DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G110-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. The problem of impermanence

Mujō is the Japanese word for the Buddhist concept of impermanence (the corresponding Sanskrit term is anitya). The traditional Buddhist statement of impermanence is ‘all conditioned things are impermanent’, meaning that they arise, pass away and are subject to change (see Momentariness, Buddhist doctrine of). Mujō may thus be translated as ‘transience’ or ‘mutability’. The two Chinese characters making up the word literally mean ‘without constancy’, which further indicates the possible irregularity of change and implies a spatial sense of instability. Mujō can also mean evanescence; things may be so fleeting as to have only a tenuous, dreamlike existence.

Originally, the concept of impermanence was descriptive of all experienced phenomena. In the early Buddhist formulation of the fundamental doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamupāda), all things arise and cease dependent upon causes or conditions. All existence is thus impermanent and nonsubstantial. Importantly, a person has no permanent self but is only a stream of changing interdependent factors. These claims are made on the basis of a close inspection of experience, including meditative states.

The primary implication of impermanence – the problem it presents – is that ordinary ways of seeking satisfaction or meaning in human life are ultimately unsatisfactory and induce suffering (duḥkha). That is, human beings mistakenly formulate the concept of a permanent self and seek lasting and secure satisfaction through it and its attachment to things, all of which – self, satisfactions, attachments and things – are actually transient and mutable, hence undependable. The continual pursuit of these dependent and undependable satisfactions is saṃsāra; in contrast, nirvāna is nondependent or unconditioned (see Nirvāṇa).

The cause of suffering, however, is not impermanence per se but ignorance of ‘things as they are’, for example in their conditional arising and impermanence, and the disposition to seek satisfaction through attachments or dependencies. Since the causes of suffering arise conditionally, they too are impermanent and removable. Their elimination, however, requires a thorough transformation of one’s whole person. A key factor in this is the existential awareness of impermanence, for as it deepens so too does the realization of the futility of attachments and the motivation for release from them (see Suffering, Buddhist views of origination of).

Citing this article:
Hull, Monte S.. The problem of impermanence. Mujō, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G110-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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