ENLIGHTENMENT AND TIME:
AN EXAMINATION OF NAGARJUNA'S CONCEPT
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
2. Why does the Hegel's Absolute evolve through time? If it
really is the absolute, why is it not already complete?
3. Heidegger refers to the quest for attaining authentic
being. How do we obtain authentic being?
These and similar questions come to mind when we undertake the
study of Nagarjuna.
Other Questions (and "answers") at the
conclusion of the talk:
1. Why don't we just accept Hume's view? Why does Nagarjuna seem to take another view?
Ans.: Nagarjuna has a spiritual agenda. Hume has only one level to his metaphysics, and one level of truth. He argues that the mere "facts" of perception show us that causality does not lend itself to rational analysis. Nagarjuna ends up with TWO truths. There is an empircal truth that time exists and goes forward (despite the fact that we cannot "grasp" this through reason) and a spiritual truth that in an enlightened
state time "stops."
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 Middle Way seeks to unravel. Indeed, as I hope to show, their unraveling is understood to be essential to the attainment of enlightenment.
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
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 was the Middle Way. Nagarjuna was committed to
the radical notion that nirvana and samsara are identical -- an
idea that would be quite difficult for many of his contemporaries
to accept. We should, therefore, regard the MMK as an exercise in
both practical polemics and religious persuasion.
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 as follows:
19. Certainly a oneness of cause and product is not possible
at all. Nor is a difference of cause and product possible at
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 the world.
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
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 similar to Augustine's, who remarked that he knew what
time was until he was called upon to speak of it. David
Kalupahana summarizes Nagarjuna's view here nicely:
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, p. 279)
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 Buddha's silence on the issue of the
survival of the soul after death. Such concerns, according to
Nagarjuna, are to be rejected in the spirit of Buddha's original
(Concluding remarks: the point of our
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.
(Waddell, Shobogenzo Genjokoan, p.136)
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. David Loy interprets the essence of Dogen's eternal present time this way: "[It] is eternal because there is indeed something which does not change: it is always now" (Loy, p.20).
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 Middle Way.
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
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