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?


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.


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


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


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

I was going to ask this. I am glad I thought to search first. I hope you don’t mind me joining in the discussion. In the mathematics of physics I have often found that time becomes a parameter that ‘cancels’ eventually.

I remember once asking my physics teacher if a photon experienced time when it travelled at a speed at which time should not happen. His reply was ‘What does it mean for a photon to experience time?’

As I studied physics and mathematics at a more and more advanced level it became apparent that speed and momentum were the things that are ‘real’ and that time was just a way of interpreting these values.

From the perspective of Buddhism I think the most ‘logical’ way to think about it is this:

Things that appear in time are ‘dependant arising’ but time itself is also ‘dependant arising’.

a simple way of thinking about this is that if you have no material objects (in a space) then time doesn’t matter. Time only matters because of the material objects. So if we believe that material objects are transient or even illusionary/delusionary then the same can be said of time.

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I don’t think you will find anything addressing this in the suttas. In the Abhidhamma time would not be classed as an ultimate reality, thus it is a concept created by the mind. Obviously the Sarvāstivādins took a different view and I believe you can find Agamas that discuss the tri-temporal reality of the dhammas in some of their Agamas, but they are obvious sectarian inventions.

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As far as the EBTs are concerned, you have yourself answered your question :sweat_smile: -

The Buddha’s approach in the EBTs seems more practice-oriented, rather than theoretical. His practical treatment of time is illustrated in following verses -
“Don’t run back to the past,
don’t hope for the future.
What’s past is left behind;
the future has not arrived;
and phenomena in the present
are clearly seen in every case.
Knowing this, foster it—
unfaltering, unshakable."


I understand you this way. So actually if we feel pain of loss. There is past connected to it that of course your mind that of past because it happened already and the mind goes the future because the pain of loss is still there. So that’s when we have the past and future. Dependent Origination. I kinda understand

Besides that there must be a reason why their lineage became also Mind Only movement

Buddha explained All like this.

And what is the all? It’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts. This is called the all.

Mendicants, suppose someone was to say: ‘I’ll reject this all and describe another all.’ They’d have no grounds for that, they’d be stumped by questions, and, in addition, they’d get frustrated. Why is that? Because they’re out of their element.”

That’s why they focus on Mind Only

But they are just their sub branch. But I seen the sub branch that became the future you can figure what they meant before in the past with All exist

So if they started after to focus on saying Mind Only they latterly meant actually All is Mind Only. Since it’s still Sarvāstivāda movement. Then we have to see correctly that we focus that the distinction we do is all exist in the mind. We can think of past or future. It’s probably others didn’t understand their predecessor real teaching.

When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.

So if there was no future baby in the past there is no adult in the present, because there is a adult in the present there is old age in the future and death. :skull:

When Buddha said because there exist Birth. He says there is the others. But the English makes me wonder why he doesn’t say Existed. What’s the Pali word? Because exist is a word confirmation used in the present. But he is talking also of future also. And still translated Exist. So does he mean my birth exist still today? Because it’s still exist as a side effect there is the rest. Which makes sense, because the Baby is the same person as when adult. So Buddha said that in this body we have to find the ending of suffering. So it’s the body he was talking about. This body exist as birth now. This body exist as old age now. And in the further when it dies all that still exists until it becomes nothing. Because it’s the same body just evolving

So seeing this sutta About craving
(Was not complete here)

There being ‘I am,’ there comes to be ‘I am here,’ there comes to be ‘I am like this’ … ‘I am otherwise’ … ‘I am bad’ … ‘I am good’ … ‘I might be’ … ‘I might be here’ … ‘I might be like this’ … ‘I might be otherwise’ … ‘May I be’ … ‘May I be here’ … ‘May I be like this’ … ‘May I be otherwise’ … ‘I will be’ … ‘I will be here’ … ‘I will be like this’ … ‘I will be otherwise.’ These are the 18 craving-verbalizations dependent on what is internal.


So in truth that I AM was something already born of the past in rebirth after rebirth, it makes us create the present and the future. Because we wrongly think in our mind there is I AM.

So another sutta Buddha said

And what, bhikkhus, are the hundred and eight kinds of feelings? The above thirty-six feelings in the past, the above thirty-six feelings in the future, the above thirty-six feelings at present. These are called the hundred and eight kinds of feelings.
“This, bhikkhus, is the Dhamma exposition on the theme of the hundred and eight.”

As Can be seen above feelings of course is of the mind. So actually when he says describe another all. One can describe what exist. So 36 feelings in all 3 times is his teaching. So all exist?

