This quote was passed on to me by Joseph Young, who intended to use it but wanted to be sure that the attribution he’d seen—to the Buddha—was correct. I have to say it’s heartening whenever I hear that someone is interested in accurate citations!
“There is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now,” is not a quote from the Buddha. It’s actually from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” where it can be found on page 33. BLIB is not a collection of sayings by the Buddha, but of contemporary expressions, adapted by Kornfield. Unfortunately the title misleads people into thinking it’s a book of scriptural sayings, which is understandable, especially if people are unfamiliar with the Buddhist scriptures.
Once a Fake Buddha Quote has appeared, however, it will tend to be passed on uncritically and to spread. This quote is found, attributed to the Buddha, in many books, including “Compassionate Coaching” (2011), “Zen and the Art of the Monologue” (2002), and “Awakening the Spirit Within” (2001), which is the oldest use of this Fake Buddha Quote that I’ve found. It’s always a bad sign when a quote from someone who lived centuries ago only appeared recently!
This quote is very similar to “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” and “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.” Neither of these is a genuine scriptural quote, although they’re often attributed to the Buddha.
“There is only one time when it is essential to awaken. That time is now,” doesn’t sound like something from the Buddhist scriptures. When the Buddha talked about awakening, it was as a process unfolding over time — sometimes a considerable period of time. So when awakening was talked about, it was as something that would happen in the future, or sometimes as something that had happened in the past. As far as I know, the concept of some continuous NOW in which we perpetually live didn’t exist.
There is one lovely passage about time:
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
This passage is unusually poetic for the Buddhist scriptures, which were originally passed down orally and are often rather clunky and repetitive.
There’s one term that’s often translated as “here-and-now” and could easily be rendered as “the present moment” or simply as “now,” and that’s sandiṭṭhika. It’s found in a common pericope outlining the major qualities of the Dharma, which means “the teachings” or “the Buddhist path,” but which in this case could be rendered as “reality.”
So the Buddha says things like:
“The fact that when greed is present within you, you discern that greed is present within you; and when greed is not present within you, you discern that greed is not present within you: that is one way in which the Dhamma is visible in the here-and-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.”
The part of the passage from “visible in the here-and-now” onwards is found scores of times in the scriptures.
The late Maurice Walsh translated sandiṭṭhika as “the present moment” in a lovely little discourse that portrays an encounter between a deva (god) and a monk called Samiddhi. I take this to be a representation of Samiddhi’s inner struggle, where some part of his mind tried to tempt him to abandon his monastic path and to embrace sensuality. The deva says to Samiddhi:
“Get your fill, monk, of human pleasures. Don’t reject the present moment (sandiṭṭhika) to pursue what time will bring.”
Samiddhi’s answer turns this around:
“I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment.”
What a lovely insight! Incidentally, this is a figure of speech known as a chiasmus, where terms are inverted. A chiasmus can have the effect of demolishing one proposition and presenting another as preferable. Probably the most famous is JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
With regard to awakening “now,” both Thanissaro and Walsh use “here and now” to translate “diṭṭhe dhamme,” which literally means something like “in (or among) visible things.” For example in the Mahānidāna Sutta the Buddha outlines a list of eight emancipations, and says that when a practitioner knows them back-to-front and has broken the last vestiges of craving and delusion, then “having directly known it and realized it in the here and now, he is said to be a monk released in both ways.”
That’s about as close as we’re going to get to Jack Kornfield’s quote, and it’s not at all similar.
The purpose of Jack’s quote is very worthy. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t continually assume that awakening is going to happen in the distant future. In fact being overly focused on the future can become a serious spiritual problem since it makes us think that the future is where happiness is going to happen, and that the present moment is rather dull and unsatisfying in comparison. When we have that perspective, we want to escape our present-moment experience rather than accept it and look deeply into it. And yet acceptance of and close observation of our present-moment experience is the only way we can wake up to reality.
Jack’s quote is wonderful, and spiritually valuable: it’s just not something the Buddha said.