Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I have talked about Zen Master Dogen’s concept of time before. It’s a mystifying but fascinating view that bears looking into again.

Probably the notion of time as a measurable concept developed in prehistory from the human observance of dawn and dusk, or of the phases of the moon, or of seasonal changes.

There seems to be no hard evidence that living things other than humans actually quantify time and keep close track of it. Of course, a squirrel stores acorns when it senses winter is approaching. Some furry creatures shed their natural coat with the seasons, or they undergo a color change. But do rabbits and bears and earthworms have a sense of the passage of time? Do they have an awareness of past and future? Or are humans the only beings that consciously demarcate intervals and durations of experience, think about the past, and worry about the future?

If you want to overwork your brain, think “what if.” That is, what if there was no notion of time? What would existence be like?

Zen monks aim to separate themselves physically and mentally from the everyday world, and its pressures of time, in order to focus on their training. However, they can’t escape time altogether. In a monastery, drums and bells sound off to mark the beginning and ending of meditation sessions, to signal work periods and mealtimes.

About the only individuals who manage to get away from time completely are hermits who live a solitary life in a forest or on a mountain. Their lives are regulated by the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset and by their bodily needs. That is, they eat when they’re hungry and they drink when they’re thirsty.

They don’t look at their Timex to see if it’s six o’ clock and time to sit down to potatoes and rice.

Excluding recluses, most of us live a life that’s controlled by an allegiance to time. We cause ourselves to wake up at a certain hour so we can be at work, or at school, or at a meeting. As much as we might like to forget the constraints of minutes, and hours, and days, time is important to living our lives.

We can moan and groan about time, but we can’t reject it.

One value of the concept of time is that it gives us something to talk about. Time is as much a topic of conversation as is the weather. Remember Charles Dudley Warner’s declaration that everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. The same can be said for time.

Zen doesn’t deny time any more than it ignores the laws and rules of society. But Zen sees time uniquely. Zen sees time as right now. Neither the past nor the future exists. Only now is actual, and now doesn’t last long.

Dogen wrote at some length on the concept of time in a Dharma presentation called Uji. Uji is a Japanese word that has been translated as “Being and Time, or “Just for the Time Being.”

Dogen said, in essence, that the whole of time is the whole of existence.

“Uji” is a common expression in Japanese, equivalent to several common wordings that are used in the west: “For the time being,” “Now and again,” “At a time when.” According to Hubert Nearman, a translator of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Dogen based his Uji talk on his experience of becoming unattached to a self that exists independent of time and independent of worldly things. This is the point of Zen, the dropping off of body and mind.

Time is not a thing. But by devising hours, and months, and years, and keeping track of such intervals, humans have made time something out of nothing. They have made time something to be reckon with.

You are probably familiar with the basic law of physics that says matter can neither be created nor destroyed. But laws are overturned and broken because they are made by humans to suit their own logic and convenience.

Take snowflakes. Physics says it’s not possible for any two snowflakes to be exactly alike. This is hard to swallow. Can we accept as fact that snow has been falling on earth for some four or five billion years and never has there been, or ever will be, no two identical snowflakes?

How about grains of sand? Or human fingerprints?

To get back to uji, time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time. Let me say that again. Time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time.

Don’t ask me to explain that. Either you get it or you don’t get it.

Putting this in Zen terms, there is no permanent self. I say again: There is no permanent self. There is uji, the time when some form of being persists.

To quote Dogen, “The phrase ‘is for the time being’ implies that time in its totality is what existence is, and existence in all its occurrences is what time is.”

Dogen’s words are not only about uji—the time when some form of being persists—they come from an individual who lived uji. Nothing is definite, nothing is certain. Every thought that comes up is just for the time being.

Again I quote Dogen:

“Mountains are of time: oceans are of time. If there was no time, neither mountains nor oceans could be. Do not think that time does not exist for the mountains and oceans of the present moment. Were time to cease to exist, so would mountains and oceans cease to exist?”

And a final word from Dogen, “When one looks up and unbolts the barrier gate, ‘arriving’ refers to the time when body and mind are dropped off, and ‘having not arrived’ refers to the time when this ‘dropping off’ is left behind.”

What does this mean?

It means one should always go onward, becoming Buddha. Whatever arises one should constantly apply oneself without thinking of arriving or not yet arriving.


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