5. Time and Ontology | Vaibhashika


5. Time and Ontology


The name Sarvāstivāda literally means "all exists" (sarvaṁ asti), referring to their doctrine that all dharmas, past present and future, exist.

This doctrine of tri-temporal existence has been described as an Eternalist theory of time.

What does it mean for a dharma to exist?

For the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas, the main reasons that something is real or existent is causal efficacy and the fact that it abides in its own nature (svabhāva).

The Vaibhāṣika philosopher Saṁghabhadra defines an existent as follows:

"The characteristic of a real existent is that it serves as an object-domain for generating cognition (Buddhi)."

Each cognition is intentional and it has a distinctive character which is caused by the intrinsic characteristic (sva-lakṣaṇa) of the object of cognition. If there is no object of cognition (viṣaya), there is no cognition.

Furthermore, according to Saṁghabhadra, only if there are true existent forms can there be a difference between correct and incorrect cognitions regarding material things.

Saṁghabhadra further adds that they are of 2 types of existents:

1) What exists truly (dravyato’sti) and
2) What exists conceptually (prajñaptito’sti),

the two being designated on the basis of conventional truth and absolute truth:

If, with regard to a thing, cognition (Buddhi) is produced without depending on anything else, this thing exist truly — e.g., rūpa, vedanā, etc.

If it depends on other things to produce a cognition, then it exists conceptually/relatively — e.g., a vase, army, etc.

Furthermore, things that truly exist are also of 2 types:

1) those things that just have their own nature and
2) those things that have both their own nature and also have activities (kāritra).

Additionally, this last type is divided into 2: "with or without function (sāmarthya/vyāpara/śakti)."

Lastly, relative existents are also of 2 types, "having existence on the basis of something real or on something relative, like a vase and an army, respectively."

Arguments in favour of temporal Eternalism

One reason for holding this theory was that moments of consciousness are intentional (are directed, "about something") and thus if there are no past entities which exist, thoughts about them would be objectless and could not exist.

Another argument is that to account for past actions (karma) which have effects at a later time. If an act of karma no longer exists, it is difficult, argues the Vaibhāṣika, to see how they can have fruits in the present or future.

Finally, past, present and future are mutually interdependent ideas:

If past and future are non-existent, argued the Vaibhāṣikas, how can one make sense of the existence of the present?

In the Saṁyukta-abhidharma-hṛdaya, a 4th century Gandhāran Sarvāstivāda text, the core Sarvāstivāda theory is defended thus:

"If there were no past and future, then there would be no present period of time; if there were no present period of time, there would also be no conditioned factors (saṁskṛta dharma).

That is why there are the 3 periods of time (trikala). Do not state that there is a mistake.

When stating the fact that what is remote is past and that what will exist in future, does not exist, and that there only is the present, this is not right. Why?

- Because there is retribution (vipāka) of action.

The World-honoured One has been saying: "There is action and there is retribution".

It is not the case that this action and retribution are both present:

When action is present, it should be known that retribution is future; when retribution is present, it should be known that action is already past. [ ...  ]

As has been said: "If there are no such 5 faculties as faith (śraddhā indriya), I say that this is the generation of worldlings (prthagjana)".

When the seeker (śaikṣā) is the one who is bound by envelopers (paryavasthana), such 5 faculties as faith are not present; because the path is not together with defilement (kleśa).

That is why it should be known that there is past and future. If it were different, noble persons (Ārya-pudgala) would have to be worldlings."

Vasubandhu outlines the main arguments based on scripture and reason for all exists as follows:

a. For, it has been said by the Buddha:

O Bhikṣus, if past rūpa did not exist, the learned noble disciple could not have become disgusted with regard to the past rūpa.

It is because past rūpa exists that the learned noble disciple becomes disgusted with regard to the past rūpa.

If future rūpa did not exist, the learned noble disciple could not have become free from delight with regard to the future rūpa. It is because future rūpa exists that…

b. It has been said by the Buddha, Conditioned by the 2 (— sense organ and the object —), there is the arising of consciousness…

c. Consciousness arises when there is an object, not when there is no object. This is a fixed principle.

If past and future dharmas were non-existent, there would be a consciousness having a non-existent object.

Hence, in the absence of an object, consciousness itself would not exist.

d. If past dharmas were non-existent, how could there be in the future the fruit of pure or impure karma?

- For it is not the case that at the time of the arising of the fruit a present retribution-cause exists!


Regarding Time (adhvan), for Vaibhāṣikas, it is just a superimposition on the activity of these different types of dharmas and does not exist independently. Because of this, there was a need to explain how one experiences Time and Change.

Among the different Sarvāstivāda thinkers, there were different ideas on how dharmas change so as to give rise to the experience of time.

The Mahāvibhāṣa (MVŚ) speaks of 4 major theories which attempt to do this:

1) There is a change in mode of being (bhāva-anyathātva).
2) There is a change in characteristic (lakṣaṇa-anyathātva).
3) There is a change in state or condition (avasthā-anyathātva).
4) There is a change in temporal relativity (anyathā-anyathātva).

The positions are further outlined by Vasubandhu as follows:

1) "The Bhadanta Dharmatrāta defends change in mode of being,

that is, he affirms that the 3 time periods, past, present, and future, are differentiated by their non-identity of existence (bhava).

When a dharma goes from one time period to another its nature is not modified, but its existence is."

2) "The Bhadanta Ghoṣaka defends change in characteristic, that is, the time periods differ through the difference in their characteristics.

