Being Time



This week Tesshin Roshi returned to Dogen’s Shobogenzo.  Roshi reminded us that Dogen’s work is broad and deep and it is not our job to try understand it intellectually.  What we want to do is take it in “experientially,” or to simply “bathe” in its wisdom.


This week Roshi focused on the 20th fascicle called “UJI” or “Being Time.”  This is a concept which comes up repeatedly in koans – we may hear the phrase “… in the moment there was a deep awakening …”  What is this awakening which Dogen and the koans are pointing to?  


Roshi started reading the first paragraph of the fascicle …


Standing atop a soaring mountain peak is for the time being And plunging down to the floor of the Ocean’s abyss is for the time being;

Being a next-door neighbor or a man in the street is for the time being And being the whole of the great earth and boundless space is for the time being. 


According to Wikipedia, Dogen borrowed this from the Sōtō Zen Tang dynasty patriarch Yaoshan Weiyan (745-827).  Below is one English Translation …


An old Buddha said:

For the time being, I stand astride the highest mountain peaks.

For the time being, I move on the deepest depths of the ocean floor.

For the time being, I’m three heads and eight arms [of an Asura fighting demon].

For the time being, I’m eight feet or sixteen feet [a Buddha-body while seated or standing].

For the time being, I’m a staff or a whisk.

For the time being, I’m a pillar or a lantern.

For the time being, I’m Mr. Chang or Mr. Li [any Tom, Dick, or Harry].

For the time being, I’m the great earth and heavens above.



Roshi noted that Dogen is implying that time and being are everywhere and are exactly the same thing – from the tallest mountain to the bottom of the ocean.  We can think of time as the nature of each moment.  We know a day is 24 hours, but do we really know what time is?  Yes, we can measure it, but we struggle to really understand it.  Roshi noted that Dogen is taking on one of the most fundamental questions of all religions and philosophies.


We all live in space and time.  We measure ourselves in space and time and are always thinking in these terms.  We are shaped by the past and we live for the future.  We bustle from place to place in our daily life.  However, Dogen is saying that all of that is NOT our existence.  Dogen is stating unequivocally that there is no past or future.  The only thing we have is this time right now.  Consider – do you really understand what time is?  Can you hold it in your hand?  No.  We cannot understand time because our very existence is time.  We are too close to it to really understand it.  In our deluded state keep searching for the meaning but never find it because we are already it.  Imagine a molecule of water searching for water in the ocean.  If it does not understand that it is already water, it will never find water!  


Roshi noted that when we chant the Heart Sutra we mention “All Buddhas throughout space and time…”  Which Buddhas are we referring to?  Are we thinking about Buddhas thousands of years ago or thousands of years in the future?   Dogen would say that that interpretation is misleading at best.  Buddha nature is everywhere because time is everywhere.  We could look at the top of a mountain or the bottom of the ocean.  We could look in another galaxy far away.  We could look through the most powerful electron microscope.  It would always be the same.  Time and existence and buddha nature.  Buddha nature is always present.


Roshi paused here and stated that many students become confused when they consider this fact.  If time and existence are everything and everywhere, then why even practice?  There is nothing to learn and nowhere to go!  Roshi stated that practice allows us to be truly alive instead of simply existing.  We are already perfect in being and time.  However, our practice allows us to internalize this.  We can choose to ignore this reality and constantly chase the ghosts of the past or the allure of the future.  Our bodies will still function and the world will still spin, but we will never escape our suffering.  Practice allows us to deal with the reality of moment-to-moment time.  We strive to understand this not to solve a tough puzzle and look smart, but to alleviate suffering both in ourselves and ultimately everyone else. 


Roshi wrapped up by asking us to consider our own lives.  In times of extreme crisis or extreme pleasure, we find ourselves “in the moment.”  What does this mean?  Perhaps in these moments, we briefly stop looking back into the past or into the future and actually live in that moment-to-moment existence.  Practice is simply building our ability to recognize this state and giving us the skills to come back to this state more often.