Monday, February 18, 2013


          More than once I have talked about Zen Master Dogen’s concept of time. It’s an important issue, so let’s have another look at it.

          Normally we think of time as an experience of duration. A period of an event or action. The interlude between a starting and a stopping. A “during which.”

Scientists can describe minutes and seconds, and days and years, and they have ways of measuring time. They also designate different forms of time that are pretty impressive.

But scientists are unable to actually describe what time is.

Solar time is measured by the rotation of Earth on its axis, and the Sun’s apparent motion across the sky.

Sidereal time uses the apparent motion of so-called fixed stars.

Note science’s hedge terms of “apparent” and “so-called.” They mean that we think we know, but we aren’t sure.

Most people use standard time, which is based on the division of planet Earth into zones. The Earth has twenty-four time zones.

Then there is atomic time, which is based on the frequency of atomic or molecular electromagnetic waves.

Probably the notion of time as something measurable developed in prehistory from the human observance of the breathing space between dusk and dawn, or of the phases of the moon, or of seasonal changes.

          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, and to signal work periods and meals.

          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. There is a Zen koan that I can’t remember entirely that says drink when you’re thirsty and eat when you’re hungry.

          Hermits don’t look at their Rolex 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 breakfast. As much as we might like to forget the constraints of minutes, and hours, and days, time is important to living our lives.

          According to Einstein, or Woody Allen: Time is what prevents everything from happening at once.

          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.

I’ll repeat 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. 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, 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.

          Time is right now. Not yesterday or tomorrow.

          The Danish author Isak Dinesen wrote, “You can’t change the past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about the future.”


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Monday, April 22, 2013 12:32:00 AM  

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