go back to Zen Essays: Philosophical Zen


Discussion of time in Mahayana texts
Hakuin's Daruma

Lewis R. Lancaster
Philosophy East and West 24, no. 2, April 1974, pp.209-214
(c) by The University Press of Hawaii


In the early Mahaayaana suutras, the discussion of time (adhvan) does not mention the term in the singular, only in the plural: the three times of past, future, and present.(1) The problems of the triple time had occupied Buddhists long before the advent of the Mahaayaana texts and such schools as the Daar.s.taantikas had proposed that the three times exist and are permanent while the conditioned entities which move through them are impermanent. They described their view by giving the analogy of three houses one beside the other. From the first house a man emerges and goes to the second, that is, he leaves the future and enters the present, then he moves from the second house to the third, thereby going from the present to the past.(2) Man is the impermanent and fleeting one while the three houses of time are fixed and stand always ready to receive the constant flow of impermanent things.

Since this idea of permanence and fixed state of the three times belonged to the non-Mahaayaana schools, we could expect to find arguments in the Mahaayaana suutras attacking such positions. However, a careful reading of the earliest suutras from the Mahaayaana shows that they did not directly refer to or attack such doctrines. That is, they did not try to disprove through debate or rhetorical devices the existence of one, two, or three times. Their approach is a positive one and not a defensive stance. The Mahaayaana suutras merely state what has been understood and cognized by the Buddha;(3) it is not presented as a matter to be proved or disproved, but only as a statement of what is. The Buddha as an enlightened one possessed all-knowledge, the supernormal power developed through samaadhi or trance and in this special state he was able to penetrate and comprehend the nature and essence of the three times.(4) When the triple times were viewed in this special way, they appeared to the Buddha as equals, (5) the same, (6) without distinctions or separations.(7) The times did not oppose one another,(8) for there was nothing in the present which was different or distinct from the future. This being the case, the suutras say, the three divisions of time, the three characteristic marks of time, are limited to the mundane world, to those who lack the insights of the all-knowers(9); but, on the higher level the transcendent plane, these marks are shown to be an illusion. Therefore, the Buddha taught that the three times only possess one mark, the mark of lacking any distinguishing characteristics.(10)

Later, some of the Mahaayaana texts elaborated the doctrine that the three times are all equal and the same without distinctions. They reasoned that if the division of time into three parts was an inherently valid and real one, belonging to the very nature of time, then one must be able to delineate clear limits between the past and present or the present and the future.(11) But, say these texts, one cannot discover such limits, for the beginning of time is beyond comprehension and is never determined and the end of time stretches out endlessly without a limit.(12) Since the beginning and end of time can never be established, then neither can the middle of time.(13)

It was recognized that the determination of the sameness of the three times was beyond the capabilities of ordinary man. The Ta Chih Tu Lun, commentary of the Praj~naapaaramitaa compiled by Kumaarajiiva, states that those who do not have all-knowledge will encounter obstacles when they try to achieve a cognition of the three times.(14) Even such famous disciples as 'Saaiputra and Ma~nju'sri were unable to comprehend this sameness fully. Thus, the Buddha has to resort to two methods when teaching about time: (1) When he teaches the penetration and comprehension of the three times without obstacles, this may be called his analytical teaching (vibhajya-nirde'sa); (2) But when he teaches that the triple times have not even a single characteristic mark, this is the teaching of limitless emptiness (ananta-nirde'sa).(15)

We can assume from this that the teaching, which is part of the process by which one attains special cognition, and the discussion about the resultant experience are two very different procedures.

If the triple times have not even a single distinguishing characteristic, does this mean that the Mahaayaana taught the nonexistence of time? It is never said that time is lacking existence, but only that time is empty ('suunyata)(16) and that it is suchness (tafhataa),(17) for since it lack any marks, it is the whole reality, the truly universal. But this is not only true for time, it is true of everything, for example, form, skandhas, dharmas all conditioned things.(18) Saying that the denial of any real characteristic mark is in fact the denial of existence would imply that the Mahaayaana suutras are teaching a doctrine of nihilism, which they explicitly deny.(19)

It is true that the denial of characteristics limited to any one of the three times had implications for the theories of ontology. If no past can be determined, then you cannot say there is a past fire,(20) if no present, then how can you speak of a present fire; and if fire does not exist in the past, present, or future, then in what sense can you say it does exist? The answer is always that fire, men, and dharmas exist in a conventional mundane way, but in the transcendent realm, fire is empty of those characteristics which separate it from water, space, fuel, etc.

