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Socially Engaged Buddhists & Aboriginal Australians: Similar Conceptions of Time Could Lead to a Unique Community of Support by Dr. Mark A. Toole

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Socially Engaged Buddhists & Aboriginal Australians: Similar Conceptions of Time Could Lead to a Unique Community of Support
Dr. Mark A. Toole, High Point University, USA

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It has been noted that Australia’s adoption of Western notions of progress and success, especially seen in “capitalist time perception,” is a contributing factor to Aboriginal socio-economic struggles. Evidence of this can be seen in the difficulties Aboriginal peoples have faced integrating into the mainstream workforce. This paper will argue that Socially Engaged Buddhists in Australia are uniquely positioned to partner with Aboriginal people to address systemic barriers to full employment and structures of suffering that are exacerbated by the temporalities of capitalism. Exploration of the possible intersection between Buddhist and Aboriginal notions of temporality will provide the conceptual groundwork for cross-tradition community building and the development of strategies for social transformation.

An American tourist was on the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.” The tourist then asked, “Well, then why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?” As he began unloading his catch the Mexican said, “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs and even give a few to my friends.” The tourist then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican looked up and smiled. “I sleep late, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. As you see, I have a full and busy life.”

The American tourist laughed and stood up tall. “Sir, I have an M.B.A. from Harvard and I run a huge company. I can help you. Listen. First, you should spend more time out fishing and you can use the proceeds from the extra fish you catch to buy a bigger boat. With the extra money you bring in from your bigger boat you could buy a second boat, a third one, and so on until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you can negotiate with the processing plants, maybe even open your own cannery. You would control product, processing and distribution. Then you could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York City! From there you’d be able to run your ever-expanding enterprise with proper management.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this take?” The tourist replied, “fifteen - twenty years, twenty-five tops.” “But what then?” asked the fisherman. The tourist laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public, thereby making millions! You’d be rich!”

“Millions? Really? But then what?” asked the Mexican. “Then,” said the American, “then you’d retire of course. Retire and probably move down to a small coastal fishing village where you’d sleep late, play with your children, take siesta with your wife, stroll into the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

What do you do with your time? How do you spend your time? Stop wasting your time? You should spend more time doing these things, not investing your time in those things; otherwise you won’t have enough time. You might lose all your time and everyone knows you can’t just make time or buy time.

When did we begin to use commodification language of this sort in order to discuss something as ineffable as time, and how much personal and collective suffering have we wrought upon ourselves by reifying a form of cognition of what the great medieval Japanese Zen master Dogen called “existence itself?” Commodify existence itself? Never. But we have, haven’t we… at least in cultures in which capitalist temporal systems rule the day.

Scholars interested in matters of temporality have debated as to exactly when was the first time someone began to equate time with money – in other words, time as something you could spend, invest, waste, have, lose, make, or buy, – in other words, scholars have sought the beginnings of capitalist temporal hegemony. In the Western world many people like to point to an essay titled “Advice to a Young Tradesman,” penned by the early American statesman, inventor, diplomat, and author Benjamin Franklin.[1] On July 21, 1748 Franklin offered the following advice to his ambitious, but young friend A.B.,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, it ought not to be reckoned the only expense; he hath really spent or thrown away five shillings besides.[2]

While this source is the one most commonly posited as fostering the notion of time as something that can and should be monetized and commodified, there is an even older document in the western world of which few people are aware. In the May 18, 1719, edition of the weekly periodical The Free-Thinker, founded by Ambrose Phillips and Hugh Boulter, the following passage appeared,

I remember to have heard of a notable Woman, who was thoroughly sensible of the intrinsick [sic] Value of Time: Her husband was a Shoe-maker, and an excellent Crafts-man; but never minded how the Minutes passed. In vain did his Wife inculcate to him, That Time is Money: He had too much wit to apprehend her; and he cursed the Parish-Clock, every Night; which at last brought him to his Ruin.[3]

Time is money. As contemporary Zen Buddhist teacher and author David Loy and contemporary anthropologist Anthony Aveni both note, “the commodification of time was made possible, perhaps in inevitable,” by that very parish-clock. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and as “clock-time became central to social organization, life became ‘centered around the emptying out of time (and space) and the development of an abstract, divisible and universally measurable calculation of time’.”[4] Arguably modern life, as we know it, was made possible by this very process of institutionalizing and universalizing a capitalist temporal order.

