“The trouble is, you think you have time.”

I first spotted this one on Twitter:

This quote is another one from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (1994), which isn’t a collection of Buddha quotes, as the title might suggest, but is Jack’s rather lovely interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

According to the publisher:

Just as the serene beauty of the lotus blossom grows out of muddy water, Buddha’s simple instructions have helped people to find wholeness and peace amid life’s crisis and distractions for more than 2,500 years. For this small handbook, a well-known American Buddhist teacher and psychologist has distilled and adapted an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life. Its practical reminders and six meditations can infuse smallest everyday action with insight and joy.

It’s a charming book, although the title has led many people to think that its contents are quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. In some cases that appears to be so, but most of the aphorisms seem to be Jack’s own thoughts.

Thanks to an alert commenter (Paxski), I was able to track where Jack got this quote from. Paxski had heard Jack use this quotation in one of his talks on CD, where he attributed it to Don Juan. Paxski wasn’t sure which Don Juan this was, but a hunch told me that it was probably the (fictional?) Yaqui shaman from Carlos Castaneda’s books. And indeed, I found the following in Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda’s third book:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change? You don’t have time for this display, you fool. This, whatever you’re doing now, may be your last act on earth. It may very well be your last battle. There is no power which could guarantee that you are going to live one more minute.

So this another version of the “timeless” reminder that time is brief and that we should make good use of it.

Shorn of this context, though, as it is in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, I’ve often thought that this quote might be a little counter-productive. I know what the quote was intending to say, but what is it we don’t have time for? The quote doesn’t say. I certainly hope I have time to get enlightened. Of course I don’t know how much time is available to me, but if I’m being told that I don’t, in fact, have time, then what’s the point? The quote’s intention is to point out that we don’t have time to waste, but not having time to waste is not the same thing as not having time. We do have time, or at least we have some time, and the question is how we’re going to use it.

Shorn of its context, I think that this particular quote may be an example of what Daniel Dennett has called a “deepity.” Here’s an adaptation of Wikipedia’s account of that term:

Deepity is a term employed by Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists Institution conference, coined by the teenage daughter of one of his friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

It would be earth-shattering to say, truthfully, that we don’t have time. But it’s essentially false. Still, this is me over-thinking the quote. As I mentioned, I knew the first time I read it what it meant. And I love it. It’s just a little ambiguous. And not something the Buddha said, although he said similar things:

  • “Unindicated and unknown is the length of life of those subject to death.” (Source)
  • “Those who have come to be, those who will be: All will go, leaving the body behind. The skillful person, realizing the loss of all, should live the holy life ardently.” (Source)
  • “I have reckoned the life of a person living for 100 years: I have reckoned the life span, reckoned the seasons, reckoned the years, reckoned the months, reckoned the fortnights, reckoned the nights, reckoned the days, reckoned the meals, reckoned the obstacles to eating. Whatever a teacher should do — seeking the welfare of his disciples, out of sympathy for them — that have I done for you. Over there are the roots of trees; over there, empty dwellings. Practice jhana, monks. Don’t be heedless. Don’t later fall into regret. This is our message to you all.” (Source)
  • Life is swept along, next-to-nothing its span. For one swept to old age no shelters exist. Perceiving this danger in death, one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace. (Source)

27 thoughts on ““The trouble is, you think you have time.””

  1. What Don Juan was saying was you don’t have time to be in a crappy mood. So whatever you do, you must decide that it is worthy of your last act on earth. So for example, if you decide to brush your teeth then you must do it like you were to die afterwards. Otherwise if you do it like it was just something you had to do, then you just wasted 5 minutes (or however long it takes to teeth brush) of your time.

    1. I’ve read the passage in The Jouney to Ixtlan, Ron, and it’s nothing to do with not having time to be in a crappy mood. It’s about not committing to excellence (in this case excellence in hunting) because of a lack of urgency. Unless I’ve missed something?

  2. Setting aside the question of whether, having come from a Buddhist teacher, this quote is in fact attributable to Buddha, I feel that you’ve missed something essential. In my view, it IS time that we think we have but don’t. Castaneda’s quote clarifies the point; rather than thinking of death as distant (i.e. that we have time), he emphasises the imminence of death at every moment, THIS moment: “This, whatever you’re doing now, may be your last act on earth.” In other words, the inevitability of death nullifies the time that precedes it.

    You ask “if I’m being told that I don’t, in fact, have time, then what’s the point?” But what are you really asking? What’s the point of what?

    1. I’m actually not interested in over-thinking the quote. I’m just making the point that extracted from its context the quote lacks specificity. Buddhism, of course, suggests that we reflect often on death so that we take life seriously. That’s certainly not something I’m quibbling with!

    2. I do not agree that “the inevitability of death nullifies the time that precedes it”. It accentuates it. It makes the time preceding death that much more important when it comes to completing what we hold as imperatives in the time that remains…because he will come like a thief in the night.