And it is said that we had all tasted different tastes of food in the past rebirths so why crave for them in this life again or better said why crave for them again in this future life which started because craving in the past?

it would deserve a more calm analysis because the Science modern views seem to be really diverse

in example, here there is an interesting attempt to concilliate the Buddhist conception of Time with Einstein theories:


According this author, our common -self inaccessibility to the gods realms could be explained under the Einstein theories:

“It is evidenced from the Buddhist scripture that many kinds of beings live much longer than human and have very long lifespan. In many other realms, time is much slower compare to the human realm for examples, one celestial day can be equal to 50 ,100 or 200 human years and so on (Thera, 1987, p. 279) (Mon, 2002, pp. 197-201). It follows that we could hypothesize, based on Einstein’s theory of time relativity, that on those celestial realms there must exist either the much faster speed of the observers- it may be possible that those celestial realm orbit itself with a much faster speed than the human earth - or there are more intense gravitational force on those celestial realms than on the human earth in which we-human currently inhibit.”

at least it sounds entertaining


Reminds me of the excellent (if you like that sort of thing) SciFi novel Dragons Egg

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“It is evidenced from the Buddhist scripture that many kinds of beings live much longer than human and have very long lifespan. In many other realms, time is much slower compare to the human realm for examples, one celestial day can be equal to 50 ,100 or 200 human years and so on (Thera, 1987, p. 279) (Mon, 2002, pp. 197-201). It follows that we could hypothesize, based on Einstein’s theory of time relativity, that on those celestial realms there must exist either the much faster speed of the observers- it may be possible that those celestial realm orbit itself with a much faster speed than the human earth - or there are more intense gravitational force on those celestial realms than on the human earth in which we-human currently inhibit.”

at least it sounds entertaining

The weird thing about relativity is that although we would see them as living longer if we watched them through a telescope, for them they would see us as being the ones living longer if they watched us through a telescope of their own.

Time is really weird in astrophysics. But in theoretical physics it sometimes disappears altogether from the equations.

I don’t expect the early texts to touch on it in these terms. I was wandering if the texts describe time as being ‘real’ or just another delusion.

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I think probably you cannot find that. I mean, no claim about being real neither delusion. Buddha was very practical and He avoided a philosophical approach. We only can find references about how to deal with the past, present and future. In this style:

*"Burn up what’s before, *
*and have nothing for after. *
*If you don’t grasp at what’s in between, *
you will go to the calm."
- Sn 4.15

and similar things.

Any talk about the Time in itself would become a philosophical approach, and such things only can appear in later Abbhidhamma texts. At least in my knowledge.

This summary is quite useful, I think:

"The recognition of this finite segment of time means that according to early Buddhism there is a duration of temporal experience with a certain unification of perspective. For this reason, unlike in the cases where a theory of moments dominated, (37) early Buddhism considered both time and causation as parts of our experience, not as mere inferences based primarily on the succession of momentary ideas. Thus, it is possible to maintain that early Buddhism presents us with an empiricist analysis of time. With regard to the problem of time, early Buddhism seems to have followed the middle path, so famous in the history of Buddhist thought.

In his desire to eliminate the pre-Buddhist conception of an eternal and immutable self (attan), the Buddha adopted the analytical method (vibhajjavaada) of reducing things to their components. Thus the human personality was analyzed sometimes into five aggregates (Paali, khandha; Skt. skandha) and at other times into six elements (dhaatu). Yet all these aggregates, as well as the elements, were the contents of experience, not of pure logical analysis. But with the development of scholasticism, this analytical approach was carried to its logical conclusion, and the result was the emergence not only of a theory of atoms (paramaa.nu) but also a theory of moments (kha.na), spatial analysis giving rise to temporal atomicity.(38) The development of these two theories occasioned several other doctrines which are not compatible with the basic teachings of the Buddha.

I agree about your comment on Time in the Einstein theories. The Time according Einstein theories it seems to be an internal creation for the scientific world, to endow Time with some theoretical reality in itself. Something able to deal with the contradictions inside that world.

However, in the empirical terms of the personal experience, one cannot give any credit to the Einstein theories about the nature of Time. Or to be more kind: it should be a different thing and with the exclusive intention to be applied in the Scientific world. That theory can be very important and useful for the new building of the modern Science, although regarding some utility to understand our experience, it is really useless and an absurd thing. To claim bizarre things like the Time becomes slower in a clock in movement, it is an absurdity in the empirical terms of the experience, because the Time doesn’t inhabit in any place except in the mind.

I think time being a part of the conditioned samsara, is not a delusion. The conditioned world exists, though not absolutely, but rather empirically, so it’s not a delusion. My understanding is based on this sutta :
On the other hand, the Unconditioned (Nibbana) is said to be beyond space and time -
“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished,unevolving, without support [mental object].This, just this, is the end of stress.” - Ud 8.1[Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1)]
Any corrections to my personal interpretation are most welcome!

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@Javier One idea that comes into my mind: it could be worth looking at the passages of the suttas which are critical of deterministic ideas of the Ajivikas.
I don’t know much about the block time theory, but it seems to imply that the future is determined.

Anyone considered if the story of Ven Angulimala tells us something about time?

Since Angulimala was chasing Buddha, but he couldn’t reach him.

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as in the case of Coyote and the Road Runner, at a later time we can only say the script did not allow such thing :slightly_smiling_face:

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