Beginningless Time

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In referring to previous lives (if there is such a thing), the cyclical nature of existence (there is definitely such a thing), Buddhist texts frequently refer to numberless lives stretching into beginningless time. From the non-dual perspective, this term is itself a non sequitur. It refers to a condition having no beginning and no end. There is no time. If there is no beginning (and no end), how can there be time in the conventional way that we understand it?

Woody Allen once famously said, “Time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once.” From the view in which subject and object exist, we can only imagine “everything” as discrete events, jumbled together without order, arising in random fashion, crowding each other out, competing for “space” in the chaos of phenomena, all competing for our attention. The nature of mind is such that this “competition” appears as the constant arising of sense perception, the evaluation of that perception, thoughts in relation to the timing of “events” that we perceive or imagine to exist.

But absolute reality is not some other unconventional form of time, unfamiliar to us, in which “events” occur. There is no sequence of events. There are no events. It is time-less. There are no discrete moments. There is no present, no past, no future; no procession from one thing to another. There is only what is-now. The term beginningless time is a conception arising from within our own limited view of reality, our conditioned view, which is intrinsically based in time. Normally, we are not capable of another view.

The Sanskrit meaning of samsara is “continuous flow”– the repeating cycle of the major transitional events in one’s existence: birth, life, death and rebirth (reincarnation). The root meaning of the word samsara also refers to “flowing into ourselves.” If we only thought of the transitional events (birth, death and reincarnation) as features of samsara, we would be overlooking the continuous flow of moment-to-moment events in between these major transitions —our continuous flow into ourselves.

In this sense, samsara is happening in every instant. We are subject to its terms. We also flow into and perpetuate those terms with every act of consciousness. Being asleep to micro-events of our lives, we become wanderers, constantly re-creating ourselves without realizing our true relationship to what we take for granted as “events.” If we are to have any influence on the terms of samsara, this is where our attention must go.

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The more we awaken, the more we learn about the terms of samsara and our condition, the more we might come to regard our predicament as a perpetual purgatory, which is in every instant a condition over which we seem to have little if any control, but which is also a choice we make of view and of conduct.

Even the discipline we apply to the development of attention, to resting in a quality of effortlessness in our daily existence and to the attention we bring to the activity of mind all seems to be limited by the reality of samsara itself, the fundamental limitations to which we are helplessly subject. That limitation is time. And…it is also timeless.

Karma is the essential feature of samsara. Our action is what fuels samsara, the continuing moment-to-moment co-origination of phenomena that we call time. Karmic action can only exist in time. Our conceptual frameworks reflect the ways we are embedded in time. Language to a great degree also reflects these conceptual frameworks …and fireworks.

The individual aspect of karma, what we recognize from a sweeping perspective of an entire life over time, is what we may inherit from a previous life; that which follows us into this life; what we create in this life by conscious or unconscious action. This is the material of our practice, the essence of our own personal version of delusion. In order to have any influence over our own karma, our own unique way of navigating time-which is our identity-our practice must come to rest at the level of our habitual view and decisions about time.

This conventional view of karma as strictly a reflection of our individual path is what I would call relative karma. It is relative in the same sense as we speak of relative truth, relative reality. It is relative by virtue of the artificiality of viewing ourselves in isolation from others, from the whole, from the universe of sentient beings.

As the bodhisattva is concerned with the karma of all, any being who has managed to extinguish all of her personal karma is the one who has revealed the habitual decisions about time and untangled from them entirely, developing awareness that transcends time and becoming concerned with the absolute karma of the whole, the timeless dimension of collective activity, thought and behavior. The accomplishment of the bodhisattva is the ability to remain stable in the view of the absolute karma of all beings while acting at the level of relative karma with individual beings. I cannot reference any text to support this opinion. It is simply mine alone…as far as I know.

It is a Western view that imagines such a thing as collective karma; group, tribal or ethnic karma; national karma; even planetary karma. Moreover, we tend to think in terms of good and bad karma according to conventional (relative) values of good and evil, assigning them to collective karma in the very real sense that good and bad things happen to groups and that shared responsibility exists for consequences of shared decisions in ways that are just as real and painful as those effecting individuals.

Such decisions certainly do exist at the group, tribal, national and global level. Yet when attempting to tease out the factors effecting collective actions, we inevitably encounter conflicting values and the difficulty of evaluating the relative importance of each, and the relative participation of individuals in hierarchies of relevancy and influence. What is the greater good or the greater harm? All of this occurs within the relative view.

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From the absolute view, all phenomena are equal; there is no such thing as ultimate good or ultimate evil. These distinctions dissolve as we peer beyond the relative view, as we uncover the relative activity of mind that assigns these attributes to what is essentially a valueless arising. This is very difficult to grasp, let alone accept, given our religious, social and cultural conditioning. Yet all phenomena are both “here” in the relative sense of time, judgment and evaluation and also “not here” in the sense that the ground “from” which they arise is not conditioned or conventional reality at all, but something else entirely—a pure, unobstructed, unconditioned “space” in which, ironically, neither time nor space have any meaning whatsoever.

If all phenomena are the same, then relative karma is conditioning to see the world in terms of extremes such as good and evil. Liberation is the extinction of all karma, freeing oneself from all evil, all good and ultimately any tendency–or even capacity–to make any such distinction.

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