Monday, July 29, 2013


It’s time to talk about time again because it’s a thought-provoking subject.

A Western encyclopedia defines time as a measurement in which events can be organized from the past through the present into the future. Also, time has to do with durations of events and the intervals between them.

The same encyclopedia says time has been a major study in religion, philosophy, and science. But here’s the kicker. Defining time in a way applicable to all fields without running around in circles has consistently eluded researchers.

That’s like saying the more we know about time, the less we can agree on. To scrunch it down even more, the more we know, the less we know.

 Today’s talk is not centered on religion, or science or philosophy. Instead it’s based on the notions of someone who lived almost a thousand years ago and who knew nothing next to nothing about religion or philosophy or science. He did knew about time. I’m speaking of Zen Master Dogen, and I’m referring to his talk titled “Uji.”

Uji is a Japanese expression that can be translated as Being and Time. However, such a rendering has caused certain scholars to think Dogen was involved in some philosophical speculation such as the Western existentialism of modern times. Existentialism, which was promoted by the 1940s philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, says that in a logical sense, an individual exists, and existence is that person’s essence. That’s an interesting theory, but it has little to do with Dogen, who steered clear of speculative thinking and logic in favor of truth and reality.

Dogen presented Uji to his monks in written form rather than as a Dharma talk. Maybe he wanted it to be studied carefully rather than being absorbed by hearing it once.

Maybe he wanted it to last for a time.

The phrase Uji has two components. The first part refers to being, the second half to time.  Together they spell out “The Time Being.” Dogen was perhaps focusing on his own experience of being unattached to the existence of a personal self that exists independent of time.

We live in time. We are time. From instant to instant we are ever-changing. To paraphrase Yakusan, an ancient Soto Zen master, Uji is the time when some form of being endures,

Time and existence may seem like two different concepts, but they are the same. The past and the future do not exist. Only the present moment exists because it’s the point where existence and time come together.

At the beginning of his Uji talk Dogen quoted Zen Master Yakusan:

Standing on top of a mountain is time,
Moving at the bottom of the ocean is time,
A Buddhist image is time,
A stick is time,
Earth and space are time.

Time is not an appliance or a gadget, but humans have invented years, and months, and hours to make something out of nothing. Especially in the Western world, time has become something to be reckoned with. We have watches and clocks and hourglasses. We measure time and live by the notion of its coming and going.

But time does not come and go. Time is now. In the interval that you can say the word “Now” it’s all over. It’s already “Then.” When I strike this singing bowl I create “Now.” This is an example of time being.

No-sound, sound, and no-sound. There is no here today, gone tomorrow. There is only now.

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

“Mountains are of time, oceans are of time. If there was no time, there would be no mountains or oceans because they are of the present time.

“When I was climbing a mountain or crossing a river I was there in that time. So there must have been time in me. Furthermore, I actually exist now, so time could not have departed. Time is, was, and will be.

If we think of time as fleeting or flying away then time would have holes in it. But there are no openings in time. Time goes on the same, without change.

What changes is us.

Albert Einstein was tuned into time. He claimed that the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Gudo Nishijima was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1919. Initially he was a practicing lawyer who was employed by the government. Later he became ordained a Zen priest. As such he gives instruction in Tokyo and Osaka, and at Tokei-in temple. He is best known for his English translations of the four-volume set of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

            In 1995 Nishijima gave a lengthy lecture at a Zen retreat. That lecture forms the basis for most of today’s talk. I’ll bypass his words on the early history of Zen Buddhism in Japan and focus on what he says about Zen today. If any of this echoes what you already know, or what I may have said before, go with it. It may be the same, but it’s also different.

            Worldwide, the two main schools of Zen are Rinzai and Soto. Soto adheres to the notion of satori or enlightenment. Their reason for practicing zazen—meditation—is to become enlightened.

Soto believes that zazen is enlightenment. That is, zazen and awakening may seem different but they are the same.

            Nishijima says “The Soto sect believes that we should not expect any enlightenment other than the practice of Zazen itself. . . .  So we can think that oneness between practice and experience is fundamental Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is established on the basis of action, and action has the characteristic of oneness between practice and experience.”

