How could it be that the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred simultaneously with all beings? Didn’t this event happen a long time ago? And if it already happened, where is it now? Doesn’t “all beings” include us? 

In Buddhist literature, there appear many references to a kind of timelessness in things, relationships, and events. Nagarjuna, in a classic example, shows us we can have no coherent conception of time as an entity, that time can only be experienced as a set of interdependent relationships. Zen Master Dogen draws this same insight to our attention in his essay “Being Time.” Seng-ts’an, the third patriarch of Zen in China, ends his “Inscriptions on Trusting the Heartmind” by telling us that “words fail, for the Way is neither yesterday, today, nor tomorrow.” And in his “The Identity of Relative and Absolute,” Chinese Zen Master Shih-t’ou starts off by saying that the “mind of the great sage of India [Buddha] is intimately conveyed East and West.” Such an event must necessarily occur outside of time.

Nevertheless, we commonly look at the world, and our experience of the world, in a linear fashion—as if things were strung out in a line, from past to present to future. Something that occurs now creates an effect later on. This, we think, is how things are and must be.

Which of these viewpoints is more in keeping with what science now offers us? And which one more accurately reflects how the world actually is?

Some physicists have recently taken a renewed interest in a peculiar way of conceptualizing time and space that has been around since the 1940s. One model of this view reduces the three dimensions of space to just two dimensions, while projecting time as the third dimension. According to this scheme, all of what we call “now”—that is, the arrangement of all things and events—is viewed as existing in a single plane. Of course, this plane, being the present moment, doesn’t stay put. Rather, it seems to rise upward through the third dimension, much like the floor of an elevator—except that in this case it ascends through time instead of through space. Within this conceptual model, the past is everything that has passed beneath the floor in any given moment; the future—what’s yet to come—is met when the floor rises up to greet it.

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