If the three times cannot be separated, the next question to be handled by these texts was whether one can establish the idea of long time and short time. While we might expect an immediate answer along the same lines as that used with regard to the three times, such is not the case in the Avata.msaka-suutra. In this text, it is maintained that our universe is but one of thousands of universes or world systems.(21) All of these worlds are not on the same scale, and so our own system is encapsulated within another realm that in expanse is beyond anything we can comprehend. We live, says the Avata.msaka-suutra, in the realm of Saakyamuni, and if we were to add up all the days and nights of our world system until they totaled a Kalpa, these countless years would be equal to but one day and one night in the realm of Amitaabha. And if one were to stay in Amitaabha's realm for a kalpa of that time, it would be equal to one day and one night in the next realm of Vajrasa.mhata and one kalpa there would equal one day and one night in Dharmaketu's realm, and so on through hundreds of millions of Buddha realms.(22) It is interesting to note that the names for these realms, which reach out beyond our possible understanding, are in part the names of the former Buddhas described in the Lalitavistara,(23) where fifty-four names are given as part of the endless list of Buddhas who have existed in the aeons of the past. In the Avata.msaka-suutra, these Buddhas of the past have been transformed into the dwellers of the realms which stretch out into endless time and space. On the other hand, one can turn around and look at the point of a hair or a grain of sand, and there, the text says, are contained a thousand worlds, (24) small beyond anything we can possibly imagine and one day and one night in our Saakyamuni Buddha realm, we can infer would be a kalpa of time in one of these. In this way, we can carry the description out to a point in which we have kalpas of time in one world system equal to a trillionth of a second in another.

The result of these descriptions of the realms and the length of time within them, is the negation of any limit, which can be termed "long" or "short." For what is long in one universe is short in another, and any such description or measurement is a mere convention based on our size and relative relationship. Therefore, the suutras once again bring us back to the emptiness of time, as well as to the difficulty of its comprehension, and absence of characteristic marks.

There is yet a third aspect of time which is not handled by the discussion of the three times or length of time. Man experiences change: he is born, grows old and dies, and all of his possessions eventually crumble and disintegrate. This is seen as the action of time; time the all powerful force in life. In fact, time is more important and more powerful than death, for time touches animate and inanimate objects, it affects all at all times and not just a few who are in any given moment touched by death. This inevitability of time was part of the teaching of the Atharva Veda,(25) where time was personified as a horse galloping along with a water jar on his back and the jar was filled to the brim with water, but not a drop fell from the jar, for nothing and no one escapes the clutches of time. While the texts may argue about whether time can be divided into three or two or many, the fact remains that man and all he possesses is destroyed by time. And it is this characteristic that is the most difficult to handle, for it is not a question of mere speculation, it is the most intensely personal and confronting experience of life.

In Mahaayaana, as well as in Hindu Tantric literature, Mahaakaala, Great Time, became a major deity. It is Mahaakaala, the "great howler," who is "beautiful yet ferocious," who shines like the "flame of the sun," with eyes that are "large shooting flames and at the center of them is an endless pool of darkness around which the edges are always flaming."(26) In his left hand he holds a staff, a three-pointed spear; in the right hand a skull bowl with blood and a great sword; his beard and hair are wildly streaming; and around his chest he wears garlands of severed human heads or sometimes skulls; his mouth is bloodied and he has long, sharp fangs. His hips are covered with a tiger's skin. In Tibetan calendars he is often depicted with the days and months of the year and all the creatures of the world caught between his dripping fangs, and he is endlessly consuming everything. In this we can see the aspects of 'Siva and even the old Vedic deity Rudra,(27) the destructive life forces.

