Time and temporality--A Buddhist approach

Kenneth K. Inada
Philosophy East and West 24, no. 2, APRIL 1974.
(c) by The University Press of Hawaii
p.171-179


. p.171 This article may create more problems rather than settling the question of time and temporality. And if it does, it only points to the fact that these concepts have not been systematically treated in Buddhism proper or have not been the central issues around which schools have developed. There is a tendency, to be sure, to downgrade these concepts as "not conducive to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment-nirvaa.na," or to treat them cursorily, in a very indirect way, which leaves the reader in suspense or puzzlement. I hope, of course, to present an approach which is consistent or coherent with the fundamental structure of Buddhist doctrines.(1) Thus I have come here to learn just as much as you have come to question. I believe it is generally safe to say that Buddhism falls within the category of process, philosophies since one of its cardinal principles is impermanence (anicca/anitya). Any and every item will have to be accounted for within this context. Yet, as we all know, explaining or describing the tenets of a process philosophy is nearly an impossible task, leaving so much unsaid or unattended that we are left in a general state of vagueness, if not doubt. It must be noted that in process philosophy the primary problem is to perceive the process and its elements in the proper order and relation. Methodologically speaking, although we can distinguish between the dynamic and the static aspects, in the final analysis (speaking from the standpoint of concrete actuality), the seemingly static elements must be viewed within the dynamic nature of things. This is the predicament we face over and over again. Now, the concepts of time and temporality have come to us as a real challenge to view the dynamic nature of Buddhist reality, for they will show up that predicament very plainly and, hopefully, lead us the way to its resolution and to Buddhist reality. The whole of Buddhist thought is permeated with the notion that life is transitory, not only in the fact that life terminates in death, but, more philosophically, that between birth and death we live in momentariness. This is the theory known as kha.na-vaada/k.sa.na-vaada. Life is a series of experiential moments, each one unique but each is so infinitesimally small that except by a method of abstraction and by hypostatization the ordinary mind is unable to conceive it. A Buddhist sutta, A^nguttara-Nikaaya, asserts as follows "Arising (uppaada) is revealed, duration (.thita) is revealed, and dissolution (bhanga) is revealed. These are the three marks of the compounding nature of things (sa^nkhaata)."(2) The assertion points at several things: (1) The experiential process is a compounding phenomenon. Many factors or elements are involved in the so- p.172 called creative process. (2) The moment of existence or an experiential event can be referred to or inferred by way of the three characteristics. (3) The three characteristics are revealed after the moment has "transpired," that is, after the compounding phenomenon becomes a fact. They are characteristics or afterglows of the moment, so to speak. Thus they are not the moment per se but visible markers of the moment for our reference. (4) It points to the fact that a compounded phenomenon or a moment of existence is smaller than the conscious moment. Thus it would take more than the conscious mind to "grasp" the moment. We are not normally oriented to this type of fractional dimension in the nature of a moment of existence. For the most part, we uncritically accept the condition that the mind, the conscious mind, can only function from the standpoint of temporal parallelism, that is, a parallelism that exists between a mental phenomenon and a perceptual phenomenon. An extension of this is, perhaps, the isomorphic theory of perception. When we become conscious of an object we tend to conclude that perception had been a simple and singular event. We normally do not consider the nature of continuity of the experiential process in ways which do justice to the manifold of overt as well as covert factors in function. The life process, after all, goes on incessantly whether or not we are conscious of an object. The process never takes a holiday although consciousness does. The Buddhist has a term for the basic life-continuum, bhava^nga. It is the interminable force of being until physical dissolution occurs. Thus, consciousness rises and subsides in bhava^nga, either when the doors of perception (five sense organs) are opened and various forms develop "internally" and continue on to the conscious mind or when the mind arouses itself in activity, for example, by recollection or by dreaming. In consequence, the mind is just another faculty, like other sense faculties, and it is never really aloof from or transcendent of the experiential process. Indeed, it plays a vital role in the whole process. Naturally, I do not mean to deny the mind its abstractive function and thereby to reject