[L. 8 | 14] 2 May 1964

Thank you for your letter. May I say that I again appreciate the fact that you have stated your questions in a clear and coherent way that makes the (rather difficult) task of answering them convincingly really quite a pleasure. And a well-put question sometimes almost answers itself.

You ask for Sutta references of passages where the Buddha has 'explained in specific terms the structure of change'. Beyond the two uppāda/vaya/thitassa aññathattam references (both given in ANICCA), I do not know of any at all. Perhaps this will astonish you; but the fact that the Buddha does not seem to have discussed the structure of change beyond this is, I think, not hard to understand. The point is this: provided a person does not have any preconceived ideas about the structure of change, an understanding of this structure is not necessary for the attainment of nibbāna.

An intelligent person observes that there is such a thing as change, that the things in his world do change from time to time; and the Buddha informs him that nothing that exists is exempt from change, that all existing things do come to an end sooner or later. And when that person considers this fact and applies it in the proper way (with yoniso manasikāra) to his own existence, it is enough (given certain other conditions) to lead him to enlightenment.

In general, it seems that the Buddha did not encourage philosophical or metaphysical investigation of matters that do not lead to nibbāna, for the good reason that a man might spend a lifetime in fruitless investigation and discussion of such matters, and die still unsatisfied, whereas he might quite quickly attain the goal by attending to the right things. (You may profitably read the Cúlamālunkya Sutta—M. 63: i,431—on this question.[1]) And it must be admitted that the whole question of the structure of change is one of the most difficult in philosophy.

Why then (you might ask) have I raised the question, when the Buddha did not? The reason is this: that today we do not approach the Dhamma without preconceived notions about change. In the prevailing scientific atmosphere we are all taught at school, particularly in the study of mathematics and science, that change is a continuous flux (we do not necessarily learn it explicitly, but it is implicit in these studies); and so, when we leave school, we know already that change is a flux, without even looking to see if it is so. And the consequence of this is that erroneous interpretations of the Dhamma (as I have already pointed out to you) have become firmly established.

Now, even supposing that my own speculations on the structure of change are somewhere near the mark (which, of course, remains an open question), I quite see that other people whose talents lie in other directions, might well scratch their heads over FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE for years without making anything of it at all; and it is for this reason that I have given warnings that it is only for those who find it useful. Nevertheless, I have decided to include it, as well as some other philosophical discussion of change, in order at least to show that there is an alternative to the idea of flux. Once somebody is prepared to abandon the idea of flux as an article of faith that he has learnt (almost) on his mother's knee, he may come to see that these current interpretations of the Dhamma must not be accepted without question. And once he does this, then it is probably not necessary for him to inquire any further into the structure of change.[a]

Let us now consider the principle that 'when change takes place within one and the same sensible quality or characteristic it is always the more general feature that remains invariable while the subordinate or more particular feature varies'. A little consideration, I think, will show you that this is really a tautology, and cannot therefore be denied. What I mean to say is this. If I am asked what I understand by the words 'particular' and 'general', I shall reply that what is general embraces two (or more) particulars, in such a way that each particular thing is an example or instance of the more general thing. (A number of leaves from different kinds of trees will each be a particular shade of green, and therefore all different one from another; but each and every one of these leaves is an instance of green in general.) And from this definition of 'particular' and 'general' it follows that any two particulars can be interchanged without affecting the general. (I can pick one leaf, and say 'this is green', and then I can throw it away and pick another leaf from a different tree, and say 'this, too, is green'. There is a change in the particular green that is in my hand, and unchange of sameness in the general green.) And it also follows that the converse is not true: there cannot be change of the general leaving any particular unchanged. (If the general colour of all the leaves changes from green to brown, every single leaf will be an instance or example of brown, and I shall be unable to find any leaf that is any shade of green at all.)

