidharma and the Metaphysics of Empty Persons.” 6AANB017 Indian Philosophy B. Online Lecture, King’s College London, 2020

[6] Ibid.

[7] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[8] Katsura, Shoryu. “Some cases of doctrinal proofs in the ‘Abhidharma-kosa-Bhasya’.” Journal of Indian philosophy 31, no. 1/3 (2003), p.110

[9] Watson, Alex. “The Self as a Dynamic Constant. Rāmakaṇṭha’s Middle Ground Between a Naiyāyika Eternal Self-Substance and a Buddhist Stream of Consciousness-Moments.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 42, no. 1 (2014), p.185

[10] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[11] Adamson, Peter, and Jonardon Ganeri. Classical Indian Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 5. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[12] Carr, Brian. “Śaṅkara and the Principle of Material Causation.” Religious studies (1999), p.424

[13] Adamson and Ganeri, “Classical Indian Philosophy”

Tsarist Russia’s Indian Merchants

The city of Astrakhan sits on a delta, not too far from where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea. In modern Russia it is an industrial city known for its fish processing and as a regional administrative centre. Yet, in the 17th century, Astrakhan had a far more glamorous role, owing to its position on a geographical crossroad between Russia and lucrative Asian markets.

A warm welcome

During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Russia experienced enormous socio-political upheaval characterised by the end of the 800-year old Rurikid ruling dynasty, numerous pretenders to the Tsarist throne and foreign interventions by neigbouring powers. Once the chaos subsided, Russian officials faced the predicament of building an economy depleted by famine and war. To increase customs revenues and ensure the flow of foreign silver into the empire, the Russian state encouraged foreign merchants to settle in Astrakhan, a city conquered by Ivan the Terrible nearly seven decades prior.

Non-Russians dominated the imports and exports trade in Astrakhan, among whom were merchants hailing from Mughal India. By 1725, there were 209 Indians residing in Astrakhan and engaging in local banking, mercantilism and moneylending. Additionally, the need to interact with the resident Turkic and Russian communities necessitated the hiring of interpreters.1 The Russian state cautiously allowed merchants to practice religious rites; where merchants could employ private cooks (likely to meet strict vegetarian diets) and were even allowed to cremate the dead, even if it alarmed local Christians.2

The mercantile community mainly imported Persian textiles into Russia; a 1638 Russian customs report found one merchant carried up to 28 varieties of silk and cotton. Similar to European markets, Mughal Indian consumers valued Russian furs. However, unlike their European counterparts there was a lower demand for Russian forest products in India. Instead, Mughal elites coveted luxury goods such as gyrfalcons, walrus tusks and Borzoi dogs.

The transcontinental trader’s dilemma

Between the 16th and 17th century Astrakhan’s Indian merchants formed part of a wider Persianate world, where the Persian language facilitated international trade stretching from Bengal to southern Russia’s borders. Trade routes could encompass distances as long as 3,600 kilometres, and this required enormous levels of trust between traders. To better understand how Indian merchants would have imported and exported under such uncertainty, I will introduce transaction costs; which are costs incurred to accomplish a trade.

Firstly, participants in a transaction need to address search and information costs; that is the costs of finding a trading partner and to market their goods. Subsequent bargaining and decision costs involves the ironing out of a contract which is agreeable to the respective trading parties. Finally, policing and enforcement costs ensure the contract is not broken and there is a recourse to action should a default occur.3 Trading is difficult enough for a modern-day seller who uses eBay to peddle old revision guides and, arguably, Astrakhan’s merchants faced much more manifold challenges.

A Caravan by Ilya Zankovsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Indian merchants would mainly operationalise Commenda agreements to reduce the transaction costs associated with long-distance trades. These were straightforward contracts where one or many merchants would provide capital for the business venture and traders, who lacked funds for investments, would need to fulfill the potentially life-threatening task of marketing or delivering the merchandise. If successful, the profits would be divided; where two thirds went to the investors and one third to the trader.4 On the other hand, if an attack on a caravan led to the endeavour’s failure, the investor would lose their money, whilst the trader risked losing their life. The 17th century merchant would be faced with an impasse: how could they find a trustworthy business partner who would not renege on their contract? It would be incredibly tempting for a trader to dash off with expensive merchandise they have not paid for.

The answer to this may lie in the 1747 Russian Census which revealed, out of the 51 Indian merchants residing in the Astrakhan, nearly half originated from a single city; Multan, whilst most other came from nearby areas in southern Punjab. Stephen Frederic Dale asserts that the Multani Hindu merchants would most likely have been from the Punjabi Khatri caste whereas Muslim traders would have hailed from the Pashtun ethnic group.5 Furthermore, there was a familial aspect to these firms too; five pairs of brothers conducted joint trade within Astrakhan and twelve Astrakhan Indians received goods from uncles or brothers in the Gilan province of Iran.

