Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 941,039 words

This page describes “explanation of the word ‘samaye’” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Part 5 - Explanation of the word ‘samaye’

Let us now speak about Samaye.

Question. – In India, there are two words to designate time, Kia lo (kāla) and San mo ye (samaya). Why does the Buddha say samaya and not kāla?

Answer. – If he said kāla, there would be uncertainty.

Question. – For ease of elocution, he ought to have said ‘kāla’, because ‘kāla’ has only two syllables whereas ‘samaya’ has three and is harder to pronounce.

Answer. – 1. It is in order to avoid wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi) that he said samaya and not kāla. Indeed, some say that all beings in heaven and earth have kāla as cause.[1] Thus some stanzas in the Che king (Kālasūtra) say:

Time passes and beings ripen,
Time passes and beings grow,
Time can understand men,
That is why time is cause.[2]

The universe is like the wheel of a chariot,
Time revolves like the turning wheel,
Man also is like the chariot wheel:
Sometimes above, sometimes below.

2. Furthermore, some say: “Even if all beings in heaven and on earth and all substances (dravya) are not created by time, nevertheless time is immutable (avyaya). That is why it truly exists. But as the dharma ‘time’ is subtle (sūkṣma), it is invisible (adṛṣya) and unknowable (ajñeya). It is by its effects, flowers (puṣpa), fruits (phala), etc., that its existence may be known and its characteristics (lakṣaṇa) may be seen, such as the past year or present year, long ago or recently, slowly or quickly. Although time is not seen, it is possible to know its existence; for it is by seeing the effect (phala) that one knows the existence of the cause (hetu). That is why a dharma ‘time’ exists, and as this dharma ‘time’ is immutable (avyaya), it is eternal (nitya).”

Answer. – Present time (pratyutpanna) is like a ball of clay (mṛnpiṇḍa), past time (atīta) like the dust of the earth (pṛthivīrajas) and future time (anāgata) like the vase (ghata). Since time is eternal (nitya), the past does not make the future, for according to your texts, time is a single substance (ekadravya). This is why the past does not make the future or the present, for they are confused with the past. In the past there is no future. That is why there is no future or present.[3]

Question. – You accept that that the past [is comparable] to the dust of the earth. If there is a past, there must necessarily be a future. That is why the dharma ‘time’ must exist necessarily.

Answer. – You have not understood what I have just said. The future is the vase; the past is the dust of the earth. The future does not make the past, because by [65c] falling into the characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of the future, it becomes future and then why would it be called past? That is why the past does not exist.

Question. – Why should time not exist? There must necessarily be a time. The present (pratyutpanna) has the characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of the present, the past (atīta) has the characteristics of the past, and the future (anāgata) has the characteristics of the future.

Answer. – If the three times each had their own characteristics (svalakṣaṇa), they would always be ‘present’ and there would be neither past nor future. If the future existed presently, it would not be called ‘future’ but indeed ‘present’. That is why your thesis (vāda) does not hold.

Question. – The past and the future do not function with the nature of the present; the past functions with the nature of the past and the future with the nature of the future. That is why there is a [different] time for each nature separately (ekaika dharmalakṣaṇa).

Answer. – If the past has ‘passed’, it loses the nature of the past; if the past has not ‘passed’, it does not have the nature of the past. Why? Because its self-nature (svalakṣaṇa) is absent. It is the same for the future. That is why the dharma ‘time’ is not real. How could it produce the beings of heaven and earth, flowers (puṣpa), fruits (phala) and other substances (dravya)? [The Buddhist texts] do not speak about kāla but about samaya in order to dispel wrong views of this kind. We speak metaphorically (prajñapti) about time with regard to birth (utpāda), the elements (dhātu) and bases of consciousness (āyatana), but there is no distinct time [existing as a separate substance]. Expressions such as ‘region’ (deśa), ‘time’ (kāla), ‘separation’ (viyoga), ‘union’ (saṃyoga), ‘singleness’ (ekatva), ‘multiplicity’ (nānātva), ‘length’ (dīrghatva), ‘smallness’ (hrasvatva), etc., come from convention (nāmasaṃketa). Fools (bāla) cling (abhiniviśante) to them and say that these are [66a] real dharmas (sadbhūta). That is why mundane conventional dharmas of purely nominal existence must be excluded.

