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Elaboration of the Buddhist and the Scientific Understandings of the Nature of Time

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, September 2007

Session Four: Past, Present, and Future in Buddhism

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:43 hours)

Introduction

Within the discussion of time, we also have the discussion of the future, the present, and the past times. Jorge touched on that a little bit in the discussion of blocks of time. And if there’s nothing that is an absolute present, then likewise past and future, which would be in relation to present, also become very relative. But when we talk about past, present, and future in Buddhism, we conceptualize and express it very differently. We talk about the not-yet-happening (ma-’ong-ba) of something or an event, the present-happening (da-lta-ba) of something or of an event, and the no-longer-happening (’das-pa) of something or an event. It’s not that the past or the future is some sort of thing that is occurring somewhere over there or something like that. It is a not-yet-happening of something, present-happening of something, or the no-longer-happening of something or an event.

And three of the unshared features of a Buddha (sangs-rgyas-kyi chos ma-’dres-pa), not shared with the liberated beings, or arhats, is that his deep awareness – deep awareness (ye-shes), by the way, is mental consciousness functioning on the basis of combined shamatha and vipashyana, and from a tantra point of view it’s the clear-light mind (’od-gsal) – his deep awareness permeates everything in seeing the not-yet-happening time, the presently happening time, and the no-longer-happening time. So it permeates everything, it penetrates everything, so it’s able to take everything or is involved with everything in a cognitive way, all without any attachment (chags-med) or impediment (thogs-med). A Buddha has no attachment to what he sees or knows, because he’s rid himself of all emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib). So he’s not attached, drawn to it, and has to stay to it, thinking that it’s solidly existent. And no impediment, because he has no cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). So there’s nothing that he’s prevented or hindered from knowing. But the question is: What is it that a Buddha’s omniscient deep awareness actually cognizes nonconceptually – it’s nonconceptual – when a Buddha cognizes the three times?

We cognize things conceptually in terms of, let’s say, a memory of a past event. Basically what’s happening is a mental hologram associated with a category of the past event, and this mental hologram is something similar to the past event that represents it. And each time we remember it, it could be a slightly different mental hologram, and we put it all in that category of the past event. So that’s conceptual. And a similar type of thing in terms of imagining what has not yet happened. So that’s conceptual.

The Buddha is able to cognize all of this nonconceptually, which means not through a category. And I must say I still haven’t found it very easy to understand what it means, that a Buddha knows these things nonconceptually. But in any case, there are many fine distinctions that are made here and many different opinions by different Buddhist schools and masters. So let’s look at just some of them, and let’s look at it in terms of karmic causes and results experienced on the mental continuum of an individual. In other words, we’ll look at no-longer-happenings, presently-happenings, and not-yet-happenings of things in terms of cause and effect – like the no-longer-happening cause and the not-yet-happened result, which is very relevant in terms of our discussion of karma and how things are transmitted.

Not-Yet-Happenings, Presently-Happenings, and No-Longer-Happenings

So there are many fine distinctions which are made here in the Buddhist analysis. And Buddhism, in terms of karmic results or karma, distinguishes as separate validly knowable items:

  • The not-yet-happening of, let’s say, our being reborn as a frog. So the not-yet-happening of it.

  • Then there’s the not-yet-happened rebirth as a frog.

  • And then there’s our rebirth as a frog that can or will happen, but is not yet happening.

Those are three quite different things.

Participant: Can you repeat that?

Alex: Let me repeat that.

  • There is the not-yet-happening of our being reborn as a frog. You know, I recognize that it’s not yet happening, so I’m focusing on it not yet happening. The not-yet-happening of what? Rebirth as a frog.

  • Then there is the not-yet-happened rebirth as a frog. Right? So a not-yet-happened rebirth.

Both of those are negation phenomena (dgag-pa), by the way – something known by negating or refuting something else, and we’ll get more into an analysis of what that is.

  • But then there’s our rebirth as a frog – that’s an affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa) – that can or will happen, but is not yet happening. So that’s an affirmation phenomenon (we’ll talk about the distinction later, shortly).

And we can do the same with the other three times: We can speak about the present-happening of our being reborn as a frog, the presently happening rebirth itself as a frog, and our rebirth as a frog that’s presently happening. We don’t speak so much of these differences, but you can. More relevant in the discussion of karma is what is no longer happening and what is yet to happen but not happening yet.