By capitalist temporal order I mean a systematized conception of temporality in which time is perceived as an objective reality. Seconds, minutes, days, weeks are fixed durations of mathematically “discrete and equal temporal segments.”[5] An hour is an hour, is an hour, no matter where you go, and thus we can begin to have faith in the regularity of future change and development. The acceptance of a common notion of time allows people to plan for the arrival of buses and trains. It allows commerce to flourish as global markets seek to run with a mechanical-like regularity. It allows conferences to schedule in such a way as to invite the public to join and to ensure we take “appropriate” breaks. “The notion of time that is available in everyday life is… shared time, which is public and handy. This shared dimension of time enables [what Martin Heidegger calls] different Dasein to share temporal concepts and [thus] to belong to the same community and generation, to have a sense of history.” [6] In other words, the shared temporalities of “clock time” (in which we agree that the combination of the short hand and the long hand pointing at the number twelve on a clock-face when the sun is high implies “twelve o’clock”), or “world time,” (in which we agree that an ontic-temporal succession of professional, educational, or vocational efforts in a given day should be followed by a brief break for “lunch time”) amount to a sense of what one might call “ordinary time”… a shared temporality which allows a people to understand one another and function together in society efficiently. For nearly three hundred years this has been our collective reality. Time has been systematized and institutionalized in such a manner as to be best understood as discrete segments of… money... and so we have the history of the modern world. Time is money. Our very existence has been monetized and temporalized. But what has been lost?

While Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, taught that there are three roots of evil: greed, ill will and delusion, and as he further taught that these mental defilements or unwholesome intentions contribute greatly to our individual dis-ease or duhkha, I often wonder what he would make of the way these poisons have become institutionalized in the modern world… Institutionalized by corporations, national military systems, advertising and media conglomerates, and economic and political structures, in such way as to create dis-ease and suffering on not just a personal level but on a collective level. In other words, greed, ill will and delusion have become so much a part of the collective fabric of life in the 21st century that the human condition seems to be one of perpetual alienation. I would contend to you, the temporality that we embrace defines our existence. Thus, we are the arbiters of our own duhkha. Dogen notes “The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers. The flowers in turn, express the time called spring. This is not existence within time; existence itself is time.” The temporality we embrace defines our existence. The contemporary author Joyce Carol Oates would agree as she notes in her work Marya: A Life, that time is “the element in which we exist… We are either born along by it or drowned in it.”[7] I would suggest to you that unfortunately too many of us are being drowned in it.

Today, in the world, there are countless social problems. Environmental crises that lead to social dislocation, a growing disparity between the rich and the poor, limited resources coupled with an ever-increasing global population, the proliferation of weapons and violence during a period of heightened social alienation. Problems that need addressing certainly, one and all. But I would also add time to that list. Time has become one of humanities biggest problems, or perhaps more specifically the near global embrace of capitalist time perception has become one of the biggest contributors to our collective dis-ease and suffering.

The embracing of a capitalist temporal order or capitalist time perception concomitantly implies the adoption of certain Western notions of success, progress, and value. While a principle like value is not inherently problematic, the problem lies in the manner in which we choose to ascribe value to something. As Loy notes, “the problem is commodification, which tends to convert everything into marketable resources appreciated only according to their exchange value.”[8] Despite all the technological wonders of the modern world, such as the rise of so-called “time-saving devices,” recent surveys indicate that people are reporting less and less leisure time in their lives, leading some to suggest that, time itself “may have become the most precious commodity in the land.” [9] How much time do you have and how much is it worth?

A 2006 Pew Research survey of social trends in the United States noted that roughly a third of Americans “always feel rushed.”[10] This data mirrored results presented in 1999 at an Economic Policy Institute symposium in which again roughly one in three Americans said they “always feel rushed.”[11] Recent studies in other cultural context are beginning to bear out similar results as well. In other words, to a growing percentage of people all around the world it feels as though life is just speeding up. Some have suggested that our ever-increasing sense of insecurity and anxiety can be easily traced to this very “time-compression” effect. Arguably the pace of life in the modern world has increased exponentially and the time-compression effect suggests “we experience ourselves as having less time to do the things we need or want to do.”[12] This time-compression, or the feeling of not having enough… time, causes us to suffer. “I don’t have enough… time. I need more… time.” Ah, the root of evil, the first mental defilementgreed. “I need more. I don’t have enough.” Robert Grudin suggests that “the extent, to which we live from day to day, from week to week, intent on details and oblivious to larger presences, is a gauge of our impoverishment of time.”[13] I would go further and suggest that the extent to which we live our lives predicated on the central assumptions and values of a capitalist temporal order is a gauge of our impoverishment of life. The temporality we embrace defines our existence and if our choice is characterized by the privileging of systems of commodification and monetization then our existence will be one of duhkha. Dis-ease and suffering is often a trap of our own creation and as Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy notes, “until we break out of this temporal trap [we’ve set], we will not be able to fully perceive or adequately address the cris[es] we have created for ourselves and the generations to come.”[14]

