- Time and Impermanence
in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern
- an invited talk at the Physics and Tibetan Buddhism Conference University of California,
Santa Barbara on January 30-31, 1998
In the midst of working on this
paper, I learned that a friend of ours, an extraordinarily beautiful woman in all senses
of the word, found that her equally beautiful nine-month old boy has a virulent strain of
muscular dystrophy. For that bright-eyed and laughing little boy with a genetic time bomb,
the future points to progressive wasting, immobility, and death before adulthood.
Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which
sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it
is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. - Jorge Luis Borges 
It is easy to see in this little boy the transformations already
affecting his body and to feel the sharp sting of how things will unroll in time. There is
a clear sense of inevitability, of time being "a river which sweeps him along."
Although just as true for ourselves, we easily see in him that time is a devouring tiger
and a consuming fire.
Ill show that understanding something about time in Buddhism and
modern physics deepens our sense of how "Time is the substance I am made of."
Such understanding also helps us appreciate how we are the devouring tiger and the
consuming fire. Beyond its inevitability and destruction, time has other crucial features.
We can reflect on past events and learn from them, but we cannot
influence them. The past has a fixity that contrasts sharply with the more malleable
future, where we make choices and influence events. Therefore, we experience a
directionality to time, expressed by a metaphorical arrow pointing from the past, through
the present, and into the indefinite future.
In contrast, the fundamental equations of physics are all time
symmetric, meaning that they have no directionality in time. All the fundamental
interactions can proceed in the reverse direction without violating any laws of physics.
For a simple example, bounce a ball off the floor and take a movie of it. If you run the
movie backwards, nothing looks strange because the time-reversed motion violates no laws
of physics. Or, take a movie of our solar system from a distant star and play it
backwards. All the rotations and revolutions of the sun and planets will be reversed, but
no laws of physics are violated and nothing looks strange. The same is true for quantum
mechanical examples. Let an excited atom decay and emit a photon. Run the process
backwards and you have an atom absorbing light and ending in an excited state.
Yet, many complex processes do display clear temporal directionality.
The ruptured balloon, dangling from the tearful childs hand never spontaneously
reassembles itself back into its inflated condition. Such irreversible processes like the
rotting of food and the decay of teeth are in sharp contrast to the time reversible laws
of physics. Our little sick friends inevitable ride down the river of time, along
with our own, is full of irreversible transformations, leading to death, the one we most
fear. Therefore, despite the symmetry of the fundamental interactions, nature clearly has
many asymmetric and irreversible processes. As we will see below, the physicists
explanation for this asymmetry, within symmetric underlying laws, can help us understand
some of the deepest lessons from Middle Way Buddhism.
The two decades that this little boy can look forward to seem
criminally short from here, yet time may seem to crawl unendurably in his final days.
However, in this digital age most believe that, despite such subjective experiences, time
is absolute. Two decades is a well-defined interval that all observers can agree on,
despite their subjective biases. Again, appreciating how physics destroys this apparent
absoluteness can also deepen our understanding of Middle Way Buddhism.
I hope to show that understanding a little about time in modern physics
helps us more deeply appreciate some of the most profound ideas in Buddhism. Furthermore,
I will also suggest that some appreciation of Middle Way Buddhist ideas could aid in the
development of physics. Thus a nontrivial synergy between these two very different
disciplines is possible, one that results in deeper understanding and more compassionate
action. While time may be a devouring tiger, appreciating these ideas might help us attain
equanimity and encourage us to act more compassionately toward each other and the planet.
II. Carrots and Emptiness in
the Middle Way
Ill review the principle of
emptiness within the Middle Way Consequence School (Prasangika
Madhyamika, which I abbreviate by Middle Way) through a little story.
Nearly thirty years ago a very holy man gave me some fresh carrot juice to drink. What a
tasty elixir! I returned home determined to grow some fresh carrots of my own on our
little farm. (Actually, I was determined to get my wife to grow them.) However, the soil
in my part of the world is heavy and stony, and the carrots that first year were stubby
and misshapen. I thought, "If only I had a garden tiller, I could whip that heavy
soil into the most beautiful carrot bed." I could not afford one of those fancy
tillers that a delicate ten-year-old girl can operate with one hand. My rototiller is a
test of my manhood, a bucking bronco requiring strength and stamina. Of course, time
destroys both people and equipment, and my tiller soon suffered from a long list of woes.