A dharma goes through the time periods:

When it is past, it is endowed with past characteristics (lakṣaṇa), but it is not deprived of its present and future characteristics..." and so on with present and future

3) "The Bhadanta Vasumitra defends change in state/condition, that is, the time periods differ through the difference of condition (avasthā).

A dharma, going through the time periods, having taken up a certain condition, becomes different through the difference of its condition, not through a difference in its substance.

Example: a token placed on the square of ones, is called one; placed on the square of tens, ten; and placed on the square of hundreds, one hundred."

4) "The Bhadanta Buddhadeva defends change in temporal relativity, that is, the time periods are established through their mutual relationships.

A dharma, going throughout the time periods, takes different names through different relationships, that is, it is called past, future, or present, through a relationship with what precedes and with what follows.

For example, the same woman is both a daughter and a mother."

In the Abhidharmakośa, Vasubandhu argues that "the best system is that of Vasumitra". The Saṁyukta-abhidharma-hṛdaya agrees.

Later Sarvāstivāda developed a combination of the first and third views:

This can be seen in Saṁghabhadra, who argues that while a dharma's essential nature does not change, its function or activity (kāritra) and its existence (bhāva) changes:

- The essential nature of a dharma remains eternally; its bhāva (existence) changes:

When a saṁskṛta (conditioned) dharma traverses through adhvan (time), it gives rise to its kāritra (activity) in accordance with the pratyayas (conditions), without abandoning its substantial nature; immediately after this, the kāritra produced ceases.

Hence it is said that the svabhāva exists eternally and yet it is not permanent, since its bhāva changes.

Thus, for Saṁghabhadra, "a dharma is present when it exercises its kāritra, future when its kāritra is not yet exercised, past when it has been exercised."

The term kāritra is defined as "a dharma’s capability of inducing the production of its own next moment."

When the right set of conditions come together, a dharma becomes endowed with activity (which vanishes in a single moment).

When it does not have activity, a dharma's own nature still has the capacity to causally contribute to other dharmas.

Svabhāva in time

Regarding the essential nature (svabhāva) or reality (dravya) of a dharma, all Vaibhāṣika thinkers agreed that it is what remains constant and does not change as a dharma moves throughout the 3 times.

However this does not necessarily mean that a dharma's svabhāva "is immutable or even permanent, for a dharma’s mode of existence and its essential nature are not different, so that when the former is undergoing transformation, so is its svabhāva."

From the Vaibhāṣika perspective this is not a contradiction, since it is the same process that remains (even while changing) throughout time. Thus, in this particular sense, there is no change in the svabhāva or sva-lakṣaṇa.

Thus there is a way in which the essential natures are transformed, and yet, one can say that they remain the same ontologically.

Dharmatrāta used the example of a piece of gold that is transformed into different things (cups, bowl, etc.). While there are different entities, the essential nature of gold remains the same.

This perspective is expressed by Saṁghabhadra who argues that svabhāva is not permanent since it goes through time and its existence (bhāva) varies through time.

Saṁghabhadra also notes that a dharma is produced by various causes (and is part of a causal web which has no beginning), and once a dharma has ceased, it does not arise again.

However, for Saṁghabhadra, one can still say that dharmas do not lose their svabhāva:

He uses the example of vedanā (sensation):

Even though we speak of various modes of sensation, all the types of sensation in a person's mind-stream have the same nature of being sensitive phenomena (prasāda rūpa).

Saṁghabhadra then states:

It is not the case that since the function is different from the existence, that there can be the difference in the functions of seeing, hearing, etc. Rather, the very function of seeing, etc., is none other than the existence of the eye, etc.

On account of the difference in function, there is definitely the difference in the mode of existence…

Since it is observed that there are dharmas that co-exist as essential substances and whose essential characteristics do not differ but that nevertheless have different modes of existence,

we know that when dharmas traverse the 3 times, their modes of existence vary while their essential characteristics do not change.

He also states:

Our explanations also have properly refuted the objection that our theory of Sarvāstitva implies the permanence of a dharma’s essential nature,

for, while the essential nature remains always the same, its avasthā condition differs in the stages of time since there is change.

This difference of avasthā is produced on account of conditions and necessarily stays no more than one kṣaṇa (moment).

Accordingly, the essential nature of the dharma too is impermanent, since it is not distinct from the difference that arises in it. But it is only in an existent dharma that changes can obtain; there cannot be change in a non-existent.

In this way, therefore, we have properly established the times.

Saṁghabhadra claimed that it is only when understood in this way that the doctrine of "all exists" is logically compatible with the doctrine of impermanence.


Orthodox Sarvāstivāda also defended the theory of moments (kṣaṇa-vāda):

This doctrine held that dharmas last only for a moment, this measure of time is the smallest measure of time possible, it is described in the Saṁyukta-abhidharma-hṛdaya as:

The smallest period of time is 1 kṣaṇa. Time is extremely small with one instant. That is why a kṣaṇa is said to be the limitation in time.

Concerning the measure of a kṣaṇa, some say that it is as a powerful man who, looking around hurriedly, observes the multitude of stars:

- according to the going of time, 1 star is 1 kṣaṇa.. Moreover, some say that it is as a powerful man who, during a long time, snaps with the fingers: 64 Kṣaṇas pass!

Moreover, some say that it is as a powerful man who cuts thin silk thread of Kāśī with a very sharp knife: cutting 1 thread is 1 kṣaṇa.

Moreover, some say that the World-honoured One did not pronounce the word kṣaṇa."