ENLIGHTENMENT AND TIME:
AN EXAMINATION OF
NAGARJUNA'S CONCEPT OF TIME
by Anthony Birch, Ph.D., MCSE
Opening Remarks/Rhetorical Questions:
1. Is it self-evident that there are such things as "substances,"
if we define substances as those entities which would
be just as they are even if nothing else existed in the universe?
2. Why does the
These and similar questions come to mind when we undertake the study of Nagarjuna.
Other Questions (and "answers") at the conclusion of
1. Why don't we just accept
Ans.: Nagarjuna has a spiritual agenda.
2. How can Nagarjuna equate samsara and nirvanna? Shouldn't we think of time not as "stopped" but as circular?
Ans. Perhaps the circular analogy is a good one. Nagarjuna is worried that if we make nirvanna something transcendent, it will be inaccessible. Nirvanna cannot be inaccessibe -- but it also has to be "other." It has some similarities to the postmodern idea that when you write "BEING," you must cross it out. You deny it as something transcendent at the same time as you "assert" it.
That is why Nagarjuna's teaching is difficult.
Text of paper as delivered at FIU:
The belief in the independent existence of things in the world is a mainstay of the common sense view of life. Trees, flowers, houses, the earth, stars and galaxies exist, and will continue to exist without us, according to common sense. All these things, and most importantly our own conscious lives, however, appear to be caught up in the inexorable flow of time. Common sense readily admits that as time passes, ordinary physical objects, and human beings, come and go. It would seem, therefore, that the flow of time is itself the sole unchanging element in an ever-changing universe.
Yet the independent reality not only of physical objects, but the flow
of time in which they appear to be enmeshed, are precisely the common-sense (and scientific) conceptions that the
philosophy of the
The purpose of this paper is to investigate Nagarjuna's
conception of time and its relationship to enlightenment. I shall confine
myself to Nagarjuna's arguments presented in his most
famous work the Mulamadhyamakakarikas (herein after
MMK). I shall divide this examination into three parts: (1) Nagarjuna's
purpose and central concepts, (2) An analysis of the specific arguments Nagarjuna offers in the MMK relating to time; (3) An interpretive account of how one can incorporate Nagarjuna's arguments concerning time into an understanding
of the enlightenment experience.
I. Nagarjuna's Purpose and Central Concepts
A. Religion and Philosophy
I take it as axiomatic that Nagarjuna's primary purpose is religious. His primary aim is to inspire an understanding that will lead toward enlightenment. Nagarjuna uses logic and philosophy, but his aim is to indicate truths that lie beyond these abstract disciplines. The logical, the rational, and the philosophic are ultimately transformed to the mystical (Betty p. 139 and Streng p. 181).
Nagarjuna also has a secondary purpose, and this also must be understood in a religious context: Nagarjuna wanted to refute the materialist ideas of the Abhidharma schools and return Buddhism to what he thought
B. Central Concepts: The Meaning of Own-Being
Almost all of Nagarjuna's arguments are structured around the conception of things which are said to have "own-being" (sbavhavah). An examination of the text (see in particular verses 7.16, 15.2, 15.8 and 15.11) shows that own-being is to be understood as that which is self-identical, exists by itself or through its own accord, and is not dependent on other beings for its existence.
Nagarjuna, of course, argues that there are no
"things," either sensible objects of the life world, or subjective
components of the consciousness, which have own-being. All things are, rather,
"empty" and without essential nature. They have only relative, dependent
being. This applies even to Nirvana, which, because it is not separate and
inaccessible, is coincident with the life world.
C. Central Concepts: The Argument Against Causality
Nagarjuna's attempt to show the identity of samsara and nirvana, and his intimations of the enlightenment experience, rest on his showing the unintelligibility of causality. If causality can be shown to be self-contradictory, then the "things" which reputedly participate in the chain of causality either have no own-being or do not participate in causality at all.
