Main Hall Forum presents a Buddhist concept of time

Devin Burke

The Buddhist philosopher Fa-tsang (643-712 CE) was an important figure in East Asian philosophy who influenced many later thinkers. According to Dirck Vorenkamp, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lawrence, contemporary understanding of Fa-tsang’s ideas leaves some holes to be filled. At last Tuesday’s Main Hall forum, Vorenkamp presented the results of his research that aimed to fill in some of those holes. More precisely, he talked on Fa-tsang’s unique concept of time. Vorenkamp introduced Fa-tsang’s ideas by contrasting the Western linear concept of time with Fa-tsang’s concept that time flows backwards as well as forwards. As Vorenkamp explains it, “reality is not composed of things but of processes, coming- togethers, you might say.” In Fa-Tsang’s concept, Vorenkamp said, “time is nothing other than events; both an infinite number of events, and the whole collection of those events.”

To Fa-tsang, one other component of this temporal idea is that no event in time is inherently tensed, or “more exactly, [Fa-tsang’s] point is that all events are simultaneously past, present, and future,” said Vorenkamp. Time becomes events which are all relative to each other, and the idea of what is the Present time becomes dependent on the perspective of the individual, not on the event itself in relation to a great timeline. “For Fa-tsang,” Vorenkamp said, “that is why we never find ourselves in anywhere but now. We are an event that then will act as a basis for tensing everything around us.”

Without a timeline, this view is able to see each event in time as a coming-together of a confluence of causes. In fact, Fa-tsang thought that each event of time was influenced by not only events that preceded it, but also events that are simultaneously with it and in its future. In his view, there were actually ten tenses rather than three. In relation to a “past” event, other events can be classified as “past past,” “past present,” or “past future.”

This view held implications for the Buddhist karmic obligations, meaning that “one right thought…one right action has positive consequences for all time. Each and every event ripples throughout the web of independent arising for all time.” This web of independent arising is what Fa-tsang saw as reality, a reality that is not yet to happen but is in the process of presenting itself. Still, there is a sense of urgency in Fa-tsang’s ideas, according to Vorenkamp, and by becoming aware in the Buddhist sense of these processes, one can affect change.

The forum took place on Tuesday afternoon in Main Hall 202, and was very well attended for such an event.