any so-called power over certain activities we are engaged in. We loosely call this power "transcendence." The Buddhist would have no problem at all in accepting or incorporating the conventional way in which we speak of time, that is, in terms of the three temporal periods--past, present, and future (atiita paccuppanna anaagata). It is the function of the mind, after all, to conceive of time in that order or indeed to give order to the nature of things. Thus, whether it is simple clock time, physical time (measurement of movements) , or psychological time, the mind knows or senses time because of the abstractive quality. And to this extent, time is conventional (papo~nca/prapa~nca) but very useful. Now, the Buddhist would take the abstractive or conventional nature of time for what it is. It aids one to speak about or to analyze events that p.173 we assign to the past, present, or future. There is no difficulty here. However, the Buddhist would be quick to reply that a problem arises when one gives a strict topological nature to time and manipulates it as such in the experiential process. The neat division into past, present, and future (or earlier, simultaneous, and later) is a mental construction, a fiction as well as a hindrance, in the final analysis, when it comes to grasping the dynamic nature of being as kha.na-vaada. The three periods are not distinct and different entities however hard one may try to make them out to be so. This is the argument used by Naagaarjuna (2-3 A.D.) to reject the opponent's stand on the hypostatization of the three temporal periods. For him the three moments or periods are mutually influencing terms both on the abstractive and concrete level of things-abstractive in the sense that all three are mental constructs which mutually supplement each other's descriptive nature and concrete in the sense that the experiential process involves a continuum of being which includes all three as a unique interlocking phenomenon. The past (immediate or remote in certain instances) is in the present, just as the future (immediate or remote in certain instances) will be in the present. But the present is not simply a transference of content from the past, nor is it simply a stepping stone to the future. The present does not only have a linear connection or relationship with the past and future but multiple factoral relations and conditions in its own making on the vertical scale. Naagaarjuna spoke for all Buddhists, both Mahaayaana and Theravaada I believe, when he resolved all objectifiable elements in the unique experiential process termed pratiityasamutpaada/pa.ticcasamuppaada , translated as dependent` or relational-origination. The objectifiable elements refer to the abstract or concrete entities, as the case may be, which the mind creates and to which it assigns certain realities or objective contents. These are in the realm of conventional nature, as stated earlier, and thus rightly constitute the realm of relative truths (sa.mu.rti-satya). But in truth, we do live greatly in the realm of relative truths because it is the realm of the visible, the tangible, the manipulatable, the empirical. Yet, the Buddhist would remind us not to rely too heavily on the relative, that the relative is not the only realm of existence; indeed, the relative must seek its raison d'etre in a wider, purer, nonobjectifiable realm. This is in reference to the supreme realm of truth (paramaarthasatya), the goal of all Buddhists. We shall have to concentrate on the concept of relational-origination, but before doing so let me pause to summarize that, from the Buddhist stand- point, experiential events do not take place or flow in time. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that events flow as time, thus denying any primacy to an absolute status of time. If time is understood in this way, we are able to appreciate the deeper dimensions of being because now we must focus on the process itself, the becomingness of being. Here the sister concept of p.174 temporality seems to appear almost naturally. Temporality at least moves us in the right direction and seems to permit us to have glimpses of what the Buddhist calls reality. It has a profound meaning in that it runs across but retains or contains the multiple set of conditions and factors at play in the experiential process. It is intimately tied up with the concept of relationalorigination. It is significant to note that relational-origination is a hyphenated term. It depicts a total arising or origination (sam-uppaada) within the matrix of a complex of relations or conditions (pa.ticca/pratiitya) . The complex of relations, more specifically, refers to the term, paccaya/pratyaya, which may differ in numerical accounting with respect to the different Buddhist schools, (3) but, essentially, it describes the multifaceted, multirelational factors and conditions involved in the development of the experiential process. While these factors seem to be graphic structural descriptions of the process, it should be emphasized that they are vital factors in the "internal" ontological development of the process or even of consciousness itself. Again, we are dealing with a microscopic process, infinitely smaller than the process of conscious play. As a matter of fact, we are dealing with so-called preconscious units of movement. It is interesting to note that the Abhidhamma claims that the duration of thought is one-sixteenth of the duration of a moment of matter.