On Buddhist views of devouring time

John M. Koller
Philosophy East and West 24, no. 2, April 1974.
(c) by The University Press of Hawaii
p.201-208


. p.201 In thinking about Buddhist views of time and temporality it is important to remember that Buddhism is essentially a practical quest aimed at overcoming dukkha and not a system or set of systems of metaphysics. In the Majjhima Nikaaya, Sutta 63, the Buddha responds to Maalu.nkyaaputta's request for metaphysical theories with the parable of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow, drawing the conclusion that constructing metaphysical systems is not the way to overcome dukkha. Referring to his refusal to engage in the metaphysical speculation necessary to answer Maalu.nkyaaputta's questions about the eternality or finitude of the world, relation between the body and soul, and the possibility of life after death, the Buddha says, "And why, Maalunkyaaputta, have I not elucidated thus? Because Maalunkyaaputta, this profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor tends to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and nirvana; therefore have I not elucidated it?"(1) Further, in Sutta 72 of the Majjhima Nikaaya, Vaccha, a wandering ascetic, tries to get the Buddha to commit himself to a metaphysical position on these same questions and is told, with respect to each of the suggested metaphysical theories, that the theory "... is a jungle, a wilderness, a puppet-show, a writhing, and a fetter, and is coupled with misery, ruin, despair, and agony, and does not tend to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom and nirvana."(2) This point, that not only is metaphysics merely useless but that it is actually harmful to the quest for nirvaa.na, made so forcefully by the Buddha in these discourses needs to be kept in mind when discussing Buddhist views of time and temporality, for, as I shall maintain, time is a theoretical construct to explain temporal becoming, and therefore is itself a metaphysical view,the elaboration of which was implicitly discouraged in Buddhism by the Buddha himself. To the extent this negative attitude toward metaphysics was characteristic of Buddhism, one would not expect to find an elaborate metaphysics of time. By the same reasoning, when metaphysical theories were put forth-such as the views of Dharmatraata, Gho.saka, Buddadeva, and Vasumitra examined by McDermott-one is not surprised to find other Buddhist philosophers such as Saantarak.sita and Kamalasila issuing sharp rejoinders, which as McDermott points out, charge these Sarvaastivaadins with having embraced the total existence of everything in a changeless, timeless moment as a result of having taken the dharmas of analysis to be ontological existents. This is the root of their "everything-exists theory" (the literal meaning of sarvaastivaada), and having made this mistake they as exemplified by Dharmatraata--try to account for temporal becoming in terms of changing appearances. But having p.202 already effectively denied change by postulating unchanging being as the basic reality, they get not real, but only apparent, becoming. In effect, they have denied temporal becoming. Now, since the implicit rejection of temporal becoming found in Sarvaastivaada is obviously at odds with the Buddhist emphasis on becoming and cannot be squared with the centrality of the principle expressing the inner connectedness of temporal becoming, known as pratiitiyasamutpaada within Buddhism, it is considered an erroneous view by Sautraantikas, Yogaacaarins, and Maadhymikas. To come to grips with the question of whether or not the Sarvaastivaadins have a mistaken view of time and becoming requires an analysis of these concepts. In the following paragraphs I will develop an analysis of time and temporal becoming which I do not wish to attribute to any historical person or school, but which I feel squares with the already mentioned Buddhist aversion to metaphysics and also with the importance attached to a process or becoming view of existence and the centrality of pratityasamutpaada. If the account seems inspired by Naagaarjuna, I admit such inspiration, but this is not the place to argue the historical question of Naagaarjuna's views on the subject, though I will suggest later that the thrust of this analysis is not at odds with Naagaarjuna's views. Time is generally understood to have something to do with change, as evident in the common view that changes take place in time. In fact, it has been a historical commonplace to move from the view that changes take place in time to the view that time is a container of changing entities. This, in turn, has led to questions concerning the kind of thing this container is, and whether or not this thing is itself contained by a prior time. As has been done historically-in both East and West--one can continue to generate not only an unlimited number of times as containers for previous times but also a host of philosophical problems in trying to account for the natures of these times, and the relationships between these various times, on the one hand, and between any of these times and changing reality, on the other. However, this is a well-known story to anyone familiar with the history of philosophy, and if, as I believe most Buddhist philosophers do, you view the various historical attempts to take time to be part of the ontological furniture of the universe as a mistake, then the important thing is to see the genesis of this mistake. If we begin with the common view that changes take place in