It requires the patience of an advanced Bodhisattva to start, it only works at the deepest
setting, it no longer has a reverse, and it cannot run in place and so bolts ahead . . .
when you can manage to start it. However, I only use it a few hours a year, so I suffer
with it and consider it a perverse sort of challenge.
One beautiful spring day a few years ago the rototiller was taking me
for my annual ride while it bathed me in the blue smoke of burning oil. I was musing on
carrots and rototillers and suddenly had a tiny enlightenment. The second of Buddhas
Four Noble Truths tells us that suffering is caused by desire. My desire for that
delicious carrot juice had chained me to this rototiller for a quarter of a century! A
desire for fresh, sweet carrot juice initially seemed innocent and "spiritually
correct," in that good health is an aid to practicing dharma, but look where it led.
Desire does generate suffering. However, those blue clouds bellowing from the burned out
muffler along with that shattering noise and vibration urged me to deeper reflection. Upon
what is that carrot-desire based?
The Middle Way clearly answers that desires and aversions are based
upon the false belief in independent existence, the idea that beyond my personal
associations, relationship, and names for carrots, there is a real, substantial,
inherently existent entity. This substantially existent object, that entity that
"exists from its own side," is the basis upon which we project all our desires
and aversions, all our craving for and fleeing from objects.
This innate and unreflective belief in inherent existence divides into
two pieces. First, that phenomena exist independent of mind or knowing. That
"underneath" or "behind" the psychological associations, names, and
linguistic conventions we apply to objects like carrot or rototiller, something objective
and substantial exists fully and independently from its own side. Such independent objects
appear to provide the objective basis for our shared world. Second, we falsely believe
these objects to be self-contained and independent of each other. Each object being
fundamentally nonrelational, it exists on its own right without essential dependence upon
other objects or phenomena. In other words, the essential nature of these objects is their
nonrelational unity and completeness in themselves.
Since it is so critical to identify inherent existence carefully, let
me say it in other words. Consider the carrot stripped of its sense qualities, history,
location, and relation to its surroundings. All but an advanced practitioner of the Middle
Way believes that this denuded carrot has some unique essence, some concrete existence
that provides the foundation for all its other qualities. This core of its being, this
independent or inherent existence, is what the Middle Way denies. The carrot surely has
conventional existence; it attracts rodents and makes great juice. It functions as a food.
However, it totally lacks independent or inherent existence, what we falsely believe is
the core of its being. In other words, the object or subject we falsely believe
independently exists is not actually "finable upon analysis." When we search
diligently for that entity we believe inherently exists, we cannot actually find it.
Its independent being does not become clearer and more definite upon searching.
Instead, phenomena exist in the middle way because they lack inherent existence, but do
have conventional existence.
While reifying carrots, I simultaneously reify the one who desires
carrots and consider him as inherently existent too. Out of the seamless flux of
experience, I falsely impute or attribute inherent existence to both the subject and its
object of desire and thereby spin the wheel of samsara. In this way, perception is a
double act that simultaneously generates a false belief in inherently existent subjects
and objects, gentleman farmers and their carrots. Then our time is occupied with
cherishing our personal ego, putting its desires before all else, pushing others aside to
satisfy those desires, and running after objects we falsely believe inherently exist. We
think those objects will make us happy, but in fact they can never satisfy us. Perhaps
time "is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." Was not this the point of
the Buddhas fire sermon?
According to the Middle Way, we can put out the fire by deeply
appreciating the doctrine of emptiness, the lack of inherent existence in all subjects and
objects, in all phenomena. This requires not only an intellectual formulation as given
here, but a profound transformation of our whole being at many levelsa process that
usually takes many life times.
Just so that you will have the whole story, I recently bought a new
tractor to replace my 1934 hand-cranking model (also the source of many deep lessons).
