Lately, I’ve been thinking about time. Time in the cliché sense of that which “does not stop for anyone.” Historical time. Real time. Blinks and breathes and heart-beats. The wax and wane of moons, the expansion of universes, the radiant pulses of quasars. That basic conceptual structure that flows as the space-time continuum… The ticks and nanoticks that sequentially measure the magnitude and momentum of our lives.
More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen thought about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived.
Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra, and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I’d like to suggest that Dolpopa’s understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.
What makes this especially interesting is that time is what the Kālachakra is all about. The word Kālachakra actually means “Wheel of Time,” and its title is referring to the esoteric meaning that the tantra conveys. In elaborating on this meaning, the 19th century Jonang Kālachakra master Bamda Gelek quotes the Vimalaprabhā commentary,
- This is how the meaning of the Kālachakra [Tibetan: dus kyi ‘khor lo] is explained:
‘Time’ (dus) refers to that which is free from the infinitude of defilement, the wisdom of immutable bliss that realizes the very actuality of all phenomena.
‘Wheel’ (‘khor lo) refers to that which goes completely beyond the limits of the cycle of what can be known within the three worlds. This is wisdom endowed with the very identity of every facet of what can be known without exception, and is referred to as ’emptiness.’ This is the expression of emptiness: the vajra-dimension. In this way, the enlightened dimension is endowed with every facet of the cycle of what can be known.
Time exists due to the wisdom of great immutable bliss: the wisdom-dimension.
So, that which is associated with what is known as ‘time’ indicates the single identity of the nature of this twofold enlightened dimension [vajra and wisdom]. Likewise, this is the identity of the indivisibility of bliss and emptiness.
That’s why it is called, ‘Wheel of Time.'
With this definition in mind, I’ll use upcoming posts to explore the architecture of cosmic time as described within the Kālachakra, and to discuss how the concept of time found within the tantra was further elaborated by Dolpopa.
1. Since this is a topic of considerable complexity and depth, I’ll be dedicating a series of short posts to this discussion on time with the hope that it will develop into further conversations on related themes. For further discussion, see also Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory, 106-119. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2000.
2. ‘Ba’ mda’ dge legs rgya mtsho. Dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i rdzogs rim sbyor ba yan lag drug gi spyi don legs par bshad pa rdo rje bdud rtsi’i chu gter, 14, 1-550. In ‘Ba’ mda’ bla ma’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang.
3. The term being translated here as “expression of emptiness” is śūnyatā-biṃba (Tibetan: stong pa nyid kyi gzugs brnyan or stong gzugs). This is a key term in the Kālachakra. It has also been translated as “empty form” and “empty image.” The actual term that is often condensed in Tibetan is “gzugs brnyan,” meaning reflection, expression, or manifestation. It is referring to an experience of emptiness that is visceral and somatic, not simply visible or tangible.
4. Here it reads, “khyod la dus kyi ‘khor lo’i don bshad du yod de / dus ni dri ma mtha’ dag dang bral zhing chos thams cad kyi de kho na nyid rtogs pa’i ‘gyur med bde ba’i ye shes yin zhing / ‘khor lo ni khams gsum gyi shes bya’i ‘khor lo mtha’ yas pa’i rnam par ‘gro ba ste shes bya’i rnam pa ma lus pa’i bdag nyid can gyi shes rab stong pa nyid ces bya ba stong gzugs rdo rje’i sku de yin la / de ‘dre’i shes bya’i ‘khor lo’i rnam pa kun dang ldan pa’i sku de ni dus mi ‘gyur ba’i bde ba chen po’i ye shes las grub pa’i ye shes sku yin pas de dang sku gnyis ngo bo bdag gcig pa’i ‘brel ba ston pa la dus kyi zhes drug sgra sbyar ba yin pa gang zhig / de ‘dra’i bde stong dbyer med pa’i bdag nyid yin pas khyod la dus kyi ‘khor lo zhes brjod pa’i phyir / ‘grel chen las.“