time and that therefore time is, in some sense, a container of change, it is the innocentsounding phrase "changes take place in time" that we must examine first. The phrase suggests that there are two things---change and time. But as soon as one reflects that the concept of change already involves the notion of time in some sense-- for change logically involves succession, which is a time-laden concept--it is obvious that either the concept of time is already contained in the concept of change as a logical feature or part--in which case there is a p.203 redundancy in saying that changes take place in time, or else the "time" implicit in change is different than the "time" in which changes take place. If the "time" in which changes occur is the same "time" that is implicit in the concept of change and if that is the only concept of change recognized, it would seem that to take time as a container of change is a mistake. The source of the mistake is the entification of the conceptual elements present in the elucidation of change: The mistake consists in assigning ontological \ status to features of conceptual construction. On this account it might be said that although change is real, time is not. This, however, is misleading for it suggests that time is understood to be something more than the experienced succession in temporal becoming. If, on the other hand, at least two different senses of time are recognized--one the temporal becoming or succession involved in change, and the other, the container in which temporal becoming takes place--one is faced with the problem of relationship between these two supposedly different but related temporal concepts. Again, either one or both of these "times" might be thought to be fundamental ontological entities, or else features of the-conceptual ordering of experience. In working toward a resolution of these issues it might be worthwhile to note that apparently everyone agrees that "time," in any of its senses, involves an ordering--an ordering of "nows" and "thens." This starting point does not enable one to escape the charge of circularity, for "then" and "now" are clearly temporal concepts. But it would be quite unreasonable to expect an analysis of time to reduce time to something nontemporal, for while circularity would be avoided, the reduction of the temporal to the nontemporal would be committed. Neither will this starting point resolve the question of whether the ordering involved is a part of reality independently of the workings of the human mind, or whether this ordering is a mental construction placed on a reality that in itself is devoid of such ordering. Since the history of debate between realists and idealists--in both East and West--makes clear that even if this issue is capable of resolution, it certainly has not yet been resolved, it might be best to start from a position that is neutral in this respect. Fortunately such a neutral position is available, for both realist and idealist begin with the admission that human experience reveals certain orderings in its contents. Reality as experienced is shown--by self-conscious inspection of this experience--to contain at least temporal and spatial orderings. The contents of experience reveal that some items are "here" rather than "there," and "then" rather than "now." If this be granted, it would seem that the proper place to begin an analysis of time and temporality is with the terms and relations "now" and "then." These terms correspond to the temporal ordering found in experience, and to provide a rational explanation of these terms and the implied relations, a conceptual system with certain theoretical terms sufficiently powerful to generate a satisfactory explanation is required. p.204 The theoretical term that suggests itself is "time," which means that, for the sake of clarity, some other term is to be used for the experienced "now-then" ordering. The proposal is that we use the term "temporality" to refer to the experienced "now-then," which is not assignable ontologically to either a mental or extramental realm, because it is prior to these categories, and that we use "time" as a theoretical term, to cover the temporal terms and relations as these are understood conceptually. One of the advantages of this analysis of time and temporality is that it enables us to recognize the universality of temporal experience as well as the particularity of varying concepts of time. Temporal experience is universal because temporality is an aspect or feature of human experience, and all experience contains ordered "nows" and "thens." On the other hand, there are many ways the temporal dimension of experience can be approached conceptually in an attempt to arrive at a theoretical understanding of it. Since, on this analysis, time represents the conceptual understanding and explanation of temporality, there can be as many "times" as there are different theoretical analyses of temporality as an integral feature of experience. Viewing time as a theoretical construct used to represent the interconnections among the temporal relations found in experience (and between these temporal relations and others, for example, spatial) in order to achieve a rational explanation of the temporal dimension of experience, it is reasonable to expect that religious, moral, political, etc. concerns present in the cultural conditioning of the theorist will influence both the sense of which aspects of temporal experience are most important, and, therefore, central to the theory, and the criteria of adequacy for the explanation. In this sense time is a culturally determined construct. Before making some comparisons between Naagaarjuna's views and the above analysis, it is worth noting the similarity between this analysis and the view expressed by van Fraassen in his recent book on Western views of space and time. After reviewing various problems of the theory of time he says, "Our conclusion is that it is not necessary to say that there is such a thing as time, but that if we do, the best possible answer to the further question what kind of thing it is, is that it is a logical space."