Elaboration of the Buddhist and the Scientific Understandings of the Nature of Time
Berlin, Germany, September 2007
Session Five: The Relation between Objects of the Three Times
We have been discussing the whole issue of time from a Buddhist point of view and from a relativistic point of view in current Western science. And we’ve seen that, from a Buddhist point of view, time is referring to the interval that can be measured on a continuum between a cause and an effect. This can be either in terms of a mental continuum, an individual mental continuum, in terms of the whole functioning of karma. Or we can also in some systems speak in terms of a continuum of an external phenomenon in terms of the cause-and-effect type of what happens to this external phenomenon, like a rock or something like that, which is not due to the karma of the rock but is a mechanical process. And we’ve seen that because it is something which is imputable, then it is dependent on the mental-labeling system of the individual and, from a Western scientific point of view, also on the speed of the individual, etc.
And we’ve also begun to look at the issues of past, present, and future. And we’ve seen that in some Buddhist systems – well, in all Buddhist systems – that we are not really talking about what would be exactly equivalent to past, present, and future from a Western point of view, but actually we’re speaking about the no-longer-happening of something, the present-happening of something, and the not-yet-happening of something.
And when we look at the no-longer-happening and the not-yet-happenings, these are – from the point of view of some Buddhist schools – these are static phenomena: they don’t change; they are merely a fact that is true. And that fact can come to be true – in other words, there can be the attainment of that fact being true – with a certain circumstance, like you perform an action, and then from that it comes about that there is a no-longer-happening of the action, but doing the action doesn’t actually create the no-longer-happening of the action in the same way as a seed would give rise to a sprout. That no-longer-happening is going to then be a static fact that is going to be the case, not change, until there is an ending of it – that ending of it can be, let’s say, when there’s a no-longer-happening of anger, it could be when another episode of anger arises (this would be in the mind of a nonliberated being) – or it could be forever. No-longer-happening of coming to class yesterday is going to be a static fact. Having come to the class yesterday is going to be a static fact forever, without an end.
From a Gelug Prasangika point of view, this no-longer-happening of something and the not-yet-happening of something are nonstatic phenomena, which means that they change from moment to moment, they are affected by various circumstances, and they’re going to produce a result. So there’s a no-longer-happening let’s say of the event plus one, that moment of no-longer-happening, and that’s going to give rise to moment two of the no-longer-happening, and so on. And it’s a type of nonstatic phenomenon that doesn’t degenerate.
There are two types of nonstatic phenomena: there are those that degenerate and those that do not degenerate. Those that degenerate would be something for instance like our body – it is gradually falling apart – whereas there are other types of nonstatic phenomena that don’t degenerate, like the mental continuum (it goes on from moment to moment, it’s going to be aware of different things at moment to moment, but it’s not getting weaker and weaker until it finally dissipates and is finished). So, like that, these no-longer-happenings and the not-yet-happenings – it’s not that the no-longer-happening is getting weaker and weaker and weaker and the not-yet-happening is getting stronger and stronger until it becomes so strong that it gives rise to a presently happening result. It’s not like that.
You see, this is the interesting point of how do you define static and nonstatic. Static and nonstatic, as you recall, are the same words as permanent and impermanent. But I fully object to the terms permanent and impermanent because they imply eternal or temporary, and there are some phenomena that change from moment to moment and that last forever (like the mental continuum) and others which change from moment to moment and are temporary. And so if we use permanent in the sense of eternal, then you can say the mental continuum is eternal but nevertheless it’s nonstatic (it changes from moment to moment). In the Kagyu tradition, they speak of the mental continuum as being permanent, so-called permanent, but there they mean eternal, which everybody would agree. And so we have yet another variable – or parameter, I should say – of does something degenerate or not degenerate so long as it exists. So you could say that it is permanent in the sense that it doesn’t degenerate but nevertheless it’s nonstatic (it changes from moment to moment). So I always think that it’s much better to speak in terms of static and nonstatic.
So when we have these no-longer-happenings of things or events and the not-yet-happening of things or events, it’s something which can be eternal (like the no-longer-happening of having been here yesterday in this class) or it could be temporary (in terms of the no-longer-happening of anger which can arise again), but it doesn’t degenerate, so in that sense its level doesn’t change.
