The Sense of Time Conveyed in the Abhidharma
Time perception has a range of capacity, just like most sense perceptions.
We can only hear certain frequencies or see certain light-waves, but we know from watching our dogs that they smell more than us, and my cat is clearly responding to sounds I don’t hear. Due to some combination of culture and meditative training, the early Buddhists clearly worked on a broader time spectrum than most people do today. They were able to describe and utilize increments of time that we can’t usually imagine on our own.
Because the early Buddhists could see psychological processes with such finesse, they could see time processes microscopically and astronomically compared to us.
Our scale of psychological and time perception is conveyed in our language. We describe thoughts and feelings and moods that are usually on the scale of minutes. We can take this down by 60 to a second and up by 60 to an hour pretty easily. We tend to arrange time in rectangles of an hour or so; we can scan years or decades as we age.
The early Buddhists described 17 steps of perception that occur in about a third of a second with a great deal of neuropsychological accuracy. They also described consciousness processes that occur over vast eons, and they could find a way to convey broader sweeps of time than most people could perceive. This broad range of time possibilities enriches the perspective we have on our own lives. We can see in a microscope and a telescope all at once. We can feel the complexity of one moment like an elaborate kaleidoscope, and then we can feel our life spans to be like shooting stars. This dizzying breadth is oddly stabilizing for perspective.
On the micro scale, the Abhidharma works extensively with a minute unit of consciousness called “citta.” It is the rawest plainest meeting of consciousness with an object in a field, plain knowing action. It is a background sense of connection that occurs before any processing at all. Citta is the initial and most basic touch of consciousness on an object, like a ray of light touching a leaf.
Citta is experienced as a sense of continuity of process, a general coherence in the world that we don’t notice because it is arising at every instant. Cittas occur one at a time and each has its own and only one object.
Citta is like the atom of consciousness. It is the smallest unit that retains ele- mental properties. Like an atom, it is the building block of diverse experience, but is itself always active and unknowable. Also like an atom, it is understood in terms of positive and negative charges and activities, and it is always found in distinct but infinite combinations. Citta is the moment of barest attention.
Citta is not thought, awareness, attention, mindfulness, or concentration. These are all mental factors or structures or qualities of citta. But citta composes one of the four ultimate realities described in the Abhidharam because it is so basic to all of these possibilities. If you compare Abhidharma lists of perceptual activity to neuropsychological activity, a citta occurs in about 1/60 of a second.
This little unit of consciousness, like the atom as a unit of matter, is both theoretical or conceptual, and also necessary practically and functionally. Understanding citta as a unit helps us comprehend and manipulate consciousness like understanding biochemistry helps medical professionals work with bodies. An orthopedic surgeon adjusting bones to attach a metal plate does not need to be actively thinking about ionic exchanges of charged particles causing neurons to fire, but she learned about it at some point. She is working on a body she understands on many scales.
What can we do to experience this micro scale of consciousness’ actions? Each citta has an object, so try truly holding two objects at once and you might feel the quick flip. Think of a fact, something you ate today or who lives closest to you or the last animal you saw. Now look hard at a color. Try to do both.
We can maybe catch this flippy back and forth feeling like a shimmer. The authors of the Abhidharma watched it like a slow motion camera switch montage. That’s how they understood the 17 steps of perception. That’s also how they worked with purifying consciousness. They observed the microscopic flow of it and didn’t muddy it with adding to reality; adding associations that loop us backwards or evaluations that hinder clear response. The micro view allows early intervention in consciousness processes. Understanding citta was not just descriptive precision; it was put to use and work.
On a macro scale, the Abhidharma describes consciousness events occurring on huge scales of interlocking lifetimes and eons. There are lists with a far bigger sense of time than we can typically imagine. They are summarized in a chart of thirty-one Realms of Existence, which elaborates on the 6 realms in the Wheel of Life and Death.
There are 11 realms in the sense-sphere plane (where beings experience all five senses in material forms), from plain hell on the bottom (except that there are 168 types of hell), through realms of animals, hungry ghosts (peta), titans (asura), humans and 6 kinds of minor gods, with descriptions that are reminiscent of Western fairy tales. The regular human realm that we all inhabit is only number five on the list of 31.
In the fine-material plane, there are 16 realm levels that are defined according to jhanas, or accomplishments of meditative absorption. In this realm, beings start with meditation objects that are actual material objects and then move past those meditation objects to immaterial objects. Within the fine-material realms are special non-returner planes, holding advanced beings who are one step away from total cessation of life and death cycles. These realms are the five abodes of wonderful qualities, in ascending order: durable, serene, beautiful, clear-sighted, and highest.
The sense of time running through the chart of the thirty-one Realms of Existence is both very specific and mind-boggling in its immensity. Each realm specifies a particular life span for its beings. In the ancient Buddhist philosophy, it was believed that the average life span of a human changes very gradually, from ten to many thousands of years. We might not be able to observe enough history to see such an expanse of slow change, but we do see enough to realize that the life span has increased. ‘Prehistoric’ humans were expected to live only 20 – 35 years; in the 1900s, Americans’ life expectancies were 48 years; now it’s close to 80 years (Encyclopaedia of Population). There are many discussions about why this has happened, and the difference between average and expectable life spans, but the Abhidharma doesn’t go into those issues. It just specifies that the average life span changes very gradually.
The Abhidharma uses the term interim aeon to describe the time frame in which the average human life span goes from ten years to many thousand and then decreases back to an average of ten years. Twenty of these interim aeons equal one incalculable aeon, and four of those equal one mahakalpa, or “great aeon.” Another way to describe the great aeon is found in the sutras. Buddha described a great aeon as longer than the time it would take for a person to wear away a mountain of solid granite about seven miles high and wide by stroking it once every hundred years with a silk cloth. As incredible as this may seem, certain immaterial beings in the highest of the thirty-one realms of existence, who exist beyond perception and nonperception, exist for 84,000 great aeons. The mountain has to wear down to a grain of sand 84,000 times.
These descriptions take the concretely oriented, sensory human mind on a wild ride. What color is the cloth that is being swiped at the granite mountain? We can imagine this crazy gesture and get a bodily sense that opens the guts of our time imagination. Just think, you’re standing there, you couldn’t even see the edges of the mountain, you wait for decades, maybe pass the cloth on to someone, here, swipe in just 14 more years…
I’ve heard a lot lately about how there are genetic markers for holding ancestral memories and how we physically bear memories of historical traumas prior to our lives. I think this is an expression of something similar to the Abhidharma concept of consciousness elements persisting across lifespans. Take a minute and think through the trauma history of your people. We all know enough history to know that trauma arises and falls away on historical and personal scales. Think of something very personal or immediate that happens to you that relates to the trauma history of your own people. I think this is a way to stretch our capacity for observation of psychological scale in the opposite direction of the citta exercise. This is a macro view of emotional process.
We tend to treat time as a commodity, but experiencing time on different scales opens possibilities for experience, and can actually make time feel less pressured. When we travel somewhere with a favorable currency exchange rate, we feel like we have so much more money. If we appreciate both time’s tiny events and its vast reach, sometimes a day feels full and complete in a new way. Sometimes absorption takes us out of time’s bind. Sometimes pain magnifies its measurements. The early Buddhists could manipulate the subjective aspect of time.
In the Abhidharma, time is not measured just by individual bodies and their processes. We see time measured by the development of consciousness processes through many, many lifetimes and eras. The contribution of our life is to that stream. This wider time context frees many constraints of the view from within just one lifetime.