the Wanderling

by Anthony Birch, PhD

The belief in the independent existence of things in the world is a mainstay of the common sense view of life. Trees, flowers, houses, the earth, stars and galaxies exist and will continue to exist without us, according to common sense. All these things, and most importantly our own conscious lives, however, appear to be caught up in the inexorable flow of time. Common sense readily admits that as time passes, ordinary physical objects, and human beings, come and go. It would seem, therefore, that the flow of time is itself the sole unchanging element in an ever-changing universe.

Yet the independent reality not only of physical objects, but the flow of time in which they appear to be enmeshed, are precisely the common sense conceptions that the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way seeks to unravel. Indeed, their unraveling is understood to be essential to the attainment of enlightenment, a complete understanding of and spiritual unity with the universe. Unlike many Western philosophies (including the contemporary scientific view that places the origin of the universe at a point in time), the Middle Way attempts to show us how to dispense with the concept of the flow of time. Ultimately, the belief in the flow of time, a last refuge of common sense, is to be overcome. How are we to understand this transformation of a belief that seems so well-grounded not only in common sense but in science? What religious or philosophic interpretation can we give the concept of time in the Middle Way?

The purpose of this paper is to investigate Nagarjuna's conception of time and its relationship to enlightenment. In order to provide a reasonable limit to the scope of this paper, I shall confine myself to Nagarjuna's arguments presented in his most famous work the Mulamadhyamakakarikas (herein after MMK). I shall divide this examination into three parts: (1) Nagarjuna's goals, central terms and strategies and how these form a backdrop against which his conception of time is to be understood; (2) An analysis of the specific arguments Nagarjuna offers in the MMK relating to time and allied topics such as space and motion; (3) An interpretive account of how one can incorporate Nagarjuna's arguments concerning time into an understanding of the enlightenment experience.

I. Nagarjuna's Plan and Purpose

Religion and Philosophy

In approaching Nagarjuna's thought it must be remembered that Nagarjuna's purpose is religious. His primary aim is to inspire an understanding that will lead toward enlightenment. Nagarjuna uses logic and philosophy, but his aim is to indicate truths that lie beyond these abstract disciplines. The arguments presented by Nagarjuna should be understood as tools or way stations to be used on the path to enlightenment. The logical, the rational, and the philosophic are ultimately transformed to the mystical (Betty p. 139 and Streng p. 181).

Nagarjuna has a secondary purpose that lies behind the MMK, and this also must be understood in a religious context: Nagarjuna wanted to refute the materialist ideas of the Abhidharma schools and return Buddhism to what he thought was the Middle Way. Nagarjuna was committed to explaining the radical notion that nirvana and samsara and were identical -- an idea that would be quite difficult for many of his contemporaries to accept. We should, therefore, regard the MMK as an exercise in both practical polemics and religious persuasion.

The Meaning of Own-Being

Almost all of Nagarjuna's arguments are structured around the conception of things which are said to have "own-being" (sbavhavah). It is essential that we understand how Nagarjuna defines this term. An examination of the text (see in particular verses 7.16, 15.2, 15.8 and 15.11) shows that own-being is to be understood as that which is self-identical, exists by itself or through its own accord, and is not dependent on other beings for its existence. From this definition, Nargarjuna believed it followed that things with own-being were eternal.

The basic philosophic argument of the MMK is that there are no "things," either sensible objects of the life world or subjective components of the consciousness, which have own-being. All things are, rather, "empty" and without essential nature. They have only relative, dependent being. This applies even to Nirvana, which, because it is not separate and inaccessible, is coincident with the life world.

The Argument Against Causality

Nagarjuna's attempt to show the identity of samsara and nirvana rests on his showing the unintelligibility of causality. Nagarjuna seeks to show that the common-sense view of causality involves contradictions. If causality can be shown to be self-contradictory, then the "things" which reputedly participate in the chain of causality either have no own-being or do not participate in causality at all. Let us consider the arguments on causality Nagarjuna offers in Chapter 20 of the MMK. He says:

  1. If a product is produced through the aggregate of causes and conditions, and exists in the aggregate, how will it be produced in the aggregate?

