Monday, December 07, 2015




          If anyone thinks Zen statements are obscure or enigmatic they should consider this authorized definition of time. According to American Heritage Dictionary, time is—and I need to take a deep breath to recite this—“A nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.”

Furthermore, according to the same reference, “Time is an interval separating two points on this continuum.”

          Wow! How cryptic can you get? The second definition depends on your understanding of the first one. I’ll say that one again. Time is a nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.

          We don’t need to pick the words apart, because that will lead to further definitions. Even to total confusion. The point is this. Is that statement capable of being grasped intuitively? Can you snap it up and immediately become one with it?

Is that statement any more illuminating than: “The Tao that can be told is not the real Tao”?

          Time isn’t something that Taoism, or Buddhism, or Zen, greatly concerns itself with, because fretting about the concept of time usually leads into rambling down paths that go nowhere or stop at dead ends.

Western thought views time linearly, as a line that goes from point A to point B. Traditional Eastern thought considers time as cyclical, never beginning, never ending. Zen is neither. Zen hardly gives time a second thought. In Zen, time is no more important than the meaning of life, or what may or may not happen after death.

Many modern cosmologists see time as beginning with the so-called Big Bang, a humungous explosion that they believe occurred 20 billion years ago, plus or minus few billion years. That bang established the universe as we know it today. We could ask what there was before the Big Bang, but we won’t.

Today’s universe is either growing or shrinking, depending on which theory you subscribe to. Eventually, astronomers say, it will collapse completely into a tiny dot of matter, and everything will go back to before the beginning. Then the process may or may not start all over again.

          What might happen then is anyone’s guess. Do we get a fresh, new universe? Will it be different than the present one? Or will there again be trees and flowers and politicians? You pays your money and you takes your choice. It’s hardly worth worrying about.

Some Christians see time as beginning with the creation of the universe by God. Some Christians believe time will go on, as it has since that creation, until the return of Jesus Christ and the so-called Last Judgement. Incidentally, the term “Last Judgement” is supposed to be written with a capital letter “L” and a capital letter “J.” Why, I don’t know.

Anyway, this Last Judgement is something shared also in Jewish and Islamic scriptures. It’s a point in time when all of humanity will be tried by God as in a court of law. What happens to everyone after having been pronounced guilty or not guilty is rather vague, and we needn’t go into it.

What is also obscure is what happens to time then. At the Last Judgement does time—as it’s commonly thought of—end? Or does it go on in some other form in some other place? Does it begin all over again from scratch?

As an aside, certain religious folks are positive that the end of time will occur on the stroke of midnight, December 1999. To them, the sand in the old hourglass is running out fast. Other folks establish other dates for the event.

Hinduism views time as a recurrent series of births and rebirths that may or not happen in human form. That is, after death a human being might be reborn as a magnificent golden eagle, or perhaps a dung beetle.

Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha, probably never heard of the Western concept of time. He did try to dispel the Hindu notion of cyclical birth and rebirth because that concept removed matters from one’s own hands and placed them in the hands of a fickle fate. The Buddha was concerned with helping people to accept responsibility for their own behavior and their being not down the road but right now.

So, what is the view of Zen, or of Taoism, toward time?

Time is neither recurrent, nor is it lineal.

The notion of time, to a Zen person is a little bit like the notion of light to a physicist. It is a neither/nor cop-out.

Some years back, prominent physicists decided light displayed all the characteristics and behavior of an atomic bit, so they decided light was a particle. Some years later other physicists concluded that light undulated, wiggled up and down, so they concluded light was an electromagnetic wave.

You’re probably familiar with the tale of the three blind men, and their first encounter with an elephant. The first blind man laid his hands on the elephant’s side. “Goodness gracious,” he said. “An elephant is like a wall.”

The second blind man grabbed the elephant’s trunk. “No, no,” he said. “An elephant is like a snake.”

The third blind man embraced one of the elephant’s legs. “You’re both wrong,” he said. “An elephant is like a tree trunk.”

Getting back to Newtonian physics and light, after a while it was discovered that sometimes light behaved like a particle and sometimes it behaved like a wave. Then most of the scientists quit squabbling and agreed light could sometimes be a particle, and sometimes it could be a wave. What’s more, sometimes light could be both a particle and a wave.

So, what’s the point of all this religious and scientific stuff?

The point is this. In Taoist, or Buddhist, or Zen thought, time is neither cyclical nor lineal. Time is not repetitive, nor is time a continuous, uninterrupted sequence.

What then? If time is neither this nor that—which represents dualistic thinking, which is abhorred in Zen—just what the hell is time?

Where do you go when there’s no place to go?


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