Zen Philosophy 
the Nature of Time

(originally published in the Journal of the National Museum, Natural History Series)
(Časopis Národního muzea, Řada přírodovědná, 169 (1-4): 119-122. 2000)

Václav Petr

1. Two inseparable aspects of time in non-dual Zen philosophy

One of the most important sources for Zen is the Chinese Taoist philosophy with its central image of "yin and yang which are Tao" (to speak of Zen means to speak of Tao). According to Vladimír Ando, author of the famous Czech 5-volume textbook of Traditional Chinese Medicine (further abbrev. as TCM), with numerous direct translations from Su-wen and other Chinese texts, it is possible to say that there are two basic aspects of the Tao. One is absolute (but not abstract!), hidden from us, and beyond our understanding. That is the "eternal Tao", all-embracing infinite Void that is not really empty because of the principle of creation it carries within itself (emptiness that never can be exhausted). The second aspect of the Tao is relative, much more comprehensible for the Western mind. It is the visible existence with its uncountable multitude of mortal life forms spontaneously and mysteriously brought forth out of the emptiness. But the very answer to the question "why?" lies in the absolute aspect of the Tao (Ando 1999, p. 68-69).

Yin and yang are opposites representing all paired existence: body and qi (dynamic essence), form and qi (i.e., matter and form, function and form, or body and energy in usual Western philosophies), darkness and light, death and life, north and south etc. In TCM, yin is supposed to be within the interior of the body as a material foundation for yang which rests on the exterior as a manifestation of yin. Though being opposites, yin and yang are utterly interdependent, either side of them restricts or generates the other. The mutual consuming and generating of yin and yang can be defined in TCM as a process of quantitative change, while the mutual transformation of yin and yang as a process of qualitative change. Health of a body is viewed as an outcome of the mutually restrictive and mutually consuming and generating activities of yin and yang. In TCM, excess of yin may cause yang syndromes (similarly extreme cold may bring about heat) and vice versa. Any separation of yin and yang inevitably results in the exhaustion of essential qi.

Like inside and outside of a cup, yin and yang are inseparable from one another. One even cannot exist without the other (Watts 1975, 1989). Without the mutual interconnectedness of yin and yang no change would be possible. Moreover, in relation to the image of "five elements" (fire, earth, metal, water and wood), TCM postulates close relationship of mutual generation (mutual birth) and mutual subjugation (mutual restriction) between them (the so-called extreme subjugation and counter subjugation being pathological conditions). As with yin and yang, mutual generation and mutual subjugation are two vital aspects which cannot be separated. All movement and change exists through mutual generation and subjugation. If there is no generation, then there is no birth, growth and development. But if there is no subjugation, then endless growth must inevitably result in death (every patient suffering from cancer knows that endless growth of cells is dangerous and ultimately leads to death).

Gerontologists are well-aware that almost every extension of the lifespan is accompanied with more or less considerable negative side effects. Though some targeted gene mutations have been identified that can extend lifespan (via enhancement of the resistance to environmental stress) apparently without paying a cost (see Guarente 1999, Magliaccio et al. 1999), the inevitability of the cycle of birth and death remains unbounded.

According to Zen, our universe (space) as well as time are one, utterly inseparable whole, and when we see them from another aspect, they are both an infinite collection of individual unique parts. Again, their two aspects cannot be separated. If there is not the first, no universe coherently connected can exist. If there is not the latter, no separate things and no individuality is possible. The first represents the well-known Jung's acausal principle or synchronicity (today's quantum mechanics knows well the seemingly curious phenomenon of 'quantum entanglement', strongly independent of space and time). Carl Gustav Jung had sometimes identified his acausal principle of synchronicity with Tao (see e.g., Jung 1968) but, of course, as we have just seen, it is better to identify it particularly with the eternal aspect of Tao. The second aspect, i.e. of infinite collection of unique things, is clearly manifested in the causal principle of relativity.

2. Relativity of time in everyday life

According to many Eastern as well as Western philosophers, time is not an absolute 'thing'. For instance, Immanuel Kant stated that: "... if we regard space and time as properties, which must be found in objects as things in themselves, if they are to be possible at all, and reflect on the absurdities in which we then find ourselves involved, inasmuch as we are compelled to admit the existence of two infinite things, which are nevertheless not substances, nor anything really inhering in substances, nay, to admit that they are the necessary conditions of the existence of all things, and moreover, that they must continue to exist, although all existing things were annihilated - we cannot blame the good Berkeley for degrading bodies to mere illusory appearances." (Kant 1781, from Kant 1993, p. 67).

The 'good' George Berkeley's famous sentence is possibly much more understandable: "A succession of ideas take to constitute Time, and not to be only the sensible measure thereof, as Mr. Locke and others think..." (Berkeley's letter to Samuel Johnson, 1730, from Berkeley 1993, p. 434).

A useful definition gives Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: "... I have more than once stated that I held space to be something purely relative, like time; space being an order of co-existences as time is an order of successions..." (Leibniz's third paper of his correspondence with Samuel Clarke, 1715, from Leibniz 1995, p. 211).