It should be clear that the principle enunciated above is implied in the very meaning of the words 'particular' and 'general'. But the question now is, Are we in fact entitled to make this distinction between 'particular' and 'general'? Do we in fact perceive a general green as well as a particular green? This is really a matter for each person to decide for himself, and instead of arguing the point I shall suggest a method of approach to individual cases.

Assuming that we are entitled to make this distinction, we see that in order to discover the general it is only necessary to put two particulars together, and what they have in common will be the general. This, I think, is clear. But also we can put it in a different way: we can say that whenever two particulars are found together, they ipso facto reveal the general. This means that whenever we perceive a togetherness of particulars, we do so because we perceive what they have in common (though it may be difficult to say precisely what it is). Whenever we see two (or more) different things that nevertheless seem to belong to each other, we are at once entitled to turn the situation the other way round and say that we see one and the same more general thing presenting two different aspects.[b]

If you have grasped this idea, you will see that it can be applied to perception of change. In perception of change, we have first A, and then B; but we must also have the 'belonging-togetherness' of A and B, otherwise we fail to connect A's disappearance and B's appearance and do not say that 'A has changed into B' or that 'A has become B'.

If I see a jug on the table, and then I go out of the room and come back a short while later and see a glass on the table instead of the jug, I do not say 'the jug has become the glass' because I do not perceive them as belonging together. But if (by some miracle) the jug vanishes while I am actually looking at it and is immediately replaced by a glass, I shall rub my eyes and say 'How extraordinary! The jug seems to have become a glass'; and I say this because the disappearance of the jug and the appearance of the glass are perceived as connected (owing to contiguity in space and time).

Consider, now, the block of ice that melts and is immediately replaced by a pool of water. As you say, if we know beforehand that it is the nature of ice to melt and be replaced by water, there is no difficulty in seeing that a general feature has not changed; so we must suppose that we have never seen ice before, and also (by a stretch of the imagination) that we have never seen water before, either. So, then, a block of ice is brought in and placed on the floor in front of us; it melts, and there is a pool of water in its place. As in the case of the jug and the glass, we connect the first thing (the disappearance of the ice) with the second thing (the appearance of the pool of water) because they are spatially and temporally contiguous, and we say 'How remarkable—the thing called "ice" has changed into the thing called "water"!'. But what, here, are the particulars, and what the general?

The particulars are (i) the perceived spatio-temporal existence of the ice, and (ii) the perceived spatio-temporal existence of the water, and these are different (a) spatially, because the ice and the water do not have the same shape (the ice stands up, the water lies flat) and (b) temporally, because the ice is followed by the water. The general is the perceived spatio-temporal existence of the whole ice/water transformation, and this is one and the same (a) spatially, because both ice and water were in the same part of the room, and (b) temporally, because both were in the same part of the afternoon.

But suppose the disappearance of the ice in front of us was immediately followed by the appearance of a pool of water in the next room; or that it was followed, not immediately, but two days later by a pool of water in front of us. Here, first the spatial, and secondly the temporal, contiguity is missing, and we fail to perceive 'togetherness' and so we do not say that the ice has changed into the water. If the ice and the water are in different rooms or on different days, then both the general and the particular have varied and we do not perceive the change of ice into water.

This, of course, is not the only way that we perceive the change of the block of ice into the pool of water; but it is perhaps the most fundamental. There is also the question of the substance. Even without previous acquaintance with ice or water, we may perceive that though the particular reflections and transparencies are different before and after, yet the general characteristic of 'transparency' has remained invariant, and we are inclined to say that it is the 'same stuff' in two different forms. But, in English, there is no single word to cover both ice and water (unless we say H2O), and it might seem that we do not perceive both as different aspects of one more general thing. But, as explained above, with the cow and horse, this is a mistake. (In Sinhalese, for example, although we can speak of wandura and rilawa, we cannot—as far as my slight knowledge goes—refer to both by one single word, as we can in English with the word 'monkey'.[2] But this does not mean that the perceptions of an Englishman and a Sinhala are different.)