One might hope that our temporal trap (i.e. the commodification and monetization of time) might not be too large to confront, but as historian von Brandt observed the systems used for time reckoning in a given culture often express fundamental values and basic beliefs of that culture, and as of late it has become “common, though ethnocentric, to believe that the time frame under which Western society operates is in some way a fundamental universal truth.”[15] In other words, the temporal trap is becoming universalized. An hour is an hour, is an hour nearly all around world and corporations are the ones who are establishing the value of that hour. Presently in the United States a debate is brewing again about the minimum wage (i.e. the amount at which a person’s labors should be valued for a given hour). Throughout the western world counselors and therapists will talk with you and listen to you for $60 - $250 per hour. Lawyers often differentiate themselves based on how much they charge per hour – in rural areas an hour of a lawyer’s time might be “worth” only $100-200, whereas in a metropolitan area the norm may be closer to $300-400 per hour of “worth.” For better or for worse this way of conceiving of “time spent” is becoming more the universal norm than not.

But not everyone thinks this should be so. Twenty-century philosopher Martin Heidegger sought to demonstrate that the majority or most commonly accepted modes of temporality are perhaps not as fundamental as we are led to believe. He suggested there are “temporalities of human experience and engagement that, while often ignored, deserve to be explored and analyzed. Perhaps clock time is one mode of temporality among others. If so, then it is not obvious that clock time should always be our preferred mode of temporal self-interpretation. [It is simply the one we’ve chosen.] Perhaps we have to recognize a tension in human life between the demands of clock time and those other temporalities, between the clock or the calendar and life as it is truly experienced.”[16] Different cultures and different peoples may and do have different conceptions of temporality and they often find great benefit in these ways of conceiving of self, community, work, existence. And while there are certainly benefits to living by the orthodox and orthopraxic tenets of capitalist temporal order, there are as we’ve noted downsides, and conflicting time perception can of course be a “root cause” of socio-economic disadvantage if you don’t share the norm.[17] And herein lies the challenge or our charge. If systems of time perception conflict in some manner so as to create further dis-ease and suffering for people what ought we do? In other words, if we acknowledge the creative Heideggerian tension between clock or calendar time and life as some cultures or peoples experience it how should we respond? Should we tell those who employ any alternative model of temporality to “get with the program” else they be left behind socio-economically or might we strike a Buddhist middle way? The dharma lives in life, not just ideas so a concrete example of contemporary dis-ease and suffering may help.

According to recent reports “Aboriginal Australians constitute a disproportional percentage of unemployed Australians, are more likely to be employed in part-time than full-time positions, [are] less commonly found in managerial roles, and tend to have statistically shorter periods of job retention than non-Aboriginal Australians.”[18] These conditions seem to bear out further suggestions that Aboriginal Australians are more socio-economically disadvantaged than other groups here in Australia as the “level of Aboriginal employment can be regarded as a key social indicator of the health of individuals and communities, and plays a significant role in promoting Aboriginal ‘economic participation, independence, health and social outcomes’.”[19] Fully acknowledging the complex web of conditions that impact relative socio-economic wellbeing, when attempting to understand why Aboriginal peoples may be struggling in these spheres of life some scholars are beginning to suggest that “the social position of Aboriginal Australians today is a reflection of the way in which they have ‘incorporated into the capitalist system’.”[20] I would even go so far as to suggest that this is shorthand for adoption of the capitalist temporal order.

