Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “past (atita), future (anagata), present (pratyutpanna)” 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.

Appendix 5 - The three times: Past (atīta), Future (anāgata), Present (pratyutpanna)

Note: This appendix is extracted from Chapter XLI part 1.2 (detailed commentary on the list of the eighteen special attributes):

“(16–18. The Buddha penetrates the past, the future and the present) ...The Buddha knows the past (atīta), the future (anāgata) and the present (pratyutpanna) by means of his knowledge, and his penetration is without obstacle (apratihata). His threefold knowledge bears upon the three times and his penetration is without obstacles because his three actions accompany knowledge”.

The author of the Traité finds himself in a difficult position in regard to the problem of the three times, and he must use all his subtlety to get out of it with honor.

On the one hand, he has adopted the Mahāyāna list of the eighteen āveṇikadharmas. But in this list, numbers 16–18 say that the Buddha knows and penetrates unobstructedly the past, present and future. If he knows them, it is because they exist. Thus the author is forced to accept the existence of the three times.

On the other hand, the author is a Mādhyamikan for whom time does not exist either as an immutable entity or in dependence on causes. Thus the author is forced to deny the existence of the three times.

Here is how the author will proceed:

1) Well before his period, the problem of time had been discussed by the great Hīnayāna schools and a controversy had opposed the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas to the Sautrāntlkas, a debate fully set forth in the Vibhāṣā, the Abhidharmakośa and the Nyāyānusāra, wisely translated and commented on by L. de La Vallée Poussin in his translation of the Kośa, V, p. 50–65 and in his article entitled Documents d’Abhidharma, MCB, V, 1936–37, p. 7–158.

The Sarvāstivādins affirmed the existence of the dharmas of the three times

“because the Bhagavat said so, because the mental consciousness proceeds from the organ and the object, because it has an object and because the past bears a fruit.”

The Sautrāntikas criticized it

“because if past and future things really existed, the dharmas coming from causes (saṃskṛta) would always exist and would therefore be eternal. Now scripture and logic proclaim them to be impermanent.”

Brought at this point to intervene in the debate, the author of the Traité comes out on the side of the Sarvāstivādins and recognizes the existence of the three times. The result is that the list of the Mahāyāna āveṇikadharmas can legitimately claim that the Buddha knows the past, the future and the present.

2) By means of s second procedure and by referring particularly to the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, the Traité claims that all dharmas, no matter to which category they belong, “have but a single nature, namely, the absence of absence.” Therefore it is absurd to attribute temporal characteristics to them.

By denying now that which it previously asserted, the Traité is not contradicting itself in any way. When it recognizes temporal or other characteristics in dharmas, it is out of regard for the beings who are to be converted by certain considerations of temporal order. By refusing any characteristic to dharmas, it is referring simply to the universal and ungraspable emptiness (anupalambhaśūnyatā). In the first case and with the example of the Buddha, it is using skillful means (upāya); in the second case, it is restricted to wisdom (prajñā).