(4) Yet, however fractional the thought duration is said to be, the conscious mind with thought as the goal takes seven units of movement to mature or fruit from the initial opening of the sense doors.(5) In these microscopic processes, the various paccayas are operative; for example, in a simple perception of an object, there are the objective relation (dramma.na-paccaya), the proximate relation (anantara-p.), contiguous relation (samanantara-p.), antecedent relation (purejaata-p.) , consequent relation (pacchadjaata-p.) , resultant relation (vipaaka-p.) , etc.--all minutely describing the "internal" development that leads to consciousness or, as the case may be, it may not lead to consciousness. In other words, perceptual forms (rape) are involved from the moment the eye organ is in contact with the outside realm of object and on to the consciousness of the object. Although these factoral or relational movements take place very rapidly, still, it is possible to speak of preconscious (not particularly subconscious) developments. Incidentally, the relations are directed, ultimately, to the understanding and fulfillment of the way to the enlightened state. This would involve analysis of the elements within the meditative exercise or discipline, but that is another technical accounting for another time. In sum, the paccayas amplify the conditions involved in the experiential process called relational-origination. As such, there is no simple but are invariably complex occurrences. There are successive events, to be sure, but they do not follow p.175 one another in a trainlike procession. The events themselves cannot be broken up into separate or disparate entities simply because there is nothing that separates or isolates them into clear and distinct realms. In fact, the rapidity of the events in the nature of interlocking phenomenon prevents one from holding such a view, although it is common practice to look upon these events as separable for our own view, understanding, guidance, and anticipatory action. From the Buddhist standpoint, as seen earlier, any arbitrary separation is in the nature of abstraction and therefore relegated to the conventional nature of truth. Thus, the uniqueness of experiential events does not lie in the separable and independent nature but rather lies in the truly dynamically dependent nature of things. To use an old metaphor, events are taking place like waves in the vast ocean. In mid-ocean the myriad waves are appearing and disappearing as if each is independent of each other but in truth there are many factors and conditions at play which make it possible for each wave to appear and disappear thus and so. Such is also the nature of the rise and subsidence of consciousness. All this goes to show that relational-origination is a conditioning or compounding phenomenon; it is exhibiting the complex but unique way in which an experiential event transpires. Most of us fail to fathom its meaning, much the less its actual occurrence, because we are caught up in the elements of convention. We do not perceive the rise or subsidence of events properly because we are in a bind with the elements, though unconsciously for the most part. But it is heartening at least to know that despite the conventionality of things the life-continuum moves on as usual. Herein lies the truth of existence and perhaps the way out. There is a famous Buddhist saying, "He who discerns relational-origination discerns the Dhamma (Buddhist Truth), and he who discerns the Dhamma discerns relational-origination."(6) If I read the saying correctly, it is asserting that we who are conventionally caught up in the elements of the process of relational-origination, though unknowingly, can still perceive the Buddhist nature of reality within that self-same process. In other words, the path to the enlightened realm is always open; it is never closed. In fact, the closure is of one's own making. That is to say, various types of hindrances or obstacles are created over a period of time and these become parts of one's experiential process. For example, there are obstacles that arise based on the three basic "ills," that is, greed (raaga), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha), or based on the four "overpowering forces," that is, forced being (bhava), wrong or dogmatic view (di.t.thi), sensuality (kaama), and general ignorance (avijjaa). One is usually influenced by any or all of the above grounds of forced living, from which it becomes increasingly difficult to disengage oneself as time goes on, if one p.176 remains unmindful. So, in the Socratic manner, the worst type of ignoramus is the one who does not admit his ignorance. Only the Buddhist would make certain that the nature of ignorance has