Buddhism and the illusion of time

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Posted by Soulplex ( on April 13, 2000 at 13:05:08:

In a post below (The end of time), Remmy wrote:

<< I've just read 'The end of time' by Julian Barbour which presents a fairly convincing theory that time is just an illusion and really the universe is just made up of infinite seperate 'instants', or different configurations of the Universe. Has anyone else read it and if so what do you think the implications are on Buddhism and the mind. The theory has got me quite depressed and so I would appreciate any replies. >>

I haven't read it, but I just saw an ad for it in the new issue of Science News and decided to browse the web for more info. As for time being illusory and the universe being nothing but a series of separate "instants," like frames in a movie, that's basically correct. Everything we call "the past" is, literally, nothing but present memories. Likewise, everything we call "the future" is nothing but present memories inverted, or rearranged, to form a prediction or expectation. The appearance of "time" is little more than a trick of memory, as the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament Scripture) says. You can easily discern this for yourself: simply figure out what it is you consider "the past" and "the future." You will discover that it is nothing but thoughts--nothing but memories, nothing but expectations, nothing but mental commentary. It's "all in your head," so to speak. There's really no such thing as time. There is really only Now--an eternally present Present with no beginning and no ending. Everything is completely new, distinct, and original every instant, with no real "change" or "motion" at all. The mystic-philosopher Heraclitus, explaining this point, said, "A man cannot step in the same river twice."

Zen Buddhism, in particular, stresses this very significant insight. Here's the Sixth Patriarch, Ch'an Master Hui-neng:

"In this moment there is nothing that comes to be. In this moment there is nothing that ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Thus the absolute peace in this present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein lies eternal delight."

Zen Master Seung Sahn elaborated on this topic in his excellent book The Compass of Zen (p. 143):

"Everyone thinks that this is extremely difficult teaching, something beyond their reach or experience. How can things appear and disappear, and yet there is, originally, even in this constantly moving world, no appearing and disappearing? A student once asked me, 'The Mahaparinirvana-sutra seems very confusing. Everything is always moving. And yet everything is not moving? I don't understand this Buddhism . . .' But there is a very easy way to understand this: Sometime you go to a movie. You see an action movie about a good man and a bad man--lots of fighting, cars moving very fast, and explosions all over the place. Everything is always moving very quickly. Our daily lives have this quality: everything is constantly moving, coming and going, nonstop. It seems like there is no stillness-place. But this movie is really only a very long strip of film. In one second, there are something like fourteen frames. Each frame is a separate piece of action. But in each frame, nothing is moving. Everything is completely still. Each frame, one by one, is a complete picture. In each frame, nothing ever comes or goes, or appears or disappears. Each frame is complete stillness. The film projector moves the frames very quickly, and all of these frames run past the lens very fast, so the action on-screen seems to happen nonstop. There is no break in the movement of things. But actually when you take this strip of film and hold it up to the light with your hands, there is nothing moving at all. Each frame is complete. Each moment is completely not-moving action.

"Our minds and the whole universe are like that. This world is impermanent. Everything is always changing, changing, changing, moving, moving, moving, nonstop. Even one second of our lives seems full of so much movement and change in this world that we see. But your mind--right now--is like a lens whose shutter speed is one divided by infinite time. We call that moment-mind. If you attain that mind, then this whole world's movement stops. From moment to moment you can see this world completely stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Like the film, you perceive every frame--this moment--which is infinitely still and complete. In the frame, nothing is moving. There is no time, and nothing appears or disappears in that box. But this movie projector--your thinking mind--is always moving, around and around and around, so you experience this world as constantly moving and you constantly experience change, which is impermanence. You lose moment-mind by following your conceptual thinking, believing that it is real."

When you transcend your thinking mind in the realization of your own pure, timeless, ever-present Awareness, then the illusion of time completely collapses, and you become utterly Free of the samsaric cycle of time, change, impermanence, and suffering. This, my friend, is nothing at all to be "depressed" about! Rather, the fact that your own Buddha Mind exists beyond time, in THIS very moment, is itself the key to your permanent and eternal (timeless) Liberation.

Hope that helps!

--Tom Huston

"To no longer resist the present is to see that there is nothing but the present--no beginning, no end, nothing behind it, nothing in front of it. When the past of memory and the future of anticipation are both seen to be present facts, then the slats to this present collapse. The boundaries around this moment fall into this moment, and then there is nothing but this moment, with nowhere else to go."

--Ken Wilber, No Boundary, pp. 158-159

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