With the new tractor, I bought a huge rototiller that attaches to it and makes garden
preparation a breeze. However, I have given the old rototiller, now called the
dharma-tiller, to my son hoping that he will grow good vegetables and a deeper
understanding of emptiness.
The description of emptiness given so far is negative, a thoroughgoing
denial of what we wrongly believe is the core of existence. Next, let me turn to a more
positive description of phenomena, including carrots. If phenomena dont
independently exist than how do they exist? The Middle Way tells us that they dependently
exist in three fundamental ways. First, phenomena exist dependent upon causes and
conditions. For example, carrots depend upon soil, sunlight, moisture, freedom from
rodents, and so forth. Second, phenomena depend upon the whole and its parts. Carrots
depend upon its greens, stem, root hairs, and so on and the totality of all these parts.
Third, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or
designation. From the rich panoply of experience, I collect the sense qualities, personal
associations, and psychological reactions to carrots together, and name them or designate
them as "carrot." The minds proper functioning is to construct its world,
the only world we can know. The error enters because along with naming comes the false
attribution of inherent existence, that foundation for desire and aversion.
For the Middle Way, dependent arising is a complementary way of
describing emptiness. We can understand them as two different views of the same truth.
Therefore, contrary to our untutored beliefs, the ultimate nature of phenomena is its
dependency and relatedness, not isolated existence and independence.
One of the difficulties in understanding emptiness is that we can
easily assent to the importance of relatedness, while falling prey to the unconscious
assumption that relations are superimposed upon independently existent terms in the
relation. In fact, it is the relationships, the interdependencies that are the reality,
since objects or subjects are nothing but their connections to other objects and subjects.
We might ask what would phenomena be like if they did in fact
inherently or independently exist. The Middle Way explains that inherently existent
objects would be immutable, since in their essence they are independent of other phenomena
and so uninfluenced by any interactions. Conversely, independently existent objects would
also be unable to influence other phenomena, since they are complete and self-contained.
In short, independently existent objects would be immutable and impotent. Of course,
experience denies this since our world is of continuously interacting phenomena, from the
growth of carrots nourished by sun, rain, and soil, to their destruction by rodents. From
the subjective side, that we do not independently exist implies that it is possible to
transform ourselves into Buddhas, exemplars of infinite wisdom and compassion.
Critics of the Middle Way often say that if objects did not inherently
exist, they could not function to produce help and harm. Carrots lacking independent
existence could not give sweet juice or make soup. The Middle Way turns this around 180
degrees, and answers that it is precisely because objects and subjects lack independent
existence that they are capable of functioning. So the very attribute that we falsely
believe is at the core of phenomena would, if present, actually prevent them from
Now how does all this relate to the Middle Way notion of time? As I
mentioned above, if phenomena inherently existed then they would of necessity be immutable
and impotent, unable to act on us or we on them. Since, in truth, phenomena are
fundamentally a shifting set of dependency relations, impermanence and change are built
into them at the most fundamental level. That the carrot exists in dependence upon causes
and conditions, its whole and parts, and on our attribution or naming is what makes it
edible, allows me to experience it and be nourished by it. More important for
impermanence, these defining relations and co-dependencies and their continuously shifting
connections with each other guarantee that all objects and subjects are impermanent,
ceaselessly evolving, maturing, and decaying. In short, emptiness and impermanence are two
sides of the coin of existence and therefore transformation and change are built into the
core of all entities, both subjective and objective. In this way, the doctrine of
impermanence is a direct expression of emptiness/dependent arising. Because I lack
inherent existence and am most fundamentally a kinetic set of shifting experiences, with
no eternal soul, as we normally understand it, then "Time is the substance I am made
of." Borges compact sentence seems like a Middle Way aphorism. Being
substantially of time guarantees my continuous transformation and death. Indeed, time
"is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." These philosophic truths of
emptiness and impermanence are central to Buddhist practice, and I return to them later.
Now let us turn to physics and its view of time.
III. Time in Modern Physics
As mentioned in the introduction,
we all have a natural belief in the absoluteness of time, meaning that, for example, one
minute is the same for all observers. Let me again proceed by way of example.