The case of the butterfly is much more complex. In the first place, we have not two, but four particulars: egg/caterpillar/chrysalis/butterfly. And the change from the egg to the butterfly may be a matter of months, not of a few minutes like the ice to water. We may, of course, actually observe any one of these three transformations (egg/caterpillar, caterpillar/chrysalis, chrysalis/butterfly), and then, as in the case of the ice/water, we sensually (visually) perceive the 'togetherness' as well as the difference, and we speak of 'seeing a change'.[c] But we never actually see (at least on one occasion) all the three changes from egg to butterfly; and what actually happens is that, from different observations of these various changes at different times, we build up an imaginary picture of the whole affair, by means of which we can, if we wish, perceive in imagination all the three changes in the course of a few seconds. And it is to this imaginary experience that we refer when we speak of the 'change from egg to butterfly'. But this imaginary experience follows the same principles as the real experience, and we can only speak of the (imaginary) change, egg/caterpillar/chrysalis/butterfly, if we perceive (in imagination) the 'togetherness' of these four particulars. As to the name of this togetherness, we meet with the same difficulty as before—there is no single word. The best we can do (after some thought) is 'a living insect of the lepidoptera family'.

And when we come to the case of the man (the infant who grows up), the situation is impossibly complex. We have first to separate the man as he sees himself (that is, principally, his store of memories) from the man as he is seen by others (his body, his behaviour, his habits, his gestures, his temperament, his wife, his family, his occupation, his social position, his nationality, his health, his wealth, his police record, and so on). Then we take any one of these aspects we please, and consider, in the way I have indicated above, how Citizen Perera is perceived (or perceives himself) as a 'togetherness' of different particulars. His bank manager (if he is so fortunate as to have one) will perceive him as 'a bank account by the name of Perera', and this bank account will be a 'togetherness' of varying particular balances at six-monthly intervals. His mother will perceive him quite differently—as a body that has issued from hers and has gradually grown up, a 'togetherness' (which she might describe as 'flesh of my flesh'), of such successive particulars as pregnancy, birth, suckling, weaning, nursing in sickness, having a son at school, in a government office as a clerk, having a married son, having a son to support her in her old age, to give her a good funeral, and so on. His wife will perceive him as...well, there are many different ways in which wives perceive their husbands—and some wives have much the same sort of view as the bank manager. But no doubt you will be able to fill in details.

As to states of mind, the principle certainly applies in the same way. Whenever we speak of a 'change of mind' (which we often do), we do so because we perceive (by introspection or reflexion) a 'togetherness' of different particulars. When I say 'I changed my mind about going to Colombo', that means that I perceived a 'togetherness', describable as 'possibility of a journey to Colombo', that presented itself successively in two different particular aspects, 'about to go to Colombo' and 'not about to go to Colombo'. With change of moods, description is more difficult; but we sometimes find we have certain definite sets of emotions governed by a more general state of mind. When we are in love, for example, we experience sudden changes from exaltation to depression, from joy to misery, which we do not have at other times. (Consider the state of mind of a lover waiting for his loved one, who is five minutes late.) And the 'togetherness' of these different emotions is the more general thing that we call 'being in love'.

I think, perhaps, that this will be enough for you to be getting on with. It is hardly possible to do more than give an indication, and then to let people try and see the thing for themselves. But in all cases where an 'objective scientific point of view' is adopted, there will necessarily be complete failure to understand the principle that we are discussing; and for this reason I would suggest that you read Russell (if you must read him) with a certain amount of circumspection—Russell's logic is not the same as Bradley's logic.

