Buddhism and Time

"One Time, One Meeting"
The concept of time is a rich subject of discussion that produced countless metaphysical theories in ancient India. Buddhists likewise joined into the discussion and in due time it seems this attracted the criticism of figures like Nāgārjuna and his later students who refuted any possibility of a substantially existent time. Here I want to take a brief look at how time was divided into two types by Nāgārjuna and expand on the significance of the two concepts. Outside of Buddhism there were of course many alternative heterodox ideas, such as time being a causal agent responsible for the creation and destruction of phenomena. Nāgārjuna sought to refute the theories of both his fellow Buddhists (namely the Sarvāstivāda) and heterodox schools. Curiously, one refuted heterodox concept of time came to be adopted into the Kālacakra Tantra, which is what will consider at the end.

According to the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa 大智度論 (MPU) there are two types of time.

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:「天竺說「時」名有二種:一名迦羅,二名三摩耶」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 65, b5-6)

In India there are said to be two types of time. The first is called kāla. The second is called samaya.

Now, before we examine these two terms I should say something about the MPU. Said text is attributed to Nāgārjuna. It was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (344-413) near the end of his life. As Arakawa Shintaro's study reveals there are fragments of the text in Tangut (I suspect they would be a translation of the Chinese), but otherwise the complete text only remains extant in Classical Chinese translation.

There is an ongoing discussion about whether Nāgārjuna was the true author of it or not, but there is no unanimous consensus on the matter. Kumārajīva as a translator was known to add material and edit his translations to make them more readable, which his contemporaries at the time noted with his edition of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā 中論 (MMK). Jizang 吉藏 (549–623) in his commentary on the MMK cites a source which states Kumārajīva would "cut away redundancy and make up for any deficiencies."1 He likely took the same approach with the MPU. This would help to explain peculiar parts of the text such as mentioning “India” 天竺. If it was a completely faithful translation of an Indian text, presumably the Indian author would have been addressing an Indian audience and hence would have had no need to specify “India”. Consequently, while it is not a completely faithful translation of the source text, we cannot confidently deny Nāgārjuna as the author.2 Here I assume he was the author despite Kumārajīva's editing.

Now, among the many definitions of the term kāla in Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary we find several relevant definitions:

a fixed or right point of time , a space of time , time (in general)”

the proper time or season for”

occasion, circumstance”


time (as leading to events , the causes of which are imperceptible to the mind of man), destiny, fate”

“time (as destroying all things) , death , time of death (often personified and represented with the attributes of yama, regent of the dead , or even identified with him: hence kālam- √i or kālaṃ- √kṛ , " to die " ”

In Chinese the term is understood as “real time” 實時. It refers to specific demarcated portions of time, mostly notably for the purposes of the Vinaya where midday marks the point of time where a bhikṣu must not eat anything until dawn the following day (more specifically when the lines on the palm of one's hand become visible). 

The MPU denies that time has any ultimate existence and goes on to refute the suggestion that it does, much like the MMK. It does however posit that “real time” in the context of the Vinaya is real only in the conventional mundane sense (世界中實). This is in reference to the two truths: ultimate (paramārtha-satya) and conventional (saṃvṛti-satya). In the former there are no phenomena to be perceived. The latter is common reality as it is perceived by ordinary beings and hence we can speak of “real time” as it relates to common perceptions.

Kāla is also understood by one heterodox school and the late-period Kālacakra Tantra as being the causal genesis of the production and destruction of phenomena (consider the last dictionary definition above). We will consider this shortly.

The term samaya refers to the sense of time specified in sūtras and śāstras. Sūtras generally start with ekasminsamaye (“at one time”). Monier-Williams defines it as “appointed or proper time, right moment for doing anything ..., opportunity ,occasion ,time , season”. In Chinese it is understood as “false time” 假時 in contrast to “real time”. The notion behind ekasminsamaye is explained as follows in the MPU:

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:「隨世俗故有一時無有咎。若畫泥木等作天像,念天故禮拜無咎。說「一時」亦如是,雖實無一時,隨俗說一時,無咎。」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 64, c13-16)

According to mundane convention there is no fault with there being “one time”. There is no fault if with paint, clay or wood one makes an image of a deity, and in recollecting the deity thus pays respects. To speak of “one time” is also like this. Although there really is no “one time”, there is no fault in speaking of “one time” according to mundane conventions.

