The Concept of Timelessness in Buddhism
by A. Karunasena, author of "The Teachings of the Awakened"
Our life exists within the time frame of past, present and future. We were born years ago, live in the present and die at a future date. This is the concept we are adhered to. This concept of time is essential for the benefit of mankind and without which the orderly functioning of the society would not be sustainable. This established view is no more than a product of an inevitable outcome of a natural process of conditioning since we were born. It is the process of conditioning within the time frame that creates this view, the self-view. In fact, it is the effect of activation of dormant ‘kilesas’ which has caused this conditioning to create the self-view since infancy. This is the process we are unaware of.
The mind, which was pure and uncontaminated at birth gets contaminated or conditioned due to the activation of ‘kilesas‘, resulting from continues external contacts with the sense organs. This conditioning is so strong that the mind would get accustomed to the process and accepts time as the primary factor for its function. In the process, the mind would lose its original pure quality, which would have lasted only a few months since birth. With the conditioning, the ‘present’ gets clouded by the past and thereby deny experiencing of the present timeless moment. Instead, mind identifies objects within the time frame with ‘Names’ and ‘Forms’. This is the delusion resulting from ignorance (avijja). However, this ‘ignorance’ is quite different to the traditionally understood ignorance. It is simply the inability of the mind to see its own process. This ignorance that caused the conditioning to start with now dominates and would last throughout our life. We experience the natural outcome of this process as real at every moment in our life, i.e., we are forced to view the world through the window of this ignorance.
Enlightenment is ‘timeless’. It is an experience beyond the process of the mind conditioned by time. Hence, it is beyond time and therefore beyond the thought process. It is the experiencing of the ‘timeless present’. It is where pure ‘dhamma’ operates – simultaneous arising and ceasing. It is the experiencing of the reality. It is the experiencing of pure ‘dhamma’ beyond mind made time dimension. It is where the thought process activated by ‘kilesas’ does not operate. It is where the reality exists and illusion of ‘self’ is realised. It is the realisation of the mind’s own ignorance with the dawn of wisdom. It is where personalisation does not exist.
With the above brief description, we may now proceed to consider a few aspects of Buddha’s discourses to get a better understanding of the concept of ‘Timelessness’. The familiar phrase ‘Akaliko Bagavatho dhammo’ (‘dhamma is timeless’) clearly implies that the dhamma, the Buddha preached was about a process beyond time. The Buddha was trying to educate human beings of this very fundamental basis of the dhamma, which is timelessness, for forty-five long years. But we tend to view dhamma within the time frame: reading the Scriptures, listening to dhamma from the community of monks or taking ‘refuge’ in ‘Triple Gems’. Books may contain facts about dhamma or various interpretations of Buddha’s explanations of dhamma. Monks may try to explain dhamma in their sermons. The ‘Triple Gems’ as traditionally understood refer to the figure of the Buddha, the dhamma in books and the community of monks. They are not the dhamma operating beyond time. However, they may sometimes serve as a guide to understand the dhamma. The dhamma is a process that operates beyond time.
Another phrase is ‘Uppada Vaya Dhmmino’. This refers to the simultaneous arising and ceasing of the dhamma – ceasing within the arising. This contradicts the Vedic concept of ‘Uppada titi banga’ (arising, existing and ceasing). The nature of the dhamma is that it ceases as it arises, which is ‘impermanence’, i.e., the timeless nature of the dhamma. The Buddha realised on ‘awakening’, whatever that arises due to causes are subject to cessation (Yan kinci samudaya dhammam, sabbantham nirodha dhammam). This is how Venerable Kondanna, the first disciple of the Buddha also attained the stage of Sotapanna, on listening to ‘Dhammacakkapavatana Sutta’ (SN 56.11: Sutta Pitaka – Samyutta Nikaya), the first sermon of the Buddha. This is the entry point and every one crosses this boundary on enlightenment and experiences this phenomenon. This is the enlightened vision or the experiencing of the timeless present.
‘Vaya Dhamma Sankhara’ refers to the impermanency of ‘sankhara’ (formations/mental creations). They are impermanent and vanishing (vaya) in the arising, which is the phenomenon of sankhara. However, we tend to cling on to this formation as real and suffer. The conditioned mind attempts construction within the time frame of ‘timeless’ occurrences. It attempts to create a permanency from a dynamic process. Therefore, such constructs are all illusions. The mind is so delusional in the process that it believes as real of these constructs.