My carrots take 70 days to harvest time. Our belief in the absoluteness
of time or its independent existence appears in the view that this time is something
intrinsic to the carrot. As long as the growing conditions are normal, it does not matter
how this time is measured or who measures it. It has an independent or absolute nature.
However, let an astronaut take the same seeds and grow them in a space ship traveling at
90 percent the speed of light relative to the Earth. Then relativity theory tells us that
the days to harvest (as measured by an Earth-based observer) would be 161 days. Figure
1 shows the days to harvest, as observed on Earth, plotted against the velocity of the
space ship, relative to Earth, divided by the speed of light, c. So for example when v/c =
.9 then we move straight upward from that point on the horizontal axis and intersect the
curve at 161 days. Only in a reference frame at rest with respect to the observer (the
rest frame) is the days to harvest 70 days.
Relativity emphatically states that no value of the days to harvest
time is any more real or intrinsic than any other. For example, if the astronaut looked
back at my garden she would correctly measure my time to harvest as 161 days. Since time
intervals depend directly upon the relationship between the object and the observer, they
are essentially relational. We cannot consider time independent of a particular reference
frame. In Middle Way language, it lacks independent existence. If the seed manufacturers
were devotees of relativity they would state on the package, "The time to harvest is
70 day only in the rest frame. For other reference frames consult the graph on the
back." That graph would be Figure 1. We can attempt to evade this relational nature
of time by saying that humans never travel at any significant fraction of the speed of
light, and so this is just an academic consideration. This move denies the conceptual
import of relativitys view of time and the thousands of experiments done all over
the planet every day that rely on it.
If we clarify the idea of the present moment, the essentially
relational nature of time intervals, whether decades or microseconds, is complemented by a
thoroughgoing relativity of the present. Take the reasonable definition that all the
simultaneous events that take place for an observer at one time defines the present
moment. Lets say I plant my carrots at exactly 9:00 AM on a given day and at that
moment a friend in New Deli boards a plane, while my son enters a classroom in a distant
city. Relativity teaches that those simultaneous events defining the moment of carrot
planting are only simultaneous in my gardens reference frame. If our
farmer-astronaut, moving at 90 percent the speed of light, passes directly over my garden
at 9:00 AM he observers a different set of simultaneous events and thus his present moment
differs from mine. While a second astronaut, traveling at a different speed over my garden
at 9:00 AM, finds yet a third set of simultaneous events and thus a different present from
mine or the first astronaut.
Therefore, relativity makes both time intervals and individual moments
relative to a given reference frame, leaving our old absolute view of time far behind.
There are similar things to say about other primary qualities of objects, but these points
about time are enough for the present. A more interesting and profound quality of time
comes from understanding how it has an arrow.
We store our carrots in the cellar where there is a cool, even
temperature. However, even there, they rot after four to six months. We have never seen
rotten food return to its fresh state. Rotting, whether of vegetables, teeth, or our
entire bodies, is an irreversible process. Given that the quantum mechanical laws, which
govern the chemical changes of rotting, are time symmetric, this is mysterious. The great
Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, made the first significant progress in understanding
this mystery. He realized that irreversibility comes from reversible underlying laws only
when you have large numbers of particles in the system.
Boltzmann started by considering a simple box containing many gas
particles governed by Newtons laws. In analyzing this system, he assumed that it was
totally isolated from the rest of the universe. There were no influences of the universe
on the box and its contents or vice versa. Now this should give anybody influenced by the
Middle Way philosophy some real discomfort, since he is assuming that the system
independently exists. More about that later.
Boltzmann then imagined a partition in the middle of the box with all
the particles in just one half of the box. The other half is totally empty. To proceed
further we need to understand the concept of entropy, or measure of disorder. The more
disorder, the less knowledge we have about the details of the system, the higher the
entropy. When the partition is removed, the overwhelmingly most probable configurations of
the new equilibrium condition involve the gas spreading evenly throughout the box. In
principle, it is possible for the gas to bunch up in only one quarter of the box. However,
it is overwhelmingly more probable that it will attain a new equilibrium configuration
diffused throughout the box. Such equilibrium states have maximum entropy. Through this
reasoning, Boltzmann proved the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that any
isolated systems entropy must either stay the same or increase. Therefore, when the
egg hits the floor it is overwhelmingly likely to go to a state of greater entropy. What
is more, the increase in entropy defines the direction of the arrow of time. Time advances
in the same direction in which entropy increaseswhat we call the future. This does
not deny that there are local decreases in entropy, like the growth of a child, but the
global entropy relentlessly increases with time.
