Abhidhamma and the Impossibility of Motion

In Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's Abhidhamma Studies he presents an analysis of what I learned in Western Philosophy as the Chinese motion picture theory, namely that reality is composed of a series of static moments that create the appearance of motion.

The Greek Philosopher Zeno of Elea presented a refutation of the possibility of motion, based on a similar view of reality, stating that if an arrow had to pass through an infinite number of points to travel a fixed distance, spending some amount of time in each point, it could never reach its target as the time required would be infinite.
It has been suggested by some that this position was more of a refutation of the classical model of reality rather than an assessment of the impossibility of motion, as the theory is commonly known.

In the chapter "The Twofold Method of Abhidhamma Philosophy," Venerable presents a similar analysis.

"sequence in time appears to bare and qualified analysis like a cinema in which a great number of single static pictures are substituted quickly enough to produce in the spectator the effect of moving figures. This illustration, after Bergson, is very frequently used in literature, with or without the implication that, properly speaking, motion or change is illusory, or real to a lesser degree, while only the single static pictures, that is, self-identical physical and/or psychic (time) atoms, have genuine reality. But according to the Buddha the very reverse is true: change or flux is real, and the single static pictures (that is, individual atoms, etc.) are illusory."

If this simple reference to the discourses is not sufficiently convincing, take the following clarification:

"take a film of moving objects with the help of a mechanism called a camera, and thereby to dissect the continuous motion of the objects, might be compared to the perceptual activity of the mind that, by necessity, must fictitiously arrest the flux of phenomena in order to discriminate. But, as is the case of the camera, that function of dissecting is only an artificial device based on the peculiarity of our perceptual instruments; it is not found in the actual phenomena any more than in the moving objects converted into static pictures by the camera. These static pictures obtained by filming correspond to the static images or percepts, concepts or notions, resulting from the act of perceiving."

I find this helpful in understanding the notion of dhammas without falling into the trap of realism/atomism, which was my original (mis-)understanding of Abhidhamma theory.

PDF of the text available here.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Sarvastivada Atomism

Note that the Sarvastivada do avoid this paradox of the impossibility of motion through an atomistic view of time (see Lesson 7), rather than a concept of time as infinitely divisible.

This atomistic view of time seems to be necessary to support the view that past, present and future dharmas in fact exist, or is a result of such an atomistic view.

Any thoughts on which came first for the Sarvastivadins - an atomistic view of time or the assertion of real dharmas in the three times?