EBT inklings of "momentariness" or a very rapidly changing mind

Continuing the discussion from Sense Consciousness arising one at a time:

This is a very interesting passage for sure, its from SA 273: 手聲喻—Choong Mun-keat (suttacentral.net) btw.

I was wondering if there are more passages from the EBTs that hint at the origin of the Abhidharma momentariness idea. Of course, the one that often gets trotted out for this is

“Bhikkhus, I do not see even one other thing that changes so quickly as the mind. It is not easy to give a simile for how quickly the mind changes. (AN.48).”

But it is not obvious that this passage is talking about momentariness in the Abhidhamma sense of mental phenomena rapidly arising and ceasing very quickly (in fractions of a second).

Interestingly, I was reading the Abhidharmakosa and came upon an interesting quote from the Mahavibhasa which quotes an unidentified “sutra”:

Some say: That is still coarse. That is not the measure of the kṣaṇa: the Bhagavat has not revealed the true measure. - How do we know that? - From the Sūtra that says: A certain bhikṣu came to the Fortunate One, greeted him, sat down to his side, and asked how fast the conditioning forces of the life force arise and perish. The Buddha said: “I could teach it but you would not be able to understand.” The bhikṣu then asked whether or not there would be a comparison to give him an idea of it. The Buddha said: "Yes, and I will tell you. Suppose four good archers stand back to back and facing in the four directions … " From this text we know that the Fortunate One did not reveal the true measure of the kṣaṇa. - Why did he not reveal it? - Because nobody is capable of understanding it. - Would even Sariputra not be capable of understanding it? - Although he would be capable of understanding it, this knowledge would be of no use, and that is why the Buddha, who does not teach anything in vain, did not explain it.

This is in the Gelong Lodro Sangpo translation, in an endnote on page 1250

Now, I did some digging and could not find a passage about a simile and four archers in the suttas (but I would love to know if someone has found it).

However I did find it in the Jatakas! Particularly, the Javana Hamsa Jataka has the following simile:

“Come, Goose,” etc.–This story the Master told at Jetavana about the Dalhadhamma Suttanta or the Parable of the Strong Men. The Blessed One said: “Suppose, Brethren, four archers to stand at the four points of the compass, strong men, well trained and of great skill, perfect in archery and then let a man come and say, “If these four archers, strong, well trained, and of great skill, perfect in archery shoot forth arrows from four points, I will catch those arrows as they are shot, and before they touch the ground”: would you not agree, sure enough, that he must be a very swift man and the perfection of swiftness? Well, Brethren, great as the swiftness of such a man might be, great as the swiftness of sun and moon, there is something swifter: great, I say, Brethren, as the swiftness of such a man might be, great as the swiftness of the sun and moon, and though the gods outfly sun or moon in swiftness, there is something swifter than the gods: great, Brethren, as the swiftness of that man (and so forth), yet more swiftly than the gods can go, the elements which make up life do decay. Therefore, Brethren, this ye must learn, to be careful; verily I say unto you, this ye must learn.”

Two days after this teaching, they were talking about it in the Hall of Truth: “Brethren, the Master in his own peculiar province as Buddha, illustrating the nature of what makes up life, showed it to be transient and weak, and smote with extreme terror Brethren and unconverted alike. Oh, the might of a Buddha!” The Master entering asked what they talked of. They told him; and he said, “It is no marvel, Brethren, if I in my omniscience alarm the Brethren by my teaching, and show how transient are life’s elements. Even I, when without natural cause I was conceived by a Goose, showed forth the transient nature of the elements of life, and by my teaching alarmed the whole court of a king, together with the king of Benares himself.”

source: Cowell, E. B. (ed.). Chalmers, Robert, W. H. D. Rouse, H. T. Francis, R. A. Neil, E. B. Cowell (trans.). 1895–1907. The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births . 6 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. vol. IV, pp. 132-136.

Anyways, just thought I’d share as I thought it was an interesting find.

And I also wanted to see if anyone has other possible EBT sources for where the idea of momentariness might have been derived or developed from.


But an uneducated ordinary person would be better off taking this body made up of the four primary elements to be their self, rather than the mind. Why is that? This body made up of the four primary elements is seen to last for a year, or for two, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or a hundred years, or even longer. But that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another all day and all night.