For several years, I taught our junior-senior level course on
statistical physics. We used the standard textbook and followed Boltzmanns
derivation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with the appropriate level of mathematical
sophistication. In the last few years, I found that there were arguments as far back as
1877 that showed Boltzmann was deeply wrong. I review some of these problems elsewhere in
nontechnical language.. Here, I take a different approach and follow an elegant and
simple argument by P.C.W. Davies. As we will shortly see, entropy increases, but not
the way Boltzmann thought. Why several revisions of this famous text persist in the error
is a mystery.
The basic difficulty, which can be seen in several independent ways, is
that completely isolated systems, like the box of gas, can generate no directionality to
time because of the time-symmetric laws governing the system. Figure 2 displays the
entropy, S, of an isolated box of gas plotted versus time, t. We see that the random gas
motions give occasional deviations below the maximum. Although it is unlikely, the random
motions spontaneously generate states of greater order or lower entropy, which are then
brought back to maximum disorder by the same randomization. This is like the shuffling of
playing cards that, on rare occasions, puts them into states of greater order, with
continued shuffling returning them to disorder.
Now imagine the following experiment illustrated in Figure 3. We just
patiently monitor the system until its entropy spontaneously drops to the value S1 or
below at a time t1. If we choose S1 low enough, this could take a long time. The virtue of
choosing a small value of S1 is that once it occurs, we know we are very likely to be near
the bottom of a dip in the entropy curve, rather then part way down a larger dip. This is
simply because the even larger dips are so much less likely. At t1, when the low entropy,
S1, occurs, since we are very likely at the minimum of a dip, an increase in entropy with
time happens in either direction. At time t1 + e , where e is some small time interval,
the entropy increases. We consider this the future. However, the entropy also increases in
the past at t1 - e . Therefore, the symmetry of the underlying laws of physics gives no
directionality to entropy increase or time.
Even before I began getting instruction from my rototiller 25 years
ago, the problem of the arrow of time had largely been resolved, although there are still
technical subtleties. Much to the delight of the Middle Way, the main problem lies in
assuming we have a totally isolated system independent of interaction with its
We now understand that we must account for how Boltzmanns box got
into the low entropy state of all particles in just one half. This did not result from
just waiting a long time for random motions to throw the gas all to one side, but from
Boltzmann evacuating one half and placing gas in the other. Preparing the box in a low
entropy state must generate more entropy elsewhere in the universe. For example, Boltzmann
consumed calories from lunch and radiated energy from himself and his equipment that
eventually went into deep space. In other words, the box had its entropy put into a low
condition by processes outside itself, but at the expense of a much greater entropy
increase elsewhere in the universe.
Let me give an example closer to the garden. I walk in the garden to
check on whether the mice have eaten the carrots. My footprint in the soft soil gives it
more order and structure, thus lowering its entropy. However, this lower entropy comes
from a much greater generation of entropy from my metabolic processes, which eventually
degrade to heat radiated to the universe.
As we have long known, the energy emitted into deep space from our
activities can only radiate into space because the universe is expanding. If the universe
were not expanding then it is so large that any line of sight from the Earth, when
extended far enough, would land on a star surface. Then the effective temperature of deep
space would be that of the surface of stars, which is typically 6000 °K, rather than the
3 °K it actually has. Since entropy can only increase when energy moves from high to low
temperature regions, the simple process of radiating our body's energy into space would be
blocked in a static universe. Thus, there would be neither a Boltzmann nor the ability to
reduce entropy locally in the box by generating more entropy elsewhere in the universe.