What is unique is that there is soteriological function to samaya. According to the MPU, samaya is used instead of kāla in order to eliminate views. The former is nebulous and does not make specific reference to a definite span of time. The latter is definitive and more importantly associated with heterodox philosophy. Here the paradigm from the Prajñāpāramitā literature is evident. The interpretation here posits that the Buddha's aim was to have beings eliminate attachment to views and this would include reified notions of time, hence the wide use of samaya in sūtras and few examples of kāla as the MPU suggests is a result of the Buddha's express intent. In other words, indefinite time is used for the edification of beings – more importantly, it is out of the concern that beings will generate wrong views on the matter of time. This is a key concern of the MPU and MMK. It is in direct response to heterodox assertions that time is permanent and the causal genesis of all phenomena. The MPU cites two different arguments suggesting a true existence of time:

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:
 「『時來眾生熟,  時至則催促,
  時能覺悟人,  是故時為因。
  世界如車輪,  時變如轉輪,
  人亦如車輪,  或上而或下。』」
更有人言:「雖天地好醜一切物非時所作,然時是不變因,是實有。時法細故,不可見、不可知、以華果等果故可知有時。往年今年,久近遲疾,見此相,雖不見時,可知有時。何以故?見果知有因故。以是故有時法,時法不壞故常。」」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 65, b10-21)

Some say, “The cause for all agreeable and disagreeable things in heaven and earth is time. As the verses of the Time Scripture state:

Time comes and beings mature,
Time arrives and they hasten,
Time can awaken people,
For this reason time is the cause.
The world is like a chariot wheel,
Passing of time is akin to the wheel turning,
People are also like the chariot wheel,
Some rise and some descend.

Some also say, “Although all agreeable and disagreeable things in heaven and earth are not produced by time, time is a static cause and truly existent. The phenomenon of time is subtle and thus cannot be seen and cannot be [directly] known. We can know that time exists because of the result of flowers and fruits. The past year and the present year, distant and close, slow and fast – seeing these characteristics we can know that time exists although we do not see time. Why? It is because in seeing the result we know that there is a cause. Thus the phenomenon of time exists. The phenomenon of time is indestructible and thus permanent.”

I was initially perplexed as to who this was referring to, but in reference to this the Edo period Japanese Shingon monk Donjaku 曇寂  (1674-1742) in his Sub-commentary on the Commentary on the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra 大日經住心品疏私記 cites Āryadeva's description of the twenty theories on nirvāṇa by twenty externalist and Hīnayāna schools. Number seventeen is described as follows:

《提婆菩薩釋楞伽經中外道小乘涅槃論》卷1:「問曰。何等外道說諸物皆是時作名涅槃。答曰。第十七外道時散論師作如是說。時熟一切大。時作一切物。時散一切物。是故我論中說。如被百箭射時不到不死。時到則小草觸即死。一切物時生。一切物時熟。一切物時滅。時不可過。是故時論師說。時是常生一切物。名涅槃因。」(CBETA, T32, no. 1640, p. 158, a10-16)

Question – Which of the externalists teach that all things are produced by time and that this is called nirvāṇa?
Answer – The seventeenth externalist proponent of time dispersal teaches as follows. “Time matures all elements. Time creates all things. Time disperses all things. For this reason in my theory we say that if shot with a hundred arrows you would not die if time had not arrived. When time arrives, you would die immediately if touched by a small blade of grass. Time produces all things. Time matures all things. Time destroys all things. Time cannot be passed over.” For this reason the proponent of time teaches that time constantly produces all things. It is called the cause for nirvāṇa.

