Change: 6. A circular argument

What, then, do the texts mean by “impermanence?” We can at once rule out the possibility that impermanence means “no change.” The notion that nothing ever changes could appeal only to the followers of Zeno, Enó, Pakudha Kaccāyana (D. 2: i,56), and others of their ilk. The Suttas dismiss this notion out of hand. If, too, we have eliminated the notion of continuous change, then clearly the only possibility remaining is discontinuous change. By discontinuous change is meant that while everything is subject to change, and could change at any time, and must change sooner or later, yet also things endure. At some times they change and at other times they do not. The problem is that quite some while ago we already acknowledged that though we can perceive discontinuous change, we are not thereby enlightened; and that situation seems not to have changed just yet (which is itself evidence for discontinuous change, if not yet for enlightenment).

What, then, is the difference between discontinuous change (as perceived by us) and discontinuous change (as perceived by an enlightened being)? I would suggest that it is not so much a matter of seeing impermanence as it is of seeing the necessity, the inevitability, of impermanence in all experience. The point may be made clearer by means of a simile (for by means of a simile “some thoughtful people know the meaning of what is said” — S. XII,67: ii,114).

You and I would have no difficulty in accepting the statement “all circles are round.” It is obvious. Indeed, it is virtually a pleonasm. True, we have not inspected every circle that exists and tested each for roundness. True, we may have personally come across but a minute fraction of all circles that presently exist (let alone those that have been or will come to be). And yet this introduces no jot of doubt into our conviction that all circles are in fact round. Our certainty is structural, not statistical.

On the other hand the statement “All swans are white” is statistical. We must always allow for the possibility that a black swan might be found; and black swans were in fact discovered during the explorations of Australia, after which logicians had to change their paradigm to the proposal that “All crows are black.” To date (1988) no white crows have been reported, but the universe is a vast and varied place. Perhaps in some as-yet-unexplored hinterland of Borneo…. But we do not suppose, however vast and varied the universe may appear, that some day a circle will be discovered which is, say, pentagonal. We understand that this cannot be. The statement “All circles are round” describes not a statistical observation but a structural necessity: if it isn’t round it’s not a circle. (We may ignore the irrelevant case of circulars which are in fact rectangular.)

But suppose (unlikely though it may be) that we should meet someone who though otherwise both sane and intelligent does not happen to see the structural necessity for the roundness of circles. He, presented with the proposition that all circles are round, might nevertheless agree with it. After all, in his entire life he has never once seen a single circle that was not round as round could be. Yet his assent would be of a different nature than ours. For him doubt would still be possible. Perhaps in the frozen methane wastes of Io, or in the intense gravity of the sun’s crucible, there might exist a circle that was, say, oblong. He could not be sure, for he has failed to recognize the principle that roundness is the condition for circles. When there is roundness there are circles; with arising of roundness circles arise. When there is not roundness there are not circles; with ceasing of roundness circles cease.

And even if he were to assent to this principle, yet for as long as he failed to see its necessity that assent of his would be statistical in nature, and would thereby miss the point entirely. Reviewing (again) the argument by which he became convinced of this truth about circles he might think, “This time I see the reasonableness of that structural principle; and when I thought about it last it also seemed correct to me. But will I still agree with it tomorrow?” It can be said of our friend that although he may (in a certain sense) see the structural necessity for the roundness of circles, yet he has failed to see that necessity in a structural way. He has thereby succeeded only in raising his blindness to a higher plane, and has not thereby achieved vision.

Our friend, who is congenial and acquiescent, wishes to be (as are we) beyond doubt in this matter. He would like to understand how it is that the roundness of circles is a matter of necessity rather than a mere matter of fact (for he has heard, as may well be the case, that higher than actuality stands possibility). But how is he to accomplish this? For although it is clear to him that a mere statistical survey of circles will never achieve this certainty (since no such survey could ever hope to be exhaustive), yet any explanation he may devise (or purchase from zealous hawkers of various persuasions) could never be more adequate than the dubious perception upon which it is based.

He may endorse some creation theory or other regarding an original proto-Roundness out of which all circles emanate. He may espouse an eschatological view about an eventual return of all circles to the One Great Circle (so Round that the roundness of known circles is but a shadow of Its roundness). Or he may entangle himself in pseudo-phenomenological theories that circles are nothing more than a vast number of minute particles of roundness, these particles being perceivable (and only with vast effort) to but the few. In this thicket of views all talk of such phenomena as curvature would be regarded as merely conventional speech: ultimate terms could refer only to these minute particulae of roundness, and it would be towards their perception that he would direct his efforts.

