One point that attracted quite a lot of attention during the class on Nagarjuna last weekend was about time. Basically what Nagarjuna is saying is that time itself is empty. What this means is not that time itself has no content of its own, nor that time is in the Newtonian sense of being a steady flow moving ever forward, but that time itself is empty of any inherent characteristic. The flow that one imagines in conceptualizing time is nothing but our own imputation on reality. In this sense time is not different from other results of conceptual imputation, such as individual things and so on.
This points to a startling conclution that time, considered on its own, or “from its own side” as the Tibetans are wont to saying, is nothing. Ultimately speaking there is no such thing as time in reality. As individual objects have already been found to be empty of their inherent characteristics, so is time. Nagarjuna’s argument here is quite similar to that advanced by Leibniz in his characterization of time and space as being relational and dependent on things and events. For Leibniz time and space do not exist on their own, and here is one of the main differences between him and Newton. If time could be thought of as inherent existing, for example, as a “place” wherein events take place in such a way that one event can be classified as being earlier or later, then there must already be some coordinates by which these events could be so classified, for how else can we know which one is earlier or later? But if that is the case, then time itself must already have within it some means to measure the positions of the events. This, however, contradicts Newton’s own assumption that time is shorn of any marks and is nothing more than something that flows absolutely.
This also seems to be Nagarjuna’s point. Time, as does everything else that is conceptually constructed, depends for its very being on other things. Without the things that compose events, time is nothing at all, not, of course, in the Newtonian sense of time having nothing in it, but time itself is nothing. We have time because we do have things in it, and we have things in it (and space) because we already have the concept of time. Time, space and things and events are totally inseparable from one another.
If time is empty in this sense, then it does make sense ultimately to hold that there is the past, the present and the future. For all these are but relations within time. Moreover, the past, present and future derive their being from the relation to the consciousness of an individual. We feel that the time “right now” is the present because this is what we feel, this is what we are consciousness of at the moment, and of course we feel taht this “now” is forever moving. This is only a fact of our consciousness. Since all of us are moving inexorably toward that end, we have the sense of time as something ever moving onward and something that absolutely cannot be recalled or repeated. Once time is lost, it is lost forever.
However, a startling thing from the teaching of the Buddha is that that feeling that we all have is but an illusion. The relation between past, present and future holds only if there is a reference point, a point at which the present can be determined. If the present couldn’t be determined, then both the past and the future would make no sense. The present can only be determined with reference to the self, or the thinking consciousness. One feels that the present is nothing but one’s own present. But if we were to take a more general position and detach ourselves from our own individual mental continuum and our body, then the present does not have to be what we ordinarily take to be here and now, but could in fact be anywhere, that is, any time.
Perhaps this is what is meant when it is said that Buddhas and highly attained Bodhisattvas are above time. They are timeless, and once it is totally, fully absorbed in the mind of a being like you and me that time itself is empty in this sense, then it is possible that we can be timeless too.