I shall not review in detail Nagarjuna's
arguments here. Let us simply state his conclusion: It cannot
be shown that causality, or, more precisely the notion of
"production," has any meaning. No production takes place if effects,
the "products" of a causes, are either
identical with, or separate from their causes, and, as these seem to be the
only two possibilities, "production" as it is ordinarily understood,
does not take place at all. Nagarjuna summarizes this
19. Certainly a oneness of cause and product is not possible
at all. Nor is a difference of cause and
product possible at all.
The argument against own-being in causality introduces a preliminary
consideration of how time figures in the explanation of events in the world. If
causality is not logically comprehensible in terms of identity and difference,
how are events to be related in terms of time? Would
it not be the case that events could be related as "before" and
"after" regardless of the refutation of the causality? Thus, it might
seem that Nagarjuna's view, as presented so far,
would allow an essentially Humean conception of
events: causality is denied but constant conjunction
in sequential time is asserted. This would allow that time "exists"
but events are logically independent. Such a conception,
is, of course, one that Nagarjuna would reject.
D. Central Concepts: Motion and Space
Nagarjuna offers related critiques of motion and space. There are two features of these arguments that reflect important elements in Nagarjuna's overall ontology. The first concerns the depth of Nagarjuna's dialectical negation. Nagarjuna does not always apply his famous tetralemma to every topic under consideration, nor do his conclusions consist merely of uniform string of negations. This is demonstrated in the arguments concerning motion. Contrary to what is often surmised, for example, Nagarjuna does not deny motion per se (see Kalupahana p. 130 and Wayman p. 47). The argumentation in the chapter on motion shows that the motion, the object moved, and the destination achieved are all relative to each other. As Nagarjuna states, "certainly the act of going is not produced without a goer" (2.6) and "the goer can not come into being when there is no going" (2.7). As in the case of causality, Nagarjuna establishes the relativity of two mutually dependent conceptions, and the inapplicability of identity and difference: "Neither the identity nor the essential difference is established regarding the two conceptions goer and act of going" (2.21).
A second feature of Nagarjuna's overall
ontology is demonstrated in his argument about space:
there is a spiritual dimension to his conclusion. Nagarjuna's
view of space is profoundly non-Western. It is not presented as a necessary
mode of apprehension nor as something independent in
which objects reside. "Space," perhaps unsurpisingly,
at this point, is found to be like "things:" it cannot
be considered as having own-being. Nothing can be
asserted of it that would suffice to pick it out as an independent
feature of reality. What stands out, however, is the spiritual significance Nagarjuna attaches to this conclusion: "But those
unenlightened people who either affirm reality or non-reality do not perceive
the blessed cessation-of-appearance of existing things" (5.8). The
apprehension of reality from the "blessed" (enlightened) perspective
is a distinction not yet formally introduced in the MMK. Whatever significance
we may attach to the phrase "blessed cessation-of-appearance of existing
things" (and it may be the "cessation" of time), this much seems
clear: there is an appeal to a higher level of truth, a "blessed
state," that transcends whatever is to be gained (or not gained) through
assertions and logical disputations. Nargarjuna seems
to be alluding to an enlightened apprehension of reality -- and it is almost as if he has prepared us for this by first attacking
common sense apprehensions of causality, then, by degrees, challenging
us on progressively more intractable concepts, such as motion and space.
Indeed, the arguments on motion and space, while perhaps less convincing than
other arguments, seem to call on us all the more to adopt a different view of
We can now summarize Nagarjuna's ontology as developed thus far. Nagarjuna's world is one in which "things," in particular sensible things, have a kind of primary intractability to reason. This intractability arises primarily because things are not analyzable in terms of own-being. And yet, while we can not say that things "are," we must acknowledge that they nevertheless "assert" themselves or are present to us in a particular mode. Nagarjuna will subsequently identify this mode as "empty." We have been challenged to accept a new way of apprehending the world that transcend the common-sense notions of motion and space. That leaves only time.
