The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

What Does a Buddha Know
in Knowing the Past,
Present, and Future?

Alexander Berzin
October 2007

Part One: Temporally Related Phenomena

Introduction

The past, the present, and the future are important topics to study on the Buddhist path. This is because, for the purification of karma, it is helpful to understand the nature of past destructive actions that we have committed and their future karmic results. Also, with a bodhichitta aim, we need to focus on our individual future enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve. Do any of these things exist now? Is there such a thing as “the past” or “the future” that we can know now? If so, how do they exist? Are they happening now? How can we focus on them?

Past, Present, and Future

Western thought discusses time in terms of past, present, and future. This formulation refers to the sequence of the three times from the perspective of the present. For instance, from the perspective of the present year 2007:

  • the past refers to the past year 2006,

  • the present refers to the present year 2007,

  • the future refers to the next year 2008.

In Buddhist terminology, such a sequence is formulated as:

  • the no-longer-happening (‘ das-pa) or passed-happening of something – be it an object, an event, or an experience of either of the two,

  • the present-happening (da-lta-ba) of something else, following the no-longer-happening of something before that,

  • the not-yet-happening (ma-‘ong-ba) of yet something else, following the present-happening of something before that.

Buddhism also speaks of something’s “previously-having-perished” (zhig-pa). According to the Gelug Prasangika-Madhyamaka tenet system, this is equivalent to the “no-longer-happening” of something.

A more common variant way of conceptualizing and expressing the three times in Buddhism, however, is with respect to one object, event, or experience of either of the two – for instance, the year 2007 – before, during, and after it occurs. In this case, the order of the three time perspectives is reversed. In Western terminology:

  • first, before it has happened, the year 2007 is in the future,

  • when the year 2007 is happening, it is in the present;

  • after it has happened, the year 2007 is in the past.

In Buddhist terminology, the three time perspectives are expressed as:

  • the not-yet-happening of something,

  • the present-happening of something,

  • the no-longer-happening or passed-happening of something, or something’s previously-having-perished.

We shall focus our attention on this sequence.

The Three Times in Conjunction with a Phenomenon Maintaining Its Own Essential Nature

The definition of an item (chos, Skt, dharma) is a valid object of cognition that maintains its own essential nature (ngo-bo).

Consider the item yoghurt. According to the Gelug Prasangika assertion, when we have visual cognition of one moment of the colored shape of the yoghurt, we also cognize the commonsense yoghurt well-known in the world (‘ jig-rten-la grags-pa).

  • That commonsense yoghurt is a conventional object of experience (tha-snyad spyod-yul), a validly knowable object that maintains its own individual essential nature as yoghurt, and not as something else, to a certain group of beings validly cognizing it. For example, humans validly cognize it as yoghurt. Even when other groups of beings validly cognize it as something else – for instance, clutching ghosts (hungry ghosts) as pus, and celestial beings (gods) as nectar – the commonsense object still maintains its individual essential nature, in these cases as pus or as nectar.

  • As a commonsense object, it extends over the locations of all four sensibilia for humans – colored shape, smell, taste, and tactile sensation – and endures over the temporal continuum of presently-happening moments during which the object maintains its essential nature as yoghurt.

  • The present-happening of yoghurt does not refer only to the immediately present moment, but extends over the temporal continuum of presently-happening moments, so long as the object’s essential nature as yoghurt is maintained. In other words, the present-happening of the yoghurt is the temporal interval between the arising and the ending of a commonsense object having an essential nature as yoghurt.

  • The no-longer-happening of the yoghurt, then, begins when the continuum of the essential nature as yoghurt ends, for instance with the arising of cottage cheese from the yoghurt. The no-longer-happening of the yoghurt does not begin with the ending of the presently-happening moment of the commonsense yoghurt and the arising of the next moment of the commonsense yoghurt.

  • Thus, a temporal continuum of presently-happening moments of something is not the same as a temporal continuum of not-yet-happening, presently-happening, and no-longer-happening moments of something. In other words, a temporal continuum of presently-happening moment one of the yoghurt, presently-happening moment two of the yoghurt, and presently-happening moment three of the yoghurt is not the same a temporal continuum of not-yet happening yoghurt, presently-happening yoghurt and no-longer-happening yoghurt.