Buddhism likewise distinguishes the no-longer-happening of our being reborn as a frog, the no-longer-happening rebirth as a frog, and our rebirth as a frog that’s no longer happening. Also they speak about passing-aways – that’s this word shikpa (zhig-pa) – the passing-away of our rebirth as a frog, the passed-away rebirth as a frog, and the rebirth as a frog that is passed away.

So all of these are discussed separately in the Buddhist analysis, and then it gets even further distinguished. There’s also the never-happened of something that could have happened, such as our being reborn as a frog once we’ve become a liberated being. Right? That never happened, never can happen, but it could have happened. And then there’s the never-happened of something that never could have happened, such as our rebirth as a truly existent person. Right? So these are also different phenomena.

Can We Know a Result That Is Not Yet Happening?

Now, can we know our rebirth as a frog that can or will happen but which has not yet happened? Can we know that? That’s talking about a so-called future event. Can you know rebirth as a frog that can or will happen but which has not yet happened? If it was truly nonexistent and thus unknowable, it could never happen, could it? Remember we had this whole discussion on the voidness of results: If the result at the time of the cause was totally nonexistent, how could it change? And truly nonexistent, how could it change from being nonexistent to existent?

Participant: Yeah, but that is assuming that there is something that is the nonknowableness of the thing and that it’s there somehow blocking the knowableness.

Alex: Well, then is there an obscuration there, a mental obscuration, a cognitive obscuration that’s preventing us from knowing the not-yet-happened rebirth? But if we became omniscient, we would know it. That’s beside the point. Because obviously as we develop further on the path, with more and more concentration, we get these extrasensory powers to be able to know past and future lives. So we are currently obscured from that.

Is there something on the side of the object that makes it knowable, a knowable phenomenon? No. That’s one of the big points in Prasangika philosophy, that not only is there nothing on the side of the object, a findable distinguishing characteristic, that makes it a table or a chair or firewood, or anything like that, but there’s no distinguishing characteristic findable on the side of the object that even makes it into a knowable object – that puts a big solid line or a plastic envelope around it, separating this item from the atoms and molecules of the air around it, and makes it some entity there by itself that can be known by itself.

After all, when we view a sight, let’s say of this room, how do you know that this colored shape and that colored shape don’t go together to form an object? I’m putting all these colored shapes together and saying that it forms a sight of Katja, of Katja’s body. But I could put together part of the colored shape of her jacket with the colored shape of the wall. So is there something inside that set of colored shapes that makes it a knowable object, Katja’s body? Well, no. That’s not an easy one, by the way.

If it was totally nonexistent and unknowable – this rebirth as a frog that can or will happen but which has not yet happened – it could never happen. But then can we know our rebirth as a frog that could have happened but which never happened and never will happen (such as this type of worse rebirth once we’ve become a liberated being)?

Participant: By inference.

Alex: By inference? Maybe it could have happened that I was reborn as a frog, but it never will happen. But could I know the rebirth as a frog that possibly could happen but hasn’t happened yet? And then that’s the interesting question: How much detail would you have to know in order to know it? Can we know our rebirth as a truly existent person that never happened and which never could have happened? Could you know that?

Participant: We can’t know it because it’s not a phenomenon.

Alex: You can’t know it because it’s not a phenomenon: that doesn’t exist. We could have a mental image that we incorrectly label as representing our rebirth as a truly existent person. That often we have when we have a simple-minded view of rebirth and we think, “Alex or Christian is now reborn as the frog,” so it’s a truly existent Alex reborn now in the form of a frog, but you couldn’t really know that validly.

Are There Not-Yet-Happenings of Things That Could Never Happen?

So there are not-yet-happenings of things that can happen, such as our rebirth as a frog. But are there not-yet-happenings of things that could never happen, like our being reborn as a truly existent person? That’s an interesting question. Think about that. There’s a not-yet-happening of our possible rebirth as a frog. What about our not-yet-happening of a possible rebirth as a frog once we’ve become a liberated being? Well, it doesn’t exist anymore. That is a type of cessation or stopping. That’s called a nonanalytical cessation or stopping (so-sor brtags-pa min-pa’i ’gog-pa), that it is removed from the mental continuum not by analysis, like ignorance would be removed, but just by the fact of the circumstance. If we have entered the bus through the back door, our possibility of entering through the front door doesn’t exist anymore, does it?