Question. – If time does not exist, why is it permissible ‘to eat at the proper time’ (kālabhojana) and forbidden ‘to eat at the wrong time’ (akālabhojana)?[4] Those are common disciplines (śīla)!

Answer. – I have already spoken above about these worldly (laukika) and conventional (saṃketika) dharmas: there is a time, but it is not a real dharma. You cannot object to that. Besides, the disciplines imposed by the Vinaya are true for the world without having the nature of an absolute, real dharma (paramasatyadharmalakṣaṇa), for the ātman and the dharmas do not really exist (nopalobhyante). But in order to moderate the impatience of the community (saṃgha), in order to protect the Buddhist doctrine and ensure its longevity (cirasthiti), in order to regulate the disciples’ rituals, the Bhagavats of the triple world have set up prohibitions (śīla) the subject of which one should not question whether it is true (satya, bhūta) or conventional (nāmasaṃketa), what is associated (saṃyukta) or dissociated (viprayukta), what is a dharma with such and such a characteristic (lakṣaṇa) or without that characteristic. That is why no objection can be made there.

Question. – When it is a question of ‘food at the improper time’ (akālabhojana), or ‘medicine at the proper time’ (kālabhaiṣajya) or ‘robes at the proper time’ (kālavastra), the word ‘kāla’ is always used. Why not say ‘samaya’?

Answer. – Lay people (avadātavasana) do not understand the expression in the Vinaya; how then could the heretics (tīrthika) understand it? They would take up wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi). Everybody understands the expression ‘samaya’ in the other texts. Therefore by saying ‘samaya’, they are prevented from producing wrong views. ‘Samaya’ is a contrived word, ‘kāla’ likewise is a metaphorical expression (prajñapti). Besides, in the Buddhist texts, the word ‘samaya’ is often used and rarely the word ‘kāla’.[5] Since its use is rare, no objection can be made.

The meaning of the five words Evaṃ mayā śrutaṃ ekasmin samaye has thus been explained in brief (samāsataḥ).

Footnotes and references:


These are the Kālavādins, cf. Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya, p. 10–11.


Interesting variation of a well-known stanza (Böhtlingk, Ind. Sprüche, no. 1688; Madh. vṛtti, p. 386; Ṣaḍdarśana, p. 11): kālaḥ pacati bhūtāni… kālo hi duratikramaḥ.


On the controversy of time in scholastic Buddhism, see bibliography and documents gathered by L. de La Vallée Poussin, Documents d’Abhidharma, MCB, V, 1936–37, p. 1–158; S. Schayer, Contributions to the problem of Time in Indian Philosophy, Cracow, 1938. – In the discussion that follows, the Mppś presents some points of contact with the kālaparīkṣā of the Madhyamakaśāstra of Nāgārjuna (Madh. vṛtti, p. 382–389).


For the restriction of eating at the wrong time (akāla-, vikālabhojana), i.e., after noon, see Saṃyutta,V, p. 470; Majjhima, I, p. 180, 268, 448; Aṅguttara, I, p. 212; II, p. 209; III, p. 216, 260, etc.


In his commentaries on the Nikāyas (Sumaṅgala, I, p. 31; Papañca, I, p. 8; Sārattha, I, p. 9–10; Manoratha, I, p. 11), Buddhaghosa illustrates the use of samaya by many citations from the canonical texts, e.g., Dīgha, I, p. 205; II, p. 254; Majjhima, I, p. 438; II, p. 22; Saṃyutta, I, p. 187; IV, p. 205; Aṅguttara, I, p. 134; III, p. 246; Vinaya, IV, p. 117.

NOTE: The Pāli and Sanskrit quotations have been abbreviated, only the beginning and ending phrases being cited.

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