Little wonder then that Mahaakaala, in later Mahaayaana was propitiated as a deity, a protective one, even though in his terrible aspect, he is the great destroyer. But what better protector to have than one who can destroy everything. In Mongolia and Tibet, Mahaakaala became the chief of the guardians of the dharma,(28) and in one Saadhana we find the phrase: "0, you who tame the wicked beings please protect me, please protect me. Please give, please give, please destroy all (of them)... all the wicked ghouls, demons and half-men beasts, please make all of them peaceful."(29)

Is this an intrusion into Buddhism of non-Buddhist material, a tradition that is cut off from the main line of thought and development? The answer must be in the negative. For Mahaakaala was the way in which the Buddhist handled the most overwhelming and personally important aspect of time. It is the terrible part of time, its destroying quality which frightens man. Here in the Tantras, the terrible is placated through magic and ritual, and Time the terrible becomes Time the protector. By the conversion of Time the destroyer, the killer with blood dripping from his lips, to the supportive guardian, the characteristic marks of destroyer and protector have been erased and there is no difference between Time in its dual nature. In the same way that the three times were shown to be empty and without definable limits, and as short and long were taught to be mere conventional expressions and not descriptions of reality, so too, the terrible and productive aspects of time are shown to be the same. Thus the major impact of the teaching about time in early Mahaayaana suutras or in the later Tantras appears to be in agreement.

Now the question arises as to how we are to handle such material. Is it true that time has no definable divisions and that such divisions as we might make into past, present, and future, long and short, horrible and appealing, are not real divisions but only conventional expressions? Is time that is marked by having no special characteristic mark, such as present or past, to be considered as "time"? What of the admission by the texts that this material arises not from a reasoned argument or even logical thought processes, but from the special state of mind achieved by the Buddha when he entered samaadhi or that special trance named "The Samaadhi in which one sees that the three times are all equal and the same."(30) Are the texts correct in stating that those who lack all-knowledge will not be able to experience directly the three times as being the same? And is this special knowledge of a Buddha or a bodhisattva of any worth or of any importance to philosophers?

Naagaarjuna obviously felt that it was possible to take such material, derived from special mental states, and by subjecting it to reasoned arguments show the validity of its teaching. Was he successful and is it possible for philosophers and logicians of today to do the same?


1. The numerous references to the Chinese texts will be given by Taisho document number and page only hereafter abbreviated T). T 228-590c; 232-7628; 261-880c; 220 (16)-1102c; 1512-842b. For other references, see F. Edgerton, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary (New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953) , p. 18; E. Conze, Materials for a Dictionary of the Praj~naapaaramitaa-suutras (Tokyo: Suzuki Research Institute 1969), P. 19.
2. T 1545-393a; kathaavatthu at A. C Taylor, (London PTS. 1964-1967), xv. 3, k. 12.
3. T 228-630c; 234-747c; 1509-255a; 310-291b; L'Abhidharmako'sa de Vasubandhu, tr.and ann. Louis de la Vall‚e Poussin (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1923), II, p.253.
4. T 234-747c; 225-507c; 279-648b; 657-166b.
5. T 228-590c; 231-723c; 240-776a.
6. T 244-789a; 240-776a; 310-252c and 517c; 257-245c.
7. T 234-747c; 231-723c; 244-822c.
8. T 220(4)-823b; 220(5)-937c; 240-776a.
9. T 310-291b; 228-630c; 234-747c; 1509-337c.
10. T 1509-225a; 228-630c; 220(1)-340b.
11. T 220(3)-436a-b and 515c.
12. T 244-822c; 228-590c; 257-245c.
13. T 220(5)-869; see Frederick J. Streng, Empliness, a Study in Religious Meaning (New York: Abingdon Press, 1967), pp. 196 and 205, for a translation of the Muulamadhaymakakaarikaas.
14. T 1509-255a.
15. Ibid.
16. T 222-203c.
17. T 220(4)-823b; 220(5)-937c.
18. T. R. V.Murti The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, (London, George Allen & Unwin 1970), pp. 165ff.
19. Ibid., p. 164; T 220(6)-1091.
20. T 220(1)-340b; 1509-330b and 337c.
21. T 279-241a
22. Ibid, p. 241a.
23. T187-539c. p.214
24. See the discussion of C. C. Cheng, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), p. 5.
25. Atharva Veda Samhitaa, tr. W. D. Whitney (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962), see 19:53.
26. These descriptive phrases were taken at random from an unpublished manuscript by William Stablein titled "Mahaakaala" Parts of this will be available soon in his dissertation from Columbia University.
27. V. Fausb”ll, Indian Mythology according to the Mahaabhaarata, Luzac's Oriental Religious Series 1 (London: Luzac and Co., 1903); Mahaabhaarata, tr. P. C. Ray (Calcutta: Bharata Press, 1890), see 7504-7510.
28. Stablein, p. ix.
29. Ibib, pp. 24ff.
30. T 1509-306c; 225-507a; 279-684b.