Filed in Science

Time and Now

Steve Hagen

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). 

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jimconant's picture

I recently saw this posted on Facebook, despite it being from 1996. Anyway, I wrote a review of it at

ChrisT's picture

Metaphors from science are interesting, and possibly mind-opening for some. But they are still just metaphors. The problem with trying to make them more than this is that they become something to cling to, to put in our god-shaped hole. I think the Buddha would have been bemused by this, and dismissive, as he was of all philosophical speculation, and would say hanging on to this will only lead to dukkha. We want some foundation to save us, to rest on, but we simply need to learn to let go.



buddhajazz's picture

The summer of 1996 was a long time ago. His ideas a few years later in Buddhism Plain and Simple, is much more appealing to me. After all, aren't most of the teachings aimed at simple 12 step mantras, "Keep it Simple Stupid" ?? I'd like to read some of his newest books to see how his ideas have simplified. :)

brainboy44's picture

In regard to the statement: "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."

This is confused --- I don't recognize any similarity here to how "most" physicists view space-time --- I have no idea what the author has in mind, or what unstated reference supports his claim that "some physicists ...." view space as ... two-dimensional!

Having said that, attempting to conflate the exotic world view of relativity/quantum mechanics with our everyday world of experience, where suffering takes place, is a misuse of physics and is misleading to the vast majority of readers, who have never studied much, or any physics. It disrespects both physics and dharma to try and conflate them,
especially to a lay audience that has no real knowledge of the physics required by the discussion.

This is yet another unfortunate example of "quantum woo" , and here, the author can't even seem to keep straight the distinction between two and three dimensions.

Interested readers (and hopefully some of the editors at Tricycle) might want to check out the definition and discussion of Quantum Woo, at, including:

"Quantum woo is an attempt to piggy-back on the success and legitimacy of science by claiming quack ideas are rooted in accepted concepts in physics, combined with utter misunderstanding of these concepts and a sense of wonder at the amazing magic these misunderstandings would imply if true."

barry.wharton's picture

I would agree that the two dimensional model described by the author is not a mainstream concept of spacetime, and certainly I do not recognise the idea presented either.
However I have less sympathy with the statement "attempting to conflate the exotic world view of relativity/quantum mechanics with our everyday world of experience, where suffering takes place, is a misuse of physics....." and "It disrespects both physics and dharma to try to conflate them".
There are a great many parallels of ideas between the dharma and physics, and also other areas of scientific thought such as psychology.
Although the message of the dharma is often prosaic, the parallels are still clear. It was in part the recognition of such parallels that, as a young professional scientist, first interested me in Zen Buddhism. At the time I viewed it as a curiosity, but time has only strengthened this impression.
As an example, the Heart Sutra speaks to me of both the equivalence of matter and energy and the first law of thermodynamics.
Of course this could be explained as selective interpretation. But there is only one reality. Science and Buddhism both seek to reveal this reality, albeit via different approaches. This being the case , why should we be surprised that the message is the same? What else should we expect to find?
On consideration that the dharma considerably predates modern scientific method (to the tune of around 2000 years) perhaps we should accuse modern physics of "dharma woo", but that would be disrespectful of the achievements of science and scientists.

John Haspel's picture

As in all things with the characteristic of Anicca, the components of any object, including time, are insubstantial. Attempting to make what is insubstantial somehow substantial through analysis results in dukkha, in this case confusion. Best to let time be time and get on with recognizing all impermanent views.

Consciousness does not transcend time. Consciousness is not time and space. Consciousness is not here and now. Being enamored with consciousness is being enamored with a view of self that proliferates confusion and suffering.

In the Samyutta Nikaya 22.5 the Buddha teaches to put aside the distraction of analytical thinking to avoid the proliferation of the ego:

“Friends, Develop concentration. A concentrated mind discerns in line with what has come into being. And what does he discern in line with what has come into being? The origination & disappearance of feeling, the origination & disappearance of perception, origination & disappearance of fabrications, the origination & disappearance of consciousness. In short the origination & disappearance of the ego-personality.”

This is a very interesting scientific article and appeals to a scientific mind. Trying to explain the dhamma with science is like trying to explain breathing. The Dhamma is to be experienced within the framework of the Eightfold Path and breathing is to follow one breath with the next. No need to analyze the progression from one breath to the next.

John Haspel

oliverhow's picture

Very grateful that these blogs are being repeated, thanks.....richard

rhancock130's picture

This piece is beautifully subtle yet scientifically accurate (as far as my literary mind can tell). It struck a chord for me! Thank you for this teaching.