So we have to be quite clear here about how many parameters are involved when we use these words permanent and impermanent or static or nonstatic or eternal or temporary and so on. They’re all the same word in the Tibetan (rtag-pa, mi-rtag-pa) and Sanskrit (nitya, anitya), although of course there are synonyms that can be used to specify the different meanings.
It’s very important not to get confused when we speak about – especially in Western terms – the past and the future. That’s where we get into trouble. And also when we try to put the Buddhist teachings together with Western science, we get into trouble if we start to try to look at the Buddhist explanation in terms of past and future, as if the future were something which is out there, or the past is something out there, and if you went either faster than the speed of light or whatever you could catch up with it, something like that. That’s certainly not the case. This one has to be very clear about, even in terms of Western science, and this we got into in our discussion yesterday about information in terms of the Western presentation from science.
If for instance we look at the light from a star and we say, “Well, that star is one billion light-years away,” are we seeing the past when we see that light? Well, no. We’re not seeing the past. We’re seeing the light which was caused by an event a billion years ago by our reckoning of years or by whatever standard of units we’re using, but we are seeing some information, and this information is like this passing away that we were speaking about. There’s a passing away of the light with the information leaving that star, and then that gives rise to a next moment and a next moment and a next moment, and that’s what we are observing. We are observing as if it were a passing away, but here it’s an affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa), the light, that its stream of continuity started this long time ago. But we’re not seeing the past itself. That, I think, is very important. And if we could go faster than the speed of light, we’d be able to see the future because we would go further than the information. This also is completely incorrect.
Participant: But I thought that when we see the light, we can consider the fact that it comes from a certain point. And so yes, we are seeing the light in a special position, in the now. But isn’t the way that we see it – and see in terms of understand – is that the light has come from the past, and so we see the past?
Alex: Ah, now this is very good. He’s saying that when we see the light from the star that’s a billion light-years away, don’t we know from seeing the light that it originated a billion years away. Yes, we do. That’s called inference. We infer that it originated or started one billion years ago, but we’re not seeing the past.
You see, this is the whole confusion here. What do we mean by the past? We’re seeing information that originated a very great distance in space-time away from where we are now, at the present. So what is it that we’re seeing? If we change to the Buddhist terminology and conceptual framework, we are seeing the presently happening light which indicates a no-longer-happening of the star exploding or whatever it was. So it indicates. I mean, we could probably analyze a little bit more specifically what the relationship is here between the light and the no-longer-happening of the explosion of the star or whatever it was, but it’s not the same. That explosion of the star is no longer happening. We are just seeing information that derived from that.
Then we could of course get into the discussion: Is that information static or nonstatic? Well, here we have the same discussion that we just had. It hasn’t degenerated, but it certainly has changed from moment to moment. Why has it changed from moment to moment? Because in a sense it’s moved; it’s come closer. And that’s the whole point when we talk about the nonstatic phenomenon, the nonstaticness of a no-longer-happening of something – each moment it’s getting further away from the event that caused it in a time scale (time, remember, is an interval, so the interval is getting bigger). And the not-yet-happening is changing from moment to moment because that interval between it and the presently happening result is getting shorter and shorter, but it’s not degenerating, as in the light is not degenerating. Understand? Interesting.
So now the analysis. So it’s not that the future is some sort of quantum possibility that’s existing somewhere. You know, you were giving one of the theories yesterday that all the quantum possibilities actually exist at the same time simultaneously in some sort of virtual existence, as it were.
Participant: Parallel universes upon the collapsing of the wave function.
Alex: Right. Parallel universes upon the collapse of the wave function – when there’s an observer, basically, that observes the things. So is that mental labeling from a Prasangika point of view? Is that having the appearance of it from a Chittamatra point of view? What is it? Let’s not get into that. But at that point, then, one thing happens. But it’s not that those things, those different parallel universes, from a Buddhist point of view actually have findable existence. What kind of existence do they have? It’s a no-longer-happening. There’s a no-longer-happening of it. And we’ll get into this in our discussion of results that can or will happen but have not yet happened, that are not yet happening, in terms of the results of any karmic impulse that has come up on our mental continuum whether we have enacted it or not.
Now analysis from the Prasangika point of view of not-yet-happenings, passings-away, and no-longer-happenings.
