Discussion of time in Mahayana texts
Lewis R. Lancaster
Philosophy East and West 24, no. 2, APRIL 1974.
(c) by The University Press of Hawaii
In the early Mahaayaana suutras, the discussion of
time (adhvan) does not mention the term in the
singular, only in the plural: the three times of
past, future, and present.(1) The problems of the
triple time had occupied Buddhists long before the
advent of the Mahaayaana texts and such schools as
the Daar.s.taantikas had proposed that the three
times exist and are permanent while the conditioned
entities which move through them are impermanent.
They described their view by giving the analogy of
three houses one beside the other. From the first
house a man emerges and goes to the second, that is,
he leaves the future and enters the present, then he
moves from the second house to the third, thereby
going from the present to the past.(2) Man is the
impermanent and fleeting one while the three houses
of time are fixed and stand always ready to receive
the constant flow of impermanent things.
Since this idea of permanence and fixed state of
the three times belonged to the non-Mahaayaana
schools, we could expect to find arguments in the
Mahaayaana suutras attacking such positions. However,
a careful reading of the earliest suutras from the
Mahaayaana shows that they did not directly refer to
or attack such doctrines. That is, they did not try
to disprove through debate or rhetorical devices the
existence of one, two, or three times. Their approach
is a positive one and not a defensive stance. The
Mahaayaana suutras merely state what has been
understood and cognized by the Buddha,(3) it is not
presented as a matter to be proved or disproved, but
only as a statement of what is. The Buddha as an
enlightened one possessed all-knowledge, the
supernormal power developed through samaadhi or
trance and in this special state he was able to
penetrate and comprehend the nature and essence of
the three times.(4) When the triple times were viewed
in this special way, they appeared to the Buddha as
equals, (5) the same, (6) without distinctions or
separations.(7) The times did not oppose one
another,(8) for there was nothing in the present
which was different or distinct from the future. This
being the case, the suutras say, the three divisions
of time, the three characteristic marks of time, are
limited to the mundane world, to those who lack the
insights of the all-knowers(9); but, on the higher
level the transcendent plane, these marks are shown
to be an illusion. Therefore, the Buddha taught that
the three times only possess one mark, the mark of
lacking any distinguishing characteristics.(10)
Later, some of the Mahaayaana texts elaborated
the doctrine that the three times are all equal and
the same without distinctions. They reasoned that if
the division of time into three parts was an
inherently valid and real one, belonging to the very
nature of time, then one must be able to delineate
clear limits between the past and present or the
present and the future.(11)
But, say these texts, one cannot discover such
limits, for the beginning of time is beyond
comprehension and is never determined and the end of
time stretches out endlessly without a limit.(12)
Since the beginning and end of time can never be
established, then neither can the middle of time.(13)
It was recognized that the determination of the
sameness of the three times was beyond the
capabilities of ordinary man. The Ta Chih Tu Lun,
commentary of the Praj~naapaaramitaa compiled by
Kumaarajiiva, states that those who do not have
all-knowledge will encounter obstacles when they try
to achieve a cognition of the three times.(14) Even
such famous disciples as 'Saaiputra and Ma~nju'sri
were unable to comprehend this sameness fully. Thus,
the Buddha has to resort to two methods when teaching
about time: (1) When he teaches the penetration and
comprehension of the three times without obstacles,
this may be called his analytical teaching
(vibhajya-nirde'sa); (2) But when he teaches that the
triple times have not even a single characteristic
mark, this is the teaching of limitless emptiness
We can assume from this that the teaching, which
is part of the process by which one attains special
cognition, and the discussion about the resultant
experience are two very different procedures.
If the triple times have not even a single
distinguishing characteristic, does this mean that
the Mahaayaana taught the nonexistence of time? It is
never said that time is lacking existence, but only
that time is empty ('suunyata)(16) and that it is
suchness (tafhataa),(17) for since it lack any marks,
it is the whole reality, the truly universal. But
this is not only true for time, it is true of
everything, for example, form, skandhas, dharmas all
conditioned things.(18) Saying that the denial of any
real characteristic mark is in fact the denial of
existence would imply that the Mahaayaana suutras are
teaching a doctrine of nihilism, which they
It is true that the denial of characteristics
limited to any one of the three times had
implications for the theories of ontology. If no past
can be determined, then you cannot say there is a
past fire,(20) if no present, then how can you speak
of a present fire; and if fire does not exist in the
past, present, or future, then in what sense can you
say it does exist? The answer is always that fire,
men, and dharmas exist in a conventional mundane way,
but in the transcendent realm, fire is empty of those
characteristics which separate it from water space,
If the three times cannot be separated, the next
question to be handled by these texts was whether one
can establish the idea of long time and short time.