Participant: But a Buddha can become all beings. A Buddha can go in all beings.

Alex: What do you mean, a Buddha can go in all beings?

Participant: He could take birth as a frog.

Alex: A Buddha could take birth as a frog? No, that’s not called rebirth. A Buddha can, as an emanation body, emanate in the form of a frog. That’s not a samsaric rebirth as a frog. I mean, that’s different.

But what about the not-yet-happening of things that could never happen, like being reborn as a truly existent person? Could that ever exist on a mental continuum? No.

Participant: Why not? It’s not yet happened.

Alex: But it could never happen, and it’s not just that it could have happened at some time but now it can no longer happen.

So these are different types of phenomena that Buddhism differentiates. And so we can see that it starts to become very, very precise.

There are not-yet-happenings of things that have occurred before – you might have been reborn as a frog before – but can occur again, although each specific rebirth as a frog will be individual and different. This is very important in terms of the discussion, for instance, of anger. There’s a not-yet-happening of anger which happened before – we’ve been angry before – and it could occur again. So during that period in between, what do we have? A not-yet-happened anger. And then you have to get into the analysis: Well, where is it? And what is it? Is it some potential sitting in your unconscious, waiting to pop out? These are the things that are analyzed here in terms of cause and effect and these type of things.

And then there are also the not-yet-happening of things that have occurred before and can never happen again, such as our rebirth in this life. Does that exist, a not-yet-happening of a rebirth in this life? No, that doesn’t exist; it’s happened already.

So think about these for a moment.

Are Not-Yet-Happenings and No-Longer-Happenings Static or Nonstatic Phenomena?

Okay, so we have all these differentiations. Now let’s talk about the not-yet-happening of something, the passing-away of something, and the no-longer-happening of something – what we would call in the West the past, the present, and the future. What you were saying is that there’s a difference between past objects (the not-yet-happening rebirth) and just the not-yet-happening of the rebirth. There’s two points of view of whether these are static or nonstatic phenomena (do they change or not?).

So one point of view, the Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika, is that they’re static (they don’t change). So what could that mean? The no-longer-happening of something or the passing-away of something doesn’t change. If there’s a no-longer-happening of anger on our mental continuum, it always remains the same – it’s just no longer happening. Some no-longer-happenings can have an end, such as the no-longer-happening on our mental continuum when anger arises again. As long as the no-longer-happening of the anger is occurring, it’s not changing – it’s just no longer happening – but then that no-longer-happening ceases to exist when anger arises again. Some no-longer-happenings have no end and will last forever, such as the no-longer-happening of anger on the mental continuum of an arhat, a liberated being. Or the no-longer-happening of a past rebirth; that’ll go on forever and won’t change – it’s a fact – it’s no longer happening.

So the no-longer-happening of anger on a mental continuum for an arhat is just an unchanging fact. Now, there’s an occasion when the no-longer-happening of the anger begins and an occasion when the no-longer-happening may end, brought about by circumstances, etc. In other words, there’s a point when the fact of anger no longer happening starts to be true and a point when the fact stops to be true, but the fact itself is not caused by anything.

Participant: You spoke of a no-longer-happening of anger concerning a normal, common person. But is that really precise? There would be a non-present-happening of anger, that’s clear. But the no-longer-happening of a certain type of anger would be the case indefinitely once this episode of anger has ceased.

Alex: Yeah, that particular episode of anger will never occur again.

Participant: But can you really speak of a no-longer-happening if there’s a possibility of it happening again?

Alex: We have just a problem here with the connotation of language. In English you can say that. Maybe in German you can’t. I changed this example to anger. Originally when I wrote this, I used the example of the light being on in the room. There’s a no-longer-happening of the light being on when you turn the light off – while the light’s on, it’s just a fact of it being on – and that no-longer-happening of the light being on would end when you put the light on. But obviously each time the light’s on, it’s a different occurrence.

Then of course that gets into the whole discussion: Is there some little thing of anger sitting there, and it sends out an emanation each time that it happens? Is there a common-denominator anger for each of these? Is there a defining characteristic of each episode of anger that makes it anger? Etc. That’s why we can only speak of tendencies; it’s not some physical type of thing. But that’s another level of analysis that we have to get into eventually.