All systems organizing themselves or decreasing their entropy, whether
the growing of a carrot, a snowflake, or a child, are decreasing entropy in one location
that must be accompanied by a greater entropy generation in another. Not only is the
energy from Boltzmanns food and his equipment eventually traced back to our sun, but
the suns low entropy is critical. Energy generation processes, whether the digestion
of our food or the workings of a nuclear power plant, are totally dependent upon our solar
system being in a low entropy condition. What causes the sun and other stars to be in a
low entropy condition? This occurs because the expansion of the universe was faster than
the nuclear generation rates in the first three minutes of the big bang. Then, when nearly
all the helium (about 25% of the total mass of the universe) was formed, the universe
expanded so quickly that after three minutes it was too cool for nuclear reactions to
occur. If the expansion and associated cooling were much slower, then all the matter in
the universe would form into a very stable isotope of iron, an inert and high entropy
condition. Then the stars would not shine, there would be no great entropy gradients in
the universe, no time asymmetry, and, of course, no life.
Local time-asymmetry, such as the decay of any biological system, from
carrots to our own bodies, must be accounted for by connecting it to the expansion of the
universe and its earliest evolution. This extraordinary beautiful result has many
technical twists and turns, but the central idea is clear: increasing entropy and
time-asymmetry owe their existence to the largest and earliest processes in the universe
and its continued expansion. This is a long way from the notion of an isolated and
noninteracting system, so abhorrent to the Middle Way. In this way, when you put cold milk
into your coffee and the mixture comes to the same temperature and a higher entropy than
when the fluids were separated, you are profiting from the universes expanding and
cooling before iron-56 could form. Similarly, that we must all face the irreversible
process of death, with its massive entropy increase, is traceable to the earliest and
largest processes in the universe. In other words, the impermanence and decay found all
around us is due to the earliest and most distance process in the universe and its
On a more positive note, irreversible processes are also essential to
life. If metabolic processes did not irreversibly transform my lunch, not only would I get
indigestion, I would not live. That which sustains me also destroys me. Indeed, time
"is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire."
IV. Comparisons and
As I have said in my recent
ruminations about the relationship between physics and Buddhism, it is a mistake to
connect any Buddhist principle too closely with any particular phenomena from physics.
Physical theories are prime examples of impermanence. What happens if I make an argument
that some physical effect verifies some great principle of Buddhism and then the physics
is replaced by a new theory? Does that damage Buddhism? Are the foundations of Buddhism to
tremble at every scientific revolution?
A more fruitful dialogue between Buddhism and science can occur when
comparisons and connections are done at a more philosophic level. For example, here I have
tried to focus on emptiness, the philosophic heart of Buddhism, and make connections with
questions of comparable philosophic significance in physics. If the connections mutually
illuminate both the physics and the Buddhism, without trying to reduce one to the other,
then our understanding of both disciplines deepens. In the present example, the erroneous
assumption of a thermodynamic system being completely isolated from any form of external
interaction was a critical error. This error could have been avoided if the philosophic
principle of emptiness were more widely understood and appreciated in the scientific
community. Physics is always done in a philosophic context. In the case of classical
statistical physics and thermodynamics, it was done within Cartesian dualism. Although
Descartes vision helped both physics and western philosophy, it has also hindered us
in more ways than we can count. I suggest that the principle of emptiness, if more fully
appreciated within science, could actually further the scientific enterprise.
What does Buddhism gain from such connections and comparisons as
attempted here? I see at least two benefits. First, understanding such things as the
relativity of time (the 70 days to harvest example) and the relativity of the present
moment helps us appreciate the closely parallel arguments made in the Middle Way about
times lack of inherent existence. There is a well-known and difficult section in
Nagarjunas Mulamadhyamakakarika that analyzes time and leads to the modern
interpretation, "Time is thus merely a dependent set of relations, not an entity in
its own right, and certainly not the inherently existent vessel of existence it might
appear to be." Such critical, but difficult, points are illuminated by
understanding Einsteins relativity of time. In short, science can help us understand
ancient, but pivotal, philosophic aspects of Buddhism.
Second, Buddhism is a portable religion that has wandered far from the
home of the original Prince. In each movement, whether to China, Japan, or Cambodia, it
takes on the hues of the local culture without losing its original spiritual impulse.
