from an album of
18 Taoist paintings
by Zhang Lu
By considering how Daoism (Taoism) conceives time, we can better grasp its argument that many of the convictions we hold about the world are incomplete and contingent upon a particular approach to thinking.
The primary contribution Daoism makes to our understanding of time lies in its view that time is not linear but circular.
What is more, the central concept of Daoism - the Dao (Tao) - cannot be said to exist within or beyond time, which would imply it either has being or is without being.
Rather the Dao is concurrently
being and non-being.
The Zhuangzi, Daoism's central text, explains what this is:
We can illustrate the above by way of the four seasons.
While each season has its own traits, all of them exist in a state of continuous change. Where one arises, another declines, where one peaks, another has already bottomed out.
Given that one season
cannot occur without the disappearance of the one preceding it, this
cycle of change is not only self-perpetuating, it occurs in a
spectrum of time unknowable to those who mark time in halting,
Indeed, human-measured time is premised on the artificial distinction between self and other, progression and regression, being and non-being, and so forth.
Time is thus a metaphor for a person's closeness to the Dao (Tao).
This is because the natural world doesn't know of human-measured time; it only knows the unnamed, undifferentiated milieu of the cosmos.
The myriad creatures of the
world are an example of the former, while human beings are an
example of the latter.
All of these decisions, however, are colored by our preferences and prejudices.
The Dao (Tao) operates in the time of non-time and resides in the space of
Human-measured time, therefore, is unable to account for the variegated changes that happen in the world because some of them help to prolong life while others work to shorten it.
Our linear way of thinking is hence shattered when we encounter a situation wherein time can't be counted or visualized.
This cosmological time is more genuine than
human-measured time insofar as it dissolves the need for a carefully
delineated temporal order to which we can attach the names past,
present and future.
There's a story in the Zhuangzi about the death of Zhuangzi's wife.
When asked by a friend why he stopped grieving her, Zhuangzi replied:
There has never been a time when Zhuangzi's wife didn't exist.
Even though her corporeal presence has come and gone, what makes her existence (and non-existence) possible is the Dao (Tao).
The Dao doesn't create things ex-nihilo but uses the nothingness that's its own resting to create a clearing into which things can emerge.
The Dao is inseparable from things, including the Universe, and Daoism says that human beings becloud their awareness of the Dao by pursuing things that are unnecessary to life, such as fame, wealth and avoiding death.
If life and death are simply two perspectives of time,
This is why we should observe things on the level of cosmological time. In the nameless harmony that is cosmological oneness, time persists, but at a level too subtle for humans to recognize.
The reason for this is that we're inherently limited in what we can know (physically, mentally, spiritually).
By retraining ourselves to reside in the in-betweenness of things, we can release ourselves from the notion that time is being-centric, and consider the alternative:
This non-being is not a nihilistic threat to being but its natural counterpart.
As the root of being and non-being, the temporal and spatial nature of the Dao cannot be limited to either of these terms.
This all might sound rather mystical. Indeed, early Sinologists labelled Daoism as much.
However, describing the Dao and its connection to the myriad things of the world in this manner does not mean the Dao is unknowable. In fact, quite the opposite...
Prior to human beings, the Dao was unnamed and undisturbed, and the Universe existed in perfect equanimity and quietude. Cycles of change and processes of transformation fulfilled themselves without obstruction and the fate of things was unquestioned.
It was human beings who introduced the practice of naming and the concept of time to interrogate the nature of the Dao and justify our self-elevated standing in the world.
This is why Daoism shines a spotlight on the sage,
The sage also teaches us that the future is not a progression of the past and the past is not overcome by the present.
Indeed, past and future as designators of motion can be replaced with an emerging from and a returning to cosmological oneness.
Standing in the non-time of the Dao is thus to stand in the pivot between being and non-being, and having relocated ourselves to this position of no-self, we can know what it means to be simultaneously in and out of time, alive yet dying.
Indeed, the objective of Daoism is to educate humanity about the fallacy of many of our convictions, especially those that endanger ourselves and the natural world.
Given that time is one of the most misunderstood aspects of reality,