This interview was conducted by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who writes for The New York Times and the author of Emotional Intelligence (Bantam).

Daniel Goleman: What is the Buddhist understanding of Time? How can we relate our sense of the process of time to our experience of the present moment?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In Buddhism, the concept of linear time, of time as a kind of container, is not accepted. Time itself, I think, is something quite weak—it depends on some physical basis, some specific thing. Apart from that thing it is difficult to pinpoint—to see time. Time is understood or conceived only in relation to a phenomenon or a process.

DG: Yet the passage of time seems very concrete—the past, the present, aging. The process of time seems very real.

HH: This business of time is a difficult subject. There are several different explanations and theories about time; there is no one explanation in Buddhism. I feel there is a difference between time and the phenomena on which time is projected. Time can be spoken of only in relation to phenomena susceptible to change, which because they are susceptible to change are transitory and impermanent. “Impermanent” means there is a process. If there is no process of change, then one cannot conceive of time in the first place.

The question is whether it is possible to imagine an independent time which is not related to any particulars, any object that goes through change. In relation to such an object, we can talk about the past of that thing, its present state, and its future; but without relation to such particulars, it is very difficult to conceive of an instant of time totally independent of a particular basis.

DG: Can we connect what you are saying with our own experience? We experience time, we experience growth and aging, we experience that one thing leads to another.

HH: That’s right.

DG: One thing is the cause of another thing. Now how do we explain that process of time in terms of being in the present moment? There are differences in the way each of us experiences time. Sometimes it goes very slowly, sometimes very quickly. Our sense of time seems to change with our state of consciousness. If you’re fully focused—just right here, right now—then the sense of time changes. What is the relationship between the sense of time and one’s own state of consciousness?

HH: Depending on a person’s spiritual maturity or realization, there could be a difference in how one sees the moment. That one could have different experiences of time is demonstrated by an ordinary fact: For instance, if two people attend a party, one person might be so absorbed in the party he would feel that time went [snaps his fingers] just like that! Whereas the other person who did not enjoy it very much might have felt it long, dragging, because he was thinking about when it would finish. So although both of them attended the same party, in terms of time they were different.


DG: Does cultivating attention play a role in this?

HH: It does play a great role. If you have more attentiveness, if you have a fuller sense of presence, then it will make a great deal of difference in how you experience your life.

But then, you find that if you analyze time very precisely, there is no present, in a real sense of the word; only past and future, no present! The sense of present that we have is a conventional notion. Even if you employ a computer or some other instrument to divide time and analyze whether there was a present or not, you would find that there isn’t. “Present” is a relative term. While in experience there seems to be nothing but the present, we actually experience only the illusion of the present.

Things are all the time moving, never fixed. So we can’t find the present. This fact indicates the impermanent, dynamic nature of things, that they never remain fixed or static, they are always in the process of changing from one form to another.

DG: But isn’t it possible to be present in that movement with attention?

HH: Attention—yes! That’s present! And present, you see, makes past and future. Without present, you can’t posit future and past.

DG: You’re saying that if you’re totally present in the moment, the mind is attending not to a “present,” but rather a future becoming a past. Is that right?

HH: Yes! My point is not to deny the existence of the present, but rather the present independent of some object that changes. If we investigate, the present is very difficult to find, but that does not mean the present does not exist. But when you talk about the concept of time, it creates confusion, because it is not based in matter. We could try to talk objectively of time as it is based in matter; anything made of matter goes through a process of change from moment to moment. Within a minute, within seconds, within one hundredth of a second, it is all the time changing. It can be spoken of only in terms of something that is subject to change. There is no independent, linear time as some kind of container.

DG: Is there a relationship between the sense of time and cultivating patience or even forgiveness? Does your sense of time have something to do with that?

HH: There is a connection. If you are able to understand the dynamic process in the changing nature of situations, events, and things, then your tolerance and patience can offset the difficulties.

DG: What I’m struck by in what you’re saying is that one’s perspective, one’s view of things, determines how time is experienced—how one experiences change, life, and the purpose of life—whether life is empty or full. And I suppose that applies to time, too.

HH: Yes, yes, that’s good. But it does also depend on external circumstances, and how the two come together. 

DG: But if you have a view of lifetime after lifetime, of reincarnation and trying to help sentient beings, does that lead you to give more importance or less importance to the present moment? —I know, of course, that we’ve established the present moment doesn’t exist! [Laughter] But the English language hasn’t caught up with your thinking! 

HH: Of course, even if you see only one lifetime, it’s the same as if you see many births, many lives. If there are many unfortunate things in your life, or if you have had a much happier life with many good opportunities, you still want one hundred years of life.

You see, the past is past, and the future is yet to come. That means the future is in your hands—the future entirely depends on the present. That realization gives you a great responsibility.

“The Experience of Change” is excerpted from an interview that first appeared in the Spring 1990 issue ofParabola. 

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