Buddhist Concept of Time

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Chen Hsiongcaiwrites on


What is time? This question, despite there is a vast advancement in science and technology, still unanswered because whether it is an instrumental time, i.e., a microsecond measured in a rocket launching based or a light year, these two time factors are nothing but development of solar time, which is absolutely a relative time, which is being measured by a “Clock” but not cognized by our mind, so it is not absolute time.

Modern science just correlates the concept of time with space and movement and with units (numbers) whereas Buddhism, in addition to movements, relates moments and events. Further Buddhism defines the ‘time’ without taking ‘space’ as a factor. When the question, ‘what is the time now?’ is answered, in the course of question and answer, there occurs according to a time ‘device’ past, present, and future.

In Buddhist perspective, time should be cognized with the factors of past, future and present based on the other facts and factors, i.e., moment movements and events and not by ‘illusory relative time’ or so-called ‘clock’ time.

For the analysis of ‘Buddhist Time’, as exposed in Dhammasangani, we require to have a clear idea that ‘time’ is entirely a different thing from a day, week, month, year and so on and a clock time is nothing but mere a “move”. A day is measured on the basis of sun and reckoned by the revolution of the earth.

Whether it a microsecond as measured in space science or a light year, all these are the development of ‘time factor’ of the earth movement. In true sense ‘modern time’ is neither solar nor lunar but strictly terres-terial. As such, the earth rounding up of the sun is reckoned as “One Year’ again fixing the sun as centre point.

It has been already explained that ‘Time’ is entirely a different ‘thing’ from a day, week, year, century and aeon because in a sequence of 123 microseconds and 1, 2, 3 aeons we cannot assess that ‘1’ is past ‘2’ is present and ‘3’ is future. As human faculty is too frail and is confined and habitualised by ‘clock’ and ‘day’ taking them as ‘time’. The ideational time of past, present and future is untenable for mind and it tries to bring all sorts of physical apparatus for conceiving or realising the idea of time.

Hence we always assess the time either with the help of a vertical line or a horizontal line making the ‘centre point always as ‘present’ and up and down or right and left as future and past respectively. I interviewed many of my friends, most of them fix left as future right as past and the centre point as ‘present’. Few of them fix down as future up as past and the centre point as usual ‘present’. But all are unable to assess the duration of centre point i.e. ‘Present’. If your faculties are developed like the Buddhas the present would extend to right and left or to up and down ‘infinitely’.

The concept of time of duration of present is changing person to person, according to his faculty.

Buddhist concept of time clearly explains that in the sequences 1, 2, 3 if you are an Arhant (enlightened) time 1, 2, 3 sequence of aeons would be totally ‘Present’, if you have not developed your ‘insight’ Vipassana, even the 1, 2, 3 sequence of micro-seconds would consist duration of past, present and future.

In the beginning, it was explained that Buddhism is concerned with the time of movements, moments and events, either assessing them as past or future or present. As the concept of time is changing person to person some times a day is very long or very short according to mood etc.

In this paper Buddhist concept of ‘Time’ as exposed in Dhammasangani and Visuddhi Magga is taken for analysis. Of course that may be relatively applied to ‘Clock’ time. Besides this, physical time, bio- logical time, space time, rocket time, fossil time and other such time factors, are not taken for consideration even to compare or for substantiating Buddhist concept of time.

Buddhist Time has been elaborately analysed in Dhammasangani and Milinda Panha and Acharya Buddhaghosa has also explained in his work Visuddhi Magga in detail even without deploying the term ‘time’ for concerning the idea of past, present and future with the aid of moment, movement and event. The readers always have to keep in mind that Buddhist analysis of time was made somewhat 2,500 years ago in the absence of clock and digitors. The explanation of past, present, future in Dhammasangani is made in the light of moments, movement and events as an extension of former three factors, but not respectively.

Buddhist Time breaks through the barriers of space and distance. Acharya Nagasena explains the King Milinda, that: Two persons die in a place at the same moment and both are immediately reborn at the same moment. The first one is reborn in the same place where he died and the other one is reborn very far away from the place where he died. Nagasena explains that the event of rebirth of these two persons takes place at the same moment irrespective of difference of ‘distance’. Hence Buddhist time confines itself into the idea of moment going beyond the limitations of space or distance or units or numbers.

Like Nagasena’s explanation of time Dhammasangani explains the concept of time based on events, moments and movements eventually assessing past, present and future. It further adds that ‘thought’ also is a combination of these three factors. The verses from 1038 to 1041 of Dhammasangani throw the idea of past, present and future.

i. vs 1038: Which are the states that are past?

These states that are past, are extinct, dissolved changed terminated exterminated…

ii. vs 1039: Which are the states that are future?

The states that are unborn, that have not become, not been gotten nor created, nor recreated, nor made manifest, that not have arise nor come to pass, nor happened nor supervened that have not arrived…

iii. vs 1040: Which are the things that are present?

These states that have been born, have become, have been gotten, created, recreated, made manifest, that have been caused to arisen, have come to pass, that have arisen over against…

For the analysis of present, future and past, defined in Dhammasangani, under verses 1038 to 1040, the term ‘dissolution’ is taken for ‘Time Test’.