Here’s an example of what I mean… In a 1996 report appearing in the international journal Time and Society, M. Donaldson noted the following: “Unwilling to give up their traditional relationship to time, Aboriginal workers were known to disappear from work spontaneously, when ceremony or seasonal movements demanded it, ‘I go because I must go’. The settlers called this ‘walkabout’ and from the very beginning it became associated with stereotypes and misinterpretations of Aboriginal culture and work ethic that stemmed back to a general misunderstanding of cultural values.”[21] Aboriginal cultural values or temporal values suggest that time is a subjective quality rather than an objective one. Time is contextual to what is being measured. “Aboriginal Australians perceive time as circular, in contrast to the linear ‘arrow’ [of progress], which Western notions use to visualize the passing of time.”[22] Time is something that is “inseparable from the land itself and [as such it] play[s] a central role in numerous areas of cultural life as a source of personal identity, a calendar of seasonal movements, a basis of social interaction, and a guide to religious ceremony.”[23] “Aboriginal Australians believe in doing things when they want to do them and are therefore hesitant to make social commitments in the first place.” So time constraints like working hours and holidays, as defined by the capitalist temporal order, do not exist for Aboriginal peoples because “time is inseparable from action, and therefore working hours are when an individual is working, ceremonial time is time that is being devoted to ceremony.” I think the Buddha, Nagarjuna, and Dogen would recognize this. The Judeo-Christian year, ‘the whole concept of an annual schedule that the broader Australian population follows, starting with New Year and going up to Christmas, does not really apply to the Aboriginal population.”[24] In other words, adoption of the capitalist orthodox time perception, in which the working week, defined as 8am – 5pm, five days a week for fifty weeks a year, “something which is ‘engrained’ in individuals from the moment they are young, and thus it is easy to take for granted as the only logical way in which to divide and distinguish time” may simply create more suffering for Aboriginals Australians.[25]

At a minimum, some compromise between temporal orders may be useful, if not necessary. I share the position put forth by Kelly Adams when she posited in a 2009 report that “it is ethnocentric to judge the work ethic of a population based upon our own notions of work and time relationships and through identifying the root causes of the employment issues we can work towards assisting Aboriginal employees in meeting compromise.”[26] Adams goes on to suggest there is a “need for ‘practical policy-making’ that is culturally appropriate in order to secure a successful future for Aboriginal employment.”

The good news is that some British-Australian corporate employers have already begun this to a degree. For example the Rio Tinto Group, or more specifically the mining arm of Rio Tinto has “identified many of the challenges in indigenous employment as stemming back to a two-way misunderstanding of cultural values: both the employers having limited knowledge of the complex cultural obligations of the Indigenous individuals seeking employment and a general lack of experience within the industrial setting on the part of the Indigenous people… These challenges are [being] confronted by the mining industry by taking measures to cross-culturally train, as well as to make adaptations and compromises to the industrial culture itself in order to accommodate the cultural obligations of Indigenous people.”[27] Examples of this include the implementation of flexible work schedules, which include “rostered days off, job sharing, variable working hours, and ‘recycling’ of workers. ‘Recycling’ of workers allow employees to go walkabout for a while, if they can find someone else to fill their role when they are gone, and then they will be allowed to come back to the job when they are ready.”[28] These are good and reasonable steps towards what we as Buddhist scholars and practitioners might describe as a more balanced, Middle Way of being, but the biggest question that should be arising for us is given our unique understanding of the dharma and the religio-philosophic traditions that have sought to respond to suffering wherever it is found is simply how might we help.

I argue that socially engaged Buddhists who seek ways to “apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to [contemporary] situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice” are uniquely positioned to be strong supporters of Aboriginal peoples based on somewhat shared conceptions of temporality. At some fundamental level both Aboriginal Australians and socially engaged Buddhists consciously or unconsciously either reject the hegemony of the capitalist temporal system or at least understand, as Heidegger did, that there are alternative “temporalities of human experience and engagement that deserve to be explored,” analyzed and perhaps even valued. The challenge and task for socially engaged Buddhists is to find creative new ways to address institutionalized forms of duhkha wherever they’re found. Here in Western Australia this could entail standing in interspiritual solidarity (what scholar Loretta Pyles describes as “a form of coalition building that transcends the politics that separates diverse religious and spiritual practitioners”[29]) and advocating on behalf of Aboriginal workers during the upcoming Labour Day events on March 3rd.[30] It might also take the shape of a more intentional exploration of the possible intersection between Buddhist and Aboriginal notions of temporality following this conference, thereby providing a conceptual groundwork for cross-tradition community building and the development of future strategies for social transformation.

