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what if there were no past and future?

Illustration from The New Yorker, showing tribesman and researcher.

Illustration from The New Yorker, showing tribesman and researcher.

Volunteering at our recycling centre gives me first-pick privileges among books and magazines. A 2007 item in the New Yorker reports on the Pirahã, a remote Amazonian tribe with a …

“… living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of [their] lives. Committed to an existence where only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions–and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths.”

They “perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience–which [is] defined as anything they can see or hear, or that someone living has seen or heard. When someone walks around the bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but has ‘gone out of existence.’ … They say the same when a candle flame flickers: the light ‘goes in and out of existence.'”

I wonder what the Pirahã would make of the Buddha and his teachings. As to the historical person, they’d probably react by asking “Have you seen this man?” As to his teachings, they might well be amused to hear about this phenomenon called impermanence and chuckle at the suggestion that one might benefit from living in the present. And what of wishing and hoping and longing? And of death and bereavement?

source: Coliapinto, J. “The interpreter.” New Yorker. April 16, 2007, pp. 118-137. Click here to access the article in full.


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