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Time and early Buddhism

Hi all. Recently I’ve been listening to a series of lectures by physicist Sean Carroll on big ideas in physics. One of them was on the idea of time and he mentioned how he’s in favor of the “eternalist” (or block time) theory of time. This is similar to the Sarvastivada theory of “all exists” in Buddhism (vaguely anyways, since modern views are based on physics) and is opposed to the Theravada perspective which is more of a kind of presentism (only the present moment exists).

Anyways it got me thinking about how time is understood in the EBTs and if there is any indication of what the Buddha’s view of time was from the early discourses particularly on the relationship between past present and future. I can’t really recall any passages that have to do with time as a concept. It seems then that a theory of time is not that important to the Buddha Dhamma of the EBTs and it does not really matter what ends up being true. This has been my view for some time now.

And yet it seems like this was a major debate in classical Indian Buddhism and the various schools thought that this issue did matter in some way. Perhaps it mattered to them because the concept of time is related to change, and if time exists in a specific way, then this sheds some light on what change is and thus on anicca. Also, time is an important part of our experience of the world and thus of our experience of suffering. We always suffer in time, the aggregates are always in time and thus it seems like having some idea of what time is allows us to see a new dimension of the Dhamma. So maybe this is is why later Buddhists discussed this issue with such intensity.

Of course, it may still be tangential to actual right view, but I am not sure if it is that insignificant anymore. Or at least, I have now begun to think that perhaps it does matter or it would be useful to think about.

Anyways, what are your thoughts on the issue of theories of time vis a vis the EBTs? Does it matter or is it a waste of time after all? What do you think the Buddha’s view in time would be from the available evidence in the EBTs? Are there any useful passages to look at?

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An interesting question. I can’t really speak to the thrust of it; just mention that according to Jayarava one of the major reasons for the differing time theories in the post-sectarian period is what he calls “The Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance”. That the theories of kamma and paticca-samupadda are incompatible.

Hah! That is kind of funny because Carroll speaks of one of the reasons that Einstein thought that Quantum mechanics could not be the final explanation of things was what he called “spooky action at a distance”. I can’t really explain it because I don’t get entanglement and all of that quantum stuff very well, but it sounds like a similar kind of concern to me.

It seems that Early Buddhism just accepts that this kind of action at a distance is possible, while later Abhidharma projects attempt to give an actual mechanism for it. Since the Buddha did not give an explanation of the mechanism, this is where they differ significantly.

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Interesting @Javier yes it has also seemed to me that the Sarvāstivāda theory that all times exist was similar to Einsteinian block time. (Indeed, block time seems to follow from the relativity of simultaneity). That said, I think early Buddhist dhamma is pragmatic in not attempting to cash out such physical/metaphysical theories and mechanisms of action. After all, it’s not really important for awakening to get such things right.

That said, I’d be interested to hear if there were suttas particularly relevant to the topic.

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From Iti 63: Time

Perceiving what can be expressed through concepts,
Beings take their stand on what is expressed.
Not fully understanding the expressed,
They come under the bondage of Death.

But by fully understanding what is expressed
One does not misconceive the speaker.
His mind has attained to freedom,
The unsurpassed state of peace.

Understanding what is expressed,
The peaceful one delights in the peaceful state.
Standing on Dhamma, perfect in knowledge,
He freely makes use of concepts
But no more enters into concept’s range.


Bhante Sujato also commented once on an article by Sean Carroll on his blog: Ten Ideas About Time | Sujato’s Blog

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Another one in Paravanavagga definitely the beginning of Buddhism.

He, conjuring-free, doesn’t submit to conjuring, to the cycling of time. For whom nothing in the world is his own, who doesn’t grieve over what is not, who doesn’t enter into doctrines phenomena

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Actually Sarvāstivāda sects itself didn’t agree what the Sarva + sti was exactly. But they had different views how to explain the theory. As explained in Abhidharmakosahrady. But I think it’s still important to have the reality of time in your mind. But seeing the controversy of Theravāda text debating with Sarvāstivāda, they explain actually that dharma. Is three time. As Buddha meditated for 7 days straight. Meaning the meditation had one session that can be said then it has past future and present. I think. I’m not sure. It’s hard to exactly what they meant. Even Theravāda can’t keep the debate long. They just keep silent like a gong. But I think consciousness is then something then you can say I was in meditation in 7 days. Is like to say that already the is 3 times. Buddha explained as samadhi without interruption or continuous. I think works like a movie film. When you see one shot the one you saw before it still connected to the roll of film and the one that will come next also.

It also let’s you be aware of what your doing in the moment. The action I was doing is for good of all. The action is am doing is for good of all. The action that I just finished doing is for good of all. I think it’s more a acceptance to be more aware in all times