Impermanence: The Emptiness of Time and the Timeless
Impermanence: The Emptiness of Time and the Timeless
By Susan Kahn
I used to believe there was no time, that there existed a “beyond time” and that this “nowhere” would be the ultimate view. But I could not find a “nowhere” that was not referenced by a “somewhere.” I could not conceive of or experience timelessness without considering its contrast to time. I do not accept a “beyond time” as something that can be independently identified anymore. Nor can inherently existent time be established either. This article addresses temporality from the perspective of emptiness teachings.
Nothing dies absolutely, nor is truly born, nor endures, not independently, not in and of itself. While phenomena appear as inherently separate things, they are not. Everything lacks independent existence, an essential nature, its “own being.” It is in this sense that everything is said in emptiness teachings to be empty.
Emptiness does not mean nothingness, nor does it imply a vast permanent, undifferentiated substance or substratum. It means that not a single thing exists substantively or independently. Instead, everything arises from empty, dependent conditions. Nothing is uncaused. This also means that nothing can be fixed or static. And this is why it is said in emptiness teachings that everything is impermanent.
All phenomena arise dependently, interconnectedly and exist impermanently. However, despite the absence of true “thingness,” an interdependent universe functions quite well. In fact, dependent existence enables functioning because it enables change and transformation.
If anything existed independently, fixedly, it would not be dependent upon other things. There would be no way for it to be influenced by anything else. There would be no way for it to be affected by causes or conditions. Being totally independent, it would be sealed off from everything else. It would have no way to arise, grow, change, or pass away. Its separation would necessitate that it be inaccessible, unchanging and therefore absolutely timeless. Yet this is often just how we think things are.
The teaching of dependent existence is altogether different from the notion of an independent, unchanging reality. If something exists dependently, it cannot also exist independently. If anything is impermanent, it cannot also be permanent. That would be contradictory. Sometimes it is said that the relative world is born out of an ultimate reality. But if something inherently existed, it could only be its own indivisible self and no change, no transformation would be possible. It would make no sense for something to change into itself, or to become what it is not. Without interdependence and mutability there is only permanence and time can have no place.
Because nothing exists as its own thing, nothing can be static, enduring only as itself. Instead, everything arises from impermanent conditions as there is no “thingness” to endure. Timelessness implies an existence beyond all dependent interaction and change. Inherent timelessness implies an absolute foundational, fixed presence, which begs the question of what created this absolute or of how something could create itself.
Without an appreciation for impermanence, we grasp and cling in fundamentalist fashion without recognizing that nothing is solid and certain to begin with. The realization of impermanence is a great antidote to the belief in inherent existence, including a separate, independent self.
In emptiness teachings, everything is seen as temporal, however not inherently so, meaning that time cannot be its own thing either. Time is also interrelational. Without its relationship to changing phenomena, there could be no recognition of time. The idea of time existing apart from phenomena is inconceivable. They are interrelated.
Allowing for the impermanent and relative notion of time counteracts the idea of a self or any phenomena, mental state or realm, as fixed, static, fundamental or self-generating. It challenges the existence of eternity, as if anything could be separate and divided from the temporality of the relative. This is partially why it is said in emptiness teachings that even emptiness is empty.
There is no escaping the relativity of time. The only timelessness is in the enduring of the relativity of time.
Time and Interconnection
Look around. What phenomenon does not involve a relationship to time? What phenomenon lacks all history, all signs of a past that have conditioned the present? Because everything lacks its own being, everything depends upon changing conditions, which involves time. Even thought does not arise causelessly, timelessly. Nondual experiences and realization too, are discovered and learned over time due to many conditions.
An example of the dependent and impermanent existence of time would be a flame that never endures from moment to moment in the same way, being continually subject to changing conditions that are not of the flame itself and that the flame depends upon. Nothing is its own thing or lasts even for an instant. Time is empty and yet relevant in addressing the ever-changing interrelationship of all things.
Due to inescapable interconnectedness, everything is said in emptiness teachings to exist in name only. For as everything is interrelated, how could anything be singled out except through conceptual words? All phenomena can only exist nominally, a term that is also referred to as conventional existence. We say that a table is a table. But tables are not tables in themselves. They depend upon trees, which also depend upon earth, clouds, rain, etc. “Table” is a relative, conventional term.
To realize emptiness is to discover the absence of inherent existence and to see conventional existence as merely conventional. It is not an ultimate vantage point, not an absolute or transcendent truth. It is important to be aware that there is no foundational reality to land in. It is easy to claim non-conceptual meditative experiences, for example, as true representations of a final, objective reality.
Can You Climb Outside Your Body?
To try and transcend the relative, conventional and temporal existence of phenomena, as if one could climb outside of the mind-body and claim pure objectivity, is to propose a supreme, absolute knower. This would endorse there being perception without a perceiver, as an unperceived perception. Likewise, there is not an objective world “out there” that we passively observe. Subject and object are interconnected.
No matter how extremely subtle or seemingly indistinguishable the relationship between subject and object appears, anything that is recognized must be perceived by a subject. To see this is to resist reifying even the most subtle mental state as indicating an independent presence to cling to as truth.
Likewise, the autonomous separation between subject and object cannot be found either, as they interpenetrate. Interdependent things are neither the same nor different from each other. The absence of essential “thingness” or difference, as well as the absence of an inherent sameness, are part of the insight into emptiness. This insight acknowledges a rich diversity that is nondual – nondual because of not existing inherently, as well not being utterly void or vacuous.
Everything is an empty, essenceless interreflection, including a self of persons and all other phenomena. This is the interrelatedness of phenomenal and temporal diversity, so that nothing is seen to inherently create itself, endure as itself, or create inherently existent otherness. There is no such super-entity.