Between the work of groups such as the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA) here in Perth, the Association of Engaged Buddhists (AEB), a group of lay Buddhist practitioners and resident ordained monks and nuns, established in 1993 in New South Wales, the participants and observers of this distinguished conference on Buddhism in Australia, and the countless other followers of the buddha-dharma I think that time is on our side. We are awash in being-time… breathe and be.


  • Adams, Kelly. “The Perseverance of Aboriginal Australian Time Philosophy and its Impact on Integration Into the Mainstream Labor Force.” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection Paper 618 (2009): i-40.
  • Aveni, Anthony. Empires of Time. New York: Kodansha, 1995. Quoted in David Loy, “Momo, Dogen, and the Commodification of Time,” Kronoscope 2, no. 1 2002. 102.
  • Carel, Havi. Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger. New York: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2006.
  • Grudin, Robert. Time and the Art of Living. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Hammer, Espen. “On Modern Time,” International New York Times, January 1, 2012.
  • Houston, Alan, ed. Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings on Politics, Economics, and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Levine, Robert Levine. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. Marya: A Life. New York: Plume, 1998.
  • Pyles, Loretta. Progressive Community Organizing: A Critical Approach for a Globalizing World. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Sewell, William H. Jr. “The Temporalities of Capitalism.” Socio-Economic Review 6 (2008): 517-537.


  1. Benjamin Franklin (b. January 17, 1706; d. April 17, 1790).
  2. Alan Houston, ed., Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings on Politics, Economics, and Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 200-202.
  3. The Free-Thinker Vol 3: 121, May 18, 1719.
  4. Anthony Aveni, Empires of Time (New York: Kodansha, 1995): 135, quoted in David Loy, “Momo, Dogen, and the Commodification of Time,” Kronoscope 2, no. 1 (2002): 102.
  5. Kelly Adams, “The Perseverance of Aboriginal Australian Time Philosophy and its Impact on Integration Into the Mainstream Labor Force.” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection Paper 618 (2009): 5.
  6. Havi Carel, Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger (New York: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2006): 90.
  7. Joyce Carol Oates, Marya: A Life (New York: Plume, 1998).
  8. David Loy, “Momo, Dogen, and the Commodification of Time,” Kronoscope 2, no. 1 (2002): 102.
  9. Robert Levine, A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006): 107.
  10. “Who’s Feeling Rushed?” Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends, February 28, 2006,
  11. Marin Clarkberg, “The Time-Squeeze in American Families: From Causes to Solutions” (paper presented at the Economic Policy Institute symposium, June 15, 1999).
  12. David R. Loy, “Saving Time: A Buddhist Perspective on the End,” Digital Library & Museum of Buddhist Studies.
  13. Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Harper & Row, 1982): 2.
  14. Joanna Macy, “to Reinhabit Deep Time,” last modified 2012,
  15. Adams, 1.
  16. Espen Hammer, “On Modern Time,” International New York Times, January 1, 2012,
  17. Adams, i.
  18. Adams, 3.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. M. Donaldson, “The End of Time? Aboriginal Temporality and the British Invasion of Australia,” Time and Society (1996): 187-207, quoted in Kelly Adams, “The Perseverance of Aboriginal Australian Time Philosophy and its Impact on Integration Into the Mainstream Labor Force.” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection Paper 618 (2009): 6.
  22. Adams, 21.
  23. R. Broome, Aboriginal Australians (1994), quoted in Kelly Adams, “The Perseverance of Aboriginal Australian Time Philosophy and its Impact on Integration Into the Mainstream Labor Force.” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection Paper 618 (2009): 6.
  24. Adams, 14.
  25. Adams, 20.
  26. Adams, 21.
  27. Adams, 7.
  28. Adams, 17.
  29. Loretta Pyles, Progressive Community Organizing: A Critical Approach for a Globalizing World (New York: Routledge, 2014): 186.
  30. A majority of countries that recognize this day mark on May 1st. Although Labour Day in Western Australia is celebrated on the first Monday in March (March 3rd, 2014) whereas it is celebrated on the first Monday in October in the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Queensland, and New South Wales. Labour Day can be considered synonymous with International Workers’ Day, which is a celebration of the international labour movement. The day commemorates the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago. On this day, peaceful demonstrators assembled to strike for an eight-hour workday, when the police opened fire on the crowd.


By Dr. Mark A. Toole, High Point University, USA
The third International Conference Buddhism & Australia 2014