Zhanran 湛然 (711-782) also affirms the aforementioned verses in the MPU as being heterodox and moreover the soteriological function of these two types of time as follows.

《法華文句記》卷1〈釋序品〉:「是故外人計時為實。而說偈云。時來眾生熟。時去則催促。時能覺悟人。是故時為因。故須破邪說三摩耶。故今文中以實時示內生善。假時破外斷惡。」(CBETA, T34, no. 1719, p. 162, b1-4)

Thus the externalist conceives of time as real. In verse they state, “Time comes and beings mature. Time goes3 and they hasten. Time can awaken people. For this reason time is the cause.” Thus there is a need to refute error and teach samaya. Hence now in the text here real time reveals the inner production of virtue [i.e., the Buddhist Vinaya] while false time refutes externalists while severing away evil.

We need to bear in mind it was not only heterodox schools which reified time. Jizang also goes on to explain how the Buddhist Dārṣṭāntika (associated with the Sautrāntika) and Sarvāstivāda proponents likewise reified time in their respective theories as a substantive entity, which he notes the MMK sets out to “greatly disrupt” and refute. In his extensive commentary on the MMK he explains as follows.

《中觀論疏》卷819 時品〉:「所言時者外道有二師。一云。時體常。但為萬物作於了因。不生諸法故非生因。次云。別有時體。是無常法。能為萬化作生殺因。故偈云。時來眾生就。時去則摧促。是故時為因。佛法中亦有二師。一者譬喻部云。別有時體。非色非心。體是常而法是無常。但法於是時中行。如人從房至房。如物從器至器。婆沙云。為止此說,明法即是時,法無常,時即無常。辨因法假名時,離法無別時。三世之時雖無別體。而時中之法則決定不無。薩婆多部中有四大師。立三世不同。」(CBETA, T42, no. 1824, p. 130, c1-12)

In respect to time, there are two externalist proponents. One states that the essence of time is permanent. Myriad phenomena just produce the cause for awareness [i.e., the cause for awareness of time as stated in MPU quote above; jñāpaka-hetu?]. It does not produce phenomena, hence it is not the generative cause. Another states that there is particular essence to time. It is an impermanent phenomenon. The “killing cause” is produced for myriad manifestations [phenomena]. Thus the verse states, “Time comes and beings mature. Time goes and they hasten. Time can awaken people. For this reason time is the cause.

In Buddhadharma there are also two proponents.

The first are the Dārṣṭāntika which state that there is a separate essence to time. It is neither material (rupa) nor mental. The essence is permanent, but the phenomena are impermanent. Phenomena are only active in time, like when a person goes from one room to another, or when an object is transferred from one vessel to another. The Vibhāṣā states, “In order to refute this theory it is explained that phenomena are time. As phenomena are impermanent their time is impermanent.” This recognizes time as a conventional appellation [prajñapti] resulting from phenomena. There is no separate form of time apart from phenomena. While the three periods of time have no distinct essence, the phenomena within time itself are definitely not non-existent.

The Sarvāstivāda school although has four great proponents. They establish that the three periods of time are different. …

Here we are informed about externalist and Śrāvakayāna schools which see time as being substantial and truly existent. This is problematic for the Madhyamaka project, in India and elsewhere, which sought to refute any possibility of anything at all having substantial existence (svabhava). Again, time is permitted to have a conventional function and existence, though any postulate beyond this will be rejected.

Incidentally, for a recent thesis on Jizang's ideas on time see Ernest Brewster's work entitled “Timeand Liberation in the Three-Treatise Master Jizang's Mādhyamika Thought”.