‘Yo Dhammam Passati, So Mam Passati’ (He who sees the dhamma within ‘sees’ the Buddha). This is the most fundamental principle he established in his admonition to Vakkali who was attempting to ‘see’ the Buddha by looking at his physical form. This is clearly an open invitation – come to the ‘enlightened vision’ by seeing the dhamma within, i.e., experience the timeless dhamma or the dhamma in operation beyond time.
The Philosophy that the Buddha introduced to the world more than 2550 years ago speaks about a ‘timeless’ concept, the delusional effects resulting from the operation of dhamma beyond time, the personalisation of delusions and the effect of such personalisation, which is the main cause for suffering, dukka. The reality is thus the ‘impermanence’ or the operation of dhamma beyond time. However, the conditioning causes this reality to be misinterpreted by introducing a time dimension. In this complex process with the operation of Dependant Origination, a ‘self’ is born, the world of objects created and personalisation takes place leading to suffering.
It is the timeless present one has to experience as a ‘non-self’ to become enlightened. However, this timeless process cannot be seen or experienced by the mind process as a self. It is beyond the thought process. Hence, it is beyond the reach of our knowledge. The ‘self’, the ‘sense organs’ or the world cannot exist in this timeless present moment. Although our aim is to experience this present moment beyond the mind process, the mind is also the only weapon available to us in order to move in that direction. Therefore, our approach has to be capable of comprehension by the mind process to start with.
In this approach, we basically accept time and hence the existence of the physical sense organs and also the contacts that occur with them. These contacts of the sense organs are however, impersonal and they also disappear as they appear without permanency, but they generate thoughts within the time frame to a self. The self tends to personalise such thoughts believing as they are real, which leads to suffering, dukkha. In this process, which starts with the impersonal contacts of the sense organs, the ‘Five Aggregates’ (Form-Rupa, sensation/feeling-Vedana, perception-Sanna, mental formation-Sankhara and knowledge-Vinnana) activates and the ‘Dependant Origination’ operates completing the ‘bhava cycle’ and the thought process instantaneously. Although the activation of ‘Five Aggregates’ bring no harm, the automatic personalisation of the ‘Five Aggregates’ with the operation of Dependant Origination leads to suffering – dukkha every moment. Thus the main problem we face is this personalisation of the thoughts arising from these impersonal contacts.
Understanding these contacts (light, sound, smell, taste & touch with the sense organs) and the interdependent processes resulting from such contacts would be a better starting point for the journey ahead. This will help to comprehend the mind process and enable to realise that these contacts are impermanent and also the resulting thoughts, self and the world are all illusions. The self and the world arise instantly within the thought when a contact occurs, but cease within the arising. When this understanding develops, one would begin to realise that the personalisation of such impermanent thoughts would not bring any benefit, but could only lead to suffering.
When we begin to consider facts rationally with an open mind, it is not difficult to realise that the ‘Trilakkhana’- the impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) are within a thought. These are the three characteristics of bhava, samsara, ‘self’ or existence and they can only be recognised in a thought. The thought is impermanent (anicca), it ceases as it arises. The personalisation of thoughts leads to suffering (dukka). The ‘self’ is born within the thought and dies with the cessation of the thought and there is no continuity of this illusionary self and hence non-self (anatta).
With the development of a very clear understanding of the mind process, it would become easy to comprehend that the timelessness cannot be experienced from this mind process. Thus the thought process or any actions taken as a self will be of no avail to move towards the final goal. This may also open our eyes to question the relevance of the general belief that the accumulation of merits (which are in fact acts performed by a self within the thought process) is essential to become enlightened in a future life. With the realisation of impermanency of thoughts, the desire to cling on to thoughts would diminish and the practice of ‘let go’ of thoughts would become easy. However, this is only the beginning. Our attention has to be focused not on the thoughts, but to the point of arising of thoughts.
Although, we assume that the thoughts arise every moment, in fact no such thoughts are formed in reality. Thoughts could only be formed within the time frame, as the contacts whether it is light, sound, etc., disappear as they appear. And also the sense organs although we assume to be permanent are also subject to the reality, the impermanence. There is no possibility for any thoughts to be formed from such transient contacts, but the conditioned mind tends to collate all past contacts and create thoughts within the time frame. It is only a process of the conditioning activated by kilesas and ignorance. This is a delusion and not the reality.
