(Note: partial notes)


I’ve been trying to get more into Eastern/Western Philosophy comparisons lately, and I’ve subscribed to an interesting journal out of the University of Hawaii called Philosophy East and West.

This is however somewhat of a challenge.

This spirit of comparative philosophy seems to be more popular for so-called “Continental Philosophy” rather than “Analytic Philosophy”, which makes the style and occassional references to German words somewhat unfamiliar to me. I’m more familiar with the Western Analytic tradition, so this is a challenge trying to access something that falls into a different tradition, in more ways than one. Western and Eastern, Analytic and Continental, and yet I’m convinced we all can learn something about everything. (apparently Rorty tried to bridge some of these differences, but anyhow I guess I’ll have to look into that later)

This comparative piece from Man Li and Bart Dessein (both from Belgium’s Ghent University) is an interesting look at Eastern and Western conceptions of time as viewed by two contemporaries:

-Aurelius Augustinus (354-430), better known as Saint Augustine.
-Sengzhao (僧肇) (384–414), referred to in the text as Seng Zhao


The scope of this article is to examine the conception of time in Augustine’s Confessions and contemporary Buddhist Sengzhao’s conception in Zhao Lun (The Treatises of [Seng]zhao).

The question “what is time?” is a part of every philosophical tradition, and it is a question that concerns all people, from the layman to the scholar. The question brings our mortality into question, as we ask ourselves “do our lives pass through some objective time, or is time some subjective thing that is somehow part of our bodies?”

For the authors of this article, the answer to this objective/subjective question also leads to bigger questions about whether humans are creators and controllers of their own lives, or rather if they are constrained by time, some outside objective thing which they cannot themselves control.

Augustine’s Conception of Time

The backdrop of Augustine’s philosophy is Greek philosophy, which had viewed the mythological cosmos as an eternal cycle, and consequently a view of time as a cyclical process. Herodotos, Thukydides (Thucydides), and even Plato were responsible for shifting focus from this cyclical mythological view of time to a more human view.

Human life, and human history, is inevitably interlaced with time. And since the (cyclical) divine withdrew from (temporal) human life, humans now have the creative freedom to create meaning for themselves and society, in a sort of existentialist way. For these thinkers, to understand it’s crucial to understand temporal human life constrasted with the permanent cosmos, and that human life (and “human time”) is somewhat unique in the way it breaks free of the eternal cycle.

With Augustine, Christianity’s introduction into this sort of world necessarily has an effect and changes the way these things are perceived, including our conception of time.

For Augustine, there are two senses time: an objective and subjective time.

Augustine’s Objective Time

An old Manichean question helps us understand here: “What was God doing before He created heaven and earth?”. The answer is that this question is essentially nonsensical, because time is also a created thing, like heaven and earth. Time was created simulatanously with all other created things. Essentially, there was no “before” or “after” without the existence of other created things.

There are a few key relationships here in this objective sense of time. In regards to God and time, God is independent of time. In regards to Heaven/Earth and their relationship to time, they are all created things, and in a sense are all equally infinite. Regarding created things and time, this is a question of time and all finite things - that is, all that is non-God, non-Heaven, and non-Earth. All these things are subject to time, including Heaven and Earth.

Augustine’s Subjective Time

In Augustine’s subjective definition, time is an extension of the mind - that is to say, when we measure time we are measuring our impression of time. There is no way for us to get ahold of the objective essence of time. That is to say, time in itself. “Either this impression is time, otherwise I do not measure time”.

(my note: there’s a much larger related discussion behind this, of phenomenology)

We have an idea of past, present, and future, but really we are speaking of our “present impression” of all three. When we speak of the past, we do not have direct access to it, only to a present impression of the past. Likewise when we speak of the future: what we’re really grasping at is our present impression of the future. Past, present, and future, all three concepts are present impressions in the mind.

Sengzhao’s Conception of Time

Sengzhao’s philosophy of time is influenced by Buddhist philosophy of his day, which viewed time as a mechanical process, not influenced by the divine as in Augustine’s conception.

In this karmic mechanical time model, time is the infinite cycle of rebirths (samsara), a process of exchanging one life for another.

According to the Vaibhāṣika school, all three time periods must exist, for if they didn’t then there would be no karmic chain, or chain of causality of past influencing present, and present influencing the future.

In this view there is also somewhat of a subjective notion of time, in the sense that an individual has their own alottment of time. This time can be controlled if the individual can stop the karmic process, and in a sense “stop time”.

Voidness and “Time”

The Madhyamaka school’s (Mahayana Buddhism) criticism of the Vaibhāṣika school is that the following premises cannot be held simulateneously:

  1. A human being is composed of five constituents
  2. A human being has no self-nature

The flow of reasoning here becomes tricky.

For Madhyamikas, the nature of the contituents (dharma) must be the same as the nature of things formed by them (since like comes from like). If there is a self-nature, the constituents must also have the same self-nature, but they cannot. Therefore they are as void (sunya) as the things formed by them are. But time cannot be “in” things that are void, so time must not be “in” things.

If time is not a part of things, then we have two possibilities left:

  1. Either time exists independently of things
  2. Things pass through an independently-existing time

This is where Seng Zhao comes into play.

In Zhao’s texts, there is no direct discussion of the word that translates as “time”, but he does present dual concepts:

-past and present
-going and coming
-shifting and abiding
-motion and quietude (the key pair, as they are the most used in the texts)

According to Zhao, there are two ways of perceiving time (or the moving of things):

  1. The ordinary way, a sort of conventional truth
  2. The superior way, in the domain of absolute truth

According to the ordinary way of thinking about things, if there is no motion then there is quietude (these are the pairs of concepts mentioned above). But according to Zhao, motion and quietude have never been different - one is not the absence of another, for it’s possible to have quietude even despite motion.

There’s a key thought behind this into the nature of things. Zhao’s thought is that quietude cannot be the result of abandoning motion, because this would mean the fundamental nature of the thing changed. Things must fundamentally remain the same, or else they would be different. That is to say, something in motion should also have a nature of quietude, even while in motion.

There is therefore a co-existence of motion (dong) and quietude (jing).

These concepts of dong and jing turn out to be roughly analogous to past (xi) and present (jin).