Is the Buddhist conception of time primitive?

Given what we now know about the nature of time, thanks to physicists and cosmologists, should it not be possible to be reborn in the past? Similarly, why could one of our past lives not have occurred in the future?

:thinking:Because they are in the past - by definition?
Look up the idea of light-cone - I teach it to first year undergraduates on relativity; it might help you with some confusions you appear to have about the concept of time…

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Hi,

Even in modern physics, such phenomenon occur only in very rare esoteric cases. Our universe does not support these. The link also has a discussion of light cones that @anon38204780 referred to.

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I am not sure what you understand as the Buddhist concept of time but the concept is far from primitive. One day, science may catch up with the Buddhist understanding of time.

What is time? This was a question asked of the Arahant Nagasena by King Milinda. Ven. Nagasena made it clear that the past is only a memory. It does not exist. The present exists as does the potential for time in the future, driven by Kamma. Essentially time only exists while Kamma exists. Nibbana is timeless.

What is time in early Buddhism? I think, time is the arising and the ceasing (anicca) of the five aggregates/sense spheres (according to SN/SA suttas). So, time is also not of self or of anything belonging to self (anatta).

I just listened to a talk by Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of the book ‘After’, on NDEs. He shares the story of someone who saw her ‘past’ life during the NDE. She describes time as follows:

This is primarily because the concept of reincarnation in its conventional form of a progression of lifetimes running sequentially, one after the other, wasn’t supported by my NDE. I realized that time doesn’t move in a linear fashion unless we’re using the filter of our bodies and brains.

Once we’re no longer limited by our earthly senses. Every moment exists simultaneously. I’ve come to think that the concept of reincarnation is really just our interpretation, a way for our intellect to make sense of all existence happening at once.

Because of this, I believe that when someone has a glimpse of what have previously been interpreted as past lives, they’re actually accessing parallel or simultaneous existences, because all time exists at once.

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Descriptions of “time” in the suttas are not primitive, but they are simple and straightforward. Two great examples are SN 22.62 and Iti 63. The entire point is that no matter how deep or dense any explanation or theory of time goes, it could never undercut the present suffering. It literally makes no difference.

Hi Danny,

While I don’t disagree with her that any and all imagery would be superimposed presently, the Buddha did see value in distinguishing the three times, i.e. to understand them as unmixed (SN 22.62). The sutta concludes:

These, bhikkhus, are the three pathways of language, pathways of designation, pathways of description, that are unmixed, that were never mixed, that are not being mixed, that will not be mixed, that are not rejected by wise ascetics and brahmins.

“Bhikkhus, even Vassa and Bañña of Ukkala, proponents of noncausality, of the inefficacy of action, and of nihilism, did not think that these three pathways of language, pathways of designation, pathways of description should be criticized or scorned. For what reason? Because they fear blame, attack, and condemnation.”

The nature of action, and more specifically, the possibility of development in Dhamma, would be unintelligible without some degree of distance between an act and the ripening of it. The notion of temporal distance, however, is nothing other than a designation that gives structure to accumulated imagery. But it is a factually enduring arrangement, i.e. recent imagery is inseparable from less recent imagery, and a pursuit in either direction yields to that arrangement reveals some degree of immovability. This is the precise reason why we rely on familiar imagery to access something less familiar. How often do we still make use of the floating image of the alphabet? Point is, no matter what time is being designated, there are these five aggregates, there is the present intention, the present contact, the present suffering, and that prioritizes here and now over “was” and “will be”. I get her point, but that belief can easily diminish the significance of present pain, and that could be tremendously unhelpful.

I realize this may not be your personal view so please take my post mainly as a criticism of the patient you mentioned in your post.

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Namo Buddhaya!

I think you are confusing physics & cosmology with sci-fi movies

Time is a man-made tool used to measure the rate of change between variables. What one is measuring is change. Time has no authentic dimension of its own and does not have a flow.

Instead, there is the flow of direct experience and myriad sensory data input which we measure.

The closest one gets if one is to ISM-ify the ‘Buddhist’ view of time is ‘philosophical presentism’. Past lives couldn’t occur in the future because there is no authentic dimension called the ‘future’. Past lives happened in the flow of nowness but one is without the capacity to remember them. The key words being ‘memory and capacity’.

