Monday, December 04, 2006


     In our last meeting we talked about the concept of time. We mentioned that in Western terms—and in Judeo-Christian-Islam thought—time began with the creation of everything by a supreme being (God), and time will end when the supreme being performs the Last Judgment.

     That sort of time is defined as lineal. It goes from point A to point B, it does not reverse itself, and it does not repeat itself.

     We mentioned that in traditional Hinduism time is a series of rebirths, or new beginnings. We also the talked about astronomy’s big bang theory of beginning of everything and its possible ending. And we said in Buddhist thought time can be likened to a circle, which has no beginning, no ending.

     As for Zen, I’ll get to it in due time.

     For the most part, most of us have lived with, and in, the western tradition. One or more of us may not subscribe to the notion of time beginning at some point and coming to an end at a later date, but that is neither here nor there. We’re used to thinking of a lineal progression that includes now, as well as earlier than now, and later than now.

     For example, last week I took a long hike. Now I’m speaking with you. Tomorrow I’ll write an essay on something or other. I woke up at 6:00 o’clock this morning. I had lunch around mid-day. I’ll go to bed after 10 o’clock. Time is as much a basic part of human lives as going to the bathroom.

     Many humans are ruled by time. Business people, military people, teachers. I wonder if so-called dumb animals have a since of time. I’m fortunate enough to be moderately removed from time’s disciplines because I’m an independent freelance writer, and on top of that I’m semi-retired.

     Still, I’m a part of society, so I have to follow some conventions. I wear a wristwatch so I won’t be late to my university class, which starts at 11:30 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As free as I am, if I want to fly off to a secret place where I can, for a while, ignore time—an island or a mountain—I have to be at the airport on time.

     The point is, unless we become hermits, we all have to live with time and its measurements.

     So how does this square with Zen? What is Zen time?

     To a Zen person, time isn’t an independent reality, nor is it an abstract concept by which we measure duration. Everything is transitory, so why bother slicing impermanence into measurable chunks?

     Time is a flash of lightning. It’s the slam of my hand against the wall. Time is right now, not a little before, or a little after. It’s right now.

     I recently read a wonderful account of the notion of time as experienced by a Zen recluse. The piece is in the book, Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits (Bill Porter, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1993).

     “One day, after putting a pot of potatoes on the fire to cook, I sat cross-legged waiting until they were done. Suddenly, I entered samadhi (that is, undistracted mind).

     “… several monks living nearby were puzzled that I hadn’t called on them for some time and decided to pay me a visit…. Outside my hut, they saw tiger tracks in the snow but no human footprints. When they opened my door they saw I had entered samadhi. One of them struck a stone chime. As I returned to consciousness, they asked me if I had eaten. I said, ‘Not yet, but the potatoes must be done by now.’ As I lifted the cover of the cauldron, I found the potatoes covered with an inch of mold.”

     In the Western view, time is differentiation and determination. There is yesterday and today and tomorrow.

     Zen isn’t concerned with differentiation and determination. In Zen, time is an absolute point, with no enduring features. Our good friend D. T. Suzuki says (Living by Zen, Samuel Weiser, Inc., Maine, 1972), “When time is reduced to a point with no durability, it is ‘absolute present’ or ‘eternal now’.”

     Suzuki goes on to say that this “absolute present” is no abstraction…. It is alive with creative virility…. There is no past left behind, no future waiting ahead.

     Some western philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hegel, considered that time and history are inflexibly linked. I don’t want to dig into this. If you want to dig into it, read Spinoza and Hegel. What I want to say is Zen time has little historical value because it’s right now.

     Dogen, a Japanese Zen master, who lived from 1200 to 1253, suggested that there is no time that isn’t the right time.

     I’ll close with another thought from Dogen.

     Flowers are time. A mountain is time. If they weren’t, there would be no flowers, no mountains. Time is being. Being is time.