The above presentation of the present-happening of yoghurt as a continuum of presently-happening moments of something maintaining an essential nature as yoghurt is perhaps easier to understand in terms of the present-happening of the year 2007. After all, the first moment of the present-happening of the year 2007 is not followed by the no-longer-happening of the year 2007. Roughly speaking, the year 2007 does not become last year after only one moment of the year 2007. From the perspective of each moment from the start of January 1 to the end of December 31, the year 2007 is presently happening.

Affirmation Phenomena and Negation Phenomena

A present-happening of something is an affirmation phenomenon, while a not-yet-happening of something, a no-longer-happening of something, and something’s previously-having-perished are negation phenomena.

An affirmation phenomenon (sgrub-pa, affirmingly known phenomenon) is a validly knowable phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated (dgag-bya) is not explicitly precluded, cut off, dismissed, or rejected by the sounds that express the phenomenon.

  • Preclusion” (bcad-pa) implies previous apprehension of an object to be negated, and exclusion of it from the set of all validly knowable phenomena other than itself, if the object to be negated is an existent phenomenon, or from the set of all validly knowable phenomena in total, if the object to be negated is a nonexistent phenomenon.
  • To validly know the “presently-happening-today” does not require previously knowing, correctly and decisively, yesterday or tomorrow; and the sounds that express the “presently-happening-today” do not explicitly reject “yesterday” or “tomorrow.”

A negation phenomenon (dgag-pa, negatingly known phenomenon) is a validly knowable phenomenon that is apprehended in a manner in which an object to be negated is explicitly precluded by the conceptual cognition that cognizes the phenomenon.

  • To validly conceptualize the day referred to as “the no-longer-happening-yesterday” or the day referred to as “the not-yet-happening-tomorrow” requires first conceptualizing a “ presently-happening-yesterday” or “presently-happening- tomorrow” and then rejecting that they are days that are happening now. It does not, however, require knowing or conceptualizing the details of this “presently-happening-yesterday” or this “presently-happening-tomorrow.”
  • For example, to validly conceptualize the “not-yet-happening-lunch” requires first conceptualizing and then rejecting a “presently-happening-lunch,” but does not require knowing or conceptualizing the items on the menu of the lunch.
  • Once we have validly known, conceptually, a negation phenomenon, we may validly cognize it nonconceptually. The various Indian Buddhist tenet systems, however, each explain this last point differently.

[See: Affirmations, Negations, and Denumerable and Nondenumerable Ultimate Phenomena. For even more detail, see: Gelug Definitions of Affirmation and Negation Phenomena.]

Three of the eighteen unshared features of a Buddha (sangs-rgyas-kyi chos ma’dres-pa) are that his deep awareness (ye-shes) permeates everything, in seeing the not-yet-happening time, the presently-happening time, and the no-longer-happening time, all without any attachment (chags-med) and without any impediment (thogs-med).

  • A Buddha has no attachment to what he can see because he has rid himself of all emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib).

  • He has no impediment because he has rid himself of all cognitive obscuration (shes-sgrib) as well.

But, what is it that a Buddha’s omniscient deep awareness actually cognizes, nonconceptually, when he cognizes the three times?

Fine Distinctions

There are many fine distinctions made here concerning time and many different opinions by various Buddhist schools and masters. Let us look, however, at only some of them, and let us look at them principally in terms of karmic causes and results experienced on the mental continuum of an individual.

In terms of karmic results, Buddhism distinguishes three separate validly knowable items with respect to each of the three times. Let us illustrate them with the example of our rebirth (yang-srid) as a frog, whether the temporal continuum of that rebirth ends after one moment or lasts over the entire normal lifespan of a frog.

The Not Yet Happening Time

  • the not-yet-happening of our rebirth (yang-srid-kyi mi-‘ong-ba) as a frog,

  • the not-yet-happened-rebirth (yang-srid mi-‘ong-ba) as a frog,

  • our rebirth as a frog, which has not yet happened (ma-‘ong-ba’i yang-srid), and, more specifically, our rebirth as a frog, which can or will happen, but is not yet happening (mi-‘ ong-ba’i skye-‘gyur-gyi yang-srid).