  2. If a product is produced in the aggregate of causes and conditions and does not exist in the aggregate, how will it be produced in the aggregate? (Streng translation)

In other words, if a cause C already contains its effect or product E, then cause and effect are essentially identical and nothing is really produced. C and E are really two different aspects of the same thing. By extension, causality in general, all the "production" in the world, can not be the result of so-called "causes" because the effects that are already contained in the causes. Following this logic, we might therefore conclude that all the apparent goings-on in the world, the apparent interrelation of causes and effects, is really a kind of mirage.

On the other hand (verse 2), we might consider that cause and effect are entirely separate, but in that case, argues Nagarjuna, "production" again has no meaning. If C and E are independent events, with separate own-being, then one can not be rightfully said to cause the other. Once again, the world of ordinary experience would need to be reinterpreted and the meaning of "production" would have to be other than it is, if the separateness of cause and effect accounted for the goings-on of the world. Nagarjuna summarizes this as follows:

19. Certainly a oneness of cause and product is not possible at all. Nor is a difference of cause and product possible at all.

Let us clarify Nagarjuna's method and aims in these passages on causality. It has been argued by some (see Waldo, pp. 295-296.) that Nagarjuna's appeal to ordinary meanings used in these and similar passages throughout the MMK shows us that Nagarjuna is an ordinary language philosopher with a remarkable resemblance to the later Wittgenstein. Both are arguing that language shows us only the interdependence of words, leaving us with essential ambiguities of ultimate reference of words and in a dilemma about what reality is. As intriguing as this view is, I believe it must be rejected. Nagarjuna's arguments are not about language, but about reality (see Anderson, passim). Nagarjuna recognizes the conventional nature of language, and even denies that his "ultimate" category, "emptiness," should be understood as anything other than a convention. The term "emptiness" does not stand for a permanent or transcendent metaphysical reality whose meaning we can grasp by apprehending the reality behind the name. It is precisely because of its ambiguous and suggestive nature, not in spite of it, that language (and in particular "emptiness") can help guide us on the path of release.

The argument against the own-being in causality brings us to a consideration of how time figures in the explanation of events in the world. If causality is not logically comprehensible in terms of identity and difference, how are events to be related in terms of time? Would it not be the case that events could be related as "before" and "after" regardless of the refutation of the causality? Thus, it might seem that Nagarjuna's view as so far presented would allow an essentially Humean conception of events: causality is denied but constant conjunction in sequential time is asserted. This would allow that time "exists" but events are logically independent. Such a conception, is, of course, one that Nagarjuna would reject. Our next task is to see how Nagarjuna develops additional arguments concerning time.

II. The Concept of Time

Motion and Space

In our study of time, it will be instructive to first consider the allied topics of motion and space. We shall consider each in turn.

Contrary to what is often surmised, Nagarjuna does not deny motion (see Kalupahana p. 130 and Wayman p. 47). Nagarjuna concludes the chapter on motion with the assertion "Therefore, the process of going, the goer and the destination to be gone to do not exist," (2.25) but this ostensible denial of motion must be placed in the framework of the ontology Nagarjuna seeks to refute. Here, the moving things denied are those which have own- being. All the previous argumentation in the chapter shows that the motion, the object moved, and the destination achieved are all relative to each other. As Nagarjuna states, "certainly the act of going is not produced without a goer" (2.6) and "the goer can not come into being when there is no going" (2.7). As in the case of causality, Nagarjuna establishes the relativity of two mutually dependent conceptions, i.e. the inapplicability of identity and difference: "Neither the identity nor the essential difference is established regarding the two conceptions goer and act of going" (2.21). We may state Nagarjuna's conclusion another way: "motion" can not be conceived apart from objects which move; motion is not an independent category of being. It is important to note the ground of Nagarjuna's conclusion: "own-being" is self-contradictory when it attempts to explain the ordinary perceptible reality of objects in motion. No metaphysical notions, such as "Motion and its Objects" need be invoked once relativity is recognized.

