How could it be that the Buddha's enlightenment occurred simultaneously with all beings? Didn't this event happen a long time ago? And if it already happened, where is it now? Doesn't "all beings" include us?
In Buddhist literature, there appear many references to a kind of timelessness in things, relationships, and events. Nagarjuna, in a classic example, shows us we can have no coherent conception of time as an entity, that time can only be experienced as a set of interdependent relationships. Zen Master Dogen draws this same insight to our attention in his essay "Being Time." Seng-ts'an, the third patriarch of Zen in China, ends his "Inscriptions on Trusting the Heartmind" by telling us that "words fail, for the Way is neither yesterday, today, nor tomorrow." And in his "The Identity of Relative and Absolute," Chinese Zen Master Shih-t'ou starts off by saying that the "mind of the great sage of India [Buddha] is intimately conveyed East and West." Such an event must necessarily occur outside of time.
Nevertheless, we commonly look at the world, and our experience of the world, in a linear fashion—as if things were strung out in a line, from past to present to future. Something that occurs now creates an effect later on. This, we think, is how things are and must be.
Which of these viewpoints is more in keeping with what science now offers us? And which one more accurately reflects how the world actually is?
Some physicists have recently taken a renewed interest in a peculiar way of conceptualizing time and space that has been around since the 1940s. One model of this view reduces the three dimensions of space to just two dimensions, while projecting time as the third dimension. According to this scheme, all of what we call "now"—that is, the arrangement of all things and events—is viewed as existing in a single plane. Of course, this plane, being the present moment, doesn't stay put. Rather, it seems to rise upward through the third dimension, much like the floor of an elevator—except that in this case it ascends through time instead of through space. Within this conceptual model, the past is everything that has passed beneath the floor in any given moment; the future—what's yet to come—is met when the floor rises up to greet it.
In taking this view we can imagine the whole of space-time as a three-dimensional block and each entity as a point (or set of points) within that plane. Your life can be represented as the line you trace through this block as you ride the elevator up through time.
Some physicists see this as a way to account for consciousness, as well. As the mathematical physicist Herman Weyl described it, "the objective world simply is; it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the life line of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image which continuously changes in time."
But why should we think of time as movement at all?
In devising the above scheme, and in examining temporal phenomena in general, physicists naturally have continued to hold the common-sense assumption that time is still movement from past to present to future. But maintaining this view presents some problems. For example, physicists have discovered that certain quantum events seem to ride the elevator down instead of up.
Specifically, science has had to account for a particle called a positron. This is not some theoretical or hypothetical entity, but an actual particle that shows up in a number of quantum experiments. A positron can be seen either as a positively charged electron (except that electrons are negatively charged), or as an electron running backward in time. As we shall see in a moment, the second view solves a variety of puzzling problems that have stumped physicists for some time.
The simplest solution, of course, would be to forget any apparent nonsense about there being entities that can run backward in time, since such entities can just as easily be seen, from a mathematical point of view, as running "forward " in time as well. Many physicists, in fact, have tried to do just that. The problem was that when they began conceiving positrons as electrons traveling from the future through the present to the past, their overall picture of the universe suddenly became greatly simplified. For physicists, this simplicity provides a strong incentive for taking things seriously. Moreover, by looking at things in this temporally backward way, they 've recently discovered that they're able to conceptualize many quantum phenomena that they could not otherwise explain—phenomena that utterly baffled them for decades.
But accepting such a scheme leads to a lot of other puzzling things. For one thing, it means, in a very real sense, that the universe doesn't have any size or duration. It means that we have the Whole of Reality—all of time, all of space—at once.
In other words, nothing rides up or down the time elevator tracing out lines at all—neither our bodies, nor consciousness, nor positrons. In fact, there isn't any such line of time. In fact it is an illusion, and the cause of our confusion about time.
To put it in highly simplified terms, physicists are beginning to hypothesize something like the following. When, say, an electron in your kitchen vibrates, it sends out a signal traveling at the speed of light through all of time and space. When another electron receives that signal, it vibrates sympathetically and sends a return signal back to the original electron in your kitchen. Each electron gets this information from other particles anywhere and everywhere—indeed, from literally everything that it reaches out to touch in all of time and space. As a result of this process, each electron "knows" its exact place and importance in the universe.