We have to differentiate: Buddhism speaks about the attainment of things. The attainment of the no-longer-happening of anger has a cause, such as calming down, but the fact of the anger no longer happening is not caused by anything. A similar analysis can be made concerning the not-yet-happening of anger on a mental continuum. It’s an unchanging fact. So the no-longer-happening and the not-yet-happening are just facts according to this one view of Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Svatantrika.

And let me just briefly give the Prasangika point of view from the Gelugpa thing (in our last five minutes, so try to stay awake). According to Gelug Prasangika, a no-longer-happening, a passing-away, and a not-yet-happening are nonstatic phenomena. Moment one of a no-longer-happening gives rise to moment two of a no-longer-happening, and moment two gives rise to moment three. Moment one of a no-longer-happening doesn’t continue forever, does it?

The same is the case with a not-yet-happening of something – for instance, the not-yet-happening of an occurrence of anger. You could have moment x-minus-ten of the not-yet-happening, and that gives rise to moment x-minus-nine, like the countdown for a rocket taking off, the not-yet-happening of the rocket taking off: minus ten, minus nine, minus eight... So it’s a changing phenomenon.

So that is the Prasangika point of view.

Obviously there are fairly profound reasons – which I won’t get into, because I can’t claim that I really understand it or have prepared it – why one system makes more sense or less sense than another. But there are these two points of view.

I think it has to do very much with the… Because they speak in terms of the passing away of something. So the passing-away of the cause on the mental continuum – and it’s more complicated than that, what it is imputed on – that is actually what brings about or allows for the continuity or the connection between cause and effect. When the cause ceases, there’s a passing-away of the cause, and moment one of the passing-away brings about moment two, moment three. And associated with that, you have also the not-yet-happening of the result – minus ten, minus nine, minus eight, etc. – and it’s as a result of that sequence that there’s the generation of the result. This fits in much more nicely with the explanation of subtle impermanence, that things are drawing closer and closer to the end or to the result or to a higher state of entropy, this type of thing.

So that is the general discussion of past, present, and future. That gets very weird if you think of it as past, present, and future. If you translate these words as past and future and then you hear the discussion that the past is permanent and the future is permanent or static, then what? Then you’re completely misled.

Participant: Block time.

Alex: Block time. Then it sounds like block time and that it can’t change. But conceptualized in terms of no-longer-happening and not-yet-happening and presently-happening – and even if they are static, there’s just a fact – you don’t get into block time. And when we speak in terms of nonstatic no-longer-happening and presently-happening and not-yet-happening, I think it helps very much in terms of giving a more dynamic picture of the universe and time. Okay?

So let us end here. If you have any more questions, we can do that. And then we can start next time with a much deeper analysis of the temporal sequence of karmic impulse, karmic action, karmic tendency, and karmic result and see what actually is involved here with no-longer-happening causes, not-yet-happened results: How do they actually exist? What are they imputed on? Are they imputed? What do you know? Can you know them? And what does a Buddha know?

Question about Common Denominators

Okay. So do you have any questions?

Participant: There was a question about anger being continuous or not. I’ve always heard that the root of our disturbing emotions is the ignorance, so why can’t we say that the common denominator of the phenomenon is the cause? Can we say the cause is the common denominator of the effect?

Alex: Ah, very interesting question. Can we say that for many effects the cause is the common denominator? The example that he’s using is ignorance or unawareness being the cause of all the various types of anger or other disturbing emotions. Or can we say, if we shorten the causal process here, that a tendency for anger is a cause for various episodes of anger?

When we talk about a causal process, there are many, many, many different aspects of cause. Just because you’re confused about how things exist, or you don’t know how things exist, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will give rise to anger. It could give rise to attachment. It could give rise to many things. Do they share something in common, these various episodes? Yes, they share something in common in terms of coming from the same source. But what does common denominator mean? I think maybe I haven’t explained it very well, perhaps in a confusing way. A common denominator of two things is something that’s both, is what it’s actually talking about. I can only think of a terribly complicated example.

Participant: Would you say that ignorance was the common denominator?

Alex: No, you wouldn’t say that ignorance is a common denominator of anger and attachment because ignorance is not both anger and attachment.

