Buddhism and the life of a bacterium

Part two. Impermanence "anicca" and the experience of solidity

Buddhism and modern cognitive science
Buddhism and modern cognitive science
23 DEC 2015

Going back now to simple-minded biology and to the notion that organic life is such only because of the interaction of constituent parts.

An example of this last concept is offered by the following figure, which, in a very schematic form, represents human life in terms of its organs - liver, intestine, lungs, heart, kidney... they must form a harmonious, integrated system in order to provide life. When there is no more interaction and each organ stands alone by itself, this is the picture of death (fig. 1, 3). Death is fragmentation, life is integration.

The systems view puts emphasis on relations, more than on the objects. This is also this case for Buddhism, but in a more subtle sense here, which is well described by Pasqualotto (1997). This point is, that the term relation, or interaction, should not be seen as something that connects objects which are per se extant. In fact, each object is the “result” of the series of relations. Each “object” exists only in terms of the relation with the other objects, as it does not have an intrinsic, unconditioned reality.

This notion of the systems view is also comprehensive of the notion of emergence in the modern science of complexity: in a system composed by interacting parts, novel properties may arise, which are novel in the sense that they are not present in the single parts. As stated above in a different context, life is an emergent property. It arises in a cell, where there is the dynamic, active interaction of many components and is not present in the single components: lipids , proteins, and DNA taken alone, are not living things.

The concept of anatta also refers to the notion of self. In Buddhism there is no self as an independent, autonomous entity. What we call self is an aggregate of physical and emotional factors, which change continuously. It is a commodity to refer to a self or to “I” or mine in our everyday life, which is okay, as long as we recognize that it is illusory to consider the self as something un-conditioned. This contention aligns with the theory of cognition within the realm of modern cognitive sciences. The same can be said about consciousness: it is always conscious of something, so that even consciousness does not exist per se as as un-conditioned reality. Regarding the notion of consciousness, the agreement between the Buddhist view and modern cognitive science is still a matter of argument, because there is no clarity on this concept of consciousness within the spectrum of cognitive sciences.

Impermanence (anicca) and the experience of solidity

The Dhammapada, the Buddhist canon text, which is supposed to contain the words pronounced by Buddha himself, opens with a verse stating that all conditioned states (in addition of being without a self) are impermanent. This means, that all objects of observations are transitory and exist for only one moment. The length of this moment varies, but there is no doubt that all of what was born must eventually die, and more in a more general sense, whatever object or property we consider, will change and disappear. Again a phenomenological observation of the Buddha about life and one fundamental pillar of his teaching: impermanence, anicca in pali.

This brings the element of time into this discussion, which suggests that all things must be seen as transient phenomena. Everything moves and changes, a notion, which may go back to the famous panta rei of Heraclitus’ memory (a contemporary of Buddha, though in a quite different part of the world and in a quite different context), or even to the older Taoist I Ching, the Book of Changes.

All these movements give rise to “processes”, more than to “things.” Thus, the mind our thinking is a process, and each idea is a process. Going back to fig. 2, each compound exists for only a brief moment to be transformed into the next one. Thus, the life of the bacterium and also the life of any living organism, is itself a process whereby each constitutive element whether an organ, a cell or a reaction inside the cell - is an example of impermanence. As such, at each moment we have a conditioned state, which is no longer the previous one.

Buddhist literature is full of considerations on the notion of impermanence. The fundamental notion of time is behind the notion of impermanence so that all can be seen as a flow of becoming. In this moving river, the notion of “being” (the time of existence) is not opposite to the idea of becoming. What we consider “solid being” is something which lasts more than something else. All is relative in terms of time and solidity. The being of a rock lasts more than the being of a butterfly, the being of a star lasts more than the being of a rock. This all depicts the scenario of relativity of the time of existence or “the being” . The observer of this scenario is also in the flowing river.

Pasqualotto (1997) mentions that to find this concept of time in our western philosophy, one should wait until Hegel, and his discussion on eternity and the disappearing of time. Thus, in both Hegel and Buddhism, the only “eternal” thing is the flowing of time. How does this notion of impermanence fit with the modern view of the life of a cell? Indeed, it is time to go back to our fig. 2. However, in proceeding further, is better to simplifythe picture. This can be done with fig. 5, which simply shows the spherical cellular compartment (in cross section), the semipermeable membrane, and the internal metabolism in a cartoon- manner.

The cell is a place of continuous transformations, as we have seen from fig. 2, but despite this, during the homeostatic period (i.e., the period in which the organism, even if it reproduces itself, maintains its internal stability), a liver cell remains a liver cell and an amoeba remains an amoeba. The apparent contradiction between the many changes, and the continuity (solidity) of the given cell, is solved by the theory of auto-poiesis (Maturana and Varela, 1988) with the following phenomenological observation: the cell re-makes from within all what is being transformed away (at the expenses of nutrients and energy from the environment). This is the best definition of life in general. The cell always remains itself. The main activity of the cell is the self-maintenance, the effort of being and remaining itself.

How does this notion relate to the concept of impermanence? By now, it should be clear that the autopoietic view of life aligns with what we have being saying about the impermanence and flow of time. The cell metabolism, based on fig. 2, is an expression of impermanence, as each compound is continuously transformed away; so that the cell is in a way, due to this flux of changes, is always new and always itself at the same time.

Then, to this impermanence in the homeostatic period, the irreversible changes are due to aging-the arrow of time. This is on another time scale, so there are two or more levels of impermanence. The same can be said of course for the human life, for the elephant and for any living organism. Again, the true, general picture is Heraclitus’ panta rei, the continuous becoming.


In conclusion, it was noted at the beginning of this article, that the combination of Buddhism with the life of a bacterium was not as far-fetched as it seemed... The common ground between Buddhism and life of bacterium is given by the fact that Buddha’s teachings are based on phenomenological observations about life and nature. They are not brainy, theoretical ideas arising from an abstract view of the world. Buddha was a rational thinker, and the notion of anicca, anatta, the co-dependent arising, are the products of the practical reason looking at life. It is, therefore, no surprise that when we examine the question “what is life?” from a scientific point of view, we discover the same Buddhist principles.

In this “scientific” analysis some basic teachings of the real body of Buddhism are lost, or what’s more, cannot be elicited from fig. 1, 2, 3, 5. So it is that ethics is a basic pillar of Buddhism and any real Buddhist seeker is pervaded by simple but stringent moral guidelines, which include: respect for life in any of its form, and, as stated previously, compassion (feeling and sharing the sufferance of other people and all other living organisms). There are additional values and concepts, for example, the notion of Karma (a thought, or an action, which is thought to have a moral effect at a future time, even on the “following lives”); or the notion of reincarnation, which is present in several, but not all denominations of Buddhism.

Even if some of us do not easily accept the notion of reincarnation or karma, the quest for liberation from ignorance supported by moral laws, as given by Buddhism, is indeed a form of secular spirituality that is very consonant with the science background and is based on rational thinking and subjective introspection.

Read also the First part:


Capra, F., The Tao of Physics, Flamingo (Harper Collins publishers), 1976-1991
Capra. F., and Luisi, P.L., The systems view of Life, Cambridge University Press, 2014
Maturana, H., and Varela, F., The tree of knowledge, Shambala, 1998 (revised edition)
Pasqualotto, G., Illuminismo e illuminazione, Donzelli Editore, 1999
Von Bertalanffy, L., Teoria generale dei sistemi, Mondadori, 1971