7 mins read
Do you ever have that feeling when you go back to a familiar place that you never left? Even if months or even years have seemingly gone by?
I think this is because there is no time outside of impermanent things. Time is not like a soup or something, in which things bob about, like lumps of potato. Time is simply a characteristic of each impermanent phenomenon, their own cause and effect. The past and the future are just parts of the present moment, as Ven Geshe Kelsang explains in Ocean of Nectar. For example, this moment I have a past and I have a future. And the same will be true in the next moment, and the next …
If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!
I happen to be writing this on a train in Switzerland, to which I paid an unexpected visit this week. There is no past stretching out like the train tracks behind me or future stretching out like the train tracks in front of me. There is only now, only this moment. All functioning things are present. Everything is a momentary appearance, whether the stillness of Lake Geneva through the window (not too shabby) or the French kids jumping around in this carriage.
There is no time outside of the mind. Time is mere appearance; we merely impute a continuum on cause and effect. Take a movie as an example. A movie is made up of many stills, but it has the illusion of movement, why? This is an illusion created by our own conceptual minds as we string the stills together through imputation.
Or indeed the moving scenery outside of my window … there is nothing actually moving out there.
Of course we then believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.
Talking about Switzerland, I found the juxtaposition of ageless mountains and the (loud) ringing of the village church bell quite interesting … is the idea that being reminded of the time every 15 minutes helps us control it somehow? Slow it down?! Divide life into neat, tidy, and perhaps more manageable portions?! “So there, big old everlasting mountains! You can’t outwit me!” As if there is real time out there, being marked out by bell chimes …
Even when we know better, we can still get trapped in the illusion. For example, movies … even though we know there is nothing actually there, or really happening, they still have the power to freak us out as we get caught up in them.
Now and then
There is no real gap between being in a familiar place now and “back then” — it is just a continuation of karma ripening.
I feel it’s like we are having lots of different dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in our mind, each one arising fully and all at once with its spatial and temporal coordinates intact. Just like last night’s dream, and just as when we arose into the dream of this life.
This January I had this experience in NYC when I returned there for a month – it was like I’d never left it since the previous January. Yet I know I had a pretty full 12 months in-between! But all that in-between time was like lots of dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in my mind. Nothing linear about it. When I looked in the restroom mirror, I could see that my body had seemingly aged a year! But that was because (a) my body had undergone some cause and effect, including one or two too many doughnuts, and (2) the new dream with the new me involved someone who was a year older.
I had the same appearance whenever I visit my parents in their flat in London, like now for example – it is like I have never left. Same for when I go back to Manjushri KMC, such as for the beautiful Summer Festival we have just had. It is another dream, with many of the same people, just all of us appearing older in the context of this new dream. I have many such experiences every year. There is nothing linear about my life or yours.
We often mark our lives with milestones, a wedding, getting ahead in our career, falling in love again, playing with our grandkids, or simply the chiming of a church bell – but in reality this advance through an inherently existent life is just an hallucination. The past and future are just projections of our minds. There is only now. We have to make it count.
Milestones on the way to what?
Plus, these kinds of milestones just light the way to dusty death. There are no “happy endings” in samsara, as Buddha said:
All our dreams are broken in the end.
That’s the thing about dreams. They are fleeting. They are momentary appearances to mind. They fall apart. And “all phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. The law of entropy is an example of how every impermanent phenomenon is spinning away from everything else all the time, even on a molecular level. That is time. The only thing that stays the same, as the saying goes, is change.
With grasping and attachment we try so hard to hold onto things – our relatives, our environment, our job, our enjoyments. This strikes me as so sad because we cannot hold everything together however desperately we try. When I left London, my dad was sitting forlornly on the front steps as the taxi drove me away – of course my parents didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to leave. But we are all travelers. We have to leave everyone. We are always on the move. Even the great larger than life Aretha Franklin died today. The only way to avoid being flung afar over and over again is (a) Skype and (b) to control our own minds, rather than trying in vain to control the fleeting appearances of our minds.
Eventually we need to attain enlightenment, when everyone will be a mere aspect of our blissful omniscience, never separated from us again.
And one more thing while I am on this train …
Where is this train headed?
Since sitting on this train, a 2.5 hour journey from Visp to Geneva Airport, I have lost track of the number of people getting on and off this carriage. Our time with each other is vanishingly brief. Same for life, really.
I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives. It is like we are all on a train to Auschwitz. It is all very well being nice to the other people on the carriage – finding time to spend with them, putting a blanket over their knees, trying to make them comfortable. But every moment in samsara we are getting closer and closer to catastrophe, all of us. So if I really want to help my fellow passengers, my real job is to derail the train.
The most responsible duty of care, if you ask me, is therefore to use our “time” to purify our mental continuum so that our dreams become joyful and meaningful for ourselves and others, and under our control. And the time to do this, ideally, is right now. Before we die, while we still have these wisdom teachings that enable us to do it.
(Meanwhile, about that church bell … it is said that the sound of the bell symbolizes emptiness, and that Dakinis follow the sound of the bell. Plus writing about Switzerland has now given me the excuse to put my photos in this article 😄)
Over to you. Comments welcome.