The first two are negation phenomena, while the third is an affirmation phenomenon.

  • A “not-yet-happening-rebirth” constitutes a single unit that maintains the essential nature of being a “not-yet-happening-rebirth.” If one element in a unit would be a negation phenomenon on its own, the entire unit is a negation phenomenon. Thus, as a unit, a “not-yet-happening-rebirth as a frog” is a negation phenomenon. Valid cognition of it requires first conceptualizing a “ presently-happening-rebirth as a frog” and then rejecting that it is happening now.

  • A “rebirth, which is not yet happening” refers to something that maintains the essential nature of being a “rebirth.” As a rebirth, it is an affirmation phenomenon. Its “not yet happening” merely characterizes that rebirth.

The distinctions between these three items parallel the distinctions in the Western formulation of time between:

  • the future of an object,

  • a future-object,

  • an object, which is in the future.

The Presently-Happening Time

Buddhism also distinguishes:

  • the present-happening of our rebirth (yang-srid-kyi da-lta-ba) as a frog,

  • the presently-happening-rebirth (yang-srid da-lta-ba) as a frog,

  • our rebirth as a frog, which is presently happening (da-lta-ba’i yang-srid).

All three are affirmation phenomena and parallel the distinction between the present of an object, a present-object, and an object, which is in the present. From the Buddhist point of view, all three are equivalent.

The No-Longer-Happening Time

Buddhism likewise distinguishes the following pairs:

  • the no-longer-happening of our rebirth (yang-srid-kyi ‘das-pa) as a frog,

  • our rebirth-as-a-frog’s previously-having-perished (yang-srid-kyi zhig-pa),

  • the no-longer-happening-rebirth (yang-srid ‘das-pa) as a frog,

  • the previously-having-perished-rebirth as a frog (yang-srid zhig-pa),

  • our rebirth as a frog, which is no longer happening (‘ das-pa’i yang-srid),

  • our rebirth as a frog, which has previously perished (zhig-pa’i yang-srid).

Here, the first two pairs are negation phenomena, while the last are affirmation phenomena. This distinction parallels that between the past of an object, a past-object, and an object, which is in the past.

Existent Phenomena and Nonexistent Phenomena

The Buddhist analysis also distinguishes existent phenomena from nonexistent phenomena.

Existent phenomena (yod-pa) are objects that can be validly cognized. They include both affirmation and negation phenomena, either of which may be nonstatic or static.

Nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa, impermanent phenomena), synonymous with affected phenomena (‘ dus-byas-kyi chos, conditioned phenomena), are those existent phenomena that are affected by causes and conditions and therefore change from moment to moment. They change from moment to moment, however, only so long as they remain existent phenomena maintaining their essential nature.

Static phenomena (rtag-pa, permanent phenomena), synonymous with unaffected phenomena (‘ dus ma-byas-kyi chos, unconditioned phenomena), are those existent phenomena that are not affected by causes and conditions and therefore do not change from moment to moment. They do not change from moment to moment, however, also only so long as they remain existent phenomena maintaining their essential nature.

Once a static phenomenon ceases to exist, the variable of changing or not changing from moment to moment is irrelevant with regard to that phenomenon itself. Its stopping or ceasing (‘ gog-pa), however, is a static phenomenon that is not affected by anything and does not change from moment to moment.

Both nonstatic and static phenomena may have:

  • a beginning and an end,

  • a beginning and no end,

  • no beginning, but have an end, or

  • no beginning and no end.

[See: Static and Nonstatic Phenomena.]

Nonexistent phenomena (med-pa), such as turtle-hair, can be objects of cognition, but not objects of valid cognition.

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena: Gelug Presentation.]

All the items mentioned in the previous section – not-yet-happenings, and so on – are existent phenomena. All of them can be validly known.

Valid and Invalid Phenomena

Another set of variables is valid phenomena and invalid phenomena.

A valid phenomenon (srid-pa) is one that is validly knowable now.

An invalid phenomenon (mi-srid-pa) is one that cannot be validly known now. Such phenomena include both existent phenomena and nonexistent phenomena.

