Zen and the Concept of Time and the Present

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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A foundational aspect of much of Western philosophical and Western spiritual thinking is centered around a particular understanding of time. Time is seen as a river flowing from the past through the present and onto the future. This vision of time is so persistent that we think of memories as the past and hopes and anticipations as the future. We reflexively accept that the past existed and that the future will exist.

Now this is a very useful understanding of time in our daily lives. Whether we are keeping to a schedule, presenting a summary of what has gone before or predicting what is likely to happen, time gives us the idea, when seen as a flowing river, that the past is prologue and the future is uncertain; whatever it turns out to be. But the point is, in this vision of time, it will be.

The Zen understanding of time is considerably different. And it is one of the most difficult concepts that students grapple with. You see, in Zen terms, time does not flow from the past through the present and onto the future. There is only the present which is, in itself, impermanent. The universe comes into existence in a moment – emergence – and that moment is extinguished. It’s followed by another moment. The process is called interdependent co-origination.

Zen considers what we call the past only as present memories in the moment. The future is present anticipation in the moment. Both are continuously cut off by impermanence.

One of the reasons that this journey tends to be so difficult is that students want to have reliable signposts; particularly when it comes to language. But along the journey, the meaning of words changes. And that is not limited to words like past and future.

Consider a word like nothingness. If the meaning within the Western view of time remains constant, the results is a descent into nihilism. (“when you reach enlightenment, you experience nothingness”) But when Zen writers refer to ‘the pivot of nothingness’ or say that time becomes no-time at the pivot, an understanding of what is meant is interfered with by this meaning. In other words, the meaning of the word ‘nothingness’ has to evolve as the journey is undertaken.

The entire idea of the plasticity of denotative meaning is a challenge to a Western mind whose idol is rationality. I have had students object to any attempt to modify the meaning of words like time, nothingness or impermanence. Their objection is a response to the vertigo which occurs when they tried to carry their everyday definitions along.

Zen tells us to be present in the present. But that is not possible as long as you see the present sandwiched between the past and the future. You see, in Zen terms we are always in the present and simply need to realize it. And one of the major steps towards that realization is to understand time in a completely different way.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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