Now let us briefly consider Nagarjuna's notion of space in chapter 5 of the MMK. The line of argumentation is both inventive and quite different than in other sections of the MMK. Nagarjuna asserts as a matter of principle that "in no case has anything existed without a defining characteristic" (5.2). Whatever we regard as existing must be able to be picked out by the senses or isolated in thought in some way. We can do this only in virtue of some "defining characteristic" of the thing under consideration. The problem with "space" is that it has no defining characteristic, nor can we consider it, as it were, in isolation prior to or apart from such characteristics -- there is "nothing there" for us to consider. It seems we must conclude that space does not exist.

But surely, one might reply,space seems to exist or to have come into existence (5.6). In that case, Nagarjuna responds, it must have a defining characteristic. Since we have established that there is none, we shall be forced to conclude that space is both existing and non-existing. But who can hold that there is an "existing-and-non-existing thing which does not have the properties of an existing-and-non-existing thing?" (5.6). We must therefore conclude space is not existing, not non-existing, nor both existing and non-existing.

Again, "space" has been found to be like "things;" it can not be considered as having own-being. Nothing positive whatever can be asserted of it. The grounds for this conclusion involve both the application of an independent principle of ontology and epistemology as well as the view of common sense. That Nagarjuna considered this view of space crucial is indicated by the closing verse of the chapter: "But those unenlightened people who either affirm reality or non-reality do not perceive the blessed cessation-of-appearance of existing things" (5.8). The apprehension of reality from the "blessed" (enlightened) perspective is an appeal to a higher level truth, a distinction not yet formally introduced in the MMK. This indicates that the logical arguments about space are transcended in the enlightened apprehension of reality.

At this point we can summarizeNagarjuna's ontology in the arguments under consideration (not his entire ontology) as one in which "things," in particular sensible things, have a kind of primary intractability to reason. This intractability arises primarily because things are not analyzable in terms of own-being. While we can not say that things "are," we must acknowledge that they nevertheless "assert" themselves or are present to us in a particular mode. Nagarjuna will subsequently identify this mode as "empty." Since motion is relative to things, the only reality we can assert of it is that it is relative. Likewise, Nagarjuna's view of space is profoundly non-Western. It is not presented as a necessary mode of apprehension nor as something independent in which objects reside.


Nagarjuna devotes chapter 19 of the MMK specifically to time. Once again, he attempts to show that time has no self-existence. There is an important difference in his arguments here however, for rather than developing all four arms of the tetralemma as he so often does, he concentrates only on the denial of time. Without trying to make too much of this fact, I wish to call attention to it in order to support the idea that time, like space, has a kind of special status for Nagarjuna, at least to the extent of requiring slightly altered forms of argumentation.

Three arguments regarding time are presented. The first argument is a reprise of the production argument and relies on the common-sense view that time is split into past, present and future. Nagarjuna argues if the "parts" of time have own-being, the conception of time quickly loses its coherence. If "the past" is considered to produce "the present" and "the future," the latter two parts would be already "in" the past and could therefore not be properly said to have separate being. On the other hand, if the present and the future are separate from the past, then their very unconnectedness leaves them uncaused, independent and without reference to the past. But since the very notions of present and future imply a relation to the past, this is self-contradictory. Therefore, the present and future do not exist. Neither identity with nor difference from the past is sufficient to establish the reality of the present and future. In a similar fashion, the independence of any of the parts of time can be attacked on the basis of their inseparability and necessary reference to each other. The past, for example, can not be independent because it is nonsensical if it does not terminate in the present and future.

Nagarjuna offers a second argument against the reality of time which does not specifically rely on time being "split." Rather, the objection is framed in epistemological terms:

5. A non-stationary "time" cannot be "grasped" and a stationary "time" which can be grasped does not exist. How, then can one perceive time if it is not "grasped"?

