Listening to a Stanza on Impermanence: Indian and Japanese Insights into a Buddhist Fundamental Doctrine

UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium with Yoshimizu Chizuko

Monday, September 20, 2004
3:30 PM - 5:00 PM
Royce 243
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Yoshimizu Chizuko
Professor, Tsukuba University, Japan

The Buddhist doctrine that all beings are exclusively impermanent has been very familiar to the Japanese since the middle ages at the latest. This doctrine of impermanence penetrated into the society of medieval Japan, matching up with the feeling of the uncertainty of life in wartime, and has descended to the present day through literatures such as poems, diaries, novels, and epics. The Sanskrit word anitya or the Pali anicca sounds me to overlap our familiar concept of mujo. But, studying Indian Buddhism I gradually come to notice a difference between Indian and Japanese articulations of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. In our tradition, this Buddhist notion gained wide acceptance mainly through non-philosophical and non-religious literature. Poets and novelists articulate Buddhist thought, while Buddhist monks often engaged in non-religious compositions too. In contrast, we seldom encounter any eloquent description of impermanence in Indian non-religious literature. It was mainly a religious or philosophical subject in the Indian cultural tradition. Hence, it necessarily expresses itself without literary embroidery. For early Buddhists, it was nothing other than the stern reality of life, which one has to confront and overcome. With the development of philosophical systems in India, inquiries into the doctrine of impermanence began to assume a metaphysical character. The Impermanence of all existents became not only the object of meditation in religious praxis, but also the object of logical reasoning. Whether all existents are permanent or impermanent has been one of the most controversial problems for Indian philosophers as well as one of the most popular theses in Indian logic since its very early stage.

Despite this difference in the articulation of impermanence, Japanese Buddhists no doubt reached a deep understanding of this doctrine and adapted it to their own culture. In fact, the medieval Japanese conception of impermanence is close to that of early Indian Buddhists, which is represented in the stanza on impermanence in the oldest canonical literature: "All conditionings are impermanent; they are of the nature of arising and perishing. Having arisen, they cease. Bliss is their being calm." This stanza greatly inspired Japanese Buddhists, too. Referring mainly to such Japanese literature as the Tale of Heike, the Iroha Song and Dogen's Shobogenzo, I compare their thought of impermanence with that of Indian Buddhists and try to illustrate their characters.


This event is free and open to the public. Parking is available at UCLA for $7. For a detailed map of the campus, including parking lots and kiosks, please visit:

Sponsor(s): Center for Buddhist Studies, Asia Institute

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