A tenet of fundamental importance in Buddhist philosophy is anicca, usually translated into English as "impermanence." A spontaneous, direct realization of anicca is considered to be a main ingredient of liberating insight; and the ancient Pali texts have standardized the "spotless, immaculate vision of Dhamma" which is the first glimpse of enlightenment as "All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation." Clearly, this is an important truth to realize.
The Abhidhamma philosophy of Theravada Buddhism has interpreted this impermanence to mean that every conditioned entity in the universe exists for only about a trillionth of an eye-blink, i.e. less than a thousandth of a nanosecond. Thus whatever seems to last longer than this is really a series of individual entities flashing into and out of existence at unimaginably rapid speed. This idea has diffused out of Abhidhamma, and has come to be considered a mainstream tenet of Theravadin philosophy as a whole; and it has been cited as authoritative Buddhism by very reputable Western Dharma teachers, including Ram Dass.
However, this doctrine, if examined carefully, proves to be problematic.
One relatively obvious difficulty is that if everything blinks out of existence and then back into it again, we have something essentially arising from nothing. Let's say a particle A arises, then passes away, followed at the next moment by a corresponding particle B. Well, what is the cause for the arising of this particle B? Really, it can't be A, because A simply no longer exists. So B is arising from a nonexistent cause, which is the same as no cause at all. It arises literally from nothing. Theravada Buddhist philosophy does not endorse an einsteinian interpretation of time, accepting that the past still exists somehow; the past is dead and gone. Because of this interpretation of impermanence, all cause and effect becomes inexplicable. If the arising and passing away were interpreted as a pulsation, with particle A not entirely disappearing, or perhaps undergoing a kind of phase through this version of space and into another, or whatever, then the theory might be saved, but Abhidhamma doesn't interpret reality this way, and I have no idea how the Abhidhamma scholars explain this seemingly glaring glitch in the system. They may have some way of explaining it, but I've never heard what it is.
Another apparent difficulty in this idea of extremely rapid arising, passing away, arising, and passing away involves the fact that meditators are actually required to see this happening in order to fully realize impermanence, and thus to get that first taste of enlightenment. Once after spending several months practicing in a forest I met with a Burmese monk friend of mine, who asked me about my meditation. He listened with great interest to what I had been experiencing, and then asked, eagerly, "Did you see phyit-pyet?" (i.e. did I see the momentary arising and passing away of phenomena). When I told him I didn't even particularly want to see it, his reaction was something like "pffft," and he immediately lost interest. According to many Burmese, if you don't see phyit-pyet you can't amount to much of anything as a meditator. Sayadaw U Pandita of the Mahasi tradition has declared many times that one should not accept a Dhamma teacher who has not at least experienced udayabbaya ñāṇa, the insight into arising and passing away, interpreted as seeing this trillion-times-per-second process.
The trouble lies in how seeing this could even be possible. It is not only matter, but also one's own mind which arises and passes away in this manner, and consciousness cannot be aware of its own nonexistence. So when phenomena, both mind and matter, are in their nonexistent phase, the meditator, no matter how advanced, could not be aware of it. The nonexistent sub-moments would not be experienced at all, and the existent ones would blend together like the frames in a movie film projected on a screen.
I once spent a rains retreat at the same place as a Western monk who was a disciple of venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw, and who thus naturally took the Pah Auk method and Abhidhamma much more seriously than most; and we occasionally debated this issue of whether or not the mind's own nonexistence could be experienced. He stressed that the meditator does not experience it as it is happening, but "reviews" it afterwards. However, this would seem to require one of two things—either the meditator is remembering the past, or else he/she is seeing into the past clairvoyantly. But neither alternative seems to work, since one can't remember what one never experienced, and looking into the past, according to Abhidhamma, is impossible since the past is absolutely no longer existing, and one cannot see what is nonexistent. Again, I have no idea how the Abhidhamma scholars, let alone successful Pah Auk meditators, could explain their way through this apparent impasse, despite the odd fact that many meditators sincerely believe they have seen everything, including their own mind, arising and passing away. (Incidentally, we also occasionally debated whether or not it is possible to really experience physical matter; but that is material for a different blog post than this one.)
According to Abhidhamma, the mind arises and passes away at a rate seventeen times faster than does physical matter. For each moment of matter, a seventeen-stage mental process called citta-vīthi is claimed to occur. This process is also supposed to be observed by very advanced meditators; although this implies some more convoluted complications.
Orthodox dogma asserts that when nothing worth our while is occurring internally or externally, our mind is occupied by a kind of subconscious "test pattern" called bhavaṅga. This mental state remains exactly the same throughout a person's lifetime, and represents a single image, usually the last conscious perception that passed through one's mind in the previous life before the present "incarnation." Bhavaṅga, despite its seeming importance, is not discussed in the Suttas, but is mentioned only in the commentarial literature.
Anyway, a typical citta-vīthi would be something like the following: (1) Something, like a sensory object, arises to disturb the stream of bhavaṅga; (2) the bhavaṅga is then displaced, or "vibrates," although, of course, it would not have time really to vibrate within a single moment; (3) the stream of bhavaṅga is then cut off, leaving only the sensory object behind; (4) sensory consciousness is then directed toward the object; (5) sensory consciousness experiences the object, thereby initiating a "sense impression"; (6) consciousness "receives" the sensory object along with the sense impression in preparation for the next stage; (7) consciousness then investigates the object and the sense impression; (8) it then determines whether the object is good or bad; (9-15) this is followed by seven mind-moments of "conscious impulsion" (javana) which savor the sense impression; (16-17) which is then followed by two moments of "registering consciousness" in which the impression is fully registered in the mind. With the end of the second moment of registering consciousness the mind lapses back into the stream of bhavaṅga until another stimulus interrupts it. This would be a typical example of the process, although there are variations. Again, all of this should be observed by the meditator wishing to see ultimate reality.
However, it would seem that this would be impossible, even for a fully enlightened Buddha. For starters, one could not observe the seventeen-step process because it requires a complete seventeen-step process to perceive anything, including one of the seventeen steps. So by the time the very first step had been perceived, the other sixteen would no longer be existing to be observed.
Also, if one were observing one's own mental processes, the only step that could be an object of perception would presumably be the very last one, the second "registering consciousness." If one were telepathically observing the mind of someone else one might have the chance of seeing some of the internal steps in the process; but one still couldn't see them happening in sequence—and thus making a seventeen-step process out of it, not including all the bhavaṅgas, would require a great deal of inference and deduction, not direct observation.
The very fact that so many meditators sincerely believe that they have experienced this momentary arising and passing away of phenomena, including their own mental processes, is some fairly good evidence that much of what passes for deep meditative states (jhāna) in Theravada Buddhism is actually hypnotic trance, and the resultant "insight" merely the result of hypnotic suggestion. Not all insight is bogus of course, and not all jhāna either, but much of it is; and I would guess that most people who consider themselves to be ariyas, or Buddhist "saints" who have had at least a glimpse of Nibbāna, are mistaken. Especially if their tradition insists that they are required to see what is impossible, yet they manage to see it anyway.
If anyone can explain to me how Abhidhamma makes sense of all this I would be grateful, and will publish the clarification of the apparent paradoxes. I'm especially curious to find out how causation can happen at all if everything necessarily arises from nothing. The problem of how rebirth can occur instantaneously over long distances is rendered rather trivial when one realizes that contiguous causation from one moment to the next is equally inexplicable.
Personally, I suppose it might be better just to bear impermanence in mind according to the stock formula in the Suttas: All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation. Well said, and good enough.
Rare video footage of a submicroscopic masculinity-tron undergoing phase pulsation