In other words, if time is acknowledged to be continuously fleeting, there are no absolute static components of it that can be experienced (or, perhaps, "grasped" by the mind). If we propose, as the Abhidharmic metaphysicians held, that there can be a "static moment" of time, it would no longer count as time. Time in and of itself can never be grasped.

The third and final argument shows that time can not be considered to be a self-existing thing that is somehow not dependent on other existing objects. This is because, as Nagarjuna has shown, there are no independent "objects" in the world, nor could time be itself truly independent as long as it remained defined by its relation to such supposed entities. To place the argument in more contemporary terms, time is not a self-existing substratum or arena in which equally independent things endure or independent events occur.

It is important to note that although Nagarjuna denies the independent existence of time in this chapter, he is not, apparently, denying what we might call the unmediated experience of change. What he does deny is that there is any coherent way of grasping or expressing this experience in terms of the flow of an independent substratum to reality. It seems that Nagarjuna's view of time is similar to Augustine's, who remarked that he knew what time was until he was called upon to speak of it. David Kalupahana summarizes Nagarjuna's view here nicely:

Time denied by him is absolute time....This is a rejection not of temporal phenomena, but only of time and phenomena as well as their mutual dependence so long as they are perceived as independent entities. (Kaluphana, p. 279)

Hence, although Nagarjuna makes no positive assertions regarding time and its relation to things, his view seems open to the interpretation that time and the things that change are essentially "one." We might phrase his view this way: phenomena are always phenomena-in-flux and time is always flux-in-phenomena. There is not a Time and Things that persist through it, but only a changing of things that "is" the change over time.

III. Eternity

As we indicated above, all of Nagarjuna's ideas are to be understood within the framework of the path toward Enlightenment. Enlightenment means that one understands the equation of samsara and nirvana, or the emptiness of the life world.

Once we see that there are no self-existent things in the universe, we come to regard "things" as "empty" of self-being, relative and dependent. The very emptiness of things, in fact, is what makes things be the way they really are. Once we give up the categorization of things as being, not-being, both being and not-being and neither being nor not-being, we can become open to the true experience of the life world. Finding the emptiness of samsara becomes finding the emptiness of nirvana. Nirvana has no own-being. Nirvana is not a "thing" to be found "elsewhere." The limits of samsara and nirvana are identical; "there is nothing whatever that differentiates the two" (MMK 25.19 and 25.20).

If one can see this to be true, it is perhaps not too much to ask that we can imagine that surpassing all categories of "thinghood," including space and time, we will be in a position to at least imagine that an experience without reference to them is possible. This may give us some clue as to the meaning of the Buddhists' reports that enlightenment allows one to experience a kind of ever present eternity.

The conceptual equation of samsara and nirvana, however, can not do the all of the philosophic work (let alone the real, practical work of the devotee) of encompassing a new apprehension of time into Enlightenment. This must be done by an inward turn to the self -- a rooting out of all notions of the last and most intractable ground of own-being: the notions of the substantial self with an eternal soul.

Nagarjuna closes the MMK with a final chapter reaffirming the "correctness" Buddha's silence on the issue of the survival of the soul after death. We can start by considering that the individual self is either eternal or non-eternal. If the self is eternal, it implies it is identical through a time extending beyond the limits of birth and death. In this case there would be no past state in which I was different from any future state. Not only would self-development be impossible, but identity would be continuous. The individual born in this time would have to be exactly the same as one born countless times before. This contradicts the common sense notion that I am a unique individual, living at a particular time and place. Thus, it follows that while we can not disprove reincarnation, we can not prove it on the basis of lived experience. Such concerns are hopeless metaphysical speculation which Nagarjuna rejects in the spirit of Buddha's original teaching.

There is an implied psychological and metaphysical doctrine in this final concern of the MMK, which, along with the previous discussions of motion, space, causality, and the path of release can help us synthesize Nagarjuna's view of time.

