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Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Time

Written by: Julia Hardy

The problem that led to this deconstruction was this: How did the Buddha continue to exist on earth and live the life of a human being after he was enlightened? Many solutions were offered to this problem. The basis of the Heart Sutra's solution was the concept of emptiness. This emptiness is not the equivalent of an absence of substance. Rather, everything is empty because nothing that exists has an "inherent nature" independent of other forms of existence.

One way to understand this is to think of a balloon. Before you blow it up, it is a piece of flexible material that can be stretched this way and that. Put some air in it and it becomes much larger, but it seems lighter; it almost seems to float as you bounce it around in the air. If you fill it with helium and do not tether it, it will indeed float away. Now prick the balloon with a sharp object and a loud sound will occur, while instantly the balloon takes on yet another form — usually multiple small, flat pieces that are similar in texture and flexibility to the first form, but with a different shape.

The "form" of the balloon was not a permanent, unchanging "form." In a matter of seconds, its form was changed several times. Placing "emptiness" into the balloon caused it to change "form," and removing the "emptiness" resulted in a different "form." The "emptiness" was not void of substance; it was composed of a substance that is not visible to the human eye.

Mountains are far more permanent than balloons and far more solid, but if you take a tiny piece of rock from a mountain and place it under a super high level of magnification, you will see that there is a lot of "empty" space inside it. Everything that exists is "empty" in this sense, and everything that exists also has "form." Within every form is emptiness, and within all emptiness, form.

If "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," as the Heart Sutra said, then, as the great 2nd- century scholar Nagarjuna argued, the categories of existence and non-existence are not meaningful. Furthermore, any boundary or differentiation between nirvana and samsara must be illusory. There is nothing to escape from, and no place to go.

These developments shifted the focus of Buddhism away from escape from the endless time that is samsara, but neither the Heart Sutra nor Nagarjuna produced a concept of sacred time. The Garland Sutras, written over the course of the next several centuries, developed the emptiness argument further by stating that if nothing exists independently of anything else, then all things must be interrelated. Everything that exists must be connected to everything else, in one unified whole. Everything is one.

Because everything is one, these sutras argued, enlightenment is accessible through immediate experience; but the imagery of the Garland Sutras, in describing the experience of this whole, was still of an "other" realm outside of ordinary experience: the Dharma Realm. It was not until Chinese Chan (in Japanese, Zen) Buddhism that the argument that enlightenment exists in the here and now was fully developed. According to Chan, nirvana is within ordinary existence. In a sense, then, all time is sacred time, because to fully experience the present moment is to experience enlightenment.

The journey of Buddhism from the concept of escape from time — from the endless cycle of death and rebirth — to the concept of enlightenment in the present moment was long and complex, and took place over hundreds of centuries of Buddhist thought and practice. In this process, sacred time was transformed from something that was beyond any experience to a characteristic of everyday life, at least for those who are able to experience the true nature of reality.

Study Questions:
1.     How does understanding emptiness help one escape samsara?
2.     Why is it significant that rebirth is not just a human phenomenon?
3.     Does “sacred time” exist within Buddhism? If so, how can one experience it?