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A Study of Momentariness Doctrine (Kṣaṇabhaṅguravāda) in Sautrāntika

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by Prof. Dr. Miroj Sakya



1. Introduction The purpose of this paper is to present the theory of Momentariness in Sautrantika School and compare it with others school in Early Buddhism. The doctrine of momentariness is one of the most important doctrines of Buddhism. The Buddha, in this foremost teaching expounded the basic principles of impermanence, which combined with causal law of „Pratityasamutpada’(Pali, Paticca samuppada) and the theory of no-soul (Pali, Anatta) that later was developed into the form of momentariness theory.

By studying the doctrine of momentariness, detailed information from the Sautrantika perspective can be revealed. The present work is mainly concerned with the philosophical and logical theory of momentariness as developed in the Sautrantika school of Buddhism. Because of this, it is necessary that the theory of momentariness be considered in its historical context and looked at in comparison to other Buddhist philosophical schools of thought.

A key competent of this pursuit is answering the following question: why do the Sautrantikas only accept the reality of the present moment and view the past and the future as unreal and illusory?


2. The Origin and Development of the theory of Momentariness (Ksanikavada)

The main teachings of the Buddha shared by all Buddhist schools are the Four Noble Truths (Pali, Caturiya sacca), the Eightfold Path (Pali, Atthangika magga), the doctrine of dependent origination (Pali, Paticca samuppada) and the theory of three characteristics of existence (Pali, Ti-Lakkhana). Furthermore, these teachings are linked to the Buddhist ideas of suffering (Pali, dukkha), the five aggregates of beings (Pali, Panca-kandhas), no-self (Pali, anatta), ethics (Pali, Cariya-dhamma), karma, rebirth, and the Ultimate truths (Pali, Nibbana).

The doctrine of momentariness was developed from the one of the three characteristics of existences in that were formulated in early Buddhist thought while the theory of impermanence was developed later and included the concept of momentariness. According to this doctrine everything which comes into being vanishes away in the same moment. (Skt, Sarvam anityam, Sarvam ksanikam). Like Professor Dr. Hajime Nakamura rightly observes; “It is wrong to assume any metaphysical substance that exists, transcending changes in the phenomenal world.” Momentariness (Skt, Ksanikavada) is one of most important theories of Buddhist metaphysics. Originally, this theory was present in the Buddha’s t in teachings in the form of impermanence (Pali, Anicca., Skt. Anityata) of all objects. The following passage from the Mahapadana-Sutta offers an early example of this line of reasoning:

“Evam anicca kho Ananda Samkhara,

Evam addhuva Ananda Samkhara.”

(Thus, Ananda!: all elements are impermanent and non-eternal).

Gradually, this idea developed in the form of Ksanikavada, which is an ancient term seems to have been used as 'Anityata , which is accepted by all schools of Buddhism. It was replaced in the sequel by Ksanikata.

Because the doctrine of momentariness worthy of closer introspection, the next section I will provide further analysis of its terminology.


3. The Analysis of terminology


The terminology of the term Ksanikavada (Pali: Khanikavada) is derived from Sanskrit word Ksana+vada, Ksana means “instant, moment or momentariness” and vada means “word or doctrine,” when these appear together they can be interpreted as “the doctrine or the theory of the momentariness”.

The Pali term Khana (Skt. Ksana) when it appears in Buddhist suttas describes of the moment that last for insignificantly small fraction of the time. According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, the doctrine of momentariness, in Sanskrit, is a doctrinal position emblematic of the Sautrantika School of the mainstream of Buddhist tradition.

According to Monier Williams, Ksana means “Continual decay of things, the denial of the continued identity of any part of nature, maintenance that universe perished and undergoes a new creation every instant.” According to Encyclopedia of Buddhism, “the Pali term Khana together with its Sanskrit equivalent Ksana, became even more important when the doctrine of impermanence (anicca) was further developed, elaborated, and interpreted by different Buddhist schools in their attempt to provide it with a logical and metaphysical basis.”

Dr. Vibha Aggarwal in her book Buddhist Theory of Momentariness writes that “In the Buddhist treaties in Sanskrit, Vasubandhu explains the etymology of Ksanika and its meaning:- “an object, which possesses the nature of coming into being and vanishing immediately without any interval, is called Ksanika. While describing the basic doctrine of dependent origination (Skt, Pratityasamutpada), Vasubandhu says that „Pratityasamutpada is of four kinds- Ksanika, Prakarsika, avasthika, and Sambandhika.’ Further explaining its first kind, i.e. Ksanika Pratityasamutpada, he says, “all twelve parts (nidanas), of wheel of existence (Bhava-cakra) take birth and go to decay in the same moment. His commentator Yosomitra further clarifies it, “Existence for moment is „Ksanika'’ or that which has one moment to live called „Ksanika’.” Concluding it he says, “As all produced elements (Skt,Samskrta-dharmas) possess the nature of being destructed every moment, Pratityasamutpada, is also momentary. The objects are casually connected with each other and origin of one object depends upon the destruction of the proceeding one. For example, ignorance (Skt, Avidya) gives birth to impression (Skt, Samskara) and impression being perished gives rise to consciousness (Skt, Vijnana). This stream of cause and effect continues forever but each moment of this stream is a different particular. This flux is called discontinuous continuity.”

