The Doctrine of Momentariness According to Buddha

According to the Buddha, “All the existing things have been originated due to some cause. All these things are non-eternal in every way.”

“Whatever appears to be eternal and permanent is also perishable. Whatever appears to be great has also its decline.

Where there is union there is also separation. Where there is birth there is also death.” “Five things are absolutely inevitable; whoever can be old, he must become old; however can be ill, he must fall ill; whoever is subordinate to death, he must die; whatever perishable, its destruction is imperative; and whatever is non-eternal, it must go.”

These rules cannot be violated by any worldly or divine power. This view is a middle way between the principles of absolute existence and absolute nihilism. “All things exist—this is a one-sided view; nothing exists—this is another one-sided view. Leaving both these one-sided views, the Buddha teaches the middle path and the essence of the middle path is that life is a becoming, it is Bhavarup.”


Everything in this world is merely a conglomeration of perishable qualities. Everything is momentary. The world is determined by the principle of dependent origination. It has neither beginning nor end. Thus, human beings, animals, Gods, plants, things, bodies, forms, substances, etc., are all perishable. Everything has a beginning, existence and extinction.

This doctrine of impermanence (Anityavad) of the Buddha was given the form of the doctrine of momentariness by his disciples. As a matter of fact, the doctrine of momentariness follows from the principle of dependent origination. Whatever is born will also be destroyed and whatever may be destroyed cannot be thought to be permanent. Hence everything is momentary. Thus the doctrine of momen­tariness goes further than the principle of impermanence. It means not only that everything is impermanent but also that everything exists only for a moment.

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The Buddhist philosophers have given sever arguments in support of the doctrine of momentariness. Of these one of the most important argument is that of Arthakriyakaritva, i.e., the power of generathing action. According to this prin­ciple, only that thing can produce effect which has existence and whatever cannot produce effect has no existence. Similarly, so far so as a certain thing has the power of producing effect, it has existence. When it ceases to produce any effect, its existence also ceases. Again, anything can produce only one effect.


If at this time a thing produces one effect while at the next moment another effect is observed or no effect is observed, then one should suppose that the former thing has ceased to exist, because one thing can produce only one effect at one moment. For example, a seed cannot develop in the same way in any two moments. When the seed is in the bag, it will not sprout in the form of a plant. It sprouts in the form of a plant when it is sown in the earth.

This plant again develops from moment to moment. In this process of development, no two movements are similar or identical. Hence, there can be no one cause of the effect, observed in Iwo moments or, in other words, the plant is changing from moment to moment and so by the principle of the power of producing effect, the seed is also changing from moment to moment.

Similarly, all the things of the world are momentary. The soul is momentary because no man can remain identical in two moments. The Buddhist principle of karma and the doctrine of no-soul are very much related to the principle of impermanence or that of momentariness. Hence, the criticism of the principle of momentariness will, by implication is the criticism of the principle of karma and the theory of no-soul. Samkara advanced the following arguments against the theory of momentariness:

1. If the self is momentary, knowledge is impossible. The Buddhist philosophers have not differentiated between the self and its modifications. Whatever is subject to modification cannot know another thing which is being modified. The knowledge of change requires an unchanging knower. Samkara differentiates between Bodhi and praiyaya, knowledge and ideation. Idea is chang­ing, knowledge is eternal. Knowledge pre-supposes a knower who may unify the spontaneous experiences coming through the different sense-organs.


Perception requires the unification of scattered sensations. This is the function of self. To experience change, one must be oneself beyond change. Only because of some, similarities some states cannot be called to be the states of one thing. For the same things, these states must have some common permanent element. Similarly, if the soul is momentary, the processes of comparison, memory and other mental ac­tivities are impossible.

2. The cause and effect relation cannot be explained 011 the basis of the principle of momentariness. If a cause remains only for a moment and absolutely disappears next moment, it cannot reduce an effect because not only does the effect require that not only should its cause exist, but it should also act continually. Thus if the cause is momentary, the effect will be conceived to be born out of nothing and if this is so any effect can be born from any cause or an effect can be generated even without a cause which is clearly impossible.

The relation of cause and effect is impossible without continuity between the two and any sort of continuity is against the principle of momentariness. The origination, sustenance and destruction cannot be in the same moment, and if they are in different moments and the different stages of the same thing they cannot be called momentary.

The Jaina Acharya Hem Chandra has advanced five arguments against the principle of momentariness:

(a) Krita Pranasa:

The effect of karma on human beings cannot be explained on the basis of the principle of momentariness. This also annihilates ethics. If a man has done an action and the next moment he is another man, how can this other person be given the fruits of the action of former simply on the basis of similarity. The Buddhist philosophers have not answered the question of king Milinda that if the self is merely a process of momentary modification, who is the doer of them and who gets their fruits?

(b) Krita Karma Bhoga:

Similarly, the bearing of the fruits of Karma also cannot be explained on the basis of the principle of momentariness. If the self is changing from moment to moment, the bearing of the fruits of its karma should also be changing.

(c) Bhava Bhanga:

On the basis of the principle of momentariness, the word (Bhava) also cannot be explained, nor, would it have any meaning.

(d) Moksha Bhanga:

When the individual is momentary, his efforts to get rid of suffering and thereby attain liberation should be useless because even suffering must be conceived as momentary. Again, it is another person who shall get rid of the miseries because one who makes effort is also momentary and ceases to exist after a moment. Thus the principle of momentariness cuts at the root of the first great truth Advocated by the Buddha and also the remaining great truths dependent upon it.

The eightfold path also becomes meaningless and the Buddhist religion itself becomes futile. One this principle, liberation has no meaning because it is also momentary. As a matter of fact, no one can deny the changing nature of the world, but this change is absolutely on the pragmatic level. If it is taken as the basic truth, liberation becomes meaningless. Liberation can have meaning only if it is taken as the transcendental truth and momentarism as the pragmatic truth. The followers of the Hinayana sect of Buddhism have tried to present certain solutions in this respect but they are far from being consistent.

(e) Smriti Bhanga:

Like Samkara, Hem Chandra has also raised the objec­tion that on the basis of the principle of momentariness the various mental processes e.g., memory, recognition, etc., cannot be explained.

As a matter of fact, the Buddhist philosophers have emphasized exclusively the phenomenon of change and forgotten the eternal aspect of self. Self has two aspects, the transcendental and the psychological. Samkara has explained this distinction by the difference between Swayam Siddlu or self evident and Agantuka or adventitious selves.

There is constant change in the Vyavltarika, psychological or Agantuka self and no or one can deny this fact. But behind this changing aspect of self there is eternal, self evident, immutable self, without admitting which, even the changing aspect becomes meaningless. As the Upanishads have pointed out, both Being and Becoming are two equally important aspects of the Ultimate Truth and Reality.

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