Science is clearly a cultural dominant in the West. Therefore, if Buddhism is to come to
the West, in the best and fullest sense of the term, then interaction with science is both
inevitable and necessary for a real transplant to take place. The present effort at
understanding some common ground and even synergy between Buddhism and science can be part
of the effort to translate Buddhism into terms that are easier for a Westerner to
V. Summary and Conclusions
Reflecting on the relativity of
time and how the irreversible nature of my little friends disease connects to the
first few minutes of the universe and its continued expansion gives me little comfort.
Yes, intellectually these ideas strongly support the principle of emptiness, that both the
mother and the little boy along with the one who writes these words lack independent
existence. Yes, we are all a system of interdependent relations and thereby subject to the
law of impermanence. Nevertheless, the heartache remains. That little boy will be consumed
by the "fire of time" before he reaches the age of my two sons.
According to the Middle Way, my inveterate projection of that false
quality of independent existence is the foundation for my attachment and consequent
suffering. It all comes back to my inability to put these ideas fully into practice. This
is often the plight of those who can articulate ideas but not fully live them. Or being
kinder to myself, perhaps I have assimilated just enough of the principle of emptiness to
give me a deep appreciation of the mothers sorrow, but not enough to dispassionately
see it all as an embodiment of the First Noble Truth, that all experience is suffused with
suffering. What then do we do?
The Middle Way advises us to take refuge in the Three Jewels: the
Buddha or fully enlightened One, the Buddhas teaching, and the community of those
seeking enlightenment. The Buddha shows that we can do it. We suffering humans, nurtured
and destroyed by time, can become full embodiments of wisdom and compassion and break free
from the suffering of samsara, the endless torment of repeated death and rebirth. The
Buddhas teaching, which includes emptiness and much more, is the work at hand among
those who support our efforts at realizing these great truthsincluding the mother
and her sick child.
If I could reflect deeply enough on the relativity of the twenty years
as the maximum allotted to this child and that the very irreversibility of his condition,
and my own, is due to deep cosmological connections, then perhaps my sense of
connectedness to others and the cosmos could increase. Could I realize more deeply that my
ego and yours are dependent, not inherently existent, but fundamentally co-dependent
systems of relationships? Could I profoundly appreciate that there is no speaker without a
listener, no griever without a dependently related object of grief? If I could, then the
centrality of my own ego and my self-cherishing would surely diminish. Such a realization
of my egos emptiness and our mutual co-dependency must result in compassion, not
just for this little boy and his mother, but for all sentient beings. Assimilating these
great truths and shifting my ego off center stage is surely not easy, but the promised
increase in understanding and compassion keeps me trying.
If I could deeply appreciate that any irreversible process, whether the
rotting of carrots or my body, is due to the earliest and largest scale structure of the
cosmos, then how much easier it would be to appreciate that my neighbors loss or
gain is not separate from mine. Then the suffering in one cell of the body of humanity is
truly the suffering of all. Perhaps, we could even realize that compassion is actually in
our own enlightened self-interest and that the survival of our very planet requires a
profound understanding of our co-dependence.
In contrast, we could ask what happens when our philosophic view
embraces the false notion of independent existence. The late David Bohm, known for both
the depths of his physics and philosophy, said it very directly when he wrote:
It is proposed that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between
people (race, nation, family, profession, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind
from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the
key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided,
disconnected, and "broken up" into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is
considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.
According to Bohm, many of the evils of our modern world are traceable
to a view where "Each part is considered to be essentially independent and
self-existent." In other words, one in which things inherently exist. I tried to show
above that, although we commonly assume for simplicity that a system, such as
Boltzmanns box, is independent from its surroundings, such a view misleads us. This
is bad enough in physics, but when a race, nation, or person views themselves as
fundamentally independent, then the stage is set for calamitythe stuff of our daily
As we stand on the threshold of ever more powerful theories in science,
it is more urgent then ever that we find a coherent world view that can guide our science
as well as our moral actions. Consider how the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity
brought about the wonders of the information age, along with our horrendous weapons of
mass destruction. Then imagine what wonders and horrors might be released by a grand
unified theory or "theory of everything" that today occupies some of the best
minds in physics. What benefits and horrors can we expect from the revolution already
underway to understand the complete genetic code?