(1) Because of self-attachment, there is a strong tendency to hope that a kind of hypostatized Time (call it Eternity) will provide a last refuge for maintaining our self-identity. This Time will either provide a final home for the soul or will serve as a kind of netherland apart from the world that souls visit between the cycles of birth and death. Nagarjuna's denial of our knowledge of the self's ultimate destination not only brings us back to the present reality, but quite significantly, removes the two "ends" of time, the past and the future, from consideration. Hence, this feature of Nagarjuna's view anticipates the absorbing concern with the here and now that became so important to Zen.

(2) Nagarjuna uses ontological principles and logic, but also attempts to return us to immediate experience. Truly observed, space, time and motion have no own-being. Likewise, perceptible "things" are known to be empty, participating in the empty field of phenomenal becoming. If we pay attention to things just as they are, we can see them no longer in space or motion or time. If we can separate them at all, time and the changing thing are merely two aspects of the same perception. Time itself is never grasped, but changing things continue. It might be stated this way: emptiness "becomes" or empties itself in the form of thing-in-motion, thing-in-space, or thing-in-time.

(3) The understanding of time is a kind of spiritual opening. It enables us to face death with equanimity. As Dogen says,

Life is a stage of time and death is stage of time, like, for example, winter and spring. We do not suppose that winter becomes spring, or say that spring becomes summer. (Waddell, Shobogenzo Genjokoan, p.136)

Although time stages have a before and after, they each have their own integrity. The enlightened one accepts the integrity of all time stages, as did Hui Neng when he calmly explained his coming death to his disciples: "It is only natural that I should go" (Price, p. 106).

There is a further aspect to the spiritual aspect of understanding and experiencing of time that Nagarjuna seems to indicate. He speaks in several spots in the MMK of the "blessed cessation of appearances" (see discussion of space above and verse 5.8 of MMK) and the "cessation of conditioned elements" (25.24 and 16.4) as results of enlightenment or of entering nirvana. Undoubtedly, desire ceases in nirvana, but does time cease too? One is reminded of the Zen conception of "walking enlightenment" described in the Sutra of Hui Neng: "Let the essence of mind and all phenomenal objects be in a state of thusness. Then you will be in samadhi all the time" (Price, p. 80). Samadhi was traditionally conceived to be "timeless," but here it is also present in time. Dogen's view of the eternal present is also related. David Loy interprets the essence of Dogen's eternal present time this way: "[It] is eternal because there is indeed something which does not change: it is always now" (Loy, p.20).

The relation of these conceptions time and enlightenment, which grew out of later Buddhist thought, to specific passages in Nagarjuna is admittedly speculative, but their indebtedness to the spirit of Nagarjuna's great masterpiece, I think, is not. In any event, I believe we can only begin to understand Nagarjuna through an authentic struggle to understand not only the letter but the spirit of his text. The displacement of the ordinary views about the life world, and perhaps more importantly in our times, our scientific views, is a first and most difficult step on the path of the Middle Way.

IV. Conclusion

We shall be very far from understanding Nagarjuna if attempt to understand his logical, epistemological and ontological as abstractions. Nagarjuna's aim is salvation and logic and arguments are merely tools. The path of enlightenment can only be cleared by the use of argument; it can not be traversed. If space, causality and time are barriers for the ego's release, Nagarjuna has attempted to provide us with means to help us remove these barriers. Perhaps the most difficult barrier for many will be the conviction that time moves of its own accord and that it limits or constrains the life of the soul not only now but in the hereafter. Nagarjuna's arguments show us how time, like ordinary things in the life world, can be understood as "empty." Once it is understood as empty the burden of time is lifted from the soul; time ceases and life begins.











Bodhidharma, Hui'ko, Hui Shen, Hui Neng, Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien, Zhaozhou, Moshan Liaoran,
Mugai Nyodai, Nagarjuna, Ganapati Muni, Kuan Yin, Tung-Shan, Te Shan, Dogen


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