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”