Nagarjuna devotes chapter 19 of the MMK specifically to time. Once again, he attempts to show that time has no self-existence. Here again Nagarjuna does not develop all four arms of the tetralemma as he so often does. Instead, he concentrates only on the denial of time. Without trying to make too much of this fact, I wish to call attention to it in order to support the idea that time, like space, has a kind of special status for Nagarjuna.
Three arguments regarding time are presented. The first argument is a reprise of the production argument and relies on the common-sense view that time is split into past, present and future. Nagarjuna argues if the "parts" of time have own-being, the conception of time quickly loses its coherence. If "the past" is considered to produce "the present" and "the future," the latter two parts would be already "in" the past and could therefore not be properly said to have separate being. On the other hand, if the present and the future are separate from the past, then their very unconnectedness leaves them uncaused, independent and without reference to the past. But since the very notions of present and future imply a relation to the past, this is self-contradictory. Therefore, the present and future do not exist. Neither identity with nor difference from the past is sufficient to establish the reality of the present and future. In a similar fashion, the independence of any of the parts of time can be attacked on the basis of their inseparability and necessary reference to each other. The past, for example, can not be independent because it is nonsensical if it does not terminate in the present and future.
Nagarjuna offers a second argument against the
reality of time which does not specifically rely on
time being "split." Rather, the objection is framed
in epistemological terms:
5. A non-stationary "time" cannot be "grasped" and a
stationary "time" which can be grasped does not exist.
How, then can one perceive time if it is not "grasped"?
In other words, if time is acknowledged to be continuously fleeting, there are no absolute static components of it that can be experienced (or, perhaps, "grasped" by the mind). If we propose, as the Abhidharmic metaphysicians held, that there can be a "static moment" of time, it would no longer count as time. Time in and of itself can never be grasped.
The third and final argument shows that time cannot be considered to be a self-existing thing that is not dependent on other existing objects. This is because, as Nagarjuna has shown, there are no independent "objects" in the world. Even if there were independent objects, time could not be itself truly independent as long as it remained defined by its relation to such supposed entities. To place the argument in more contemporary terms: time is not a self-existing substratum in which equally independent things endure.
It is important to note that although Nagarjuna
denies the independent existence of time in this chapter, he is
not, apparently, denying what we might call the unmediated experience of
change. What he does deny is that there is any coherent way of grasping or
expressing this experience in terms of the flow of an independent substratum to
reality. It seems that Nagarjuna's view of time is
Time denied by him is absolute time....This is a rejection
not of temporal phenomena, but only of time and phenomena as
well as their mutual dependence so long as they are perceived
as independent entities. (Kaluphana,
Hence, although Nagarjuna makes no positive
assertions regarding time and its relation to things, his view seems open to
the interpretation that time and the things that change are essentially
"one." We might phrase his view this way: phenomena are always phenomena-in-flux
and time is always flux-in-phenomena. There is not a Time and Things that
persist through it, but only a changing of things that "is" the
change over time.
III. Eternity "Now"
As we indicated above, all of Nagarjuna's ideas are to be understood within the framework of the path toward enlightenment. Enlightenment means that one understands the equation of samsara and nirvana, or the emptiness of the life world.
Once we see that there are no self-existent things in the universe, we come to regard "things" as "empty" of self-being, relative and dependent. The very emptiness of things, in fact, is what makes things be the way they really are. Once we give up the categorization of things as being, not-being, both being and not-being and neither being nor not-being, we can become open to the true experience of the life world. Finding the emptiness of samsara becomes finding the emptiness of nirvana. Nirvana has no own-being. Nirvana is not a "thing" to be found "elsewhere." The limits of samsara and nirvana are identical; "there is nothing whatever that differentiates the two" (MMK 25.19 and 25.20).
If one can see this to be true, it is perhaps not too much to ask that we can imagine that surpassing all categories of "thinghood," including space and time, we will be in a position to at least imagine that an experience without reference to them is possible. This may give us some clue as to the meaning of the Buddhists' reports that enlightenment allows one to experience a kind of ever present eternity.