Take one cup of salt and two cups of water. As defined in verse 1040, salt and water “Have come to pass” so these are ‘present’. Pour the salt into water, according to verse 1039, ‘saline water’ has not been created just at the very moment of pouring salt into water, and please apply your attention to all the words employed in verse 1039, keeping in mind ‘saline water’ or in other words ‘Future’. When all salt completely dissolved both water and salt become ‘past’ according to verse 1038. Because in the solution, water and salt do not remain as two separate entities, now it is completely a different ‘thing’ or a solution irrespective of its ingredients. According to verse 1038 ‘dissolved’ or ‘changed’.

Now in final stage, a solution has come up; it is according to verse 1040 ‘present’ because it has been caused to arise or ‘that has been created’.

So in the duration of dissolving process, two ‘present things’ salt and water join to make a ‘future saline’ and on the event of becoming of ‘saline’ both water and salt disappear and become ‘past’. The event or moment or movement of becoming of ‘saline’ has actually manifested these sequences of ‘present’, ‘future’, past and again present.

Now the question is, the duration i.e. for dissolving of salt into water, is what? If the clock shows 30 minutes for that event or movement or moment whether we can take the entire time quantum of 30 mts as present? In true sense the clock has run for 30 mts parallely with dissolving process but normally we would assess that it is the dissolving process that takes 30 mts. That process carries on its work in every moment relatively we can say that in every microsecond of ‘Clock-Time’.

In scientific interpretation becoming of ‘future’ saline continues even at the last moment of a salt molecule, i.e., ‘present’ dissolving into ‘present’ (water) and ultimately dissolved and extincted completely and the water and salt turn past the ‘future’ saline becomes ‘present’ according to vs 1040… those states that have become i.e. here saline water has become.

So if we observe moment of dissolving action, actually ‘present’ is becoming ‘past’ and ‘future’ simultaneously. That means, present extends to past and future.

Dhammasangani further defines that thought process also comes under the states of present, future and past. According to verse 1041:

These are the states that have past … future … present … as their objects of thought?

Conscious states and their mental properties which arise in connection with states that past … future … present …

Matter, thought and time

The Yogacara school also agrees to Dhammasangani’s concept of time taking a moment as nascent, static and evanescent phase literally called utpada, sthiti and bhanga respectively. Dhammasangani describes that all matter, RUPA can be classified as past, present, and future. In logical scale they can be analogically considered bhanga-past, utpada-future, sthiti-present. Even by this logical assertion our puzzil is not untied. We witnessed the nature of bhanga, utpada and sthiti all these three in one event of ‘salt dissolving in water’.

For this problem Buddhaghosa usually comes here too for our rescue. He throws bit a clear definition that the rupa (matter) that passed over these three phases may be defined as ‘past’, the rupa, matter that has not yet reached the course of three phases may be defined as future and the matter that are in the process of three phases may be classified as present.

In his explanation Buddhaghosa is very clear, according to him salt water, and saline are in the process of three phases utpada, sthiti and bhangha thus it can be reckoned that the entire process of ‘dissolving’ as ‘present’ irrespective of its duration i.e. according to clock-time.

In thought process too, Abhidhamma has assessed that duration of thought be the 1/17th duration of a moment of matter. However, some scholars presume that thought changes rapidly and breaks up more quickly than matter. It has been established by such scholars that Abhidhamma has calculated that sixteen moments of thought arise and cease to exist during the lifetime of a single moment of matter. They further argue that the moment of matter which arises at the same time as moment of thought, dies simultaneously by with the 17th moment of thought.

This argument apparently seems to be accurate but it is influenced by ‘clock time’ and numerical concept of time. But Abhidhamma considers time either as an event or a movement or a moment. As such duration of moment of matter and thought should be taken as an analogue of a ‘revolving disc’ which has no axis. In its centre point if the speed is ‘Unit 1′ at the edge or rim the speed would be ’17 units’.

The centre point of the disc may be taken as ‘matter’ and the edge or rim may be taken as thought. When disc starts to rotate the centre point and the edge begin to move simultaneously but in different speed, as such the moment of matter and thought begins at the same moment and ends at the same moment. But it is not like that striking of a bell for 17 times comparing it as the 17 moments of matter and all the 17 moments are made in one strike in the mind as one moment of thought. The ability of thought is very higher than matter and it should not be confined into mere quality of quickness measuring with either help of ‘Time’ or ‘Units’. When rapidity is adopted instead of ability, the clock time would mislead us.

If the moment of matter and thought is reckoned in accordance with the quantum of ‘Clock Time’ the Buddha travelling up to celestial realms teaching Brahamas and returning back to earth to resume his routine life would not be possible.

If we reckon the Buddha’s celestial mission with the aid of modern time when he goes to Tusita and stays there for a day (whether we have to take this ‘one day’ as terrestrial or celestial time, it is an another hurdle) and returning back to earth, by this deed, i.e., by his arrival, the terrestrial time would have passed at least 5000 AD (common era). The thought power of celestial beings are so high in all respect.

Fortunately the Buddha’s faculty could reckon the ‘time’ either it is one microsecond of terrestrial time or one Maha-Kalpa of celestial world just as ‘one moment’.

Now ‘What is time’? It is nothing but moments, movements and events mentally conceived as past, present, and future. We would conclude this argument by the very word of the Buddha.

“Even so was my past existence at that time real, but unreal, but unreal the future and present existence; and my future existence will be at one time real but unreal the past and present existence; and my present existence is now real, but unreal the past and future existence. All these are merely popular designations and expressions, mere conventional term of speaking, mere popular notions” (Digha-nikaya).

Hence the Buddha has only one time that is “Eternal Present”.


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