The inherent relativity of time is clearly recognizable in biology. For example, John Tyler Bonner has pointed out that there is an interesting rule: the larger the organism, the longer it takes to grow to maturity (Bonner 1969). An increase in age is self-evident but we must ask: Is there also an 'increase' in the very feeling of time? The answer comes from the field of ageing research. Consider houseflies. All are of the same size but those that are born in summer are very active for about three weeks and die, while those that hatch in autumn live more than six months. This difference in lifespan is strongly interdependent with season, temperature of the environment, speed of moving, and the rate of oxygen consumption (metabolic rate). On the other hand, the so-called metabolic potential of summer houseflies as well as that of those hatched in autumn is precisely the same (Allen 1992). Moreover, the lifetime total number of heartbeats and the very "feeling" of time in both types of houseflies must remain constant, too. Consequently, for the two types of houseflies there is a bewildering discrepancy between the 'objective' lifespan measured in relation to seasons and the 'subjective' lifespan measured in relation to the internal 'pacemaker'. In fact, this discrepancy represents Einstein's relativity theory in everyday life and without need of velocities comparable to those of the speed of light. Now, in the following words of a Zen poem we can hear nothing strange at all:

"The morning glory which blooms for an hour
Differs not at heart from the giant pine,
Which lives for a thousand years."

3. Discontinuous character of time and the eternal present ("still point")

Beyond doubt and thanks to the tick of clocks and ageing, we feel the seemingly relentless and continuous flow of time in everyday life. I think that practically everybody in our country recalls Gollum's riddle from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937):

"This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down."

Bilbo's answer is, of course, "Time". But the sense of unidirectional flow of time was not always as evident as it is today. We have many examples from human history of quite different views of time. One of the most common views was that of circular time. For example, Mayas (Central America) believed that events are repeated every 260 years (Coveney & Highfield 1991). If you read the old books of Sir Charles Lyell, probably the most prominent geologist of all times, you will find he said that mammals must be discovered in Old Palaeozoic rocks and that giant reptiles must on some day return to the land as well as seas and air (Lyell 1867). Today, we are well aware of the cyclic patterns of time but are unable to imagine that history can repeat itself. Lyell's vision may be intepreted as correlated with some lost sort of "cultural time". Modern geologists rather see an "arrow of time" and a relatively more or less continuous fossil record. But do they? And what is the position of Zen?
Look at yourself "frozen in time" on a snapshot. Are you connected through veins, muscles and tissues with the past? Certainly not. And it is exactly this simple observation through which we can grasp the point of Zen that there is no continuous flow of time. There is no "past" laid along a "path". You can see only a record of yourself contained within an instant. Similarly, geological strata and fossils are not the evidence of a "past" but only records contained within present. Of course, there are former and later stages but they are clearly discontinuous. And that is the explanation why in Zen an egg does not become a chicken, winter does not become spring.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote: "...In the case of time nothing exists but instants, and an instant is not even a part of time..." (Leibniz's fifth paper of his correspondence with Samuel Clarke, 1716, from Leibniz 1995, p. 233).

In Buddhism, the apparent course of time is often compared to the illusory travel of a wave on the surface of the ocean. The actual movement of the water is only rhythm of up and down, while a directional travel of the wave over the surface is never real (Watts 1989, p. 123).

Clifford D. Simak (1904-1988), one of the best American science-fiction authors (winning five major science-fiction awards and the Grand Master Award for his lifetime contributions), began his career with the first published story The World of the Red Sun (it appeared in Wonder Stories 1931 and reissued thanks to Isaac Asimov in Before the Golden Age, Doubleday 1974). Simak, who became really one of the most sophisticated and humane of John Campbell's Golden Age writers (the so-called "Golden Age" of science fiction began in 1938), presented in this story a very funny and entertaining portrayal of the confusing effects of an unfortunate travel forward in time (the crux was that the travel backward was impossible). In his famous novel City (a linked collection of stories from the 1940s, first published as a novel in 1952, and named the winner of the International Fantasy Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year), the dogs are well aware that in fact there is no past at all. Moreover, they say that "...we thought all the time that we were passing through time when we really weren't, when we never have. We've just been moving along with time. We said, there's another second gone, there's another minute and another hour and another day, when, as a matter of fact the second or the minute or the hour was never gone. It was the same one all the time. It had just moved along and we had moved with it." (Simak 1952, from Simak 1965, p. 153). The same argument is used in another well-known Simak's novel: the past is pictured as a vanishing ghost: ("There was no grass. There were no trees. There were no men, nor any sign of men...") while the future is empty ("It was a place without a single feature of the space-time matrix that he knew. It was a place where nothing yet had happened - an utter emptiness. There was neither light nor dark: there was nothing here but emptiness. There had never been anything in this place, nor was anything ever intended to occupy this place..." (Simak 1961, p. 61, 128).

Simak's philosophy is strikingly different from our common Western perception of "having no time", in which present is only an infinitesimal part of time, a fleeting illusion dividing almost infinite past and future. His philosophy is much better correlated with Zen and Alan Watts' proposition that time is an hallucination, that there is only today and that there never will be anything except today. In the so-called "awakening to the instant" in Zen, we can see that past and future cannot be infinite but that the reverse is the truth - "it is rather the past and future which are the fleeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real." (Watts 1989, p. 199).

Now, we can understand the following story:

"On one occasion Ma-tsu and Po-chang were out for a walk, when they saw some wild geese flying past.
"What are they?" asked Ma-tsu.
"They're wild geese," said Po-chang.
"Where are they going?" demanded Ma-tsu.
Po-chang replied, "They're already flown away."
Suddenly Ma-tsu grabbed Po-chang by the nose and twisted it so that he cried out in pain.
"How," shouted Ma-tsu, "could they ever have flown away?"
This was the moment of Po-chang's awakening."

(from Watts 1989, p. 122)


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