Thursday, 2 January 2014

Buddhist Temporalogy and Spaceology

Apologies for employing weird terms such as “temporalogy” and “spaceology” but I do need some terms to express the ideas of “study/theory of time” and “study/theory of space.” But nowadays, one looks up for any conceivable word in the world-wide-web and lo, you find that someone somewhere in some context has already employed the term. If we remind ourselves that terms are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon, I am sure we can be quite relaxed about using any term that helps us to best express an idea.

To begin with, Buddhist philosophy does not seem to deny the ideas of time and space. Time in the sense of duration (i.e. span of time including moments, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, centuries, and eons, all of which can be subsumed under the so-called dus mtha’i skad cig ma and bya rdzogs kyi skad cig ma), time in the sense of past, present, and future, even of a fourth dimension of time called the dus bzhi mnyam pa nyid (mostly popular in rNying-ma philosophy). The expression phyogs  bcu dus bzhi is quite common. Space here is more in the sense of “spatial direction” (not necessary in the sense used, for example, in astrophysics). And there is also the notion of good time and bad time, good space and bad space.

What interests me and provokes me to write this entry is the question of the nature of time and space as understood by Tibetan Buddhist thinkers. Many years ago, I recall sitting under the Bodhi tree (i.e. on the spot the Buddha became a buddha), not because I was at the brink of getting awakened myself but because I was there trying to make aspirational wishes with thousands of fellow Tibetan Buddhist monks. One day, as is common, we received donations of copies of certain Buddhist texts. Among them was the Thub chog byin rlabs gter mdzod, that is, a buddha-sādhana, by Mi-pham. During one break, I was reading through it, particularly the text printed in small letters, which is meant as a kind of theoretical explanation of the text one is supposed to recite. As a typical Buddhist logician and epistemologist, Mi-pham offered a syllogism, which I paraphrase approximately as follows: “If one thinks that the Buddha is in front of you, he would by all means be there in front of you, because the Body of the Buddha, being a Body of Gnosis, has no limitation/discrimination (nye ring) with regard to space and time.” He then goes on to cite some authoritative scriptures. What he means that we cannot say that the Buddha was there and then and not here and now. This idea is linked with the Buddhist idea of the notion of self. To begin with, notion of self according to Buddhism is a mistaken notion because there is no corresponding content of that notion. But interestingly, notion of self is the center of one’s identity and existence. It is the center of one’s universe. It is the point of reference for everything. It is particularly a point of reference for the notion of space and time. This notion of self allows us to make an existential distinction between “myself” and “others,” a (temporal) distinction between “now” and “then,” and a (spatial) distinction between “here” and “there.” Without the notion of self and when it disintegrates, all these distinctions seem no longer possible. And indeed for the Buddha or a buddha, who has eliminated the notion of self, what would time and space mean?

Rong-zom-pa, my Tibetan intellectual mentor, also offers an interesting idea on time and space. He, in his commentary of the *Guhyagarbhatntra (p. 173) states that time is sems kyi snang ba (“appearance/projection/representation of [one’s] mind,” and as long as one does not obtain complete command over one’s mind, time and space would “appear to be fixed/definite” (nges par snang) but once one attains complete command over one’s mind, time and space would “appear as one wishes (i.e. arbitrarily)” (ci dgar snang).


Just like some spots or points in space are considered sacred so are points in time (i.e. hours, day, month, and year) are considered special, sacred, and suitable for certain activity. In the Sarvabuddhasamayogatantra (RZ2: 527), 8th, 14th, and 15th are considered “special times” (khyad par gyi dus).      


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