Time and Buddhism

According to the most common interpretation of the data the current age of our universe is roughly 14 billion years. In physics this would be a long time. For a Buddhist it would be a hypothetical moment in eternity. The unit of time separating the birth and death of a universe would be a kalpa, and Buddhists commonly speak of kalpas more numerous than the sands of the Ganges.

It is nothing new to speak of eternity. But the Buddha asks us to live in it, to be aware of it, to understand it, to see time in its entirety. It is not so difficult to imagine that in principle, given some practice and a bit of imagination, our world-view, our sense of the scale of eternity and infinity, could expand to encompass a continuity of many universe, even though it is quite difficult to see the beginning of just this one as a recent event. But time in its entirety? How could this be possible?

It would be possible, so it is explained, because time would be a relative phenomenon, not independently or truly real. The study of time belongs to mysticism and metaphysics. Both conclude that that time is unreal, a relative phenomenon, a relationship between unreal phenomena, the former on the basis of direct experience, the latter as an outcome of logical analysis.

When we assume that time is truly real it becomes an incomprehensible metaphysical paradox. This seems to be what Zeno of Alea was trying to tell us, and perhaps also his master Parmenides. By contrast, if time is a psychological phenomenon then there is the logical possibility that we can understand how the trick of time is performed. This is because there must be at least one real phenomenon in a fundamental theory, and if time is not real then in principle this real phenomenon may be able to stand outside of time and see it for what it really is, be fully aware of its unreality.

The Buddha frowned on an excessive interest in such metaphysical questions as time, and he is not alone. ‘Man may partake of the Perpetual’, says Jan-I-Janan in a saying from the wisdom literature of the Khwajagan,‘He does not do this by thinking he can think about it’. Nevertheless, as we would expect if their teachings are correct, their view of time is the only one that works in metaphysics.

So what would it mean for time, for our everyday experience of time passing us by, if it were possible for us, or some part of us, to stand aside from time in stillness, take no part in it and see it for what it is? This would have to be an ineffable experience and there would be little point in us asking. It is said that with practice the birth of the universe will come to seem like yesterday, and an arbitrary number of universes might seem like no time at all.

We may believe that the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of time and space, and of all those who teach the same thing, are fictional. Regardless, it is a fascinating feature of the perennial philosophy that it asks us to look at things from so completely and utterly outside of the box.

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2 Responses to Time and Buddhism

  1. I’m really fascinating by your brief hint concerning Zeno’s Paradox; it is all too easy to forget, given modern academia’s bizarre literalism, that such things as “thought experiments” were integral to the lived philosophy of the greatest minds of the Hellenized world. It seems more than reasonable to me that, rather than being an attempt at an air-tight proof, Zeno’s Paradox was more an effort to point out the very real problem of considering time as distinct dimension capable of discrete measurement.

    Your overall point is well taken. Even for those metaphysical standpoints which consider the manifest universe to be in some sense real — such as the Vedic darshanas of Samkhya, Vaisheshika, and Nyaya, not to mention modern physics of both the “relativistic” and “quantum” varieties — time remains, at most, relative and always seems to be book-ended by Eternity.

  2. Guymax says:

    Thank you for an interesting comment. I very much like your blog by the way, and it will appear sooner or later on my recommended links list.

    I’m not sure I quite agree about Zeno since I think he was after an air-tight proof, but your view seems just as valid. Either way, he draws our attention to the paradoxical nature of our usual view of time and time-dependent phenomena. .

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