Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / The Concept of Time in Buddhism

The Concept of Time in Buddhism

The Lotus Sutra teaches the concept of “Time without beginning or end”.

Shakyamuni Buddha of the Lotus Sutra revealed his “lifespan”- or the time since he attained Buddhahood - as being the same as the life of the universe, referring to it as the eternal Dharma (NamMyohoRengeKyo) - the power that operates all phenomena in existence.

- Past, Present and Future – are one continuum:

Regardless of whether an action takes place in the material world of nature or in the mental field of relationships - each cause of action is inseparably associated with its effect. Buddhism calls this the Simultaneity of Cause and Effect, (or the inseparability of action and its consequences).

From our subjective eyes, when observing the occurrence of events, effects occur after an interval of time or a process between causes and their effects. But, from the impartial eyes of reality: the moment the cause was made - the latent effect (or the future effect) has been already destined to take place - regardless of how long it takes.

It is like seeing the whole procedure of past action, present intermediate procedure, and future effects – all “as a whole”. Or as if there is no discontinuity between past, present and future:

Nichiren (1222-1282) - who based his philosophy on the Lotus Sutra - explains:

“There could be no discontinuity between the three existences of past, present and future”

Philosophy and science come to agree on the concept of inseparability of time-events. A similar statement in this regard was mentioned by Einstein:

“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Albert Einstein*

The importance of the Present moment

But this does not mean that the future is “determined” by the past, because at each successive moment another cause of action can be made that can erase or rather change  the effect of a past cause.   We can stop an effect from happening by introducing a new cause within the time interval (between cause and effect) to alter the procedure leading it thus towards a new effect. 

As an example: in a sequence of domino pieces, the first movement of the first piece is the cause of falling of the next one etc… until the last piece falls in effect.   But the process of successive falling over can be stopped by introducing a new cause (such as lifting up one of the pieces before it falls) so that the last piece of domino will not experience the previously determined effect of falling. 

Nichiren Buddhism teaches that past karmic causes do not define our future:

 “Karma is being formed at each moment in the course of life’s perpetual motion. In the present instant also, new karma is being fashioned as it transforms karma from the past”.       Ikeda and Wickramasinghe, Space and Eternal Life, page 119.

Freedom from the past:

Present effects are due to karmic causes from the past.   However, future effects arise from the causes we make in the present. It is always the present that counts.  It is what we do in the present moment that decides our future; our past causes do not govern our future as well. Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that no matter what kind of karmic causes we have made in the past, through the causes we make in the present we can achieve a brilliant future. (source: Ikeda - Daily Encouragement, p. 306)

Eternity contained in this present moment

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha revealed his eternal lifespan, introducing the concept of “Kuon Ganjo” – or “Time without beginning or end”.

In Buddhism, the Japanese term, “Kuon Ganjo”, can be interpreted to mean, “Time without Beginning”.

“In its true sense, the concept of Kuon Ganjo indicates a time without beginning, an eternity with neither beginning nor end, beyond the confines of measurable time. In this sense eternity is the unbroken continuance of a single moment.

Thus, the present moment (or any moment) contains the ultimate existence (in which the past without beginning and the infinite future are both contained). Kuon Ganjo therefore equals the present moment”. (Fundamentals of Buddhism, P.79)

Daisaku Ikeda elaborates further:

“Kuon - means eternity, or the aggregate of every single moment of time. Once you realize that Kuon exists in every moment, it is no longer correct to say that one becomes a Buddha, but that one awakens to the fact of being a Buddha to begin with."
Source: Daisaku Ikeda, Selected lectures on the Gosho, Vol.1, P.258