Time and Being: Part I

6,000 words


“And it feels like we only go backwards.” – Tame Impala

“There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.” – Dogen Zenji

“To be natural is something which we must work on.” – Shunryu Syzuki, Zen teacher

You are already enlightened.

This is, perhaps, the central message of Zen Buddhism but also the cause of its central tension. If you’re already enlightened, then what’s the point of meditation and spiritual practice? Why should you read Zen texts or even become a student of Buddhism if you’ve already achieved (what appears to be) its core objective?

The “Platform Sutra,” a Chinese Zen scripture that dates back to the 8th century AD, discusses this paradox in a pair of “dharma verses” written by Huineng, an illiterate commoner from Southern China, and Shenxiu, the head monk of a monastery that belongs to the Northern Zen school (“dharma” refers to a teaching in Buddhism). Shenxiu wrote,

“The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.”

Huineng, on the other hand, wrote,

“Bodhi originally had no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clean and pure,
Where can it be stained by dust?”

Huineng, despite his background and lack of formal training, was appointed to be the next Zen patriarch for the deep wisdom that he displayed in his poem. It is a mistake to wait or strive for enlightenment, Huineng thought, because we already manifest it. Nor is it the case that we have to purify ourselves in order to attain our Buddha nature, since it was never tainted in the first place. Our Buddha nature is already perfected, and it’s inherent to all of us.

These two verses represent the competing views of enlightenment that were held by the Northern and Southern schools of Zen. Northerners like Shenxiu believed that enlightenment was achieved gradually, through a prolonged process that involved a great deal of study and practice. Southerners like Huineng thought that enlightenment occurred suddenly, in a spontaneous, immediate, and direct realization of the immutably pure Buddha nature that resides inside of us.

At the outset, it may appear as though Huineng’s approach is incredibly unrealistic. Somebody who isn’t trained in meditation or spiritual practice cannot simply snap his fingers and become enlightened. Many Zen masters say that they had multiple awakenings – several glimpses at the core truth of their being – before they finally discovered the full depth of their own Buddha nature. As the Buddhist scholar Robert E. Buswell writes, “Even the most cursory perusal of Zen literature will show that few practitioners have had a single moment of sudden enlightenment in which all practices are simultaneously perfected.” Hence, a Zen monk may spend an entire lifetime in a monastery, diligently reading and re-reading texts and devoting many hours each day to meditation in order to make progress on the road to enlightenment.

Sudden enlightenment, therefore, seems like a gradual process, and Huineng acknowledges the false dichotomy that appears to exist between the Northern and the Southern methods for recognizing our Buddha nature. As he writes in the Platform Sutra, it is delusional to think that sudden and gradual enlightenment are opposite to each other. In an enlightened state of mind, it becomes clear that there is actually “no distinction” between these two methods.

How could two approaches that clearly seem antithetical to each other actually be one and the same? Huineng offers a hint when he discusses the relationship between meditation and wisdom. “Although they have two names,” he writes, “in substance they are not two,” much like a lamp and the light that it gives forth. The lamp and the light are separate from each other but they are mutually co-dependent on each other. Without the lamp, there can’t be any light; and without the light, then there wouldn’t be a lamp (in the sense that we wouldn’t ascribe the label “lamp” to an apparatus that doesn’t issue any light). (1) According to the Southern doctrine, it is necessary to meditate, but not because meditation is a means to the end of becoming wise; rather, meditation is a manifestation of the wisdom that we already have. Pure Buddha nature is not a state of mind that we achieve once we have successfully followed the prescribed techniques of meditation. It is a state that we have at all times, and yet there is the persistent illusion that something is impeding us from fully becoming aware of it. Meditation is the active, continual process of cutting through this illusion.