  • An invalid existent phenomenon is one that could not possibly be an object of valid cognition (tshad-ma) now, but could be validly cognized at another time.

  • An invalid nonexistent phenomenon is one that could never possibly be an object of valid cognition. Another name for such a phenomenon could be a “never-valid phenomenon.”

Analysis in Terms of the Three Times

Let us analyze the items involved during the temporal sequence of milk functioning as the cause of yoghurt and then that yoghurt functioning as the cause of cottage cheese. We are discounting, here, the cases in which someone drinks or spills the milk, etc., before it becomes yoghurt, or someone eats or spills the yoghurt, etc., before it becomes cottage cheese. The various Indian Buddhist tenet systems differ in their analysis of whether some of these items we shall enumerate are static or nonstatic phenomena. We shall present their views later in this essay.

Consider first the existent affirmation phenomenon the present-happening of yoghurt in the pot.

  • During the temporal interval of the “present-happening of milk in the pot” and during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of cottage cheese in the pot,” the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is an invalid phenomenon. It cannot be an object of valid cognition at those times.

  • Moreover, the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is also an invalid phenomenon during the temporal interval of the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” and during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot.”

  • The “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is a valid phenomenon only during the temporal interval shared in common by both the “no-longer-happening of milk in the pot” and the “ not-yet-happening of cottage cheese in the pot.” At such a time, the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” can be validly cognized.

  • Similarly, only during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” are the “presently-happening-yoghurt in the pot” and the “yoghurt, which is presently happening in the pot” valid phenomena. They may be validly cognized during that interval by nonconceptual straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma).

Consider next the existent negation phenomenon the not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot.

  • The “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is an invalid phenomenon during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening of milk in the pot.” It cannot be an object of valid cognition at that time.

  • Moreover, the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is also an invalid phenomenon during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot” and during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot.”

  • Only during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of milk in the pot” is the “ not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” a valid phenomenon, validly knowable at that time.

  • Similarly, only during the temporal interval of the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” are the “not-yet-happening-yoghurt in the pot” and the “yoghurt, which is not yet happening in the pot” valid phenomena. They may be validly cognized conceptually during that interval by ordinary beings through valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma), based on valid nonconceptual straightforward cognition of the “ present-happening of milk in the pot” and a line of reasoning such as “when all the conditions are complete, milk functions as the cause giving rise to yoghurt.”

  • When, during the temporal interval of the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot,” the “ not-yet-happening-yoghurt in the pot” and the “yoghurt, which is not yet happening in the pot” are validly cognized, that valid cognition does not render them as “presently-happening-yoghurt” or “ yoghurt, which is presently happening.” Thus, even if ordinary beings have valid inferential cognition of the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” at the time of the “present-happening of milk in the pot,” there is no guarantee that “presently-happening-yoghurt in the pot” as the result of “presently- happening milk in the pot” will ever actually be a valid object validly cognized now.

Next, consider the existent negation phenomenon the no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot.

  • The “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot” is an invalid phenomenon during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of milk in the pot” and during the temporal interval of the “ not-yet-happening of cottage cheese in the pot.” It cannot be validly cognized at those times.

  • Moreover, the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt” in the pot is also an invalid phenomenon during the temporal interval of the “not-yet-happening of yoghurt in the pot” and during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of yoghurt in the pot.”

  • Only during the temporal interval of the “present-happening of cottage cheese in the pot” is the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot” validly knowable.

  • Similarly, only during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot” are the “no-longer-happening-yoghurt in the pot” and the “yoghurt that is no longer happening in the pot” valid phenomena. They may be validly cognized conceptually during that interval by ordinary beings through valid inferential cognition, based on valid nonconceptual straightforward cognition of the “present-happening of cottage cheese in the pot” and a line of reasoning such as, “ when all the conditions are complete, yoghurt functions as the cause giving rise to cottage cheese.”

  • When, during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening of yoghurt in the pot,” the “ no-longer-happening-yoghurt in the pot” and the “yoghurt, which is no longer happening in the pot” are validly cognized, that valid cognition does not render them as “presently-happening-yoghurt” or “yoghurt, which is presently happening.”