Thoughts could only reflect the past, which is the memory. We are denied of the present with the arising of thoughts every moment. Therefore, even to focus on a single ‘object’ or dwell on a single thought is essentially living in the past. They do not go far enough to break the time frame. The reality to be experienced is in the present and not in the thought process. It is ‘here and now’. Thoughts only deny the real present, the timeless present.
With this understanding, it becomes clear that we need to be mindful all the time of the present moment. Not to dwell on thoughts, but to practise the correct ‘mindfulness’ (Yoniso mansikara) – to be mindful of the origination or the birth of the timeless activities. The importance of mindfulness of the present moment is embedded in the following words of the Buddha to Bahiya (Bahiya Sutta: Udana 1.10 (Tipitaka – Sutta Pitaka – Khuddaka Nikaya – Udana).
“Ditthe Ditthamattam Bhavissati, Sute Sutamattam Bhavassati”
- In seeing there is only the seeing, in hearing there is only the hearing.
At this stage it would be appropriate to consider briefly the moment-by-moment mindfulness, which is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (catu stipatthana): Mindfulness of the body (kayanu passana), the sensations (vedananu passana), the mind (cittanu passana) and mental objects (dhammanu passana). The practising of mindfulness relates to four components: body, sensation, mind and mind objects. These exist only in the moment that the being exists. In other words, being, body, sensation, mind and mind objects exist together in a moment or more correctly, they arise together and vanish with their origination. The past or the future has no relevance to our mindfulness. It is the maintenance of mindfulness of the ‘present’ moment, where the being exists, that is essential.
The contact of the sense organs with the external world instantly creates a thought and vanishes with its origination. A ‘self’, body, sensation, mind and mental objects arise in that moment within the thought by conditioning each other and vanish instantly. This activity operates in the present and nothing goes from present to the next moment. A self is not born without mind, body, sensation and mental objects. Similarly, the mind will not arise without the self, body, sensation and mental objects. On the other hand, for example, if sensation does not arise, then mind, mental objects and self do not arise. Similarly, if body is not born, then sensation, mind, mental objects and self do not arise.
Sensation cannot be experienced after experiencing the body. The mind cannot be experienced after experiencing the sensation and similarly, mind objects (dhamma) cannot be experienced after experiencing the mind. All four need to be experienced together, which is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is experienced on enlightenment. Our aim is therefore, to develop the necessary skills to move in that direction. Mindfulness to be in the present and experience the vanishing of the self as it is born, to experience the ceasing of mental creations within the arising without attachment, i.e., experience them without a doer.
The Buddha’s last words – “Handadani bhikkhave amantayami vo, vaya dhamma sankhara, appamadena sampadetha ti” meaning “all component things cease, work out your deliverance with urgency” would remind us of the importance of ever-present mindfulness, i.e., the mindfulness of the present moment. All component things, the mental formations (sankhara) cease (vaya) within formation. Appamada implies the meaning of urgency, do not delay. Our delay is the thought, getting trapped in the time frame. This is unavoidable and it is the delay. Not being able to live a ‘moment’ in the present. This is absence of mindfulness. The operation of dhamma is now. Truth is in the present. The realisation is in the present. To live a moment in the present is the essential requirement in the teachings. Thought prevents us in experiencing the present moment. We need to develop the necessary skills and that is the meaning of ‘sampadetha’. Hence, the urgent need for heedfulness to be in the present for a moment.
Maintenance of mindfulness is essential to experience the simultaneous arising and ceasing, the reality. It has to be a continuous mindfulness. Once the mindfulness as a non-self has reached maturity, then the ceasing (nirodha) of a thought will be experienced within the arising (samuda) through wisdom at an unexpected moment. At that moment the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is completed, cessation of perception and ending of the mind experienced on realisation of ceto vimutti, non-existence of a self realised, four Noble Truths realised and enter in to the Noble Eightfold path. This is the vision and dawn of the wisdom or Buddhahood, which does not die. In fact it is the freeing from a thought for a moment. In the next moment cause and effect activates as before, but having realised the non-existence of a self, the mind process activates with wisdom and does not lead to personalisation. The Awakened one lives in the conventional world with wisdom until the physical body decays and dies. Because the ‘self’ was given up or depersonalised completely upon awakening, there is no identification of the self with the physical body anymore, and there is no self to grow old, fall sick and die.
~ Ignorance triumphs when wise men do nothing ~