On the question of flux (or continuous change), I should like to suggest a certain reflection. If one were asked what the immediate evidence was for the existence of flux, the answer would almost certainly be, It is our experience of motion, the fact that we perceive movement. But, now, when we go to the cinema we sit in front of a screen, and we spend two or three hours 'perceiving moving pictures'—we are perfectly satisfied that we do perceive movement at the cinema, and the only difference from the live theatre is the flatness of the screen and the black-and-white colouring. We are just as much excited or emotionally disturbed by a cinema show as we are by a theatre performance. But when we pause to consider the mechanism of the cinema, we come to understand that (looking at the matter from a slightly different point of view) all we really perceive is a succession of perfectly still pictures (Russell mentions this, but we are not here concerned with the conclusions he draws). And this being so, we are obliged to admit that perception of movement need not be evidence of flux: we cannot safely infer 'continuous change' from 'perception of movement'. I say this, not to prove that there is not 'continuous change', but to introduce a doubt into the unquestioning belief that there is 'continuous change'. If I can introduce a doubt, that may be enough. (I do not, however, want to suggest that the structure of change or movement is simply that of the cinema film.) These remarks are rather concentrated philosophy, and you may not make very much of them at present, but they might be of use a little later on.


[8.a] These ideas of 'Identity in Difference' and 'Invariance under Transformation' are not really new. F. H. Bradley wrote his Logic, which I am just finishing, in 1883, and he got the idea from earlier writers. But it went out of fashion with the logical positivists—Russell & Co. who, I must warn you, are most misleading, particularly Russell himself --, and has more recently started to return to favour in quantum theory. Here is a sentence from P. A. M. Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930): 'The important things in the world appear as the invariants...of...transformations' (p. vii). And, of course, as soon as you say 'invariant', you rule out 'flux'. [Back to text]

[8.b] If we see a cow and a horse and a tree, we at once perceive—without thinking about it at all, and without any previous knowledge—that the cow and the horse 'belong together' and that the cow (or the horse) and the tree do not. Turning this round, we say that the cow and the horse are different aspects of one single more general thing, namely 'four-legged bestiality', and that the tree is not. It might be objected that 'four-legged bestiality' is merely an abstract idea that we do not 'perceive' at all; but this is not so. We at once perceive the 'togetherness' of the cow and the horse, and it is merely in order to give it a name and express it in words that we have to start thinking: the thing is perceived directly, but it may quite well happen that the thing does not have a familiar name. [Back to text]

[8.c] Note here—a further complication!—that, in a sense, we do actually perceive the past (and the future) as well as the present; and this is explained in FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE §II/10. But you had better, for the time being at least, simply think that we 'perceive the past with our memory'. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[8.1] The Cúlamālunkya Sutta is posited on the following event: A monk named Mālunkyāputta demands of the Buddha the answers to a series of speculative questions. The Buddha replies that he does not teach such matters, and offers the simile of a man grievously wounded who, rather than submit to medical treatment, demands to know, instead, the history of the dart that wounded him, its manufacture, the materials it is made of, and so on. That man, the Buddha says, would die of his wounds before his questions were answered. So too, the Buddha warns Mālunkyāputta, a person will die still bound up with suffering unless he ceases his quest for answers to speculative questions and devotes himself instead to ridding himself of attachment, the condition for suffering. 'Therefore, Mālunkyāputta, bear in mind that which has not been explicated by me as not explicated; and bear in mind that which has been explicated by me as explicated. And what, Mālunkyāputta, has not been explicated by me? I have not explicated whether the world is eternal or non-eternal; whether the world is finite or infinite; whether the self and the body are one; whether the self and the body are separate; whether the Tathāgata [i.e., the Buddha] exists or does not exist after death; whether the Tathāgata both exists and does not exist after death; nor have I explicated whether the Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist after death. And why, Mālunkyāputta, have I not explicated these? Because, Mālunkyāputta, these are not useful, are not part of the divine life, do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to ceasing, to calm, to direct knowledge, to awakening, to extinction; that is why they are not explicated by me. And what, Mālunkyāputta, is explicated by me? This is suffering...' [Back to text]

[8.2] monkey: A wandura (wanduroo) is a black-faced silver-furred langur that sits about three feet high, feeds on leaves and fruit, and is very shy. A rilawa is a smaller pink-faced auburn-haired macaque that will eat anything it can find or steal. The latter is both more amusing and more troublesome than the quiet wandura. [Back to text]