From the point of view of the Madhyamaka tenet system, “truly existent yoghurt in the pot” is a nonexistent phenomenon.

  • The “not-yet-happening,” “present-happening,” and “no-longer-happening of truly existent yoghurt in the pot” are never-valid phenomena and can never be objects of valid cognition.

  • Similarly, the “not-yet-happening,” “presently-happening,” and “no-longer-happening truly existent yoghurt in the pot” and the “truly existent yoghurt in the pot, which is not yet happening,” “which is presently happening,” and “which is no longer happening” are never-valid phenomena and never validly knowable.

Other Temporally Related Existent Phenomena

Buddhism discusses three other temporally related existent phenomena, all three of which are static phenomena according to all Indian Buddhist tenet systems. Let us also examine them in terms of the variable valid or invalid.

Nonanalytical Stoppings

Consider the “never-happened of something that could have happened, once something else has happened instead” – for instance, our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in India, once we have been reborn in this lifetime as a frog in America. The “state of being parting” (bral-ba) from such an occurrence on a mental continuum is known as a “nonanalytical stopping” (so-sor brtags-pa min-pa’i ‘gog-pa). It is a static phenomenon imputable only on a mental continuum and lasts forever.

  • During the temporal interval of the “present-happening, on our mental continuum, of the karmic tendency that has both (1) the ability to give rise to our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in India and (2) the ability to give rise to our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in America," the “ never-happened of our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in India, once we have been reborn in this lifetime as a frog in America” is an invalid phenomenon on our mental continuum and cannot be validly cognized.

  • Only during the temporal interval shared in common, on our mental continuum, by the “ no-longer-happening of that karmic tendency” and the “present-happening” or “no-longer-happening of our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in America” is the “never-happened of our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in India, once we have been reborn in this lifetime as a frog in America” a valid phenomenon and validly knowable.

  • That “never-happened” is a static phenomenon that starts to be the case on our mental continuum with the arising of the “present-happening of our rebirth in this lifetime as a frog in America” and then continues on our mental continuum, without changing or being affected by anything, forever.

  • A similar analysis would apply to the “never-happened of our seeing ‘presently-happening yoghurt in the pot,’” once we have validly seen “the present-happening of someone drinking the ‘ presently-happening milk in the pot.’”

Analytical Stoppings

Consider the “never-happened of something that could have happened, once the causes for it have been purified away by opponent forces” – for instance, further samsaric rebirths on our mental continuum, once we have become an arhat, a liberated being. The true stopping (‘ gog-bden, true cessation) of such karmic ripenings, attained through a true pathway mind (lam-bden, true path), is known as an “analytical stopping” (so-sor brtags-pa’i ‘gog-pa). It, too, is a static phenomenon imputable only on a mental continuum and it, too, lasts forever.

  • During the temporal interval shared in common, on our mental continuum, by both the “ present-happening of karmic tendencies on our mental continuum that have the ability to give rise to our further samsaric rebirths” and the “not-yet-happening of further samsaric rebirths,” the “ never-happened of our further samsaric rebirths, once we have become an arhat” is an invalid phenomenon on our mental continuum and cannot be validly cognized.

  • Only during the temporal interval of the “no-longer-happening, on our mental continuum, of karmic tendencies that have the ability to give rise to our further samsaric rebirths” is the “ never-happened of our further samsaric rebirths, once we have become an arhat” a valid phenomenon on our mental continuum and validly knowable.

  • That “never-happened” is a static phenomenon that starts to be the case on our mental continuum with the arising of the “present-happening of our attainment of arhatship” and then continues on our mental continuum, without changing or being affected by anything, forever.

Voidnesses

Consider the “never-happened of a manner of existence that never could have been the case,” such as, according to Madhyamaka, the true existence of our rebirth as a frog. The total absence of such an impossible manner of existence as a frog is known as the “lack of an impossible ‘soul’ of a person” (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of a person, identitylessness of a person) and a voidness (stong-pa-nyid, emptiness). It is a static valid phenomenon that can be validly cognized at any time and is imputable on the basis of any existent phenomenon, so long as that phenomenon maintains its essential nature.