(3) By "logical space" he means something similar to what I intend by the characterization "conceptual construct to afford theoretical understanding," as is clear from his remark, "We characterize the nation of logical space by saying that a logical space is a certain mathematical construct used to represent certain conceptual interconnections."(4) This view of time as a conceptual construct or logical space fits in well with Naagaarjuna's views on the subject. His analysis of time in chapter 19 of the Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa is, as Kalupahana notes, directed primarily p.205 at the Sarvaastivaadin, who took time to be an ontological container of change and divided the container into three segments: past, present, and future. The argument in chapter 19 that the Sarvaastivaadin view that past time, present time, and future time are three ontological entities is fundamentally untenable, is concisely and accurately presented by Kalupahana. However, even though chapter 19, taken by itself, supports Kalupahana's conclusion that Naagaarjuna "... employed his dialectic to demonstrate the unreality or nonexistence of time," it must be remembered that this conclusion (verse 3, "tasmaat kaalo no vidyate") follows from the Sarvaastivaadin view of time. All Naagaarjuna is denying here is the reality of time as conceived by the Sarvaastivaadins, that is, time as an ontological reality containing change. It is entirely open for Naagaarjuna to accept that time does exist as a conceptual ordering of temporal experience. Indeed, if one looks to the purpose of the Muulamadhyamakakarikaa as a whole, it is hard to deny that this is Naagaarjuna's view,for the purpose of the entire dialectic seems to be to point out that our views or explanations of experience are conceptual constructs, and, therefore, should not be mistaken for the direct experience of reality itself. As Inada points out in the introductory essay prefacing his translation of the Kaarikaa, "...the argumentation lodged against all systems, positions or viewpoints (d.r.s.ti) by Naagaarjuna is not another way of establishing a standpoint, e.g. relativism, but it is a unique way of calling to attention the myriad and multiphased factors of conditions at play in the immediate concretizing karmaic present which, by the way, is the only locus whereby concourse with reality as such (yathaabuutam) can be had."(5) The most important clues to Naagaarjuna's view of time are found neither in chapter 19, devoted to arguments against the Sarvaastivaadin view of time, nor in chapter 2 devoted to the temporal notion of "going, " but are found in chapter 1, where he examines the conditions that are required for a conceptual understanding of reality. There he points out that understanding and description are possible only when the relational conditions of the experienced reality are determined. But, he argues, there is no way in which the relational conditions of our understanding can be equated with the relational conditions of experienced reality itself, concluding the chapter with the following assertion and skeptical (perhaps rhetorical) question: "Consequently, the effect (i.e., arisen entity) is neither with relational nor without nonrelational condition. Since the effect has no existing status, where are the relational and non-relational conditions?"(6) Now, if it is the case that all concepts and views are conceptual constructions placed on experience, then it follows that the concept of time is also a conceptual construction placed on experience (in this case the temporal dimension thereof). That Naagaarjuna accepts this position that conceptual views p.206 are constructs placed on experience seems evident not only in the Kaarikaa but also in his assertion, in verse 20 of the vigrahavyaavartanii, that he has no theories of his own to offer (granted the reason that he offered no theory was his distinction between truth and theory) . He does, of course accept pratiityasamutpada, but it can be argued that this is simply to accept the fact of a temporal and spatial dimension of experience and not to accept a thesis about the intelligible structure of this dimension. Taken as a thesis about the connectedness experienced in change, pratiityasamutpaada is 'suunya--as are all views or theses. The acceptance of pratiityasamutpaada as being the heart of the Buddhist dharma, on the other hand, makes clear that there is no rejection of temporality as the experienced succession in change. With this distinction between time and temporality in mind we can move on to consider the significance of the Jaataka vision quoted in Kalupahana's essay: "Time consumes all beings / including oneself; / the being who consumes time, / cooks the cooker of beings." As pointed out, time here is equated with Maara, the personification of death, making time the dreaded evil in life. This is an interesting picture, present in varying images in most religions. Time, in the guise of