The Past in the Present
The past too, cannot be conceived of separately, but only in relation to the present. How else can either notion be recognized? Furthermore, how could phenomena from the past become extinguished? Where would they go? The past, being empty, does not endure in itself, but neither does it drop off into some separate, inherent nonexistence, into an actually existent oblivion. After all, nonexistence doesn't exist.
There is no independent past that actually ceases before some present could magically be said to appear out of nowhere. Additionally, there is no essential “thingness” to get stuck in time, nothing that stops and becomes timeless. It is in this sense that the empty and merely relational past lives in the present, conditioning it. If things existed independently, all phenomena would be their own things, in a frozen and dualistic mode of existence.
Everything is part of an ever transforming life that reflects relationships among phenomena that are empty of self. Even the present does not inherently exist as an essence called “presence.” The instant of a present, or of a “now” cannot be captured. It is an interdependent experience requiring, among countless conditions, an experiencer. The present is a conventional term. It cannot be truly singled out and yet conventionally (and valuably) functions.
Death then is not some entity, foreign and distant, off in the future. It is always right here, in the emptiness of every moment as it comes and goes. Not one moment is identical to another. It just appears that way when one tries to jump from one form of solidity to another, from one known to another, one certainty to another, one memory to another, not noticing that everything, being empty and therefore ungrounded, is impermanent. Realizing this is to see the big picture and break free from attachment.
Memory and the Separate Self
In considering a past, the related topic of memory needs to be included. This is a very important topic as it is so commonly believed to give evidence to an inherent continuity of a solid self, i.e., of a separate self temporally contained from a past to a future.
Like everything else, memory is a relational phenomenon, functioning through an endless web of dependent relationships. Without ongoing interconnection, memory could not operate. Without connecting to present conditions, memory could not be recalled or added to. In the same way, the present needs memory to be interpreted, comprehended. It could be said that past lives within the present.
Memory is not stored and then retrieved. It is kept alive through present conditions, as part of and dependent upon ongoing interconnections.
Memory and Place
In his writings on memory, Edward S. Casey emphasizes “place” or the landscape of places experienced in the world as an interrelated and extended body of memory. He points out that memory is not simply a mental function, but that place commingles with memory. Memory and place, in other words, cohabit one another, are collocated. And just as the past extends throughout the present, so memory lives everywhere in the broader human world.
It is not difficult to see how people remember experiences of life through life. While memory appears to be located in the brain, as part of a singular continuity of a self, it is not. Yes, the functioning that is called the brain is involved, however we are always dealing with multi-directional and vast occurrences. Even the physical body is constantly remembering as a part of its functioning. In short, there is no memory without a memory of something that is not memory.
Without its connection to current and countless conditions, memories could not arise. Memory must be kept in motion, however subtle, through interrelationships. Only past events of ongoing significance and relevance provide the conditions to continue as memories in the present.
The Emptiness of Memory
Memory then cannot strictly be said to be memory, as a separate thing, just as the past, present or future cannot. Memory is a relative and conventional label, abstracted and constructed from a web of ever-changing interrelations. Mind and matter are interrelational, as everything else is. Neither is grounded as its own entity.
It is in this sense that the Buddhist saying “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form” can be understood. In emptiness teachings lies the recognition that while all appearing forms are empty of their own independent being, there is no absolute essence that transcends form. One is not to weigh in on the side of nihilism by saying that form doesn't exist and is totally illusory, or on the other hand, that form can be nailed down. Both nihilism and essentialism are great pitfalls.
It is the belief in my memory that causes so many of the problems leading to a separate sense of self. There is no separate self that is the owner of memory (or any aspect of the mind and body for that matter). That is an important thing to realize, that even though no one has the exact same memories as yours, this is not evidence of a separate self. Memory simply reflects relatively diverse interconnected formations.
Understanding of the lack of an independent memory can help address this misconception that says, “I am the story of me.” People try to keep this story alive, without recognizing that time is empty and that no moment is kept alive. There can be no separate self that can claim its own inherent continuum through memory. For memory does not even exist in itself, let alone endure.
Understanding the emptiness of time is critical in overturning the mistake of inherent existence. It provides the opportunity to see through the belief in a separate continuity of self and all phenomena, an error that lies at the root of suffering.
However, to negate time altogether, as if a transcendent and true reality has been discovered, is to support the notion of permanent existence. It is easy to become attached to this. To believe in a separate self is to see oneself timelessly. The notion of inherent timelessness can also lead to a dualistic split between a nihilistic view of life and what is seen to be the truth beyond life.
Realizing impermanence is the opposite of attachment and fear. It is to break free from ideas of what is and should be and to open to the continuous change and fluctuations that are life, as nothing exists statically, as its own thing.
People spend their lives trying to hold onto things as solid. People want to maximize what they see as gain and to minimize what they see as loss. People want to hold on most especially to their identity and not to die. When impermanence is recognized as life, then life and death are seen as mutually dependent and the fear of loss loses its ground.
This is why it is so important to challenge beliefs or experiences as if fixed in time, reflecting a fixed reality. It is freeing to see through the essentialism of permanence. The recognition of impermanence nurtures the acceptance of what comes and goes, instead of resisting ever-changing waters.
Resistance turns suffering into a runaway train. Opening up to impermanence is an indispensable response. There is no need to resist anything that is already ungrounded, unbounded, and impermanent. Suffering does not inherently exist. Unnecessary suffering is the result of the mistaken view that phenomena such as time and selves inherently exist, and that anything can be essentially timeless, existing in a fixed and pre-determined way.
- Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Edward Casey, “Keeping the Past in Mind,” The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 37, No. 1, p. 77-95, 1983.
- Jeffrey Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way, Snow Lion, 1995.