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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Static and Nonstatic Phenomena

Alexander Berzin
Freiburg, Germany, March 15, 2002

Existent Phenomena

According to the Buddhist analysis, existent phenomena (yod-pa) comprise everything validly knowable. If something exists, it is validly knowable and, in fact, the existence of something can only be established in relation to its being validly knowable. Otherwise, we cannot even discuss an item or consider whether it is existent or not.

What exists and can be known, however, may be either an affirmation phenomenon (sgr ub-pa, affirmingly known phenomenon), such as a table, or a negation phenomenon (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomenon), such as the absence of a table. In simple terms, to know an affirmation phenomenon does not require previously knowing something and then excluding it; while to know a negation phenomenon does require that.

[See: The Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]

Anything that cannot be validly known does not exist. "Prince" or "Princess Charming" on a white horse, for example, does not exist. Something representing "Prince Charming" or "Princess Charming" can be known, such as a fairy tale story, a cartoon image, or merely the words "Prince" or "Princess" and "Charming." However, an actual Prince or Princess Charming cannot be validly known, since there is no such thing.

Although there are no such things as nonexistent phenomena (Prince or Princess Charming), yet the nonexistence of something (the nonexistence of a Prince or Princess Charming) is a validly knowable negation phenomenon and is therefore an existent phenomenon. Thus, no matter how much we may seek the perfect partner, we will never find a Prince or Princess Charming. With deep understanding of reality, we may come to know there is no such thing and accept our partners as they are.

Static Phenomena

Existent, validly knowable phenomena include both static (rtag-pa) and nonstatic (mi-rtag-pa) phenomena, usually translated as "permanent" and "impermanent" phenomena. The distinction between the two, however, is drawn not in terms of how long a phenomenon exists. Rather, it is drawn in terms of whether or not the phenomenon changes from moment to moment while it exists, no matter for how long that might be.

Static phenomena include facts about something. These facts are abstractions imputed about something and they only exist and can be known so long as the basis for their imputation last. When the basis for imputing a static fact ceases to exist, the static fact about it no longer exists and is no longer the case. Moreover, so long as a static fact exists and is the case, it does not change or do anything.

An example is a voidness – an absence of something existing in an impossible way. An impossible way for something to exist might be, for example, in a vacuum, all by itself, totally independently of anything else, as if with solid lines around it as in a coloring book. The absence of a table, for instance, existing with a solid line around it exists only so long as the table exists. When the table no longer exists, we can no longer cognize or speak about the absence of it existing with a solid line around it. We can only speak of the absence of a solid line around the past table, but not around the present table, because there is no present table. On the other hand, the absence of anything knowable existing with a solid line around it exists forever, because knowable phenomena exist with no beginning and no end.

A more down-to-earth example is the absence of my partner existing as Prince or Princess Charming. That is an impossible way of existing, because there is no such manner of existence. This fact is true about my partner for as long as my partner exists. It is never going to change. Therefore, there is no hope that my partner will change some time in the future and become Prince or Princess Charming. Moreover, it was never the case that he or she existed as Prince or Princess Charming before meeting me, but now has changed into the Monster. Further, the absence of all people existing as Prince or Princess Charming is a static fact that is true and is the case forever. No one will ever exist as the Prince or Princess; therefore, it is best to give up false hopes and expectations of ever meeting someone who exists as that.

The static fact of the absolute absence of anyone existing as Prince or Princess Charming is a neutral fact, neither good nor bad. Therefore, there is no need to become upset about it. We need to accept it, whether we like it or not. Moreover, the fact itself cannot do anything; it cannot produce any effect. However, knowing and accepting the fact can do something: it can help us avoid frustration and problems. Confusion about it can also do something: it can cause us to create problems in our relationships. Therefore, it is important to learn and try to remain mindful of the facts of reality.

Four Types of Nonstatic Phenomena

Nonstatic phenomena are those things that

  • arise from or are supported by causes and conditions,
  • change from moment to moment,
  • produce effects.

