Student’s Question: Does time exist? Does anything arise? What’s the difference between Totality and relative existence?

Lama Shenpen continues her deep discussion with a student on ‘existence.’ 


Things can be said to appear to exist on the relative level (arising due to interdependent causes and conditions) but they don’t truly exist as we perceive them to. It is the examination of this paradox that is the fertile ground for glimpsing an understanding of the ultimate. In unpicking the appearances of reality we can come closer to understanding their genuine nature.

Lama Shenpen:

What you say is true but I think we have to take care here.

As you say – things appear to exist to us in the way we perceive them. The way they appear to exist is not how they are.  Which is what you say.  We unpick that apparent reality and glimpse or come closer to understanding what they are – their nature (for emphasis we say their true nature).

‘Relative level’ is presumably a translation of samvrti satya.   Maybe though you mean conventional reality.  It is important to be clear what you are saying here because I can think of other things you might mean by relative here.

‘Arising due to interdependent causes and conditions’ is something I want to explore further.  What does this mean really? Does it mean something arises?

Let’s say it is a seed.  It seems to arise as a cause. It seems to exist as a cause. But does it?

It seems reasonable doesn’t it? But does that mean that the seed that was present two minutes ago is still here? If you say ‘yes’ you are saying the past doesn’t mean ‘something that is not present’.   So all the past is actually present?  What does past mean now? It doesn’t mean anything!  So when we say ‘seed’ we are referring to the whole past of everything? That is not true, is it?

When we say ‘past’ we mean ‘everything that has gone by, it’s not now’.  Of course, although logically we can understand that, the habit to cling to the past is so strong it is almost impossible to maintain that understanding.  It is not how we are programmed and that has to be faced – we are deluding ourselves all the time that we know something we don’t know. We don’t know the past that has gone.  In fact the whole way we think of time is an illusion.  That is a tough truth to face.

So if the seed has no past and its future hasn’t come and its present existence is ungraspable as a moment in time – what kind of existence does it have?   How can it arise at all?  It appears falsely to us to do so – which means it doesn’t actually arise.

So to speak of interdependent causes and conditions means these are not existent causes and conditions in the sense that they are all present in time.  But what time? Past time? Present time? Future time?  Interdependent what?  What could interdependent possibly mean?  This is a huge question. I think it gets used in all sorts of different ways and it is important to distinguish these different ways – a job I feel I haven’t fully accomplished in my own thinking yet.

It might mean Totality itself.  All of everything, nothing excluded.  So when we distinguish one thing from another and say they exist as things, we are really just looking at Totality from a specific view point and naming some aspect of it that we want to point to.  We are not actually talking about one thing in isolation from Totality.  This would mean that everything exists as the Totality and can be viewed from a relative view point and spoken about in isolation.

For example, ‘this is my hand – my hand exists in Totality and what I mean when I say hand is such and such’.

Then if someone makes the mistake of thinking that I mean my hand is separate from Totality, for example as separate from the mind that sees it, I can show it is not by logically analysing it away – it doesn’t exist in that way at all! But is that saying it doesn’t exist at all? Or it doesn’t truly exist?  I am not sure it is.

I would rather say the hand truly exists as Totality and doesn’t exist as a separable entity.  This might be what it means to say it exists relatively as interdependent causes and conditions but then it is not existing as samvrti satya – it exists truly.  Which is perhaps what you mean when you say at the end of your question that we arrive at an understanding of their genuine nature.

Lama Shenpen Hookham