But an uneducated ordinary person would be better off taking this body made up of the four primary elements to be their self, rather than the mind. Why is that? This body made up of the four primary elements is seen to last for a year, or for two, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or a hundred years, or even longer.

But that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another all day and all night. It’s like a monkey moving through the forest. It grabs hold of one branch, lets it go, and grabs another; then it lets that go and grabs yet another. In the same way, that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another all day and all night.

Now consciousness always arises with object, there’s no consciousness which arises without object

So consciousness arises with object, this is object condition, and it ceases and it arises again with a different object and it ceases following the monkey simile above, the monkey hold a branch, let go, hold another branch, let go,

Now branch is object while monkey is the consciousness, let go means cease while holding branch means arise that’s how I understand buddha’s above simile

According to this simile there’s a single consciousness with multiple objects there’s only 1 consciousness because that monkey could only hold another branch after letting go the previous branch

Theravada abhidhamma is different because they believe in multiple consciousness but there’s a sutta with a simile of caterpillar showing what I believe as multiple consciousness there like caterpillar who moves its foot without moving its other foot, being grasps other world while still grasping current world


Thanks for starting this topic. It’s especially interesting to me as I’ve recently moved from the Abhidhamma to the Prajñāpāramitā and to Ven. Nāgārjuna’s “view” of things. SA 273/SN 35.93 played a role in that. The āgama itself is interesting, in that it contains within it ideas which would go against the grain of later Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma thought. Namely, this

“All empty compounded things are empty of any permanent, eternal, lasting, unchanging nature; they are empty of self and of belonging to self”. …

Whilst Vaibhāṣika would agree that dharmas are empty of self, they would not agree that they are empty of an unchanging and permanent nature. As far as my understanding of their later Abhidharma thought goes, dharmas always exist substantially with their svabhāva. This is how they discharge their effects across time. Now, it seems unlikely to me that the Sarvāstivādins would alter their text in such a way that it could be used against them. This suggests to me that it is unlikely to have been edited later, to fit the Abhidharma view. Both texts seem then to be authentic and both seem to be trying to say the same thing, but with slightly different wording.

Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṁ.
Cakkhu aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi.
Rūpā aniccā vipariṇāmino aññathābhāvino.
Itthetaṁ dvayaṁ calañceva byathañca aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi.
Cakkhuviññāṇaṁ aniccaṁ vipariṇāmi aññathābhāvi.
Yopi hetu yopi paccayo cakkhuviññāṇassa uppādāya, sopi hetu sopi paccayo anicco vipariṇāmī aññathābhāvī.
Aniccaṁ kho pana, bhikkhave, paccayaṁ paṭicca uppannaṁ cakkhuviññāṇaṁ kuto niccaṁ bhavissati.

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The eye is impermanent, perishing, and changing. Sights are impermanent, perishing, and changing. So this duality is tottering and toppling; it’s impermanent, perishing, and changing. Eye consciousness is impermanent, perishing, and changing. And the causes and conditions that give rise to eye consciousness are also impermanent, perishing, and changing. But since eye consciousness has arisen dependent on conditions that are impermanent, how could it be permanent?

Seems to me that the Buddha is teaching here that our whole normal sense experience is impermanent because

A) What sees is impermanent, perishing, and changing.

B) What is seen is impermanent, perishing, and changing.

C) What is seeing is impermanent, perishing, and changing.

D) Contact is impermanent, perishing, and changing.

E) All the conditions which give rise to seeing (eye consciousness) are impermanent, perishing, and changing.

This I feel is important. It’s not just contact which is impermanent, perishing, and changing. It’s not just the experience (seeing) which is impermanent, perishing, and changing. All of it is impermanent, perishing, and changing. This means the visual form is also impermanent, perishing, and changing just as much as the eye consciousness is. Now, ordinarily we don’t see trees as impermanent, perishing, and changing. Rather we see a somewhat steady thing which someday we know will will die. If this were the understanding meant here then only contact, or eye consciousness would be said to be impermanent, perishing, and changing IMO. The fact that the visual form is included strongly suggests what is being taught here is a version of momentariness. The visual form is impermanent, perishing and becoming other just as much as the contact and eye consciousness is. The northern parallel then offers further clarification on this point when it says

“Monks, these [the eye etc] have the nature of birth, ageing, death, ceasing, and rebirth. Monks, all compounded things are as an illusion, a flame, ceasing in an instant; being not real they come (arise) and go (cease).”