Membership of the same caste meant prospective firm partners were usually employed in the same profession, consequently their skills could be easily verified. In place of complicated contracts, kinship also provided a set of common cultural norms and allowed for mutual peer-monitoring. Furthermore, transaction costs associated with rule-breaking could be met with enforceable sanctions, including exclusion from the community.6 This ultimately encouraged prolonged economic interactions between Indian merchants, whilst discouraging opportunism associated with uncertainty. Similar kinship firms were also found among the Indian merchants’ Armenian contemporaries who originated from a single suburb of Isfahan in Iran, yet dominated the lucrative Indian Ocean silk trade.7

Protectionism and decline

Astrakhan’s Indian merchants kept business within the family as a response to trading in an uncertain environment. Yet, these same firms proved to be quite dynamic in the face of state pressures. Whilst Indian merchants were initially welcomed by Russian officials, Peter the Great’s introduction of the New Trade Regulations posed a serious financial challenge. The protectionist measures bestowed special trading privileges to Russians, Turks and Armenians, whilst Indians would have to pay extra custom duties, thus introducing new transaction costs. Indian firms would bypass these regulations by intermittently increasing their firm’s size, through recruiting Armenians and Russians, who would act as intermediaries for their business.

Whilst Russia’s protectionist measures discouraged Indian traders, it was external socio-political processes which ultimately debilitated Astrakhan’s mercantile activity. The sudden collapse of the Safavid empire in 1722 interrupted Multani trade networks within Iran, resulting in a rapid dwindling of Astrakhan’s Indian population. The slower disintegration of the Mughal empire had disrupted Multan itself and by 1850, Astrakhan’s Indian community had all but vanished.


Featured image: ‘Astrakhan in Russia’ in Rambaud’s Russia, volume 2 (1898), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

2 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

3 Dahlman, Carl J. “The problem of externality.” The journal of law and economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141-162.

4 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

5 Ibid.

6 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

7 Aslanian, Sebouh. From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. University of California Press, 2011.

King Menander’s Chariot

How do we determine what is ultimately real? Conventionally, we could argue that we can use our common sense faculties to investigate empirical reality. The laptop I am writing this post on has to be real because I can feel the keys and hear them chatter away upon typing. For early Buddhists, however, reality was measured very differently. For something to be real, it cannot disappear under analysis. Simply put, the world does not exist of any ‘wholes’, only ‘parts’ – and this extended to notions of the self.

I’ll set the scene by taking us back to the second century BCE, in an Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria, a vestige of Alexander the Great’s failed invasion of India. After introducing himself to king Menander I, the Buddhist monk Nāgasena insisted that he can be referred to by his name, but that this name was merely “a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name […] for there is no person to be found”. [1] In the monk’s view, the name ‘Nāgasena’ was a useful term to describe the way in which something is arranged based on its constituent parts; in this respect a seemingly conscious being with human body parts. In reality, the name was a placeholder, nothing more, and there wasn’t an enduring identity behind it. This led to a fascinating philosophical debate.

In response to Nāgasena’s introduction, the king mocked him, asking that if there were no persons, then who was it that patronised the priests with clothing, food and medication? In a further caustic attack the king asserted if Nāgasena were to kill another monk, there would be no one to accuse for the murder. The cross-examination continued as Menander asked in turn if Nāgasena was found in his body parts, his perception or his consciousness? Nāgasena declined each of these, leading to Menander  to conclude that the word ‘Nāgasena’ could only be an empty phrase, not a convenient designator as initially claimed.

In response, Nāgasena mirrored the king’s reasoning by pointing to the chariot which the king rode in. Could we identify the chariot in its axels, its wheels, the banner-staff, the yoke, or the reins? The monk declined to find the chariot in any one of its components. The king finally understood that analogously, one cannot find oneself in our constituent parts; neither body nor consciousness.

Let’s go back to our laptop. It comprises a screen, the keyboard, the motherboard, with an array of microchips among others. Yet, I would not equate any one component for the actual laptop itself. Therefore, the laptop is not ultimately real as it disappears under analysis. Wholes cannot exist because they ultimately can be broken down into parts. Our world is full of many parts, on whose specific configurations we give names to; whether it is earthen pots, laptops, cars, cities, you and me. Yet, ultimately they are conceptual fictions, no different to Menander’s chariot.


Featured image: “Buddha panel from Afghanistan”, Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore), courtesy of Vinayak Hegde, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007. p.51