There are four types of nonstatic phenomena. Those that

  1. have a beginning and an end – such as our gross bodies, a relationship with someone, or an episode of anger;
  2. have no beginning and no end – such as our mental continuums;
  3. have no beginning, but have an end – such as the presence of unawareness (ignorance, confusion) accompanying our mental continuums;
  4. have a beginning, but no end – such as the death of a loved one, or the functioning of our mental continuums as omniscient minds of Buddhas.

Gross Impermanence

Nonstatic phenomena that have a beginning and an end undergo both gross and subtle impermanence.

Gross impermanence is the final destruction of something. For example, a relationship with someone will have an end. Such things last only so long as the causes and conditions that support and give rise to them are gathered together and continue. Once the supporting causes and conditions are gone, these things come to an end.

If we fail to accept this fact, we delude ourselves and suffer greatly. We cling to a relationship or to our youthful vigor, for example, as if they could last forever, and our attachment and confusion cause enormous pain when these things inevitably end. If we accept the fact of gross impermanence, we are able to enjoy a relationship or our youthful vigor for as long as they last.

It is like the example of a beautiful wild bird that comes to our window. The bird will of course fly away, and if we grasp at it and try to catch it, it will either fly away sooner or die in captivity. If we accept that it will inevitably leave, we enjoy the moment. We may be sad when the bird flies away, but the sadness does not overwhelm us. It too will pass.

Subtle Impermanence

Subtle impermanence is not merely the moment to moment changing of a nonstatic phenomenon that has a beginning and an end. It is not merely the fact that the phenomenon is drawing closer each moment to its ultimate end, like a time bomb. It is also the fact that the cause for the phenomenon's final disintegration or end is its coming into being, its arising.

For example, the fact that we enter a relationship with someone and start living together is the cause for it eventually to end. An argument or death is only the circumstance for it to end, but not the deepest cause. This does not mean that the relationship cannot grow and develop into something beautiful. It does not mean that is doomed, and so we cannot enjoy it while it lasts. Rather, it means that we do not blame the other person or ourselves for making the relationship end. Of course, it will end, simply because it began.

Moreover, each moment of living together is one moment closer to the arrangement ending. This aspect of subtle impermanence is not so obvious. Thus, although we might understand and accept gross impermanence – that some day we shall part our ways – still we might think that while we are living together, our situation is remaining stable and static. Under such a delusion, we are caught by surprise when gross impermanence strikes and our living together comes to an end. With awareness of subtle impermanence, we appreciate more the fragility of the situation and cherish it more deeply.

The Problem of Change

The so-called "worldly happiness" – the usual happiness with which we are all familiar – is problematic. Every small period of it ends; we never know when that will happen; the experience of it doesn't rid us of all our suffering and problems; and we have no way to know how we will feel next. Thus, in a relationship with someone, we need to be realistic about the happiness that we experience and not inflate it into something impossible. The nature of samsara, and thus the nature of any relationship, is that it goes up and down.

Nonstatic Phenomena with No Beginning and No End

Our individual mental continuums, which are the continuities of our individual subjective experiencing of things, have no beginning and no end. They are eternal; they last forever. It is illogical for them to have an absolute beginning at which they arise

  1. from no cause,
  2. from causes that are of a different category of phenomena, such as physical matter,
  3. from another being's subjective mental activity, or
  4. from the power of a creator.

Similarly, it is illogical for them to have an absolute end, without generating, by the laws of behavioral cause and effect, a next moment of continuity.

Consider the case of the continuity of our living together with someone. Living together with someone has a beginning, because the causes and conditions for its arising – each party being a certain age, being in the same location, having certain emotional needs, and so on – come together at a specific moment. The circumstances and conditions for our living together to begin were not gathered together before. Because the conditions for it arising come together newly at some moment and are not naturally together, the conditions will fall apart at some later moment. At that moment, the continuity of our living together will end.