I would go slightly further though, in that this type of momentariness isn’t the Abhidhammic kind. It’s not that there are dhammas which arise, persist for a moment and then cease. Rather it’s that the flux of experience is so rapid that you cannot really pin anything down as being real or not. Try to find it and it has already gone. To an Ābhidhammika if there is only arising and ceasing then there is no moment of sabhāva, and so the dhammas are empty. If there is arising, ceasing and change when persisting then dhammas are also empty since any change in a dhamma means it has ceased. It then follows that if dhammas are empty, there is no real arising or ceasing either. The Abhidhammic model only works if dhammas arise, persist for a short amount of time and then cease. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the message we find in the suttas/sutras. Instead, IMO, we see a basis for the view of the Perfection of Wisdom.


Also consider the following

“The arising and vanishing of the eye is evident,
Cakkhussa uppādopi vayopi paññāyati."
MN 148

It is said that to awaken we have to know the arising and ceasing of the eye, ear, body and so on. To me this suggests a form of momentariness. Other’s might argue that we should instead translate eye as “vision”, ear as “hearing” etc but to me this is even more suggestive.


Can someone who has studied both the abhidhamma and the suttas explain or paraphrase the arguments given for the need or usefulness of the concept of “momentariness”? It is an abstract concept, it is unverifiable, it cannot even be objectively defined, and more importantly, none of the three marks of existence, nor the four noble truths, the eightfold path, or dependent origination seem to depend on the concept of momentariness, even for purely intellectual understanding (unless I am terribly mistaken). Whether there is momentariness or not, all of the main teachings are still valid, so it is not even an axiomatic concept. Why was it introduced?


There are moments in time. Buddhists say focus on the present moment. Time flows like a surefire current, and if you are wise you will realize that there also exists a time other than the current one you are in. The intricacies of time are a whole world of interest to many. But, to focus on the mind and in meditation, I think it is important to create useful abstract views on impermanence, and also the permanence of True Metta, to understand what we are looking for in this Buddhahood.


I agree.
The crucial thing to recognize is that everything is subject to change (anicca).
Whether this is due to “kalapas” arising and ceasing in an instant or some more spread out process, it does not make a difference, and in my opinion trying to investigate this and pin it down can be a bit of an intellectual hindrance.

One thing I feel sometimes, and I might be totally wrong, is that some of these doctrines can carry a sense of conceit, especially how they were expanded in later times. “I am such a good meditator that I can see kalapas and can tell you exactly the time and scale of these processes”. Whether this is possible or not, from my understanding, it is definitely not required for progress on the path from a sutta point of view. I always keep in mind the refrain from the Satiphattana Sutta in this regard:

And so they meditate observing an aspect of the body internally, externally, and both internally and externally. They meditate observing the body as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate and vanish. Or mindfulness is established that the body exists, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness.
(MN 10)

So from my understanding, the level of investigation needs to remain pragmatic. After all, if these concepts were crucial to liberation the Buddha would have included and spelled them out properly in the suttas, which we don’t find to be the case.

Finally, I feel sometimes people misinterpret the idea of rapid change (especially in regards to consciousness, as in the other thread linked above).
The best example in my opinion is that of a river. A river is literally constantly changing, there is not one molecule of water that remains in the same position at any given moment. So the river is changing every instant. However, it does not mean that the entire river is appearing and disappearing from existence every single moment!


@Giovanni, I am also in general agreement with you on both threads. Regarding your feeling about sense of conceit:

I think there are two things going on here; one is that it was quite fashionable at that time to ascribe very large or very small numbers, needlessly, to things that could not possibly be verified by anyone else. This was a trend in all Indic philosophical works. We still have vestiges of that same attitude in that we feel if something has a label and/or a number attached to it, then we understand it or at least it becomes something imaginable or feasible. This attitude can take hold with or without conceit.

When such concepts themselves become revered objects or attainments, then I agree that a certain conceit is bound to creep in, even if it is not in comparison with anyone else.

Regarding time, it would be worthwhile for an academic to investigate instances when the Buddha might have been talking about psychological time as opposed to physical time, similar to the modern notions of time perception:

( If anyone wants the paper, let me know. It probably needs subscription)

1 Like