Let's take a closer look at this. Say we excite an electron (let's call it the sender) here within this page. It sends out a signal (i.e., emits a photon traveling in wave form) at the speed of light into the universe. It might go no farther than the width of this page, or it might travel to the Andromeda Galaxy, two million light-years away. But it doesn't matter where or how far it goes, because sooner or later the photon will be absorbed by some other electron (which we'll call the responder). That electron vibrates in response, and sends a return signal back to the sender electron here within this page.
According to our commonsense view, if the signal goes to Andromeda (which is two million light-years away), it would seem to take four million years before the signal gets back to the sender in this page.
But it seems (and numerous experiments have borne this out) that the responder's return signal is received by the sender at the same moment the sender first sends out its signal. Far from taking four million years for the signal to go to Andromeda and return, the entire transaction takes place simultaneously. Not in a microsecond, but in the exact same moment.
In other words, the whole transaction happens now, outside of time. Now, instead of time.
Some physicists explain this phenomenon by saying that when the responder receives a signal, it sends its return signal backward in time. And since it takes exactly as much time for a signal to return as it does to go out, the whole affair is complete in the same moment it begins. Physicists have very real experimental data that beg for such an explanation, which they call the "transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics."
Furthermore, if we look at this transaction from the standpoint of the signals themselves, no time elapses during the entire "four-million-year" journey. Einstein showed us that if we could somehow get ourselves up to the speed of light (unlike massless photons, we have mass, so we can't really do this, but let's be hypothetical for a moment), time would slow down as our velocity increased (though it would not appear so to us) until finally, at the speed of light, time would cease to elapse at all. From the standpoint of someone traveling at the speed of light, it would appear that all the space being traversed—every inch or light-year of it—would pass by at once, no matter how long the journey might be.
So from the standpoint of a photon going to Andromeda, the journey takes literally no time at all. In other words, to the photon, Andromeda is right here, since it takes no time whatsoever to get "there." And the fact that the message is there and here simultaneously makes "there" indistinguishable from "here."
This would be equally true for any two "locations" in the universe that you could point to. In other words, the universe doesn't appear to have any size or duration at all.
To our everyday mind, the universe is unimaginably vast, and ancient beyond reckoning. But for the enlightened person, there is no need to qualify (or quantify) an objective Reality in such ways.
As the great Chinese Zen master Huang Po said, "It is without beginning, unborn, and indestructible. It cannot be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces, and comparisons."
The universe—as it is seen by the awakened—has neither an intrinsic size nor age. All there is, is here and now.
Nevertheless, within this here and now, which has no extension or duration in space or time, we seem to have dimensions of space and time. How, then, can space and time occur at all?
They appear as the result of consciousness.
It is only in our mental construction of the universe—our conception of it—that we encounter something vast and enduring. In our actual experience, however—that is, what we actually perceive rather than conceive of—all we ever have is here and now.
Our experience is always in the present. We literally cannot exist in the future or past—only in the timeless moment of infinitely short duration that we call now. We only remember the past and imagine the future—but both of these activities necessarily occur now. And where can you ever possibly be but here? Here we conceive of a "there," but you cannot actually go "there." No matter where you "go," you never leave "here."
What we experience as duration and extension—time and space—results from the way Mind operates. Consciousness produces them. Indeed, this is what consciousness is. Consciousness is the division of an otherwise seamless Whole, which transcends space and time, into space and time—that is, into here and there, then and now.
It is the various mental constructions that we hold, and hold dear, that appear as time and space, extension and duration. These—and all of the material world—derive from consciousness, which ladles out time and space from a timeless, spaceless sea.
To the awakened, however, what is Real is this seamless, boundless, spaceless, timeless Whole. The enlightened person sees that this Whole has no dimension apart from Mind.
Steve Hagen, a Zen priest, is the author of How the World Can Be the Way It Is: An Inquiry for the New Millennium into Science, Philosophy, and Perception (Quest Books).