This is original meaning of momentariness that is accepted by all the Buddhists Schools. From Dinnaga onward, all the Buddhist logicians took the task of defending this theory against the attacks of Vedic scholars. Dinnaga asserted that; “Reality is in the form of point-instants (Ksanika) and there is no such permanent reality as time and space.” Many logical arguments were advanced to defend this theory by many scholars like Dharmakrati, Santaraksita,

Jn anasrimitra and Ratnakirti etc.

4. The Comparison of Momentariness with others school in Early Buddhism

Shortly after the Buddha died, four main Buddhist schools emerged. These four schools are; (1). Vaibhasika, (2). Sautrantika, (3). Yogacara and (4). Madhyamika. These schools can be divided into Hinyayan and Mahayanan camps. The Vibhasika and Sautrantika schools were Hinayanan (Theravada), whereas the Yogacara and Madhyamika schools were Mahayanan. Before comparing the theory of momentariness with thought belonging to other schools of early Buddhism, I would like to explain each of these four school’s unique take on this particular theory.

4.1.1 The Concept of Momentariness in Vaibhasika

Vaibhasika School may be considered as the representative of Sarvastivadins or of the early Buddhism in general. Rahula Sankrtyana has used the word „Sarvastivadi’ in place of Vaibhasika while delineating the four school of Buddhism.

The Vaibhasikas are basically concerned with the old school of Sthaviras, which is later developed as Sarvastivada. They called themselves as „Vaibhasika’, because they were the followers of Vaibhasastra- a commentary on Jnana-Prathana-sastra of Katyamputra.

According to Vasubhandu, Sarvastivada means “everything exists in all the three period vizs., past, present, and future. Among the Masters of the Vaibhasika School, Bhadanta Dharmatrata, Ghosska, Vasumitra and Buddhadeva should be mentioned first. All of them slightly differ in their opinions regarding reality. In „Ahhidharmakosa', Vasubandu has accepted the doctrines of Vasumitra, criticizing those of the other three. Vasubandhu speaks about the four forces of a composites object (Skt, Samskrta dharma}. Every element appearing in the phenomenal life is affected simultaneously by four different forces. They are the forces of origination (Skt, Utapada), decay (Skt, Jara), maintenance (Skt, Slhili) and destruction (Skt, Anityata}. The elements affected by these forces are called composite elements (Skt, Samskrta dharma}. The term „Samskrta ’ is synonymous with impermanence or momentariness itself. According to the laws of inter-connection between the elements these four forces always appear together and simultaneously. They are Sahahhil.

While criticizing the permanent of „Pudgala' Vasubandhu says that there is no scope for any permanent objects as we perceived the destruction of very composite things. Every composite thing cannot go beyond the moment of birth. As soon as it rises, it perishes.

This school believes in the momentariness of consciousness, but it also holds that material things have some endurance, though they are not permanent and this view is in accordance with the relative permanence of body admitted in the cannon.


4.1.2 The Concept of Momentariness in Sautrantika


The historical background of the Sautrantika is not known clearly from the sources, Some Scholar said that Sautrantika separated from the Sarvastivada before Christian era in the first century, and this school seems to be arising against the Sarvativada.

As we have learned that Sautrantika literally means "lhose who rely upon lhe sulras", and they reject the Abhidharma of other early Buddhist schools. The words “Sautrantika” is the Sansakrit term which similarly to the PaliSuttantika” (Sutta+Antika) has the same primary meaning that “One who is expert in the S uiras" , Some Buddhist Scholar explained that the name of Sautrantika means "the end of the sutras" which means the Buddha's final word on things, no more than that.

In the Early Indian Buddhism, the Sautrantika School is the branch of the Sarvastivada School. The Beginning the Sautrantika School starts from the time of Vasubandhu period in the fifth century. The Sautrantika School provides a less complex and more pragmatic answer to this question. It denies the reality of application of the four forces (production, destruction etc.) in one single moment. According to it, these forces refer not to single moment but to the series of many distinct moments (Santana). In fact, the Sautrantika School differs from the Vaibhasika School regarding the nature of cognition. The Sautrantika asserts that cognition has form (skt,Sakara-jnana), while the Vaibhasika says that external objects are subject to formless perceptual cognition (nirakara pratyaksa).

