Tuesday, June 09, 2009


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 reckoned with.

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.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


A recent talk was about nirvana. Now I’m going to flog a dead horse and say some more about the subject.

Just for the fun of it, I looked up nirvana in the American Heritage Dictionary. There, the word is related to Buddhism, and is defined as the ineffable ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. Some synonyms are bliss, cloud nine, utopia, dreamland.

Nirvana is a Sanskrit word that is sometimes printed as nibbana. It is supposedly the goal of Buddhist life.

But this implies a contradiction.

Buddhism, and in particular, Zen, does not have a goal. Rather than striving to attain an objective, Zen is being.

For another definition, nirvana is a mental, physical, and spiritual state that lies beyond the normal range of perception. That sounds pretty spooky to most Westerners. As I said earlier, the word is Sanskrit, and it literally means “to blow out,” as to blow out a candle flame.

This is where Western thinking goes awry. To blow out a candle flame is to extinguish it. To extinguish is to make an end to life, to expire, even to go to the so-called abode of righteous souls after death: Heaven with a capital “H.”

But nirvana is not Heaven. Nirvana is not a place but a state.

A principle of Buddhism says that all life is suffering. Suffering involves the flames of hatred, craving, greed, and ignorance. Only in nirvana are these flames snuffed out.

Within Western scholarship, debates go on over whether nirvana involves total annihilation or eternal bliss. Trying to settle this is like trying to resolve that medieval conundrum that occupied church authorities for centuries as to how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Who cares?

What does it matter?

Nirvana is indescribable and can be known only directly. It is not an external goal but one’s innermost nature.

But isn’t that the same as enlightenment? Awakening?

To answer myself, yes.

I dislike introducing another Sanskrit word, but it’s a word that often pops up in conjunction with nirvana, so it should be mentioned. The word is samsara. In simplest terms it means the course of life, involving birth, suffering, death, and, in Hinduism, rebirth.

In Buddhist terms, when one overcomes samsara, nirvana is achieved.

What is important is not to become attached to either samsara or nirvana because neither is a big deal. Nirvana is ultimate reality, but neither it nor samsara is a person, place, or thing. Becoming all wrapped up in the inevitable ups and downs of life is as undesirable as becoming attached to the ending of those ups and downs.

Remember the Beatle’s song “Let It Be.” Whatever it is, let it be.

Masao Abe, professor of Buddhism and Japanese Philosophy, said (Zen and Comparative Studies) “Nirvana is the real source of prajna (wisdom) because it is entirely free from the discriminating mind and thus is able to see everything in its uniqueness and distinctiveness without any sense of attachment."

Because nirvana is ultimate reality, attaining nirvana means gaining liberation from all duality.

Remember the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha, kill him.” This means not getting stuck in nirvana or in anything else that has the stink of religion.

When Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma “What is the ultimate principle of holy truth, Bodhidharma answered, “Emptiness, no holiness.”

Supposedly the Buddha was once asked about one’s existence after death. Because this was a highly abstract, theoretical question the Buddha didn’t bother to answer. Answers to such questions are of no value to awakening. Besides, words can’t make satisfactory statements about what lies beyond life, if anything lies beyond life.

Some scholars claim that enlightenment and nirvana are the same. Other scholars say they are different. Still others say nirvana and enlightenment are both the same and different, which is one of those fascinating Zen paradoxes that can keep you awake all night if you put your mind to it.

As Gary McClain and Eve Adamson say in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, “Wanting nirvana means you don’t have it, can’t have it. Having it means it doesn’t even occur to you to want it.”

When you are awakened, there’s no such thing as being enlightened.

For a lame analogy, let’s liken enlightenment, or nirvana, to a thing, say, a fresh peach. You get a glimpse of a peach, you think about the peach, you imagine how tasty the peach might be. You imagine the texture, the juiciness, and the flavor.

You eat the peach, and it is delicious.

Then the peach is gone. There’s no such thing any more than the peach. It has become a part of you, but you aren’t aware of that.

When you are awakened, there’s no such thing as being awakened.

Again quoting McClain and Adamson (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living), “Nirvana isn’t the end. It begins a gradual evolution of awakening throughout your life . . . .”

Remember the story and pictures of the classical Zen lesson of “The Ten Bulls,” also called “The Oxherding Pictures”? The final picture of the series is called “Entering the Marketplace,” and it denotes not removal from the world but being an integral part of it.

With awakening, or nirvana, you are more you than you were before. You have seen your face before you were born. You have become self-realization.

You are in the world but no longer of the world.