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  • Transformation to Eternity:Augustine's Conversion to Mindfulness
  • Jim Highland

In The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, the Buddha advised his listeners not to dwell on the past and the future, but to live mindfully in the present. He argued that this was a better way to live—not necessarily living alone per se, but living alone with the present moment. The sutra and Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary emphasize the different effects of attending to past, present, and future time. This is important because in the contemporary world, especially in the West, our focus is often away from present time. We discuss how to save time for the future. We lament lost time, even if it happened long ago. Indeed, we often deal with time as if amounts of it could be carved from our lives and moved around, and we just need to take charge of the sculptor. But despite our concern with time, there have been thinkers in the Western tradition who have come to insights similar to those of the Buddha. Augustine, the Catholic saint from North Africa, is one of the better-known Westerners who thought about the nature of time. But unlike many who live as if the past and future were metaphysical entities, Augustine questioned the status of past and future. He took the discussion into great detail, following the Western penchant for metaphysical discussions yielding absolutes, but his conclusions, I will argue, are less metaphysical than practical. In fact, they mirror the views expressed by the Buddha in the sutra we are considering: "The past no longer is. / The future has not yet come."1 They also match his advice to live mindfully in the present, though Augustine and the Buddha do not use the same terminology.

I will begin with a detailed account of Augustine's discussion of time from Book 11 of Confessions, adding references to similar remarks in Hanh's commentary on The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.2 After that I will briefly discuss Hanh's explanations of the practical consequences of living in the past, the future, and the present. These discussions will link living mindfully in the present to living a life of divine compassion. I will add support by then discussing and comparing Augustine's account of his conversion as it deals with the transformation of fear and shame (also from Confessions) with a similar discussion of transforming fear and shame in Hanh's commentary. The overall aim, of course, is not to convert anyone to Christianity or Buddhism, but to encourage readers to live mindfully, compassionately, and in the present regardless of their religious and cultural background.3 [End Page 91]

By examining Augustine's discussion of time and comparing it with Hanh's commentary, we can cultivate a mindful way of living from seeds within the Western tradition itself, seeds that have been overlooked but that can still grow in our lives. While this comparison is guided in part by Buddhist insights, expressed here with reference to Hanh's commentary, it is based in large part on an interpretation of Augustine's views that Westerners can understand without knowledge of Buddhism. This interpretation asserts that Augustine's views on time were far from being an aspect of his thought separate from other views on God and the transformation of the soul. Indeed, the practical import of his analysis outweighs the smaller metaphysical conclusions he reaches. In some ways, it is unfortunate that Augustine did not do more with this discussion. It is found in the Book 11 of his Confessions, well after the discussion of his conversion, and is often read as an academic discussion tacked onto the end of an autobiography. But when read properly, especially in light of Buddhist discussions, Augustine's treatment of time may be interpreted as a vital element in his understanding of how to transform our lives in the best way possible.

Book Eleven of Confessions is filled with Augustine's attempts to make sense of a concept that perplexed him: time. The often quoted passage runs: "What is this time? If no one asks me, I know; if...


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pp. 91-108
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