While we might expect an immediate answer along the
same lines as that used with regard to the three
times, such is not the case in the
Avata.msaka-suutra. In this text, it is maintained
that our universe is but one of thousands of
universes or world systems.(21) All of these worlds
are not on the same scale, and so our own system is
encapsulated within another realm
that in expanse is beyond anything we can comprehend.
We live, says the Avata.msaka-suutra, in the realm of
'Saakyamuni, and if we were to add up all the days
and nights of our world system until they totaled a
Kalpa, these countless years would be equal to but
one day and one night in the realm of Amitaabha. And
if one were to stay in Amitaabha's realm for a kalpa
of that time, it would be equal to one day and one
night in the next realm of Vajrasa.mhata and one
kalpa there would equal one day and one night in
Dharmaketu's realm, and so on through hundreds of
millions of Buddha realms.(22) It is interesting to
note that the names for these realms, which reach out
beyond our possible understanding, are in part the
names of the former Buddhas described in the
Lalitavistara,(23) where fifty-four names are given
as part of the endless list of Buddhas who have
existed in the aeons of the past. In the
Avata.msaka-suutra, these Buddhas of the past have
been transformed into the dwellers of the realms
which stretch out into endless time and space. On the
other hand, one can turn around and look at the point
of a hair or a grain of sand, and there, the text
says, are contained a thousand worlds, (24) small
beyond anything we can possibly imagine and one day
and one night in our Saakyamuni Buddha realm, we can
infer would be a kalpa of time in one of these. In
this way, we can carry the description out to a point
in which we have kalpas of time in one world system
equal to a trillionth of a second in another.
The result of these descriptions of the realms
and the length of time within them, is the negation
of any limit, which can be termed "long" or "short."
For what is long in one universe is short in another,
and any such description or measurement is a mere
convention based on our size and relative
Therefore, the suutras once again bring us back
to the emptiness of time, as well as to the
difficulty of its comprehension, and absence of
There is yet a third aspect of time which is not
handled by the discussion of the three times or
length of time. Man experiences change: he is born,
grows old and dies, and all of his possessions
eventually crumble and disintegrate. This is seen as
the action of time; time the all powerful force in
life. In fact, time is more important and more
powerful than death, for time touches animate and
inanimate objects, it affects all at all times and
not just a few who are in any given moment touched by
death. This inevitability of time was part of the
teaching of the Atharva Veda,(25) where time was
personified as a horse galloping along with a water
jar on his back and the jar was filled to the brim
with water, but not a drop fell from the jar, for
nothing and no one escapes the clutches of time.
While the texts may argue about whether time can be
divided into three or two or many, the fact remains
that man and all he possesses is destroyed by time.
And it is this
characteristic that is the most difficult to handle,
for it is not a question of mere speculation, it is
the most intensely personal and confronting
experience of life.
In Mahaayaana, as well as in Hindu Tantric
literature Mahaakaala, Great Time, became a major
deity. It is Mahaakaala, the "great howler," who is
"beautiful yet ferocious," who shines like the "flame
of the sun," with eyes that are "large shooting
flames and at the center of them is an endless pool
of darkness around which the edges are always
flaming."(26) In his left hand he holds a staff, a
three-pointed spear; in the right hand a skull bowl
with blood and a great sword; his beard and hair are
wildly streaming; and around his chest he wears
garlands of severed human heads or sometimes skulls;
his mouth is bloodied and he has long, sharp fangs.
His hips are covered with a tiger's skin. In Tibetan
calendars he is often depicted with the days and
months of the year and all the creatures of the world
caught between his dripping fangs, and he is
endlessly consuming everything. In this we can see
the aspects of 'Siva and even the old Vedic deity
Rudra,(27) the destructive life forces.
Little wonder then that Mahaakaala, in later
Mahaayaana was propitiated as a deity, a protective
one, even though in his terrible aspect, he is the
great destroyer. But what better protector to have
than one who can destroy everything. In Mongolia and
Tibet, Mahaakaala became the chief of the guardians
of the dharma,(28) and in one Saadhana we find the
phrase: "0, you who tame the wicked beings please
protect me, please protect me. Please give, please
give, please destroy all (of them)... all the wicked
ghouls, demons and half-men beasts, please make all
of them peaceful."(29)
Is this an intrusion into Buddhism of
non-Buddhist material, a tradition that is cut off
from the main line of thought and development. The
answer must be in the negative. For Mahaakaala was
the way in which the Buddhist handled the most
overwhelming and personally important aspect of time.