Interestingly, the definition of kāla in the Kālacakra literature is remarkably different from how Nāgārjuna in the MPU understood it, but more remarkable is how the former absorbs aspects of what the latter rejects. Vesna Wallace in her work The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual provides an explanation of an idea that is quite akin to what is cited in the MPU above:

In this tantric system, the term "wheel of time" (kāla-cakra) designates the dynamic and nondual nature of a single reality that manifests primarily in two ways—the conventional (saṃvṛti) and the ultimate (paramārtha). The conventional reality itself appears in two ways—the individual (adhyātma) and the individual's environment (bāhya), the macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects of that single reality. With regard to the external aspect of conventional reality, the term "wheel of time" refers to the passage of days, month, and years in the cycle of time. The Vimalaprabhā defines time (kāla) as a circle of twelve solar mansions or zodiacs (rāśi-cakra). The unit day-and-night (aho-rātra) is also called "time."

With regard to the individual, the "wheel of time" denotes a circulation of prāṇas within the wheel of the nāḍīs in the body. In view of the close interrelatedness of these two aspects of conventional reality, the "wheel of time" also designates a circulation (cakra) of twenty-one thousand and six hundred pairs of inhalations and exhalations, which takes place in the course of a day-and-night called "time."

Even though the cosmos ultimately neither arises nor ceases, conventionally, the entire cosmos, with its three worlds, is said to arise and cease due to the power of time. More specifically, this is said to occur due to the union of the time of origination and the time of destruction. It is stated in the Ādibuddhatantra:

Time brings forth phenomena, and time always destroys phenomena, for time is the
Bhagavān, vajrī, who has the nature of a day and a night.

In accordance with the classification of the mind, a day is the sun, uterine blood,
and vulva; a night is the moon, semen, and male sexual organ. Their union is Kālacakra, the supreme bliss (mahā-sukha).

This indeed sounds like the heterodox theory cited in the MPU. The difference between the aforementioned externalist theory of kāla and the Kālacakra Tantra is perhaps that whereas the former sees causal time as being ultimately real and substantial, the latter only sees causal time as conventionally real, much like how Nāgārjuna in the MPU above posits that kāla functions only as conventionally real. The bhikṣus might not eat after midday, and hence kāla serves an expedient function. Likewise it seems in the Kālacakra literature the aspect of causal time being the creator and destroyer of phenomena is merely a means to an end, and not a view to cling to. Vesna Wallace explains the ultimate aspect of the Kālacakra as follows:

With regard to the ultimate reality, the "wheel of time" indicates the nonduality of two facets of a single reality—namely, wisdom (prajñā), or emptiness (śūnyatā), and method (upāya), or compassion (karuṇā). The word "time" refers to the gnosis of imperishable bliss (akṣara-sukha-jñāna), which is a method consisting of compassion; and the word "wheel" designates wisdom consisting of emptiness. Their unity is the Buddha Kalacakra.4

Kālacakra Maṇḍala
This degree of syncretism is remarkable, though not unusual for Kālacakra literature. As John Newman in his article (see here) “Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra” explains the“Kālacakra tantra syncretism is unusually obvious and is even self-conscious - the tantra makes little effort to disguise its borrowings from the Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, and Jaina traditions. The basic structure of the Kālacakra system is itself non-Buddhist: the Kālacakra uses the ancient idea of the homology of the macrocosm and the microcosm as the foundation of its soteriology.”5

Much like how Nāgārjuna granted a practical function to kāla, the Kālacakra literature as a form of expedient means employs what was a heterodox vision of time as well as other non-Buddhist ideas into its soteriological framework, the whole intent of which is to enable rapid liberation from saṃsāra. In other words, time is put to good use for the purposes of liberation.

There could be much more said about the concept of time, especially in respect to how it was conceived in the Śrāvakayāna schools. We might discuss that in a later post.



1 《中觀論疏》卷1:「法師裁而裨之者。法師即羅什也。裁其煩重裨其乖闕。」(CBETA, T42, no. 1824, p. 5, a21-22)

2 Curiously the citations of the MMK in the MPU are different from how Kumārajīva rendered them in his complete translation of the MMK. See the following: http://hdl.handle.net/2261/2002.

3 The character qu here is different from zhi in the MPU.

4 Vesna A. Wallace, The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 92-93.

5 John Newman, “Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 313.

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