Over lunch one day the Buddhist claim that all is impermanent came up for discussion. Let’s see how plausible this claim of impermanence is when interpreted to mean that everything is always continuously changing in every respect. We need to ask four questions. Does everything change? Do the things that change always change? Do the things that always change continuously change? Do the things that change change in every respect?
Here is an even better example. Consider the proposition P expressed by ‘Everything changes.’ P is either true or false. If P is true, then both P and its truth-value change, which is a curiously self-defeating result: surely, those who preach that all is impermanent intend to say something about the invariant structure of the world and/or our experience of the world. Their intention is not to say that all is impermanent now, but if you just wait long enough some permanent things will emerge later. Clearly, P is intended by its adherents as changelessly true, as laying bare one of the essential marks of all that exists. But then P’s truth entails its own falsity. On the other hand, if P is false, then it is false. Therefore, necessarily, P is false. It follows that the negation of P is necessarily true. Hence it is necessarily true that some things do not change. The structure of the (samsaric) world does not change.
2. Do the things that change always change? I take ‘always’ to mean ‘at every time.’ Clearly, not everything subject to change is changing at every time. The number of planets in our solar system, for example, though subject to change, is obviously not changing at every time. The position of my chair, to take a second example, is subject to change but is obviously not changing at every time, or at least not relative to the other things in my study.
4. Do the things that change change in every respect? No; consider the erosion of a mountainside. Erosion of a mountainside is a change that is occurring at every time, and presumably continuously; but there are properties in respect of which the mountainside cannot change if there is to be the change called erosion, for instance, the property of being a mountainside. Without something that remains the same, there cannot be change. There cannot be erosion unless something erodes. Alterational change requires a substrate of change which, because it is the substrate of change, precisely does not change. There is no alterational change without unchange. Hence if change is all-pervasive, in the sense that every aspect of a thing changes when a change occurs in the thing, then there is no change. Compare Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 277.
In sum, I have given reasons to believe that (i) some things are unchangeable; (ii) among the things that are changeable, some are merely subject to change and not always changing; (iii) among the things that are always changing, only some are continuously changing; and (iv) there is no (alterational as opposed to existential) change without unchange.
Therefore, those who lay great stress on the impermanence of the world and our experience of it need to balance their assertion by proper attention to the modes of permanence. For example, if we are told that everything is subject to change, does not the very sense of this assertion require that there be something that does not change, namely the ontological structure of (samsaric) entities? And if a thing is changing, how could that be the case if no aspect of the thing is unchanging? Furthermore, how could one become attached to something that was always changing? Attachment presupposes relative stability in the object of attachment. Jack is attached to Jill because her curvacity and cheerfulness, say, are relatively unchanging features of her. If she were nothing but change 'all the way down,' then there would be nothing for Jack's desire to get a grip on. But without desire and attachment, no suffering, and no need for a technology of release from suffering.
It is a mistake to think that change is all-pervasive. So those who maintain that all is impermanent need to tell us exactly what they mean by this and how they arrived at it. Is it not onesided and unphilosophical to focus on impermanence while ignoring permanence?
If all being is pure becoming, then there is no being -- and no becoming either.