The situation is quite different with the continuity of our individual subjective experiencing of things. Although our experiencing of something specific, such as of a specific event, arises newly when that event occurs, our experiencing things in general is not created newly at any specific moment. It is the characteristic feature of our mental continuums and is always together with our continuums, regardless of the causes and conditions affecting the contents of what we experience at any given moment. Thus, a continuity of experiencing is not coming closer each moment to its ultimate end.

In summary, the fundamental nature of experiencing things does not change; nevertheless, experiencing itself changes from moment to moment. This is because experiencing must have contents and, because the contents change each moment and because experiencing arises dependently on contents as its condition, the experiencing also changes from moment to moment. Nevertheless, the continuity of individual subjective experiencing of things does not undergo gross impermanence. It will not come to a final end. Although it changes from moment to moment, it also does not undergo subtle impermanence – either in the sense of it approaching closer, every moment, to its final demise or in the sense of its arising being the cause of its ending.

Even if we do not think in terms of past and future lives, still, if we realize that the continuity of our individual, subjective experiencing of things goes on in this life, we do not suffer so greatly when something within our lives comes to an end, such as living with someone. We understand that life goes on, experience continues, without a break, and so new relationships can arise in the future.

Nonstatic Phenomena with No Beginning, but with an End

The unawareness (of how everything actually exists) that accompanies a continuum of individual, subjective experiencing of things has no beginning, as is the case with the continuum itself. However, unlike that continuum, it can have an end. Thus, it can undergo gross impermanence. The unawareness, however, does not undergo subtle impermanence. Because it has no absolute beginning, it is not slowly falling apart and approaching closer, each moment, to its ultimate end.

Unawareness and awareness are mutually exclusive. In the same moment, we cannot both know and not know how everything exists, nor can we know how everything exists both correctly and incorrectly. Moreover, correct understanding can be validated. It withstands the force of analysis, whereas unawareness or confusion falls apart the closer we scrutinize it. Therefore, unawareness can come to an end because it can be replaced by awareness.

Moreover, once the continuity of correct understanding can be maintained without a break, unawareness ends forever. As the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva explained, unawareness is not like an external enemy. Once it is definitively banished from the mental continuum, it cannot go anywhere. When we turn on the light in a room, the darkness doesn't go somewhere and hide.

In terms of a relationship, then, the unawareness that no one exists as a Prince or Princess Charming, which accompanies our interaction with a partner either consciously or unconsciously, will not weaken and go away by itself. With correct understanding, however, that there is no such thing as a partner who exists in this impossible manner, the unawareness can come to an end.

Nonstatic Phenomena with a Beginning, but No End

The continuity of an individual's correct understanding of everything (the functioning of an individual mental continuum as the omniscient awareness of a Buddha) has a beginning, but no end. It begins with the attainment of enlightenment, and continues forever. The first moment of the continuity, however, is not created anew from the gathering of causes and conditions that were not previously together. The situation resembles that of a mirror covered with dirt.

A mirror covered with dirt does not function to reflect objects. The removal of the dirt marks the beginning of the mirror reflecting, but it does not create the mirror functioning to reflect. The functioning of the mirror is a natural characteristic of the mirror. It was simply blocked by the dirt.

Similarly, unawareness blocks the functioning of our mental continuums as omniscient awarenesses reflecting everything. The removal of the unawareness signals the start of our continuums functioning omnisciently, but does not create that functioning. Reflecting everything, as a mirror does, is a natural feature of our mental continuums.

Therefore, although an omniscient awareness changes from moment to moment as its focus and contents change, it undergoes neither gross nor subtle impermanence. This is because, although its functioning omnisciently has a beginning, its functioning is not created by causes and conditions coming together anew. Knowing this helps us to gain the self-esteem and self-confidence that allows us to work on removing our confusion in a healthy manner.

In terms of a relationship, our mental continuums, like mirrors or cameras, have always taken in the factual information of the other person – how he or she has looked, acted, and spoken. The removal of our confusion and projections does not create that camera-like ability. It was already there and will continue forever.