I read a couple of books on time, yet they all seemed somewhat incomplete, as if it was something simply tagged onto the rebirth / enlightenment doctrine.

How important is time in Buddhism, not simple "impermanence" but how impermanence is housed. Or is there nothing to time beyond impermanence?

I saw on philosophy stackexchange, something about this, but I'm getting quite a bad reputation there... Do "people" experience time? Is an experience of time actual time?

Because I think that if so, that's where the biases and make believe of comtemporary science, collapses !!

Thank you so much :)

  • 1
    This is 3 questions with a question mark, implied that people are "people", science is biased and make believe and you're not using the word time in the colloquial sense. Maybe you could narrow your question and define your use of the word time? Also Buddhism isn't physics, it's not about working out time and space, it is interested in experience, e.g. should we focus our attention on the present vs the non-present. I think the Buddha could care less about what time really was (the 4th dimension?) Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 2:31
  • ok i think you read a lot into my question that wasn't there e.g. "buddhism isn't physics" but thanks for commenting
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 2:53
  • 1
    You might be interested in this answer. Though apparently about Karma, it is heavily involved with ideas about the perception of time and the nature and longevity of the perceiver. buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/5288/…
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 16:37

2 Answers 2


There are two Pali words that seem relevant to this question:

  • Kalika meaning "related to time"
  • Akalika meaning "not related to time"

There's a definition of the words here in this 'glossology': Akalika -- Timelessness, A synonym for Arahantship, An attribute of the Dhamma

It suggests two meanings for kalika:

  • Two events can be said to kalika when they are successive, and do not happen at the same time: for example, the in-breath and the out-breath
  • Also (etymologically) the track of scat left by an animal (one week old, two days old, one day old, etc.)

There's some question about what akalika means (because akalika is supposed to be an attribute of Dharma).

Some suggest it means timeless:

This practice is said to be akaliko — timeless. The Buddha's teachings are timeless.

Later in the same paragraph he clarifies that by "timeless" he means "always" (i.e. continuously and not just continually):

The fact that there are no developments in our practice is because we have times. The Buddha says, "timeless." We say there are times. Our times are more than many. Time for this, time for that, times for walking, times for sitting, times for sleeping, times for eating, times for talking — there are lots of them. Our life turns into nothing but times. So now let's try practicing in a way that it becomes timeless. The truth will then appear in our minds — each and every one of us.

A different suggestion is that akalika might mean "true in all three times (past, present and future)".

A final suggestion is that it means "immediately"; or even better, that it means "without delay".

  • hi ChrisW, i wondered if you felt that everything in time is kalika, that akalika is not conditioned? for me this would v important, implying that the conditioned has no absolute end - no end that exists independent of its cognition.
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 21:42

The reason that you don't see a lot of dialogue about time is that it is a difficult subject to get right at the best of times, and not really necessary to liberation. It might be considered nothing more than a cosmological inquiry, something to be avoided in favor of practice. However...

All that which is compounded, conditioned, dependently arisen and empty is impermanent, temporary, an apparition, ephemeral, gone already, in fact never here at all. Time is empty, it is conditioned, compounded, ultimately unreal. It cannot be truly grasped. Nagarjuna tackles time in chapter 19 of his Mulamadyamakakarika, aka the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.

He begins with a demonstration that it is absurd to postulate the true existence of an actual past, present and future, asserting that these things exist in name only, as concepts only. The arguments he makes here are complicated, rely on previous chapters of his book, and concern causality, interdependence and the nature of how things arise, and the full argument is beyond the scope of a comment thread. Essentially, however, an existence with a true past, future, and present moment that actually exist is seen as a mere concept, and is therefore unreal. Common sense time is unreal. This realized wisdom has the effect of releasing us from the anxiety of the pressing urgency of time.

Since time as past, present, and future is ultimately unreal, we move on to time as a fleeting flow vs time as something that can exist in "a singular moment" of time. This is also demonstrated to be lacking of true existence. Continuously fleeting time cannot be grasped, and if a moment of time is singled out, it ceases to "be" time. Time is ungraspable. This realized wisdom has the effect of releasing us from grasping and clinging at time.

Finally, he argues against a self-existing time, showing time as being compounded. In his study on the Mulamadyamakakarika Jay Garfield concludes that

Nagarjuna points out that with no entities to be temporally related, there is no time. That is, the only mode of existence that time has is as a set of relations among empirical phenomena. Apart from those phenomena and those relations, there is no time. But that means that, given the lack of inherent existence of phenomena, there can be no inherent existence of time. Time is thus merely a dependent set of relations, not an entity in its own right, and certainly not the inherently existent vessel of existence it might appear to be.

Emphasis added was mine, as it pertains directly to your question. The effect of this realized wisdom is to release us from the erroneous notion of an absolute, true existence of time, this eases grasping at true existence. It shows us that time is relational, is tied to space and objects, and that since no true objects have absolute existence, neither does time. It is just another phenomena in flux.

A study of this chapter can be found here, with an emphasis that what Nagarjuna denies is absolute time, or an independently existing time.

Nagarjuna, a founder of Middle Way, Mahayana philosophy, shows us that the only way to consider time is as empty, relative time that is dependent on other phenomena to exist at all, and, like all other phenomena, is always in flux. It conventionally is a co-dependently arisen phenomena, and therefore ultimately is unreal, that is to say cannot be truly found when looked for. This is how time is actually experienced. Unreal, ungraspable, empty.

Finally, impermanence is not, in any way, a thing that is housed. It is a characteristic of all phenomena. To say that it is housed is erroneous, the apparent objects that are marked by impermanence are not even seen as having self-existence, so no true object at the end of the day outside of the concept of one. So there is, ultimately, no object to hold the characteristic, only the perception of non-permanence.

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    Time is relative, has no absolute existence and is dependent on space and objects, is precisely what is described in Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which was experimentally proven in 1919.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 9:27
  • M'm, quantum Buddha!!
    – Joshp.23
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 14:54
  • a pretty good answer. i was more interested in philosophy than what can be "truly found when looked for" but i'm sure it'll be useful for someone :)
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 21:43
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    Not sure what you're looking for, this is pretty much the extent ot the philosophical exploration of time in BUddhist thought, AFAIK. Buddhism does not concern itself with mere mental meanderings, it looks to realty to discover the true nature of a thing, in this case time.
    – Joshp.23
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 21:46
  • @ruben2020 that's misleading, even incorrect. General relativity shows how time, space and fields are related, inseparable even. But it doesn't say anything about the absolute existence of time. It perhaps says there's no preferred reference frame, and that the time I measure is not absolute, but it doesn't say the same about all measures of time. This would actually align more with the dharma since not time would be just as conceptual as time
    – joel
    Commented May 18 at 2:04

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