We have a temporal sequence here on a mental continuum. There’s a karmic impulse. That karmic impulse can lead to a karmic action. When we talk about karma – well, there’s several systems, so let’s not get into that. Let’s just speak in a simple system, that a karmic impulse can lead to a karmic action; there’s an impulse to do something, and you may do it or not do it, but whether we do it or we don’t do it, nevertheless there in the karmic impulse, with or without the action, there is a… It’s more complicated than this: there is a karmic force, there’s a karmic tendency, there’s a karmic habit, etc. We can look at the detail for that in the various articles that are on my website. Let’s just simplify it to a karmic tendency; that’s the word seed (sa-bon). Usually the discussion is always in terms of the tendency or the seed because that helps a little bit in understanding causal processes, like a sprout comes from a seed. And then there is a karmic result that is presently happening. So there’s a sequence here, causal sequence.
[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika.]
Now, during that temporal sequence – all occurring on an individual mental continuum – there’s also imputable on that mental continuum the not-yet-happening of the result. So how do we understand this? What is the not-yet-happening of the result? Be sure I don’t get confused because this is very complicated. If I get confused, then you’ll get confused.
Various phenomena have different aspects or part… part (cha) is literally the word. We should erase aspect here and put part in the chart because it’s a different word in Tibetan. Okay, there’s a different part; various aspects have different parts to them. And by parts… See, this is a difficult word. I don’t really know to translate it properly. It’s like an aspect, but the word aspect (rnam-pa) is used usually in terms of a mental aspect, which is like an appearance of something. This is a part. We’re talking about parts, but we’re not talking about parts like the parts of the table – the leg and the top and so on, like that. It’s sort of halfway between a part and an aspect. But anyway there’s a certain… Maybe facet. Facet maybe is a good word for this. I don’t know.
Maybe we should go into the difference here in English because you’re not native English speakers, except for one of you. Okay, a different facet. Facet comes from the word face. So when we have a diamond, for example, all the different faces of it, in a sense, are the different facets of the diamond. Maybe that’s not technically correct, but anyway that’s the image that I’d like to use. I’m not an expert on stones. But there’s a certain facet, or aspect or part, of the karmic tendency which is its temporarily not giving rise to its cause. Do we need the German for that? Would that help?
Participant: Temporarily not giving rise to its cause, not result?
Alex: Not giving rise to its… Oh, here, you see? Confusion. Not-giving-rise-to-its-result (re-zhig-gis ma-skye-pa’i cha). We have to polish all of this because it is complicated. Yeah, on my piece of paper here I wrote result, but anyway. Temporarily not giving rise to its result.
Participant: It’s a facet of what?
Alex: It’s a facet of the karmic tendency. But we’re talking about that negation phenomenon, the temporarily-not-giving-rise-to-its-result. And that temporarily-not-giving-rise-to-its-result, that negation phenomenon, is equivalent to the not-yet-happening of the result. So the basis for labeling the not-yet-happening of the result is the karmic tendency for the result. Right? And the karmic tendency – its basis for labeling is the mental continuum.
When we speak about the temporarily-not-giving-rise-to-its-result as a facet of the karmic tendency, actually its basis for imputation is also the karmic tendency. It’s a facet of the karmic tendency, like its nonstaticness or impermanence is a facet of it. Right? So it’s like various things being on piggy-back. Like we say in English, piggy-back – something carrying it on the back. So the karmic tendency is sort of piggy-back on the mental continuum. And the not-yet-happening of the result, or the temporarily-not-giving-rise-to-its-result, is piggy-back on top of the karmic tendency.
But actually it’s hard to make a distinction here. I mean, piggy-back I don’t know is the correct word. First of all because the basis for the negation of the not-yet-happening of the result is the absence of the result (‘bras-bu med-pa). So we will need to differentiate a basis of negation (dgag-gzhi) from a basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). These are different words. All right?
We are going to have to bring in a number of definitions which are not terribly easy here. We need to understand first the difference between an affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa) and a negation phenomenon (dgag-pa). These are the technical terms. Because, well, we need to understand the karmic tendency and the result are affirmation phenomena, while the not-yet-happening of the result is a negation phenomenon. So what’s the difference?
An affirmation phenomenon has a very technical definition; we can simplify it as well, but let’s give the technical definition first. An affirmation phenomenon is a validly knowable phenomenon that is apprehended – that means correctly and decisively – in a manner in which an object to be negated is not exclusively precluded, or cut off or dismissed or rejected, by the sounds that express the phenomenon.