another dimension, a dimension which has to do with the ontological nature of the experiential process, that is, so long as one's experiential process does not take into consideration all the factors involved the ignorant status remains. The experiential process is an inclusive total process, one that includes the epistemological realm. Thus even the domain of reason must be subsumed under the larger context of experience. We all readily admit this much, but our experiential data are by and large controlled and influenced by what reason assigns. The concept of relational-origination depicts the dynamic coming together or a gathering of the factoral conditions into a whole, that is, a becoming of an event. It is the real concrete nature of the experiential process "seen" long enough before it moves on to the next coming together process. In a sense, we may say that a single relational-origination "takes time" for its fruition but not in the usual sense of the phrase. I believe the Buddhist would use the term, samaya, to describe the temporal nature of that single process.(7) This term presents a temporal dimension or temporality to the reality of experience. Perhaps, we may say that Buddhist temporality means a kind of "arresting to see" phenomenon of the experiential process. We are all in the process and yet we do not "see clearly" because we are in bind with the elements of the three basic "ills," the four "overpowering forces," general defilements (kilesa/kle'sa) , etc.--all of which compel us to repeat or engage ourselves in the conventional conditioned ("veiled") realm of existence. This is in general called sa.msaara, the famous spinning of the Wheel of Life or Birth-Death Cycle of Being. As long as we force the wheel to spin, we cannot see, much less realize, the enlightened path and realm. As all Buddhists know, the realms of sa.msaara and nibbaana/nirvaa.na are not mutually distinct and exclusive. Their realms of function are coterminous. we find this idea clearly expressed in the thoughts of such Buddhists as Naagaarjuna and Buddhaghosa (5 A.D.), that is, that relational-origination functions equally in both the samsaaric and nibbaanic realms. If it did not, then nibbaana would be a mysterious concept, a never to be realized realm of existence; it would be a fiction, a myth, a castle-in-the-sky concept. But as Buddhist doctrines are empirically grounded, at least the fundamental ones, the nibbaana content must find its source or basis accordingly. At this point, the logical question is, what makes it possible for relational) origination to span both realms? Or, how could the two realms have the same basis of being? We have arrived at the crux of Buddhist experience or reality. Naagaarjuna, for example, says that it is because of suuyataa (voidness) that everything is possible.(8) By this remark he means, if I read him correctly, that the experiential process with all its contents or elements is p.177 held together in virtue of 'suunyataa as a kind of "voidal being," or, from another standpoint, that 'suunyataa is the basis of the undifferentiated nature which gives substance to the differentiations. Thus, 'suunyataa is a supreme experience of ontological togetherness. It holds our experiences together because it is not limited to the differentiated (conventionalized) realm. It is the "substance" with which one "ferries" oneself to the other shore, so to speak. Buddhaghosa, coming a few centuries later, asserts in a similar vein that relational-origination ("The Wheel of Becoming") reveals no known beginning, no maker, no experiencer; it is void (su~n~na) with a twelvefold voidness (that is, reference to the sense faculties and the sense objects, including the mind and its objects) and spins on and on.(9) Again, we note the central role of 'suunyata ("voidness") in the ordinary experiential process. 'Suunyataa is what makes the two realms coexistent, not side by side, but as two sides of the same reality. Thus relational-origination spans the sa.msaaric and nibbaanic realms, because it is in essence a voidal, undifferentiated process.(10) I venture to say then that relational-origination, in its unique sense of voidness, refers to a Buddhist notion of temporality. In this sense, temporality is that experience which is coterminous with the reality of things as they are. It is to catch the Wheel of Becoming as it really is. Perhaps, Buddhist temporality is just another bridge-concept in amplifying the tenets of meditative discipline, for one of the most important steps in samaadhi (concentration) is the development of the state of rest (samatha) or tranquillity (passaddhi). As I see it, rest or tranquillity must somehow be relatable to the concept of temporality. The achievement of rest is necessary for one to perceive things in their proper.natures, that is, within the process of relational-origination Temporality offers a dimension of rest, a coolness of being, to our experiential process. It is a way of being with the life-continuum, comprehending it in its natural flow, and living in the unhindered heightened sense. Temporality is "lived time" and from which the sense of the eternal issues forth.