change, devours all things, and the only paths to salvation are to either find an existence free from the influence of time-which means eventually coming to regard the temporal order as ultimately unreal or else to make one's peace with time and change, in effect adjusting one's lifestyle to "groove" with the fact of temporal becoming as the ultimate reality. Either alternative will enable one to escape the jaws of the monster, Death. The first alternative involves fleeing the realm of the monster, thereby escaping his clutches. The second alternative involves taming the monster, making time one's friend rather than enemy. The Buddhists, for the most part, chose the latter alternative, conquering time, whereas the Vedaantin way consisted in choosing the former alternative, leaving behind the terrible world of time for a peaceful world of permanence. The choice of either alternative requires an analysis of time, with the Vedaantin having to explain the unreality of time at the ultimate level of reality, despite its apparent dominating reality as temporal becoming, and the Buddhist having to explain the nature of changing existence in such a way that it is clear the temporal conditionedness of existence does not imply dukkha when life is lived "properly" (that is, according to the Dharrma). It is this explanation of the relation between change and dukkha that is crucial to the Buddhist philosopher. When time is presented as the devourer of all things, it can be interpreted in different ways. One way is to take it as a metaphorical reference to the inevitability of temporal succession and the qualitative change found in this succession (for example, succession of birth by death). But it can also be interpreted to represent time as a real entity of same kind-part of the onto- p.207 logical furniture of the universe. In this case there might be an effort to show that the entire realm of entities to which time belongs are nonultimate or merely apparent, positing a realm of being beyond in which time does not exist. But from a Buddhist point of view such an interpretation, and the consequent effort to escape to a becomingless realm, would be a mistake resulting from the failure to understand that time is simply a conceptual construct. Although as McDermott convincingly shows through comparisons with certain Western conceptions of time, as well as citing the Sautraantika arguments against them, that the Sarvaastivaadins did submit to the temptation to entify temporal becoming, still, the main thrust of Buddhism is away from such entification and in the direction of seeing entities of all kinds as constructs of the mind. If time is a terrible monster (personified as Maara) devouring all things, then dukkhta cannot be eliminated until Maara itself is conquered or devoured, and so the question is: Does time inevitably devour man, or can man devour time? Since the Buddhist position is that dukkha can be eliminated, when dukkha is presented in the guise of Maara, the answer is clearly that man can devour time. As Kalupahana points out, "... the one who has attained enlightenment is able to bring time under his control." How is a person to "consume time" and therefore "cook the cooker" of beings (or, in other words, become enlightened?). Kalupahana gives two important reasons (with which I agree): (1) Eradicate the craving and attachment for existence or nonexistence. This means that the loss of existence in death is nothing to be feared in the least--in fact, logically it cannot be feared, (2) put an end to continued becoming (bhava) . This means that neither death nor rebirth-with its consequent redeath--are possible. The answer seems incomplete, however, for the question that nags is "how is it possible to overcome becoming if becoming is an inevitable feature of existence?" Here the distinction made earlier between temporality and time is helpful. Temporality--and in that sense, temporal becoming--is an inevitable feature of existence, and as such can never be overcome. But by the same token temporality is just that, a feature of existence as it is. It is neither evil nor good, but just temporality. It is neither birth nor death, but simply becoming. Time, on the other hand, as the container of becoming, when it is taken to be an ontological container rather than merely a conceptual container, can be taken as terminating and originating becoming (transferring it from the present to past, or from the future to the present) , and thereby responsible for the inevitability of birth and death. So understood, time as the determining container of change is dukkha. However, when time is understood to be simply a conceptual ordering of temporality, with no real power to originate and terminate becoming, one is freed from time's bondage to an inevitable death. When one transcends the entrapment of con- p.208 cepts and no longer ontologizes conceptual existence, then the conceptual space of time loses its binding power, and Kaala is "cooked." _____________________________________________________ 1. Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translations (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p. 122. 2. Ibid, p. 124. 3. Bas C. van Fraassen, An Introductios to the Philosophy of Time and Space (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 106. 4. Ibid., p. 104. 5. Kenneth K. Inada, Naagaarjuna: A Translation of his Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa with an Introductory Essay (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970), p. 18. 6. Ibid., p. 42.