What that means is that for instance with apple, the sound of the word apple doesn’t explicitly, directly exclude something else; it’s just apple. And remember in our seminar on negation phenomena, there’s this whole thing of nonstatic. Nonstatic is still an affirmation phenomenon because even though you have the word non or not in that, it doesn’t explicitly exclude static or dismiss static. I mean, you didn’t have to know static, things not changing, in order to know that something is changing.
What was the other example? You used the word atom. Do you remember in that discussion, Jorge? A is “not” and tomos is “to cut.” Well, you don’t have to know cut or anything like that. It doesn’t explicitly cut off something or preclude something.
Participant: Because you can’t conceive of an atom without thinking about this aspect?
Alex: Well, you didn’t have to know it beforehand. I mean, it’s like amitabha. The word amitabha is “unmeasurable light.” Well, even though there’s a word in there which is a negation, it doesn’t really negate anything in terms of being able to understand amitabha. So, in other words, to know it, the sound of the words don’t really have to negate anything, even if it’s a negation word. That’s an affirmation phenomenon. You just know it. You can learn it. Like if you teach a baby apple, you just point to it and say apple. It’s very different from teaching the baby not an apple; the baby has to know apple before.
Alex: Why? How do you know that something’s not an apple if you don’t know an apple?
Participant: Because it’s not an apple.
Alex: Yeah, but wouldn’t you have to know what an apple is in order to know that something’s not an apple? Well, it’s not only not an apple – it’s not a dog either. Or maybe it is a dog; a dog is not an apple. Anyway, is it clear?
So then a negation phenomenon is a validly knowable phenomenon that’s apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated is explicitly precluded by the conceptual cognition that cognizes the phenomenon. That’s a very difficult definition.
So in order to know not an apple, you have to conceptually eliminate apple, and then you know not an apple. Whereas to validly know a karmic result, that doesn’t entail any object to be negated that is being explicitly cut off by the sounds that express the karmic result. Do you follow that?
Participant: You said a nonstatic phenomenon is an affirmation?
Alex: Nonstaticness. Impermanence. Let’s think in terms of impermanence. There are two different opinions here. Impermanence is an affirmation phenomenon according to the textbooks of Jetsunpa. According to some other textbooks, a textbook by Kunkyen Jamyang-zheypa, it is a negation phenomenon. This is a thing of debate. I’m just reminding us. We had a big, big discussion of this before. Maybe it wasn’t so wise to bring it up, so let’s not get stuck here; it’s not so relevant to our discussion. Okay? I mean, it basically is saying: to know that something is changing from moment to moment, did you have to have a concept before that of something that doesn’t change? No, not really. That’s the point. So it’s not like in order to know that something is not an apple you had to know beforehand and have some concept of what an apple is. All right.
[See: Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]
Both affirmation phenomena and negation phenomena are mentally labeled on something. A karmic tendency is an affirmation phenomenon. Everything is mentally labeled on parts and causes and things like that, so we can have affirmation phenomena mentally labeled on parts and causes and things like that, or we can have negation phenomena labeled on various things. In the case of a karmic tendency, that’s not a way of being aware, it’s not a form of physical phenomenon, so it is really just mentally labeled on something.
There’s a tendency. The tendency is present so long as there’s a possibility that it will give a result. It has to have that aspect of temporarily-not-giving-rise-to-its-result, which means that it could give rise to its result. If it no longer has that aspect, if it can’t give rise to its result – if you could impute on it not being able to give rise to its result – then I don’t think you could mentally label the karmic tendency on the mental continuum anymore. There’s no tendency.
Tendency implies that it’s able to give rise to its result; it’s just temporarily not doing it. Do you follow that? That’s how you get rid of it. Because for it to give rise to the result, you need circumstances. If there are no circumstances – and this we get in the discussion of the twelve links of dependent arising – if you don’t have craving and some obtainer disturbing emotion, both of which are based on grasping for true existence or ignorance and so on, unawareness, there’s nothing that will ripen this karmic tendency, in a sense, to give rise to the result. So then you can’t say that it’s temporarily not giving rise to its result – it can never give rise to its result, so it’s finished. That’s why I mentioned yesterday: Is there such a thing as a not-yet-happening of something that could never happen or could no longer happen? Never happen was rebirth as a truly existent person. No longer happen would be anger on the mental continuum of a liberated being. So these things are important to understand if we want to understand how in the world do we purify karma.
