A large part of the appeal of Buddhism for an increasing number of people today is its practicality, as it has a relative lack of extraneous philosophical fluff to sort through. Buddhism focuses on practical truths that we can use and which make immediate sense.
One of the key teachings of the Buddha is that the origin of suffering (dukkha) lies in desire or grasping (tanha, which means literally “thirst”). The Great Discourse on the Wheel of Dharma (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) contains a succinct statement on the second Noble Truth, which is the origin of this teaching:
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — that is, craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
What Lies Beyond Space & Time?
I have read and heard time and again in recent years about a deeper reality that lies “beyond space and time,” often with some tie to modern physics to support this assertion. A Google search brings up many relevant examples. There is of course a similar tendency independent of the Buddhist tradition, with many Christian and scientific thinkers also trying to ascertain truths or hidden realities that are “beyond space and time,” that is, truly permanent, changeless.
This tendency seems to me to be a resurgence of the type of grasping that Buddha warned about in the second Noble Truth; in particular, the third type of craving, for “non-becoming.” That is, by trying to identify, or by placing one’s identity with, a supposed reality beyond space and time we perpetuate the grasping for permanence that Buddha pointed out was harmful for an accurate understanding of reality and for our well-being.
“Non-becoming” is permanence and the quest for permanence is a common form of grasping. But if we take not only Buddhism, but also modern science seriously, we see that all things are impermanent. This means that there is nothing beyond space and time. Some kind of existence beyond what we know of as space — our traditional three dimensions — is entirely conceivable, sure. But if all things are impermanent there is nothing beyond time. To be impermanent means to be in time, to change, to be in constant flux.
The teaching of impermanence (anitya) was one of the three dharma seals that Buddha taught. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, writes of this teaching in his The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings: “The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent — flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent.” If nothing is permanent, nothing is beyond time. All is flux. This key insight has many parallels in the West.
“Process philosophy” is a western school of thought that stretches back to Heraclitus in pre-Socratic Greece. As the name suggests, process philosophy is all about change/process/the passage of time. In Alfred North Whitehead’s version of process philosophy, which he developed into a detailed, profound yet speculative worldview, “events” are the basic units of reality. An event is a happening, a chunk of space and time. The universe is nothing but the collection of events in each moment, constantly fluxing and bending into the next moment as the future becomes the now and the now becomes memory. My book, Eco, Ego, Eros is a good introduction to Whitehead’s thought.
Focusing on the spiritual and ontological implications of this historical philosophical tradition, some modern thinkers have attempted to create a smooth combination of eastern and western ideas that directly matter to our lives — rather than being relegated to the halls of academia and dusty bookshelves. “Evolutionary panentheism” is one name for this relatively new approach, spearheaded by people like Mike Murphy, Ken Wilber, and Andrew Cohen. The name is a bit unwieldy but effectively descriptive, stressing both change (evolutionary) and the view that the universe is within God (panentheism) and not a separate creation.
Andrew Cohen suggests that his approach, an expansion of traditional Vedanta teaching that he received from his master H.W.L. Poonja, is a new teaching that incorporates a broader understanding of the nature of perpetual change. God, the ground of being, or whatever you prefer to call ultimate reality itself, does change. God evolves in a dance with the universe that flows from this ground of being. Cohen stated in an interview with me from 2011: “As touched as I had been by awakening to the unborn Self beyond time and space, I had never been able to accept the assertion that the world was an illusion. Not only did I believe that the world was real but I also came to give much greater value to Spirit’s power to affect change in the world than its power to liberate us from it.”
He adds that “the goal of traditional enlightenment, to put it simply, is about transcending the world and experiencing freedom from it. The goal of the new Evolutionary Enlightenment is about creating the future.”
Cohen himself may be a good example of evolutionary spirituality due to the controversy over his teaching style and conflicts with his students and colleagues, which prompted a recent public apology letter two years after he was asked to step down from his leadership role in the community that he began. Cohen, as with all of us, is a work in progress and has hopefully learned much from his own tribulations. (In another interview, with Carter Phipps, a former colleague of Cohen’s at EnlightenNext magazine, Phipps and I explore what it means to be an “evolutionary,” as Cohen describes himself.)
What Do We Do With The Understanding That All Things Are Impermanent?
As the Buddha himself emphasized, by understanding impermanence we automatically reduce grasping, which reduces suffering because of the frustrations that grasping inevitably brings. We accept that all things change and in this acceptance we learn to surf through life a bit more gracefully than is the case when we are constantly grasping for permanence, for solid foundations. The only solid foundation we can find is the truth of the lack of solid foundations. So, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps the only truth that won’t change over time is the fact that all things change over time.
The new conversation in spiritual circles is the degree to which our focus should be on an extra-physical reality — the “world is an illusion” conception of reality — or on a participatory universe in which we are all literally co-creating reality in each moment. Process philosophy and my own preferences fall squarely in the latter school of thought.
The balance we should aim for in our lives is to seek healthy goals (for ourselves and society more generally) but accompany that striving with the grace that understanding impermanence brings. Achieving anything in life requires effort and intention. Yet we can bring our efforts and intentions on worthy goals without unhealthy attachment and without grasping. Rather, we dance, we surf, we glide through life without the anger and suffering that are the more obvious manifestations of frustrated grasping. This is as good a definition of grace as any I know of.
The final irony perhaps is that by approaching life without grasping we are more likely to achieve those worthy goals that we do set for ourselves.