You and I know that our friend, though earnest and dedicated, would be chasing phantasmagoria. Such a pursuit can end only in either a frustrated (though honest) defeat or the misery of a fraudulently assumed success. Or else it will end in the grave. But what might we do to help him?

First, of course, we must convince him to abandon all speculation as irrelevant. He must understand that theories are misleading and pernicious obstructions to a right view of things. Rather, he must focus his attention on what he can actually perceive. For truth is to be found not (as he seems to suppose) somewhere beyond his present experience, but by seeing within that present perception a relationship which, though basic, has been overlooked.

What he needs to see is really quite simple. Indeed, a good part of his problem is that he has made things much too complicated, and has thereby masked the truth. It would be of little use, then, to point to the great variety of existing circles. Certainly, circles can be red or blue, large or small, thick or thin. Some are made of stainless steel, others of sealing wax. Some contain artificial preservatives, others are vicious. A few are very valuable. Many are made in Hong Kong. But all of this variety is actually superficial. What needs to be seen is not their diversity but that which is common to every circle.[18] And for this it is sufficient for our friend to sit down with one single circle of any convenient color, size, and composition, and to try to see what is essential to it. What is there dependent upon which the circle is in fact a circle? If he comes to recognize the essence of any one circle he will understand the essence of all circles. And if our friend can avoid being misled by theories, if he can eliminate the extraneous, if he can attend to what is essential, he may succeed in doing just this, and thereby pass beyond all doubt, as are we, as to the fact that “All circles are round.”

Now, is universal impermanence a statistical truth or a structural necessity? Although you and I may agree upon its necessity, we must also agree that this truth is evidently not so evident as is the roundness of circles. For (despite our analogous friend) we will actually all agree on roundness, whereas we do not all agree on impermanence. Indeed, not only do we not all understand that universal impermanence is a structural, not a statistical, truth; there are even those who assert that there exists Something which is neither statistically nor structurally impermanent. Between roundness and impermanence, why this difference?

Our friend’s failure to see the inherent roundness of circles is gratuitous. His blindness is a mere negative, like not happening to know that the doorkey is under the mat: were the information available our friend would no doubt be readily able to make use of it. His wrong view is not due to anything he does. He experiences neither an urge to deny the impossibility of a square circle nor any compulsion to seek one out.

On the other hand, a failure to see the structural necessity for change is due to an active intending to not see. It is a negating rather than a negative, a choosing to conceal that which presses for attention, a willing to perpetually perpetrate a misperception. In brief: self-deception.

Self-deception: Sartre speaks of “bad faith” and Heidegger of “inauthenticity;” more straightforwardly, Kierkegaard calls it “twaddle.” By whatever name, self-deception is notable in that it involves not only denial of the truth but also denial of the deception. For if we were to deny the truth but to acknowledge the deception (“Yes, it is true that I am denying the truth”) then the deception would be transparent stuff indeed. But it is not sufficient merely to deny the deception: we must also deny the denial of the deception. For to acknowledge that we were denying the deception would be no improvement — if that is the right word — over confessing to the deception. But even this is insufficient: if we do not deny the denial of the denial…of the denial of the deception the entire cover-up becomes unraveled, threatening the exposure of…. And, as matters progress backwards, we find that we have already become instantly involved in an endless regression, namely that familiar stairway, the infinite hierarchy.

We saw that experience was hierarchical in its general outlines; we now discover that within experience there exist autonomous hierarchical structures. In the experiential hierarchy “notes — song — concert — evening” the content determined the level within the hierarchy. Notes is more immediate than song and cannot be otherwise. But in the hierarchy of self-deception denial of knowledge is found on every level, and thus describes not a particular level but the hierarchy as a whole. Such hierarchies can be described as replicative, or as recursive.[19]

Recursiveness is important because it offers a stability not present in “ordinary” hierarchies. Remove “an evening on the town” and the entire structure — notes, song, concert — collapses. But remove “denial of knowledge” and we find that…we can’t. Recursiveness is not a feature found merely on each level, like the identical floral pattern on each dish in a stack: rather, recursion is the link between adjacent levels. The denial is always on the next most general level to the knowledge. From the perspective of the knowledge, then, the denial is extra-temporal. As long as we fail to achieve a point of view established outside this hierarchy, knowledge can never escape being encompassed by denial, and the structure must remain inviolable. Thus the structure of self-deception has a stability not found in non-recursive aspects of experience — as everyone knows who has ever succeeded in freeing himself from even the narrowest of such deceptions.