            Master Dogen said to simply practice zazen, and he expressed the term zazen in Japanese as shikantaza, or “just sitting.”

            In the Western world most people think zazen based on enlightenment and zazen based on shikantaza are both Buddhism. No way, Nishijima disagrees. He says that practicing zazen to get enlightenment is a kind of idealistic philosophy that is not Buddhism. He defers to Dogen, who declared zazen was based on four principles:

1.      Not thinking.
2.      Normalizing the body by sitting in the right posture.
3.      Ridding oneself of body and mind.
4.      Becoming one piece.

Zazen is not considering some philosophical theory. The state of not thinking is not thinking.
Dogen’s second principle has to do with the oneness of body and mind. When we make our body balanced, by sitting in an upright relaxed position, we balance our mind.

The third principle has to do with getting rid of body and mind, which means forgetting body and mind. Not thinking of body and mind. Engaging in being in the moment.

The fourth principle is becoming one piece.

So what does becoming one piece mean?

When we practice zazen we experience a state where body and mind become one, and we are doing nothing more than just sitting. Shikantaza. According to Dogen, that is it.

That is it.

In Nishijima’s after-talk he was asked about practice and experience being one. He answered that practice and experience are concepts or notions that intellectually are usually thought of as two different things, but there really is no separation. In Soto, to do something for the purpose of realizing the effect is false. Practice is the same as the effect of practice.

 Dogen insisted on practice, which is not two but one. Its state stays with us, in our body and our mind.

In shikantaza we come back to ourselves, which is coming back to the universe. That is what is known as seeing our face before we were born.

So, what is the universe?

The universe is everything here and now. Therefore, living in the universe is living in the endless world. It’s the feeling of sitting in zazen.

When you sit zazen with our sangha you are the same as the universe. If you sit zazen at home you are the same as the universe. Go to another town or another country, and you are the same as the universe. There may physical separation, but there is no Zen separation.

That big something is known as Dharma. It’s the basic principle of the universe experience, the principle of life’s purpose.

In so-called reality, we are all sitting in different places in space. But in time we are all together. We have a connection.

Dogen would say this connection is always here. We intellectually think we are separate, but in the total universe there is no distinction. The universe is a kind of energy stream which we all are part of. There is no distinction. This is the basis of quantum theory.

Please don’t ask me to explain quantum theory. It has to do with amounts of continuous energy, with probability, and with the sameness of different parts. If that is hard to grasp, just remember the Zen saying that everything is different and at the same time everything is the same.

Not one, not two. Each is different but both are the same.

A while back I mentioned Dharma as the basic principle of life’s purpose. Nishijima said that in Buddhism we revere the state of the present moment. To paraphrase him, we usually think that purpose exists at some distant place, but that is intellectual thinking. In truth, purpose exists at the present moment in our action.

Nishijima was asked if intuition at the present moment helped us to choose the right direction. He said yes, and that was the reason we do zazen.

Therefore, we should develop our intuition. To promote intuition is to keep balanced, and that inspires us to always maintain the intuitive ability.

A questioner brought up the point that if our habitual ways of thinking are learned through society and have become a pattern, how do we change those subconscious habits?

Nishijima’s answer was simple and straightforward. It was to practice zazen because when we practice zazen we throw away body and mind.

And that seems a good place to end this talk.

Monday, July 08, 2013


Speaking of groups—which we weren’t, but which we are now—our gathering is a Zen meditation group known as a sangha. That’s a word that in Sanskrit and Pali means a unified body of individuals.


          I guess “unified” means that when we are here, we are here.


          We may not consider ourselves Buddhists, but as with many Buddhist sanghas we meditate together. We discuss matters of Zen as well as a wide range of subjects. We think and not-think. That’s pretty much what our group does.


          So what is our group called? What is its title? And do we need a title?


          Do you remember a 1948 movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre? In it a Mexican outlaw, pretending to be a sheriff, is asked for his badge. His answer:


          “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”


          Well, our sangha don’t need no stinkin’ title.