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If we ever invented a time machine which can go back to the past, then I would say it’s possible that future people can come into the near past and was reborn into you or me, and our pasr lives was in a future.

So far, as far as we can see, time machines are still not a given in physics, even theoretically, there’s uncertainty whether there would be a causality protection conjecture or the practicality of inventing a time machine is too difficult even for a civilization which controls many galaxies.

Regardless, there’s no mention of the past lives in the future in the sutta, so there’s no sutta support for it.

Anyway, I don’t see it as important to the cultivation whether it’s possible one way or another. Even if time machines are invented, I think the best use for cultivation is to go back, meet the Buddha, get personalized meditation object or dhamma guidance.

Time isn’t an objective reality:

Objectively there are three spatial dimensions and one temporal one, all perpendicular to each other, which together are held to constitute the four-dimensional time-space continuum of the scientists. This is purely objective and as such an artificial abstract. For in it time becomes spatialized into parallel world lines; “now” being an arbitrary convenience in it without necessity of any position. (…) Has anyone before suggested that past, present and future are subjectively perpendicular?*

Scientific four-dimensional time-space has no “now.”

  • in the absolute subjective view there would be three temporal dimensions and one spatial one, all perpendicular to each other. No one is ever seen directly but only reflected in one or both of the other two. They are past, present, and future, as the three temporal, and individual historical movement as the single spatial one: the importance of the notion of the perpendicularity of the three periods of time to each other subjectively cannot be overestimated.

† There is an inherent special ambiguity about the “present” as an idea or as an existent, which it does not seem to share with the past or the future. Some argue that the present has no duration, being simply a surface between past and future, while others talk of its duration though they can’t agree on what length it ought to have and take specious refuge in a “spacious present.” Without paying particular attention to these two views, I find the mere fact that they are asserted indicates that the notion is elastic in the minds of other people and so too I find it in my own. Also the “present” seems to me equally admissible both for “what I am doing now” (extended) and for “what is present to me now.” (instantaneous).

And the first (subjective) may be the “shortest thought flash conceivable” or “my whole life I am living” or “eternity of past and future in the now. In the last (objective), all temporalization, in its three “orthogonal dimensions” of past, future and present, “appear present” as follows: the past was (present), the present is (present), the future will be (present), and (this is an important point) all three together eternally may be.

Again concern with the past (taken as probable) gives us historians (and Hegel), concern with the future (taken as possible) gives us scientists, politicians and astrologers (and Hegel), concern with the past and future gives us logicians (and Hegel). The Buddha recommends concern with the present in the Bhaddekaratta-sutta, and this is only possible by introspection which reveals the ambiguity, absurdity and contingency of eternity in time. Again, perhaps, the past is the legitimate field of knowledge (which comprehends), the future is the legitimate field of faith (faith being ignorant man’s instrument for groping beyond where knowledge extends). The present is the legitimate field for describing, in terms of the three times, and for remembering what one has described.

Nanamoli Thera

Somewhere else he has written:

Space and time are the great subjective mistakes which we all agree in making and on and in which we build all our disagreements.

Not sure what he means by that, perhaps mistakes lies in wrongly directed attention:

“‘Friends, (1) all things are rooted in desire. (2) They come into being through attention… AN X 58

And when we have things we have time. That still should be no problem, but by self-identification with impermanent things we start to imagine we have past and future, and as a person living in time, what one can expect if not old age and death?

Nisargadatta Maharaj:

Your being a person is due to the illusion of space and time; you imagine yourself to be at a certain point occupying a certain volume; your personality is due to your self-identification with the body. Your thoughts and feelings exist in succession, they have their span in time and make you imagine yourself, because of memory, as having duration. In reality time and space exist in you; you do not exist in them. They are modes of perception, but they are not the only ones. Time and space are like words written on paper; the paper is real, the words merely a convention. How old are you?

Q: Forty-eight!

M: What makes you say forty-eight? What makes you say: I am here? Verbal habits born from assumptions. The mind creates time and space and takes its own creations for reality. All is here and now, but we do not see it.

I was’ is not for me, not for me is ‘I shall be’;
Determinations will un-be: therein what place for sighs?
Pure arising of things, pure series of determinants –
For one who sees this as it is, chieftain, there is no fear.

Theragāthā 715, 716

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