The Sautrantika believes that external objects are only inferable (Bahyarthanumeyavada) as they cannot be perceived because of their momentary nature. Vacaspatimasra relates that when there is cognition of blue and yellow etc. or any other kind of perception the series of alayavij nana moment is constantly present, then how can the discrimination of cognition occur? To this, Sautrantika replies that there must be another series of moments and that another series is of external objects i.e, the object moments. Thus, the external objects being momentary are subject to interferential knowledge and thus this inferential knowledge has form.

In this way, in a series of object moments, the origination of second moment has the „first preceding object moment’ as its material cause and the „first-proceeding cognition¬moment’ as its auxiliary cause. Similar is the case with the origination of second moment in the series.


4.1.3 The Concept of Momentariness in Madhyamika


The philosophy of the Madhyamika is a novel and unique interpretation of the Buddha’s scriptures. It denies each and every definition and explanation of „reality’. „Reality’ according to the Madhyamikas is neither in the form of permanent enduring soul nor in the form of momentary flashes or point-instants. In this light, the theory of the momentariness loses its importance in the Madhyamika period. Professor Stcherbatsky observes, “The school of Madhyamika bluntly denied the reality of the supposed point-instants of existence. Against the theory, they appealed for common sense.” Who is the man of sense, they thought, who will believe that a real thing can appear, exist and disappear at the same moment. As far as the ultimate reality is concerned, the Madhyamikas do not give a definite view about it. The only discuss the views of other schools regarding reality, draw out their implications and reject them by showing their contradictory characters.

The Madhyamika also criticize the “Thing-in-itself (Skt, Svalaksana) nature of an „entity’. An entity is what it is in relation to other entities and these in turn depend on others. Cause and effect, substance and attributes, whole and parts, subject and objects are mutually dependent, relative; hence they are not “Things-in-themselves”.


4.1.4 The Concept of Momentariness in Yogacara


The Vijnanavadins (Yogacara) did not agree with the Madhyamikasbelief that ieverything in this universes is unreal or Sunya. They asserted that reality of mind (Vij nana} should at least be acknowledged in order to make thinking possible. For this reason, their philosophy is called Vijn anavada. Regarding the unreality of external world, they had the same opinion as Madhyamikas. The Vijnanavada is also called the Yogacara because it emphasizes upon yoga or the practice of meditation to attain the Buddha’s perfection.

This school upholds the theory of subjective idealism, which means there is no objective world independent of the perceiving mind. Mind (Vij nana) is the only transcendental truth. It is a store-house of consciousness, or a mental receptacle called ‘Alaya Vij liana' where all the memory of one’s past deeds and psychic activities is deposited and preserved in a form of energy called ‘Vasana’. Vasana is habit-energy accumulated since time immemorial. It is also known as perfuming energy that leaves its essence permanently in the minds it has perfumed. It lives latently in the house called ‘Alaya Vijliana’. Alaya Vij h ana is an endless series of continuously rising and disappearing moments. The external world is perceived because the condition of a particular moment of Alaya Vij hana make a particular idea mature or become conscious and vivid. The manifestation of impression as an external object is called Pravrtti- Vij nana.  

There are three kinds of realities viz. (1). Parinispanna, (2). Paratantra (3). Parikalpita. Imaginary knowledge attained in a state of dream is called „parikalpita', knowledge which requires a previous knowledge as its cause is called „paratantra When distinguishing knowledge of different objects does not arise and all the causal-conditions are ruined that state is called „parinispanna . It can be attained only through „yoga’. This school also expounds the theory of momentariness.


4.1.5 The Concept of Momentariness in Dinnaga (Logical School)


The final stage in the development of the theory of momentariness took place in a logical school of Buddhism founded by Dinnaga , which further developed in in such texts as Dharmak iriti, Santarasita, and Kamalas ila. This particular school, which is known as the Sautrantika-Vij nanavada or Sautrantika-Yogacara school, elevated the moments to the position of things in themselves or of ultimate realities (Skt, Paramatha sat) that are unique (Skt, Svalaksana) and that evade thought construction (Skt, Kalpanapodhum).

In the Sautrantika-Yogacara school of Dinnaga, the theory of momentariness reaches its final form. The whole epistemology and logic adopted by later Buddhist schools of thought correspond with this theory. Their basic principle was in the form of three theses, “Everything is transient and perishing (Anitya); everything is devoid of selfhood or substantiality (anatma) and everything is discrete and unique (Svalaksana).”  4.1.6 The Comparison of the Doctrine of Momentariness in Early Buddhist Schools

The Buddhist Schools The Main idea of each school about the theory of momentariness

1. Vaibhasika The Vaibhasikas also believe in the momentary nature of objects.

The Vaibhasikas believe that a moment is the amount of time during which a certain characteristic achieves its full operation. This is to say, the four forces viz. origination, decay, maintenance and destruction are applied to an object every moment.