Okay. So there’s a basis of labeling. Now, with a negation phenomenon there’s something which is negated. So what is negated with the not-yet-happening of the result? This is important to understand. What is negated by the not-yet-happening of the result is the present-happening of the result. It’s not the result th at’s being negated – it’s the present-happening of the result, because it’s a not-yet-happening of the result. Do you follow that? This now becomes interesting. So in order to know the not-yet-happening of the result, you just need to apprehend and then cut off the present-happening of the result that you could know conceptually. Then the real question is: Do you have to know of the result in order to negate the present-happening of the result?
Participant: To know the not-yet-happening of the result, you have to negate the present-happening of the result, but you would have to do this on the basis of the possibility of it ever happening.
Alex: Right, you’d have to do this on the basis of the possibility of it happening.
Participant: Otherwise it would just be not presently happening.
Alex: The absence of inherent existence, or true existence, is negating not the presence of true existence, but the existence of true existence, if we can say that. Those are two different words, in Tibetan at least and in English as well. So this becomes really the question: Do you have to know the result in order to negate the present-happening of the result?
Participant: You couldn’t, because the result doesn’t only depend on the karma; it depends on some circumstances.
Alex: Right, the result depends on the circumstances and so on, not just on the karma, and it is variable. That’s why we bring in the topic of the result that can or will happen but is not yet happening.
Okay, so the object of negation of the not-yet-happening of the result is the present-happening of the result. This is similar to the object of negation of the absence of the result is the presence of the result. Well, did you have to know the presence of the result beforehand in order to negate it?
Participant: It depends on how you mean it. You would have to know what the presence is?
Alex: Well, conceptually you could imagine it. You could imagine it. You could imagine what the result could be. This gets into our whole quantum discussion. There are many possibilities. There are certain things that are impossible, like happiness coming from a destructive action. The result has to be in the same category of phenomenon as the cause. There are many laws here that restrict what are the possible results of a cause, but within that there are many possibilities, like many quantum possibilities, but they’re not parallel universes that are existing in some sort of way. I mean, they have a certain manner of existence depending on the school of philosophy that we’re following here in Buddhism. In Chittamatra are they totally conceptional? Then we get into the whole discussion of are they truly existent, truly nonexistent, what kind of existence they have. We have the differentiation between objective and metaphysical phenomena. There’s a whole big discussion.
Participant: This tendency to have this potentiality for it, this idea that there’s something potentially going to happen – this might be an inference of the results. You infer that there might be a result.
Alex: If it’s temporarily not happening, temporarily not giving rise to its result, that implies that it could.
Participant: You also have a notion of what could happen.
Alex: Yes, but is what could happen specific? That’s really the issue. And it’s very much dependent on many, many different factors.
Now, there is something called the basis or the location of the negation. Like, for example, the absence of an apple on the tabletop. The object of negation is the apple. The basis for the negation, the location for the negation, is the tabletop. So there’s a difference between what’s being negated and the location of the negation.
Well, let’s take a pause and have our break now, and then we will return to this. This is not an easy point, and I want to check something. At least what we need to understand is there’s an absence of the result on the mental continuum. Right? And because there’s an absence of the result, what’s the basis for saying that there is a not-yet-happening of the result? The basis is the absence of the result, but the not-yet-happening of the result is a facet of the karmic tendency. Maybe that’s a little bit clearer. It’s not a facet of the absence of the result. The absence of the result is a nothing, in a sense.
Participant: It’s also connected to circumstances.
Alex: Well, circumstances are necessary for there to be a present-happening of the result. But we’ll get into this in terms of what is the cause of the result.
This is a very, very important point. Let me just introduce it here. It’s not that the not-yet-happening result changes into the presently happening result. Because remember we had no common… We were using the word common denominator. Maybe shared locus is perhaps closer to the meaning. There’s nothing that can be both the not-yet-happening result and the presently-happening result. So it’s not that there’s a result on a conveyer belt that’s not yet-happening and then it’s happening. The not-yet-happening result is not what’s called the obtainer cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) – like a seed transforms and then you get a result, a sprout (it’s called the obtainer cause) – the not-yet-happening result is not the obtainer cause of the presently-happening result. It doesn’t transform into it. The karmic tendency that transforms into it is the obtainer cause. That’s very, very important to understand. What obtains the result – sometimes that’s called the material cause, but that’s not quite accurate because we’re not talking about the atoms that make up the result if the result is some physical object.
Okay, let’s have our break, more coffee, and then let’s see if we can understand this.
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