It is the terrible part of time, its destroying
quality which frightens man. Here in the Tantras, the
terrible is placated through magic and ritual, and
Time the terrible becomes Time the protector. By the
conversion of Time the destroyer, the killer with
blood dripping from his lips, to the supportive
guardian, the characteristic marks of destroyer and
protector have been erased and there is no difference
between Time in its dual nature. In the same way that
the three times were shown to be empty and without
definable limits, and as short and long were taught
to be mere conventional expressions and not
descriptions of reality, so too, the terrible and
productive aspects of time are shown to be the same.
Thus the major impact of the teaching about time in
early Mahaayaana suutras or in the later Tantras
appears to be in agreement.
Now the question arises as to how we are to
handle such material. Is it true that time has no
definable divisions and that such divisions as we
make into past, present, and future, long and short,
horrible and appealing, are not real divisions but
only conventional expressions? Is time that is marked
by having no special characteristic mark, such as
present or past, to be considered as "time"? What of
the admission by the texts that this material arises
not from a reasoned argument or even logical thought
processes, but from the special state of mind
achieved by the Buddha when he entered samaadhi or
that special trance named "The Samaadhi in which one
sees that the three times are all equal and the
same."(30) Are the texts correct in stating that
those who lack all-knowledge will not be able to
experience directly the three times as being the
same? And is this special knowledge of a Buddha or a
bodhisattva of any worth or of any importance to
Naagaarjuna obviously felt that it was possible
to take such material, derived from special mental
states, and by subjecting it to reasoned arguments
show the validity of its teaching. Was he successful
and is it possible for philosophers and logicians of
today to do the same?
1. The numerous references to the Chinese texts will
be given by Taisho document number and page only
hereafter abbreviated T). T 228-590c; 232-7628;
261-880c; 220 (16)-1102c; 1512-842b. For other
references, see F. Edgerton, Buddhist Hybrid
Sanskrit Dictionary (New Haven Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1953) , p. 18; E. Conze,
Materials for a Dictionary of the
Praj~naapaaramitaa-suutras (Tokyo: Suzuki
Research Institute 1969), P. 19.
2. T 1545-393a; kathaavatthu at A. C Taylor, (London
PTS. 1964-1967), xv. 3, k. 12.
3. T 228-630c; 234-747c; 1509-255a; 310-291b;
L'Abhidharmako'sa de Vasubandhu, tr.and ann. Louis
de la Vall‚e Poussin (Paris: Paul Geuthner,
1923), II, p.253.
4. T 234-747c; 225-507c; 279-648b; 657-166b.
5. T 228-590c; 231-723c; 240-776a.
6. T 244-789a; 240-776a; 310-252c and 517c;
7. T 234-747c; 231-723c; 244-822c.
8. T 220(4)-823b; 220(5)-937c; 240-776a.
9. T 310-291b; 228-630c; 234-747c; 1509-337c.
10. T 1509-225a; 228-630c; 220(1)-340b.
11. T 220(3)-436a-b and 515c.
12. T 244-822c; 228-590c; 257-245c.
13. T 220(5)-869; see Frederick J. Streng, Empliness,
a Study in Religious Meaning (New York: Abingdon
Press, 1967), pp. 196 and 205, for a translation
of the Muulamadhaymakakaarikaas.
14. T 1509-255a.
16. T 222-203c.
17. T 220(4)-823b; 220(5)-937c.
18. T. R. V.Murti The Central Philosophy of Buddhism,
(London, George Allen & Unwin 1970), pp. 165ff.
19. Ibid., p. 164; T 220(6)-1091.
20. T 220(1)-340b; 1509-330b and 337c.
21. T 279-241a
22. Ibid, p. 241a.
24. See the discussion of C. C. Cheng, The Buddhist
Teaching of Totality (University Park, Penn.:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), p. 5.
25. Atharva Veda Samhitaa, tr. W. D. Whitney (New
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962), see 19:53.
26. These descriptive phrases were taken at random
from an unpublished manuscript by William
Stablein titled "Mahaakaala" Parts of this will
be available soon in his dissertation from
27. V. Fausb”ll, Indian Mythology according to the
Mahaabhaarata, Luzac's Oriental Religious Series
1 (London: Luzac and Co., 1903); Mahaabhaarata,
tr. P. C. Ray (Calcutta: Bharata Press, 1890),
28. Stablein, p. ix.
29. Ibib, pp. 24ff.
30. T 1509-306c; 225-507a; 279-684b.