Some Buddhist texts—especially later ones, in the Mahayana tradition—are full of stories of supernatural feats. There’s astral projection, teleportation—at one point in the Lotus Sutra, there’s even a scene in which multiple buddhas extend their tongues to the heavens and then emit “immeasurable light” from their pores; later, they all snap their fingers in unison, making the earth tremble in “six different ways.” Some of it gets kind of weird.
But for all the amazing powers described in these texts, there are no examples (to my knowledge, anyway) of time travel. In these stories, buddhas and bodhisattvas change form, they move across the universe, sometimes they’re even in more than one place at once, but as far as I know, they don’t go back to visit buddhas of the past or teach people of the future. Whatever they’re doing—however amazing that is—they stay in the present.
That sounds right, doesn’t it? When we receive meditation instructions, when we hear about mindfulness, whatever aspect of practice it is, there’s usually some mention of staying in the present moment. There’s an acknowledgement that now (and now, and now) is not really where/when we want to be. We place our consciousness in the past, playing would’ve/could’ve/should’ve, or we look to a future—maybe a few hours away, maybe years—where things are different. We get to shape those stories, zoom in on the parts that cause us pain or give us hope. There’s something uncomfortable, though, about now. It doesn’t seem as exciting, for one thing; if we truly stay in the present, then we aren’t looking at a storyline, and stories are interesting—they’re how we make sense of all these nows, as pieces of a greater puzzle. Now is also kind of overwhelming. If we really take it in, if we let it be whole, then it’s fuller than any story we could construct. The sounds, the smells, the emotions, all the little details that make this moment what it is—if we aren’t used to letting it in, it might feel like a flood. As practitioners, we’re taught to stay with all of it, to privilege the reality of the present moment over the stories in our heads.
But it isn’t just that buddhas and bodhisattvas don’t travel through time because their practice is about the here and now; from a Buddhist perspective, it’s also that time just doesn’t work like that. It isn’t that the past is back there and the future is over there, in the distance. We can’t plot out past, present, and future on a chart.
So how does it work? The answer can be complicated; Dogen’s “Being–Time,” for example, is equal parts poetry and philosophical treatise on the nature of, well, everything. In it, he makes tet case for time not as a continuum, not as a fourth dimension, but as reality itself; instead of occupying time, we are functions of it—time is us, and we are time. That’s a big idea to work with, not only because it’s a lot to take in but also because it’s about being big, about understanding who you are on a scale that goes far beyond anything we can imagine.
The simpler explanation, though, is this: the past exists, but only insofar as it exists in the present. Every single thing that happened before, every being that came into the world, shaped this moment and is therefore here, truly here, along with all the moments they inhabited. The future? Same thing—it’s not that the future has already happened, but the seeds of it are already present, right in front of us. The future is now—or at least, now is the only place we’ll ever find it.
Why bring any of this up? For the simple reason that when we let go of past and present as places we can visit, we relax into something profound, free. If I understand that nothing will ever go back to what it was, that’s freedom. If I know that what’s done is done—truly—then I can stop playing with all the ways I would change it. And if I see clearly that nothing awaits me in some time called “tomorrow,” or “later,” or “when I’m older,” or even “when I feel better,” then I can start to also see what’s right in front of me. And right in front of me, there’s so, so much.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.