Let me give an example. It’s a complicated example, but this comes from Chittamatra, so maybe you guys will appreciate it: The alayavijnana, the storehouse consciousness, is a common denominator between a person and a mind. Are you familiar with that one? What does that mean? That means that a storehouse consciousness has the defining characteristics of both a mind and of a person. So here’s an example of something that’s both. That’s a common denominator. So maybe common denominator isn’t the right word. It’s an example of something that’s both. The German word perhaps will help us find the English word. So are there other examples, a more common example?

Participant: Is it a mutual pervasion or something like that?

Alex: It’s not so much a mutual pervasion, but it is: Is there something that could be both? I mean, it’s often given in these very complicated definitions of things. What would be a simple example? Is there a common denominator between a table and a chair? Yes, this item here has the defining characteristics of both a table and a chair: you could rest things on it and eat off of it, and you could also sit on it.

Participant: And four legs?

Alex: Four legs? Well, but a dog is not a table or a chair. Well, you could use the dog as a table, and you could sit on the dog, that’s true.

Well, it’s not a universal. It’s not the same as a universal. It’s not the same as a category. Something that is both. Like for instance there’s no common denominator between a static and a nonstatic phenomenon; there’s nothing that’s both. There’s no common denominator between a disturbing emotion and karma; there’s nothing that’s both. Is there a common denominator between nonstatic phenomena (impermanent phenomena) and ways of being aware of something? Yes, there are many items that are both. I don’t think common denominator is the right word. I don’t know what to call it. [Alex: common locus] But that’s what they’re talking about.

So your original question was: Is ignorance the common denominator for all the different incidents of anger? No. And you couldn’t say even the tendency for anger is the common denominator. It’s not that all the different manifestations of anger are sitting inside the tendency waiting to pop out. Maybe I’m wrong biologically, but I think all the possible eggs that an ovary will produce are sort of somehow there and will come out at some point. So it’s not like that. That would be the Samkhya position actually: that the result is sitting in the cause in an unmanifest form and just waiting for the circumstances to make it pop out and be there, which is like predestination.

We’ll have to think of a better way of translating this term shitun (gzhi-mthun), but that’s what it’s talking about.

Participant: What does shitun mean?

Alex: Shi (gzhi) is “basis.” Tun (mthun) means “shared,” that it is both things.

Our discussion was: Is there something which is both the not-yet-happened result, the presently happening result, and the no-longer-happening result? Is there something which is all of them? It changes in terms of what function it’s performing, or its presence or absence, its being manifest or being unmanifest, but is there something which is there that has the defining characteristics, from its own side, of being the not-yet-happened result, the presently happening result, and the no-longer-happening result? That was what I was talking about. Or the not-yet-happened year 2006, the presently happening, and the no-longer-happening year 2006. Or each person’s experience of 2006. Is there something which is both my year 2006 measured on my mental continuum and the year 2006 measured on the continuum of the space traveler? That’s what I was talking about or Buddhism was talking about: Is there something that is all of these? And there isn’t. Or earlier Chittamatra says, “Well, conventionally there is.” Well, where is it?

Participant: In Hamburg I think they translate this term as gemeinsame Grundlage, which would be common ground.

Alex: Right, common ground also doesn’t convey the meaning.

Participant: But it’s a literal translation.

Alex: It’s a literal translation.

Participant: [asking in German about the alayavijnana]

Alex: Oh, that’s a basis. The alayavijnana (kun-gzhi rnam-shes) is a... well, alaya is “basis, all-pervasive basis.” So that’s kunshi (kun-gzhi) not shitun.

Participant: What she means is that it’s both the basis for the person as well as for the mind.

Alex: For the mind? I mean, not that it’s a basis for a person and for a mind in the sense of a source of it. It has the defining characteristics of a person and a mind, but that doesn’t mean that a person is a way of knowing and a mind is a way of knowing. A person is not a way of knowing. It gets very complicated – this is not an easy topic – but Chittamatra asserts two types of persons.

Participant: Two types of persons or two types of subjects? Anyway.

Alex: Anyway, another topic. Well, it’s because of the whole discussion that when you see the table, you’d have to say that not only does the visual consciousness see the table, but you’d also have to conventionally say that “I see the table.” Not only the mind experiences something – I experience something. So what’s going on with that? And these are various attempts to explain that. All right? So is there something that knows the table that has the defining characteristics of both a person and a mind, that from one point of view you can say the mind knows it, from another point of view you can say, “I know it”? This is the point here. Anyway, enough for today.

Let’s end with a dedication: We think whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.