July 15, 2010

Marking Buddhist time at the fringes

Last week the Economist ran an article entitled “Marking time at the fringes,” which was an overview China’s efforts to control ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang. The article points out that while China hopes that development in these regions will ease tensions and violent outbursts over time, there are still specific sensitive dates on the calendar that refresh memories and bring tension to the forefront.

From the article:

China seems to calculate that the eventual death of the Dalai Lama, a charismatic and internationally popular figure, will make its job in Tibet easier. Each passing birthday brings that day closer. But it also offers supporters of the Dalai Lama and his cause a chance to sing his praises. This year, a crowd of 5,000 joined him for a birthday celebration at his base in India.

Are there any connections to be made between this function of time (a general reduction of pain over the course of decades, with splashes of increased pain on specific days) to big-picture Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of time? Perhaps there are some clues in Tricycle’s Summer 1996 issue when Daniel Goleman spoke with the Dalai Lama about the nature of time in "The Experience of Change."

From the interview:

Daniel Goleman: What is the Buddhist understanding of Time? How can we relate our sense of the process of time to our experience of the present moment?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In Buddhism, the concept of linear time, of time as a kind of container, is not accepted. Time itself, I think, is something quite weak. It depends on some physical basis, some specific thing. Apart from that thing it is difficult to pinpoint—to see time. Time is understood or conceived only in relation to a phenomenon or a process.

DG: Yet the passage of time seems very concrete—the past, the present, aging. The process of time seems very real.

HH: This business of time is a difficult subject. There are several different explanations and theories about time; there is no one explanation in Buddhism. I feel there is a difference between time and the phenomena on which time is projected. Time can be spoken of only in relation to phenomena susceptible to change, which because they are susceptible to change are transitory and impermanent. "Impermanent" means there is a process. If there is no process of change, then one cannot conceive of time in the first place.

The question is whether it is possible to imagine an independent time which is not related to any particulars, any object that goes through change. In relation to such an object, we can talk about the past of that thing, its present state, and its future; but without relation to such particulars, it is very difficult to conceive of an instant of time totally independent of a particular basis.

We could all spend lifetimes learning to juggle past, present and future—so I'll take a step back from blogging about the nature of time—but I think it is interesting to think about the relationship between historical dates, memory, and action. In the Tibetan and Xinjiang regions, these specific days allow emotions to be expressed that are presumably always present, and I find that a beautiful expression of time. It also gives me pause when I hear something like this statement from Hao Peng, China’s second-ranking official in Tibet: that Beijing has “the ability and confidence to maintain stability in Tibet forever.”

Read the complete Economist article here.

Read the complete Daniel Goleman interview with the Dalai Lama here.

Image: Jessica Rabbit's Flickr photostream

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