(11) CONCLUSION In the preceding brief discussion I have attempted to present a single approach in order to focus on the question of time and temporality. I have shown that the concept of time (kaala) is a general concept which is used in the ordinary conventional sense, such as, variations of clock time or the psychological nature of time. However, this usage is really an abstraction and a limitation, without the unsuspecting mind really knowing. Thus the Buddhist would not place much emphasis on this type of time since it is not conducive to the development of the path of enlightenment. As a consequence, in discussing the Buddhist concept of reality or experience, we turned to the concept of temporality to give us a fuller accounting of our experiential pro- p.178 cess. That process was analyzed to be relational-origination (pa.ticcasamuppaada), which in its essential way reflects the nature of temporality (samoya) , the coming together of an event. Temporality is, in a sense, the fruition of a wave in the ocean. It clearly describes a durational moment or rest to exhibit itself, but it also has the nature of voidness ('suunyataa), which permits a wave to rise and subside in the waters. The experiential events are then never separate or discrete for the experiencer always describes his own lifecontinuum, his own wheel of becoming, within the matrix of totality. Temporality becomes an important ingredient in the Wheel of Becoming because it expresses that capture of rest which not only gives an eternal flavor to becomingness but an overview on the course of things. _____________________________________________________ 1. I view late Buddhist developments, especially in the Mahaayaana, as only expansions or extensions of the fundamental thought of Buddhism and not a deviation in any drastic sense. If some do appear deviant, for example in tantric or esoteric types, they were so in terms of differing times and circumstances, but the basic thoughts wee "secretly" guarded all along. 2. I, 152 (PTS trans., Cradual Sayings, I:135). It is interesting to note that the same paragraph goes on to say cryptically that the three marks are not revealed. 3. The Abhidhamma philosophy offers twenty-four types of paccayas which an later abstracted into four principal ones:aaramma.na-paccaya (objective relation a condition), upanissaya-p. (sufficing relation) , kamma-p. (actional relation), and otthi-p. (presence relation). The Sarvaastivaada, on the other hand, introduces the ten relational "causes," six of which are more causal in nature (kaara.na-hetu, sahabhuu-h., sabhaaga-h., samprayukta-h., sarvairaga-h, and vipaaka-h.) and four more relational in nature (hatu-pratyaya, samanantara-p., alambana-p., and adhipoti-p.). While the first six are new, the last four are identical with four of the Abhidhamma's poccayas. 4. E.R. Sarathchandra, Buddhist Psychology of Perception (Colombo: The Ceylon University Press, 1958) , p.43. Cf. also Nyanaponika Thera, Abhidhamma Studies (Kandy, Ceylon: Buddhist Publication Society, 1965), p. 112. Shwe Zan Aung, in his introductory essay to the Compendium of Philosophy (London: Luzac & Co., 1972), p. 26, says: 'The Buddhists have cane to speak of matter as lasting for seventeen thought moments." 5. Op. cit., Compendium of Philosophy, pp. 27-30. 6. Majjhima-Nikaaya: I, 191. (PTS trans., The Middle Length Sayings. I:236-237. 7. Samaya is to be distinguished from the term, kaala, which describes the general or conventional nature of time. Samaya is closer to the actual becoming nature of being because it gives the sense of gathering coming together, arising, a kind of "durational passage." 8. Muulomadhyamakakaarikaa, XXIV, 14. 9. Visuddhimagga, XVII, 273. 10. This voidal undifferentiated process is "greater" and "wider" in dimension than the differentiated realm of existence. Therefore, it is accommodative or inclusive of the latter. In a sense, the undifferentiated is the unlimited a nonconfining realm. Time does not permit me to develop further the interplay or interfusion of the two realms, but suffice it to say that the Hua-yen School in China handled the situation beautifully in the concept of dharmadhaatu. Its treatment of the nonobstructiveness of the ten periods of time is an extension of the above concept. 11. Doogen Zenji (1200-1253), the great Sootoo Zen master, made the following observations: "Temporality (uji) means that time is existence and existence time" "As different entities do not obstruct one another, so do different moments not obstruct one another." "Passage (experiential process) is like spring with all its manifestations, i.e., spring p.179 comes to pass without any external elements intervening." [Shobogenzo Chapter on Uji (Tamporality or Temporal Reality) , passim. Shobogenzo Chuukai Zensho, 11:1-66 (Tokyo: Mugs Sanboo 1912)]. Dogen's thoughts seem to be a crystallization of Hua-yen philosophy which was touched upon lightly in footnote 10. However, to sum up and amplify his words, we might assert: "Flowers do net bloom in the spring. Flowers in) bloom are spring!"