This is another one from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (1994), which isn’t a collection of Buddha quotes, 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. 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)