          However—and there is always a however—for the sake of letting people know of our existence, this group has a name, and it is Fayetteville Soto Zen Group.


          The world has plenty of diverse groups. Each has its own reason for existing, each has its own procedure, and each has its own purpose. Some are heavy duty cerebral assemblies, others are relaxed social gatherings.


          Before we dive into the ocean of groups, let’s define the word therapy. Therapy basically means the treatment of some kind of disorder. A disorder can be bodily, mental, or behavioral.


          Therapy groups have been big time since the 1960s. They may also go by the name Personal Growth Seminars or Human Potential Retreats. Basically they involve get-in-touch-with-your-feelings-good-or-bad-and express them out loud.


Therapy groups are based on a series of meetings that are guided by a person trained in rehabilitation other than the use of drugs or surgery. Attendees are encouraged to voice their problems. The interactions between individuals and the leader are considered to be a part of the remedial process.


          Counseling groups are usually modest in size. They usually comprise two people, an individual and a trained person who gives advice based on personal interviews that test interests and inclinations.


Primal Scream Therapy, to use a few psychobabble words, is a trauma-based therapy that popped up in the early 1970s. It was the brain child of psychologist Arthur Janov. According to Janov neuroses are caused by the repressed pains of childhood ordeals, many of them attributed to the fault of parents.


Adherents were encouraged to show their pain, live their pain. A friend of mine who was involved in primal therapy described his group lying on the floor along with several other participants and screaming their guts out. It was a form of treatment endorsed by such celebrities as the Beatles’ John Lennon, actor James Earl Jones, and pianist Roger Williams.


Primal scream therapy is no longer in fashion. Apparently screaming had no lasting benefits.


          Moving from the ridiculous, there are support groups of various sizes ranging from two to more individuals. They are designed to offer moral or psychological help in the form of a listening ear in times of grief, approaching death, and cancer.


          To switch from the cerebral to the practical, Book discussion groups are quite popular. Individuals are expected to read a pre-assigned volume, then meet to discuss such matters as writing style, the author’s intent, and any messages that come across.


You may have heard of the Great Books Foundation. It concentrates on certain classics of literature, philosophy, history, and science that are believed to contain the basic ideas of Western culture.


There are religious prayer groups whose members gather to pray or to worship their god collectively. At the other end of the scale are pagan groups that gather to mock religious beliefs and practices.


There are atheist groups that meet to share their convictions that belief groups are a crock of hogwash. Supposedly it validates their beliefs as non-believers.


There are informal discussion groups that meet to discuss women’s issues, men’s issues, or any societal issues.


Many aficionados—buffs, junkies, enthusiasts—attend groups for the purpose of displaying their arcane knowledge, or for reputing other individuals, or to dispute or bicker.


You may wonder why I’ve drifted so far from Zen.


Well, a Zen sangha is not your everyday sort of group.


Zen is not a major surgery, or a repair shop, or a Band Aide. It is not a forum for public speaking.


In classical times, if a Zen scholar or a novice were to start spilling his or her guts, a master would probably say, “That is well and good, but what does it have to do with peach tree in the garden?”


A Zen master or a Zen teacher is not a therapist or the kind of mind-altering specialist commonly known as a shrink.


A Zen master or teacher encourages people to think for themselves. He pushes individuals to realize their own potential. He does this by irrational statements or by word puzzles. He may even exhibit oddball behavior such as plopping a sandal on top of his head. These are tactics to encourage a person to abandon logic and behave intuitively.


Only by thinking for one’s own self can one truly comprehend one’s self.


          To quote Martin R. De Haan, “If you can’t think for yourself or make a decision, then you’re in trouble.”


          Ironically, De Haan was a Christian minister, which brings to mind the old saying about the pot calling the kettle black.



The idiom "The pot calling the kettle black" is used in a situation where a person is considered guilty of the very thing of which they accuse another. It dates from the time when cooking was done over an open hearth fireplace; both the kettle and the cooking pot would be suspended above it and collect the same amount of soot.