Ill conclude with one small example. Despite it not being
"spiritually correct," I enjoy watching professional football on TV. I usually
hope for a close game with plenty of action. Occasionally, I find myself rooting for one
team. I urge them on to victory, and even try to exert mental influence through my TV set.
I catch myself and wonder what I am doing. "Hey, these guys are getting millions of
dollars to beat each other up, what do I care who wins?" After a little reflection, I
realize that "my teams" are those I have some connection with, even it if is
only because they are from the State of New York or I go through the Pittsburgh airport on
most of my flights. These flimsiest of connections give me affection and concern for those
What would happen if I could more deeply appreciate the profound
interdependence implied by the Middle Way? What would happen if I could more deeply
appreciate, as more than interesting physics, how the irreversible processes that sustain
and destroy my life occur because of my connection to the first few minutes of the big
bang and the continuing expansion of the universe? Then how much do my loyalties expand?
If I could appreciate that the relativity of time is logically extended to all my
subjectivity, then how could I rationally support my selfishness and self-cherishing?
It is overwhelming to think about extending my loyalties beyond a small
circle of family and friends to the cosmos. Now that we know of more planets outside our
solar system than within, does the Bodhisattva vow of working for the liberation of all
sentient beings, embrace even those beyond our solar systems? Surely, experiencing the
sadness of more parents and their mortally sick children would crush me. How then can I
possibly cultivate compassion on a cosmological scale?
Perhaps the ecological activists can offer guidance. In the face of daunting global
ecological problems, they advise us to "think globally and act locally."
Following their counsel, I try to keep the cosmological picture in mind and simultaneously
act in the present with the person in front of me. Then it seems small ripples of
compassionate action gradually flood beyond my little circle of family and close friends.
The ideal is to extend our concern out in ever widening radii, until it encompasses more
and more of the great suffering body of humanity. If in fact, I lack inherent existence
then my present limitations are not fixed, in place for eternity, and I can work toward
this ideal. Let us begin to widen the circle of concern beyond the narrow confines of
"our team" and "our friends." How else can we live with that devouring
tiger of time, that inexorably includes our final irreversible process?
It is a pleasure to thank Professor B. Alan Wallace of the University of California at
Santa Barbara for inviting me to present these ideas. As always, I offer special thanks to
my consort, wife, and best friend, Elaine Mansfield, for her careful reading and
suggestions for improvement on an earlier version of this manuscript. I warmly thank Devon
Cottrell and Andrew Holmes of Carmel, CA for several useful comments and encouragement on
an earlier version of this paper. I offer my deep gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama
for encouraging the dialogue between Buddhism and Science and showing the power of wisdom
and compassion in action. Finally, I offer my deepest gratitude to the late Anthony
Damiani, founder of Wisdoms Goldenrod and great exponent of dharma in many
forms, who ignited our desire for some personal realization of wisdom and compassion.
Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths,
selected stories and other writings, "A New Refutation of Time," Eds. D.A.
Yates and J.E. Irby, New Directions Books, New York, 1964, p. 234.
Gyatso, Kelsang, Heart of Wisdom,
Tharpa Publications, London, 1986, p. 29.
The time interval , where D t0
is the rest frame value (70 days in our example) and v/c is the relative velocity between
the system and the observer divided by the speed of light, c.
Mansfield, Victor, "Time in
Madhyamika Buddhism and Modern Physics," The Pacific World
Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Volumes 11 & 12, 1995 & 1996, p. 10.
Available at http://lightlink.com/vic/time.html.
Davies, P.C.W., "Stirring up
Trouble," in Physical Origins of Time Asymmetry, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, England, 1994, pp. 119-130.
Mansfield, Victor, Synchronicity,
Science, and Soul-Making, Open Court Publishing, Chicago, 1995 and "Time in
Madhyamika Buddhism and Modern Physics," see reference 4.
Garfield, Jay, The Fundamental
Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, p. 257.
Bohm, David, Wholeness and the
Implicate Order, Routledge, & Kegan Paul, London, 1983, p. xi.