But why go to the trouble of so much self-deception? Why should we be so reluctant to acknowledge the necessity, in experience, of impermanence, when we feel no such hesitation in asserting the necessity, in circles, of roundness? The answer will be found reflected in the entire history of humankind. We seek happiness. We seek freedom. We seek security. Or, more fundamentally, we seek. And so we return, as we must, to craving.

Despite the fact that we want things to be this way, the universe displays an uncanny predilection to arrange that things shall be that way. Things become otherwise. Even when things are as we would have them be, they exhibit the disconcerting quality of not remaining so. We deny to ourselves the necessity of impermanence out of a desire for things to remain as we wish them to be.

But it is not only for this reason that craving is incompatible with perception of impermanence. More fundamentally, craving is teleological, or purposeful, in character: it is always for something. And what it is for is (as we have already seen) its background, or context. And its background is (as we have also seen) of a higher temporal order. From craving’s viewpoint, then, its object is always extra-temporal. Craving is bound up with the ongoing (i.e. temporal) effort to discover the Eternal, for in its view only the Eternal can be free of the anxiety due (so it believes) to the world’s uncertainty. The extra-temporal does not change: it is certain.

It is not merely an odd quirk on craving’s part, then, that it seeks the permanent: it is in its very essence entirely unable to do otherwise. Although it can never achieve its goal (any more than the note can become the song), it always looks towards its goal, and indicates it. Looking towards what it tries to regard as Eternal, it is not well placed to perceive the structural necessity for impermanence. It should be little wonder, then, that there is an organic relationship between craving and non-perception of impermanence (as also between perception of impermanence and relinquishment).

Craving is purposeful: it is always for something. On a gross level we have our specific cravings for this or that; but were they the only sort of craving that existed then we should soon enough be able to put an end to them by the simple expedient of gratification. But no, even after we have “everything we could possibly want” we find that there is still craving. We still want something further. Even when we are most bored with the world’s diversions we find (if we bother to look) that there is still a searching, a wanting. Indeed, without wanting there could not be that boredom. Although there is nothing specific within the world that we can identify as what we want, yet still we want. Adrift, desire casts about, like an unmoored ship seeking anchorage. And that casting about is the hunger which characterizes desire. Nothing offers the promise of gratification, and yet we cannot help but seek. And what is the object of our desire? We don’t know. What we do know is that we want there to be such an object: we want something to want.

Wanting to want: it is because we crave for craving (as moonstruck teen-agers are sometimes said to be “in love with the idea of being in love”) that craving achieves its stability. For observe: craving cannot desire itself. If it could co-incide with itself it could be self-contained, and would no longer possess (or be possessed by) its central characteristic, drive. For there to be drive there must be a seeking outside itself.

What, then, is the meaning of craving for craving? This: what craving is for, its context, is of a higher temporal order than the craving itself. In cravinga for cravingb, cravingb is not the same craving as cravinga: it is structurally more general. Craving therefore appears as a hierarchical complex wherein more immediate craving gives support to craving-in-general and more general craving gives context to the immediate.

For example, within the terms of writing this essay the most general craving is “wanting to write this essay”.[20] It is only within the context of the general wish to write the essay that “wanting to write this paragraph” has any meaning: it is (if it is not later deleted) for the essay, and if there was no wish to write the essay it would not occur to me to write these words. But, too, it is only by wanting to write these words that “wanting to write an essay on impermanence” comes to be endowed with substance. Without a specific desire, a wish to do this particular thing, the general desire fails to achieve solidity. Thus, in any experience involving craving, craving will be manifest at every level. Craving, as ongoing (temporal) search, craves the extra-temporality of a more general craving, while the more general craving requires the substantiality of the specific. Together (which is how they always appear) they form a recursive structure wherein “craving for craving” both describes the hierarchy as a whole (rather than just one level of it) and also links adjacent levels of the hierarchy to form a structure that is both stable and regenerative.