  3. Why wrap a pointer in a context? The quote, whether it comes from Buddha, Don Juan, or the lady next door, stands on its own. And my ‘sense’ (the least unreliable of human tools of discernment, experience being one of its parts) is that it points towards truth.

    We don’t have time, because it’s something we can’t ‘have’ – although we pretend to have it.

    1. “Why wrap a pointer in a context?” Of course you’ve just put the quote in a context of sorts by explaining what you think it means 🙂

      The main thing I’d doing on this site is not questioning the truthfulness or usefulness of quotes (although I’ll sometimes comment on that, but questioning the truthfulness of their attributions. Why wrap quotes in the context of “this is something said by the Buddha” when in fact they aren’t? (And that’s a rhetorical question!)

  4. A fallacious assertion Buddha never made. We all do not want anyone to provide their fallacious statements about what Buddha stated.

    But above all matters, we all know we’ll all be dead in the end. We could focus on the fundamental question of how we are going to do “meaningful” things in life, within our limited time period.

    Most of us do not know what the “meaningful thing” would be in life. As we age, some of us may be able to find answers for themselves. Some would never find them. For some, it is a singular event that provide the with “meaningful thing”. For some, it may refer to a series of events that fulfills their heart. Whatever it may be, our quest and search for the “meaningful thing” encompasses our continual and endless challenges that we all are inclined to take on. We are all made that way. Buddha may be able to guide us on this. Just may be.

  5. I would actually see the point of the quote, in referring to Buddhist thought, as relating to the idea that time is an illusion, which contributes to problems including our sense of separateness, ego, not being present due to preoccupation with past and future, etc. as opposed to referring to the finite nature of time in this lifetime, or the imminence of death…

  6. This may not be a quote from Shakyamuni Buddha, but it is certainly a quote from the Buddha. Do you not feel time nipping at your heels as you discuss this pointless junk?

    1. Your first sentence is meaningless, I’m afraid.

      Do I feel time nipping at my heels? Of course, Jesse! But I don’t find helping people to know whether quotes are scriptural or not to be a waste of time. The Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha) encouraged his disciples to do just that. When we hear that some quote is purported to be part of his teaching, then…

      Carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.

      Of course what did he know? 🙂

  7. It is never (trouble) to be optimistic about how long you will live.

    Believing you have time is a blessing.
    Who wants to live in a consistent state of stress and worry thinking we could be dead at any moment?
    That is not a life worth living, that’s for sure.
    Many people don’t change anything whether they think they have a lot of time or not.
    So the statement is flawed.

    Good to know he did not actually say it.
    Peace and love.

  8. This quote showed up on a page in my Franklin Planner attributed to Buddha. I was trying to find out it that was true.
    I cut it out to save, platitude or not, because what it said to me: I may or may not die right away, but my chance to relate with the important people in my life is fleeting and tenuous. Any one of us could be gone (and eventually all will), leaving things unsaid, unresolved. Waiting until my work is good enough risks that it is never done at all.
    It may not be profound, but I get it very well and pasted that little bit of paper where I see and handle it each morning. Hope I will remember to act on its message.

  9. Well it doesn’t sound Buddhist at all. Buddha would say something more like, “The trouble is, you have attachments.” A statement such as, “You think you have time,” seems to imply that you wrongly think you have ENOUGH time, meaning you better hurry up and do stuff, a completely non Buddhist idea. However it could mean that time is an illusion, which is more of a Buddhist concept. The trouble is, this meme without context, is completely ambiguous and could mean either of two mutually incompatible ideas.

    1. It’s possible that Kornfield had in mind things like this:

      Like a withered leaf are you now; death’s messengers await you. You stand on the eve of your departure, yet you have made no provision for your journey! (Dhammapada 235)


      Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes. (Bhaddekaratta Sutta)


      Life is swept along,
      next-to-nothing its span.
      For one swept to old age
      no shelters exist.
      Perceiving this danger in death,
      one should drop the world’s bait
      and look for peace. (Uttara Sutta)

  10. I looked at this site and replies because I wanted to know when I say it and quote it as Buddha that I’m not giving incorrect information. Thank you for the knowledge and insight from everyone that replied also. The quote has no less importance to me and stands on it’s own merit, furthermore it needs no explanation. I do really appreciate the possible orientation of the quote from Buddha and other works of his that you mention. I do love the teachings along with many other spiritual leaders. Thank you for taking the time to educate.

  11. I always like to place the proper author of a quote when I copy one, so I do my best to research it. This comment section has been educational. 🙂 I rather enjoy the quote and my only other thought to share is that for those who find it thoughtful are finding it adding to their education, filling their soul, and relieving some of their questions, perhaps. Maybe signing it “Jack Kornfield”?

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