Here-now at the intersection of non-self and impermanence

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

In the conventional world in which we exist and in which Newtonian laws of nature prevail, space is a frame of reference that tells us where we are relative to things around us. Time, too, is a frame of reference that tells us where we are relative to events taking place around us. According to such a conventional conception of space and time, “here and now” can be represented as the origin of the four-dimensional coordinate system, with three dimensions for space and one dimension for time. What is noteworthy about the conventional conception of space and time is that “here and now” can be objectively defined and, thus, be the common origin to be shared with others, as when we make an appointment to meet with someone in a specific location and at a specific time.

The conventional coordinate system plays an important role in our lives because it helps us to orient ourselves in space and time. As a matter of fact, the Buddha appeals to the three-dimensional coordinate system consisting of north, south, east, west, up and down when he talks about “six directions” as representing six types of human relationships in the Sigalaka Sutta. The Buddha’s discussion in the Nidanasamyutta in which he presents twelve factors of dependent origination as a sequence starting from avijja (ignorance) and ending with jaramarana (aging and death) can be considered as an example in which he appeals to the conventional conception of time as a linear flow. Of course, it is possible, as the Buddha does, to interpret the twelve nidanas as forming a circle of mutual dependency. Indeed, as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) puts it in his Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end. … In my end is my beginning.”

What about the idea of “here and now” that plays an important role in Buddhist thought? Can it be represented as the origin of the four-dimensional coordinate system? It is possible to interpret the concept of anatta, or non-self, as representing the origin of three-dimensional space in that a thing, or a composite entity, can be placed there. By the same token, the concept of anicca, or impermanence, can be interpreted as representing the origin of one-dimensional time line that runs from the past to the future. However, the important point about the Buddhist conception of “here and now” is the interaction between the two, for both anatta and anicca are implied by the central concept of Buddhist thought: paticca-samuppada, or dependent origination. The concept of paticca-samuppada, which expresses the idea that everything in the world around us comes about with a concurrence of causes and conditions, explains why nothing in the world around us possesses of separate self and stays stationary even for a moment. It is thus possible to interpret the three-dimensional coordinate system as the space of interdependence between parts and whole of forms around us, and the time-dimension the frame of interdependent chain of causality that gives rise to forms.

What the concept of paticca-samuppada implies is, however, that “here and now” in Buddhist thought is defined only in the context of the web of interdependence among causes and conditions. This means that “here and now” cannot be represented as the origin of the conventional four-dimensional coordinate system, where space and time serve as independent frames of reference for phenomena and events that take place in the world around us. Indeed, there is interdependency between “here” and “now”. In this sense, “here and now” in Buddhist thought is a reference frame in the four-dimensional space-time continuum as conceived by Einstein (1879-1955) in his special theory of relativity. A reference frame in the four-dimensional space-time continuum, in Buddhist terms, can be characterized as a point of intersection between anatta and anicca, where strict distinction between space and time disappears. To borrow Thich Nhat Hanh’s terminology, space and time inter-are, meaning that instead of talking about “here and now”, we should really be talking about “here-now”.

In Zen Buddhism, we are told about the importance of establishing ourselves at the present moment, or arriving at “here and now”. If “here” and “now” are not separated but are combined into “here-now”, how should we go about placing ourselves at “here-now” in our daily practices? The Buddha offers us this advice in the Anguttara Nikaya (IV.11): “One who, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, has calmed his thoughts and delights in the stilling of thought: a bhikkhu such as this can reach the highest enlightenment.” Whether we are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down does not really matter, for wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we are already at “here-now”, a reference frame at which anatta and anicca intersect. All we need to do is to still our minds to become aware of ourselves as being an integral part of the web of causes and conditions evolving around us.