The conceptual equation of samsara and nirvana, however, can not do the all of the philosophic work (let alone the real, practical work of the devotee) of encompassing a new apprehension of time into enlightenment. This must be done by an inward turn to the self -- a rooting out of all notions of the last and most intractable ground of own-being: the notions of the substantial self with an eternal soul.
Nagarjuna closes the MMK with a final chapter
reaffirming the "correctness" of
(Concluding remarks: the point of
our expositional account)
There is an implied psychological and metaphysical doctrine in this final concern of the MMK, which, along with the previous discussions of motion, space, causality, and the path of release can help us synthesize Nagarjuna's view of time.
(1) Because of self-attachment, there is a strong tendency to hope that a kind of hypostatized Time (call it Eternity) will provide a last refuge for maintaining our self-identity. This Time will either provide a final home for the soul or will serve as a kind of netherland apart from the world that souls visit between the cycles of birth and death. Nagarjuna's denial of our knowledge of the self's ultimate destination not only brings us back to the present reality, but quite significantly, removes the two "ends" of time, the past and the future, from consideration. Hence, this feature of Nagarjuna's view anticipates the absorbing concern with the here and now that became so important to Zen.
(2) Nagarjuna uses ontological principles and logic, but also attempts to return us to immediate experience. Truly observed, space, time and motion have no own-being. Likewise, perceptible "things" are known to be empty, participating in the empty field of phenomenal becoming. If we pay attention to things just as they are, we can see them no longer in space or motion or time. If we can separate them at all, time and the changing thing are merely two aspects of the same perception. Time itself is never grasped, but changing things continue. It might be stated this way: emptiness "becomes" or empties itself in the form of thing-in-motion, thing-in-space, or thing-in-time.
(3) The understanding of time is a kind of spiritual opening. It enables
us to face death with equanimity. As Dogen says,
Life is a stage of time and death is stage of time, like,
for example, winter and spring. We do not suppose that
winter becomes spring, or say that spring becomes summer.
Although time stages have a before and after, they each have their own integrity. The enlightened one accepts the integrity of all time stages, as did Hui Neng when he calmly explained his coming death to his disciples: "It is only natural that I should go" (Price, p. 106).
There is a further aspect to the spiritual aspect of understanding and
experiencing of time that Nagarjuna seems to
indicate. He speaks in several spots in the MMK of the "blessed cessation
of appearances" (see discussion of space above and verse 5.8 of MMK) and
the "cessation of conditioned elements" (25.24 and 16.4) as results
of enlightenment or of entering nirvana. Undoubtedly, desire ceases in nirvana,
but does time cease too? One is reminded of the Zen conception of "walking
enlightenment" described in the Sutra of Hui Neng: "Let the essence of mind and all phenomenal
objects be in a state of thusness.
Then you will be in samadhi all the time"
(Price, p. 80). Samadhi was traditionally conceived to
be "timeless," but here it is also present in time. Dogen's view of the eternal present is also related.
The relation of these conceptions time and enlightenment, which grew out
of later Buddhist thought, to specific passages in Nagarjuna
is admittedly speculative, but their indebtedness to the spirit of Nagarjuna's great masterpiece, I think, is not. In any
event, I believe we can only begin to understand Nagarjuna
through an authentic struggle to understand not only the letter but the spirit of his text. The displacement of the ordinary
views about the life world, and perhaps more importantly in our times, our
scientific views, is a first and most difficult step on the path of the
We shall be very far from understanding Nagarjuna
we if attempt to understand his logical, epistemological and ontological as
abstractions. Nagarjuna's aim is salvation and logic
and arguments are merely tools. The path of enlightenment can only be cleared by
the use of argument; it can not be traversed. If
space, causality and time are barriers for the ego's release, Nagarjuna has attempted to provide us with means to help us
remove these barriers. Perhaps the most difficult barrier for many will be the
conviction that time moves of its own accord and that it limits or constrains
the life of the soul not only now but in the hereafter. Nagarjuna's
arguments show us how time, like ordinary things in the life world, can be understood as "empty." Once it is understood as empty the burden of time is lifted from the
soul; time ceases and life begins.
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