And yet there is also craving for this and that. Being negative in essence, craving cannot appear at any level of generality as pure craving. It requires a positive object to lend it a borrowed positivity: this or that. Only when it is costumed with this guise of substantiality will craving (for this or that) appear to everydayness (i.e. to unreflexiveness). Everydayness lacks the reflexive distance necessary to recognize the relationship between craving and its object. Only in reflexion (i.e. in mindfulness-and-awareness, or self-observation: see footnote 11) is the structure of craving for craving revealed. We do not merely crave this or that, nor do we merely crave for craving: we crave to crave something. Craving for craving, as a construction, seeks anchorage at every level. (My wish “to finish this paragraph” is part of my more general desire “to finish this essay.” Thus craving for craving integrates itself into the ordinary [non-recursive] hierarchy of sentence/paragraph/essay and parasitically feeds on it, while at the same time concealing its hungering negative essence behind the in-being positivity of its host.) (Craving for) craving for this and that, then, arises out of, and conceals, craving for craving (for this and that).

When any specific objective in the world is taken up as extra-temporal that very taking up is no less than an act of enchantment (i.e. a self-deception) wherein the underlying fact of craving for craving is disguised. Sooner or later, however (and more frequently at more immediate levels of experience), the object of enchantment changes and becomes otherwise. Then craving is disenchanted with that object, though not with itself. It is at this time that craving for craving becomes exposed and, needing the security of concealment, seeks to hook onto a new mooring. In this interminable search for an absolute eternity craving craves, ultimately, the entire world (and even with that would remain unsatiated). It attempts in vain to coincide with itself, to be itself fully, and thus to end the anxiety of separation from its true object: craving. Much more could be said about this, but not within the context of an examination of impermanence and of the structure of concealment of the nature of impermanence. For more on the relationship between craving for things and craving for craving see D. 22: ii,308-11.

The principle of recursiveness (which we now see to be involved with both self-deception and the inability of [experience involved with] craving to comprehend impermanence) has been described in less formal terms than ours as a vicious circle (a round one). The vicious circle is the dilemma of indulgence: the more one takes the more one wants; the more one wants the more one takes. It is also the dilemma of self-deception: the more one denies the less one sees; the less one sees the more one denies.[21] But the advantage of describing this principle in terms of hierarchies is that we are then better able to explore its structural features.

Craving (for craving), for example, can be shown to re-occur at each and every level of experience (and is therefore more accurately described as a vicious spiral than as a vicious circle): when craving is present at all it is all-pervasive. It regenerates itself, and is self-perpetuating (as “notes” and “song” are not). Thus it displays exactly the same recursive structure we have already discovered in self-deception. It is easy to see, then, how these structures interact and re-inforce each other. When there is self-deception it is because, in some fundamental sense, we desire to deceive ourselves; and when there is craving we cannot avoid the deception that is inherent in that very craving. No wonder it is so hard to be free from the misery occasioned by these twin nemeses!


18. “This Teaching is for one who delights and rejoices in uniformity; this Teaching is not for one who delights and rejoices in diversity.” — A. VIII,30: iv,229. [Back to text]

19. The word might be defined, dictionary style, as: “Recursive: adj. see Recursive.” Curiously, recursive hierarchies seem to play an important role in some branches of Western science, including computer programming, wherein it is essential that such programs do not contain any true recursive hierarchies. For if even one were to be introduced the computer would become involved in an endless cycle and the program would never conclude. In other words, although art may imitate life, a computer program, if it is ever to arrive at a conclusion, had better not do so too closely.
The term “recursive” (as well as several other words) has been adapted with a somewhat altered meaning from Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Penguin Books, 1980). Hofstadter’s book is provocative, witty, imaginative, wide-ranging, entertaining, stimulating, and, alas, quite mistaken in its fundamental approach to understanding the human situation. Neither his deterministic views nor (at the other extreme) the free-will views of Prof. J. R. Lucas can come close to the middle way taught by the Buddha. [Back to text]

20. I could speak, of course, of yet-more-general intentions which give “wanting to write this essay” its context: seeing what my thoughts look like on paper, wanting to share an understanding with others, or perhaps simply seeking my fame (or notoriety) and fortune; but it is not necessary to complicate the example by enlarging it. [Back to text]

21. This is the dilemma of the drunkard in St.-Exupéry’s The Little Prince who, we will recall, drank to forget. To forget what? That he was ashamed. Ashamed of what? Of drinking. [Back to text]

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