Man-handled time creates confusion: A Pontification
Posted on May 16th, 2015

Shelton A. Gunaratne Professor of communication emeritus, MSUM

Moorhead, MN—Web 2.0 technology has enabled me to transmit messages to mass media in Sri Lanka from my hometown in Northcentral Minnesota within a few seconds. In 1966, when I first arrived in Minnesota as a Lake House journalist on a World Press Institute Fellowship, it took me more than a week to transmit a message/article for publication in the Ceylon Daily News through the archaic mail system available then.

Advanced digital technology has drastically cut down the cost and time for message transmission across long distances. The 10.5-hour time zone difference between Colombo and Moorhead has become meaningless because the actual contact time between the two points has come down to almost zero seconds.

However, this discrepancy between geographical distance and contact time has given me a slight advantage as an inveterate reader of Sri Lanka newspapers. By the time the Lankan reader gets up at 6 in the morning to read his/her Sunday newspapers, I have already read the same news a day earlier by 7.30 or so in the evening.   Thus, I can argue that my current location has placed me in a better position to be up-to-date with Sri Lankan developments than people domiciled on the island.

The above scenario invariably draws our attention to the peculiar anomalies that have arisen as a result of technological advancements that have leapfrogged humanity’s ability to adjust to rapid changes. For example, if I were to call a friend of mine in Colombo on Sunday morning (Sri Lanka time), I would have to initiate my call on Saturday evening (US Midwestern time), should I greet him/her with “Good morning” or  “Good evening”? I would have to be very careful about the use of “today” and “tomorrow” in my conversation to avoid confusion.

In Buddhist parlance, time and time zones are creations of humanity to reflect the movement of the earth around the sun to distinguish the becoming (bhava) and re-becoming (punarbhava) of the day. Every natural phenomenon bears the three marks of existence: inconstancy (anicca), asoulity (anatta) and suffering (dukkha). From sunrise to sunset, the day is ever changing, never static. Thus, it has no self or soul. Then, it wanes into deep slumber (even in the poles) until it re-becomes with the next sunrise. Sunset indicates lack of energy or decrepitude or dukkha. No two days are identical. Diversity exists within unity.

The three symbols of existence is a derivative of the Four Noble Truths, the crux of Buddhism. The birth and death of each day illustrates phenomenologically the movement of the wheel of becoming (bhavacakra)—in this case, the day—around the eternal cyclic existence (samsara)—in this case, the sun. This illustration provides clear credence to support the Buddhist concept of re-becoming, incorrectly labeled “rebirth” or “reincarnation.” The last two terms imply the existence of a self or soul (as in Hinduism or the Abrahamic religions), which Buddhism unequivocally denies.

The same phenomenological evidence comes through, if one were to analyze what humanity identifies as a year, a composite of 365 days. The year has four identifiable seasons—spring, summer, autumn, and winter—even though they are less discernible in the equatorial belt. On the basis of the lunar calendar, a year re-becomes with the dawn of spring (in March-April), moves upward to the crescendo of summer, then moves downward to autumn, and then into the nadir of melancholy winter (December-February). Again the bhavacakra of the year eternally circles around the sun, which represents samsara, the repository of all dukkha.  Because the aggregates that constitute a year are in a constant state of flux, it too has no self or soul. Winter represents its last stage of suffering (jaramarana). The concept of re-becoming makes it apparent that no two years could be identical.

Now that I have phenomenologically shown the applicability of the three symbols of existence (ti-lakkhana) to humanity generated concepts on time and time zones, let me re-examine the earlier allusion to the anomalies created by ostensible longitudinal time differences between two distant places.

The ambiguity regarding whether I should greet my friend in Sri Lanka with ”Good Morning” or “Good evening” arises for no other reason than our failure to understand the Eastern, particularly the Buddhist and Daoist, concept of truth. In his book “The Tao of Science: An essay on Western science and Eastern wisdom” (1957), Ralph Gung Ho Siu points out the existence of three kinds of truth: the conventional based on rational knowledge, the intuitive based on sensate knowledge, and  the super-rational based on no-knowledge. Buddhism identifies these three types of truth as conventional, phenomenological, and absolute. I quote Siu:

With rational knowledge, one is in tune with the rational man; with intuitive knowledge added, one is in tune with the total man; with no knowledge added, one is in tune with nature.

The Western world and its acolytes in the East reify science as the only source of truth.  Therefore, they settle for the rational or conventional truth, which Buddhism categorizes as illusionary. Time differences are illusions created by man as useful tools to identify the rotation of the earth in the solar system. The phenomenon of instant communication attests to the confusion caused by man by imposing time zones where nature intended none.

Nature represents diversity  (a multitude of bhavacakra variations) within unity (a given moment of time). The rational man has meddled with nature by dividing the world into separate time zones based on longitudinal distances. Buddha saw the absolute truth through his psychic powers that everything in the universe is interdependent, interconnected, and interactive. Where boundaries are porous, discrete categories can cause much confusion.

Gunaratne is the lead author of the book “Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach” (New York & London: Routledge, 2015)

4 Responses to “Man-handled time creates confusion: A Pontification”

  1. AnuD Says:

    no knowledge, no thoughts, emotions or feelings, that is nirvana.

  2. AnuD Says:

    The truth is all the information whether it is past or present or ancient and upto a certain extent future are all in the space. IF we have the power we can see those. Future is not that certain and up to a certain extent, because you can change it with your will.

  3. Dr.K Says:

    Dear professor,
    How do you define day and night? do they exist? I see as day and night are illusions but we experience them as real. Any comment?

  4. Arcadius Says:

    Dr. K

    Take the saying “Seeing is believing” with a grain of salt. Conventional “truth” is based on what you see. But although you experience day and night, they are mere “illusions.” The absolute or ideational truth, as Nagarjuna logically proved, is that nothing exists.
    Mindful (vipassana) meditation enables us to use day and night as an intuitive or sensate “truth” to focus on the ti-lakkhana–impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness.

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