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A Contemplative Inquiry into the Nature of Time

“Because the signs of time's coming and going are obvious, people do not doubt it. Although they do not doubt it, they do not understand it.” - Soto Zen Master Dogen

A conventional view of Time could be represented as the progress bar at the bottom of a YouTube video. The red segment to the left representing the knowable past, the red circle representing the present and the space to the right of this representing the yet unknown future. We could say in this model of Time the apparent knowability of the past and the unknowability of the future creates the apparent directional flow of Time. There has never been a shortage of evidence to support the ‘passing’ of time, thus the common assumption of an absolute flowing property of Time is rarely questioned. Our assumptions about the directional flow of Time are to some degree, built upon our still deeper assumption that we can know something about the past, in an absolute sense. Casually, we may say we can know something about a past event, but to what degree is this true? 

Looking carefully at this moment right now -  is this moment as it becomes [now this moment] behind or in front of [now this moment]? Is it to the right or left, inside or outside of [now this moment]? When we assign a moment to the past, what can we we say with one hundred percent confidence about that ‘past’ moment. Now - looking carefully at the moment just one second in the past: can we say without any doubt where it has gone? With what fidelity can we investigate a moment just 1 second gone? With what fidelity can we investigate any instance of reality in the past?

[Example 1] Even if we had access to all the weather data in the World, could we really say we can know the capricious life of just a single raindrop?  

[Example 2] We might say, we definitely went to the Zendo yesterday evening. Is every instant of going to the Zendo the same in every case? The dust that caught the sunshine yesterday - has it always been there?

[Example 3] In layman’s terms the CERN particle accelerator collects mind boggling amounts of data from collisions between tiny particles that last for mere nanoseconds. With the world’s largest and most sensitive sensors we can model what happens within these instances of spacetime and yet these models are just mere models. In only a few centuries of technological and scientific advancement these models will seem crude. A conceptual model of reality is like the blueprint of an old decaying house. What does a blueprint say about an abandoned spider’s web flapping over a shattered window and mold growing silently in the basement walls? 

When we look deeply and honestly at our memory fragments, how are they any different in nature to these kinds of generalized models? Are our memories really any closer to reality than our anticipation and wondering about the future? Are we truly willing to acknowledge the lack of fidelity in our memories and how much we rely on grossly generalized concepts to create a chronology of our life and World? When we no longer hold onto what we think we know about the past, [past, present and future] are all equally unfathomable. In short, the conceptual models we use to ‘know’ the past are by nature no different from the conceptual models we use to predict the future. Standing firmly in the ‘No man’s land’ of time in which both the past and future are known’ to be equally unknowable, the illusion of the directional flow of time cannot persist. What is in the eternal present is infinitely mysterious and yet completely without ambiguity. Why? -  because there cannot be anything but this!

Springing from the silent womb that spawned the Big bang  - Before a single thought is produced - Who we are is beyond all ambiguity?

As Dogen succinctly expresses at the top of this article, there is plenty of evidence to support the view of time passing. In fact, we might say there is an infinite amount of evidence supporting the passing of time, thus we do not question it. To say we may have an infinite amount of evidence to support a notion which is inherently erroneous may seem to be crazy, but some investigation may show us that this is just the nature of any belief. 

[Example 1] Without prior knowledge of ingenious methods or a perspective from outer space we can collect endless evidence that the world is flat from an entire life wondering over its ‘apparently’ flat surface. 

[Example 2] A man convinced he is unlucky will collect endless evidence throughout his life to support his fixed view if he never sees into the constructed and unreal nature of this identity. 

[Example 3] There is no limit to the detail and scope to which one could develop (create) any conspiracy theory if given infinite resources and energy. 

Picasso said - “The greatest artwork is just the most convincing lie”. Is a great work of art, a conspiracy theory, a religious world view or a Scientific model of reality actually any different in nature? This might be the subject to a whole new conversation, but in terms of seeing into our own conditioned view of what Time may or may not be, it might be an important question. The view of Time as an absolute truth is so tightly woven into our cultural conditioning that it is very difficult to dismantle. The model(s) of time presented by modern physics have been invested in and refined by some of the cleverest people in history over many centuries. To investigate the nature of Time with our own direct experience may require us to suspend our belief in some of the most convincing and intricate ‘lies’ ever developed by the genius of mankind. It is thus easy to see that to look deeply into the nature of Time and ultimately the nature of our own reality requires the guts to jump completely into the unknown.

Leaping into the silver light of the moon - Without knowing our feet have ever touched the earth

When we ask, how did I come to be right here in this moment - when we do not default to lifeless notions of coming and going, the only true answer is ‘I do not know’. Why? -  because the whole of life is being born right now. The whole Universe is being born right now, just in the form that it is, right now. Only when we assume the concept of beginning and end do we believe the Universe is born as a Big Bang or any kind of Creation event at a time prior to this experience right now. Why must the Universe be born as something singular, ordered and knowable? If we do not deeply question Time with our own direct experience the birth of the Universe will only ever be as a myth we hear about from others. The conclusion of this myth being that we are a meaningless specks of dust.

The Universe may be born as cold air hitting the nostrils or the sound of a near rustle or a distant rumble. The Universe may be born as the steam rising from a cup of coffee or in the taste of a salt or sugar. The desire for certainty compels us to create a concrete view of the world and ourselves evolving in absolute time. To be a true witness to the whole of reality being born right now is to completely abandon both certainty and uncertainty, knowing and not knowing.

Right now, what can we confirm for ourselves about the beginning and end of the Universe? What can we confirm about the beginning and end of ourselves? When we remember our childhood, what can we say has persisted from then until now? Who was it that seemed ageless as a child that is still ageless today?

The predictions of Buddhahood made by the Buddha of his disciples in the Lotus Sutra may give us an impression of the millions of lifetimes pursuing the Bodhisattva Way required before we may mature into complete Buddhahood. The Buddha also states at another point that this process happens in the blink of an eye. How might we understand this? Looking at our own experience right now, where are our long years of training? Where are our experiences of being obliterated into voidness and being recreated out of voidness? What does it mean to be free from Karma yesterday when we are pulled here and there by Karma today? Not being 100% confident of our Buddha nature right now the appearance of a lifetime of practice is recreated over and over. When we live in the myth of our own past experiences, what fresh timeless immediacy are we sacrificing? In conclusion - there is only one experience that matters and it is the one we are having right now - may we never miss it!

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