2. Sautrantika The Sautrantikas denied the reality of the manifestation of the four forces in one single moment. According to Sautrantikas, three forces (excluding maintenance) refer to not to single moment, but to the series of many distinct moments.

The Sautrantika rejected the existence of dharmas in the three times, which they saw as necessarily implying the permanence of dharmas. The Sautrantikas accepted only the reality of the present time while the past time and the future time were considered as unreal and not real things at all. The Sautrantikas believe just two sub-moments of the arising and disappearance to every mind-moment.

3. Madhyamika The Madhyamikas rejected the theory of momentariness in its extreme sense as accepted by the Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas. In fact, The Madhyamikas criticized both the extremes-„eternalism’ as well as „momentariness’. However, their rejection of momentariness could not become an obstacle in the development of this theory, because they maintained that every separate object is illusive in nature. On the one hand they criticized the momentariness and on the other, they refuted the permanent nature of objects.

4. Yogacara The Yogacaras were also the upholders of momentariness because they explained the concept of Vij n ana as a stream of conscious moment (Ksana-Santana). The Yogacaras suggests a kind of consciousness called Alayavij nana in which the seeds of good and evil are deposited.

5. Dinnaga (Logical School) The Dinnaga represent the idea of a „thing-in-itself’ (Svalaksana} or a „moment’ as the ultimate truth and the knowledge of moment i.e., pure-sensation without any conceptual-construction as the only valid knowledge. The determinate knowledge which cognizes an object associated with name, class etc. is not a real one.


5. Conclusion


Momentariness is one of the most important doctrines of Buddhism. In this teaching, the Buddha expounded the basic principles of impermanence which when was combined with the causal law of „ Pralilyasamuipada' and non-soul theory matured into the concept of momentariness.

The theory of momentariness in its almost fully developed form can be found in the Dinnaga School of logic. The Dinnaga School propounded the concept of thing-in-itself (Skt, Svalaksana) as the ultimate reality, which gave a firm footing to the theory of momentariness. This concept attracted a great deal of criticism from the realists. The Sautrantikas accepted only the reality of the present time while the past time and the future time were considered as unreal and illusory.

The following statement summarize the principle doctrines of Sautrantika :

1. Sautrantika accepts the external objects (skt, Bahya-rtha) and the mind (the classification of Dharmas into 45).

2. Sautrantika provides the theory of momentariness (skt, ksanabhanguravada), they believed that the ultimate truth which functions was only in the present, the past has already ceased to exist and the future has not arisen yet. Everything is happening at the present time only.

3. Sautrantika accepts the theory of Self-apperception (skt, svasamvedana). Some of the early mainstream schools of Buddhism, such as the Sarvastivada and Sthaviranikaya, presume that this process of existence, although extreamly brief, could be differentiated into several specific moments. The Sarvastivada School assumed that events persisted through four moments (skt, ksana), or the four marks (skt, Caturalaksana), there were birth, subsistence, decay, and extinction.

4. In four philosophical schools, the concept of impermanence appeared in the form of momentariness. There it became a central issue which has been discussed and accepted by all of them in one way or other.

5. The Sautrantika are supposed to be the chief exponents of theory of Momentariness. They claimed that their theories are based directly on the saying of Buddha not upon the commentaries. This is a sufficient evident in favor of the view that the Buddha ctually meant momentariness of objects when he taught about impermanence. 

The Sarvastivada school posited that these marks were forces dissociated from thought which exerted real power over compounded objects which carrying an object along from one force to another, until the force “extinction” extinguishes. According to Sthaviranikaya, all mental events include three moments of origination (uppada), subsistence (thiti), and dissolution (bhanga), which together constitute the present. In the contrast with other school of thought, the Sautrantikas believed that the elements of all existence (All dharmas) are momentary (ksanika) appearance in the phenomenal world, which are disconnected in the space and not linked by any pervading substance. They are also disconnected in time or duration, since they last only single moment (ksana), a moment that include both its genesis and its destruction. The Sautrantikas assert that only in the single moments exist because all conditioned dharmas are inherently destined to be extinguished and that this annihilation occurs spontaneously and simultaneously with origination without the exertion of a specific force.

This theory of impermanence in the Buddha's teaching was developed into the form of the doctrine of momentariness by his disciples later. As a matter of the reality of the momentariness which follows from the principle of dependent origination. Whatever is born will also be declined and whatever may be declined cannot be thought to be permanent at all. That’s why everything is momentariness. Therefore the doctrine of momentariness goes further than the principle of the theory of the impermanence. It not only means that everything is impermanent, but according to this everything exists only for a moment.


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