For example, the Zen meditation practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” looks on its surface like the act of sitting quietly and paying close attention to the breath with the aim of seeking sudden enlightenment. But this conception of the practice is entirely misguided. It is simultaneously more and less than just sitting – it is a process of focusing completely on everything that one is experiencing without becoming psychologically attached to any of it. In this state of deep presence, the meditator lets go of a thought as soon as it arises, such that his mind is no longer trapped by the unceasing mental monologue that runs through it. The mind suspends its reflexive tendency to judge those thoughts, to label them as “good” or “bad,” to interpret them in the context of the past and future, and to react to them emotionally, instead letting them be as they are. All the dust that bears the false appearance of obscuring our Buddha nature goes away.

But, you might ask, didn’t Huineng say in his poem that Buddha nature cannot be “stained by dust”? If that is the case, then it would appear that meditation doesn’t serve any purpose, since it aims to pierce through delusions that don’t even exist in the first place. That’s precisely Huineng’s point, in fact – because these delusions aren’t real, they can’t possibly obscure our Buddha nature. Hence, our Buddha nature is always pure.

Thus, we have always been in a state of enlightenment. But because we mistakenly think that we have to clean ourselves of our impurities in order to achieve it, we misunderstand enlightenment as a distant objective that we must gradually work towards. One of the most famous Zen koans echoes this notion that the apparent obstacles on the path to enlightenment don’t even exist to begin with. (2) In the “Mu-koan,” a monk asks a Zen master whether a dog has Buddha nature. The master replies, “Mu!” which means “no” in Japanese. (3) The master isn’t denying that a dog has Buddha nature; rather, he seems to be suggesting that the question doesn’t have any meaning. Dividing beings into those with Buddha nature and those without it creates an empty distinction. In fact, the Buddha nature transcends the dualistic constructs of “yes” and “no” that underlie human thought. Indeed, we have to push beyond these dualities in order to manifest the wise, awakened state of “no-thought” in meditation. The rational mind cannot make sense of “no-thought,” because thinking about it inevitably results in a logical contradiction. In the words of the highly influential Zen philosopher Dogen Zenji, “[While meditating,] think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen [meditation].” In thought, “thinking” and “not-thinking” are considered to be binary opposites of each other. We can only hold them in unity with each other – we can only “think not-thinking” – if we aren’t thinking to begin with. Yet in order to meditate correctly, we must be completely aware of each thought that we are having. How can we do that without thinking? According to Zen, we can directly experience our sensations, feelings, and thoughts without attaching labels to them, without dividing them into categories, and without subjecting them to any sort of rational analysis. We can, for example, experience sound without conceptualizing it as a “sound,” let alone judging its quality or identifying its cause. Concepts like “sound” are tools that the mind uses in order to discriminate between the contents of our awareness. Once we dispose of them in the mode of “not-thinking,” we no longer make distinctions between the various phenomena that we experience. “Not-thinking,” therefore, is the undifferentiated non-duality of experience. In our Buddha nature, as the Buddhist abbot Shodo Harada Roshi said, there is no real difference between categories like “earlier” and “later,” “first” and “last,” or even … “sudden” and “gradual.” “Sudden” and “gradual” are dualistic terms that the thinking mind uses in order to tell apart two ostensibly different methods of realizing our Buddha nature. Enlightenment – the awareness of “no-thought” – is empty of these distinctions. It is as it is, independent of any qualities that the mind may try to impute to it.

The “no” of “no-thought” is not the typical “no” of the English language; rather, it describes, as Huineng writes, a “separation from the dualism that produces the passions.” This, I suspect, is the intended meaning of the word “mu” in the “Mu-koan.” In his commentary on the koan, the Zen teacher Mumon Ekai writes that the word “mu” is the sole barrier on the path to enlightenment. “It is neither nothingness, nor its relative ‘not’ of ‘is’ and ‘is not.’ It must be like gulping a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.” Indeed, to think of “no” as the opposite of “yes” – of “nothingness” as the opposite of “being” – is to misunderstand the non-dual conception of “no” that the koan was seeking to advance. Our mind will never open up to our pure Buddha nature if we remain trapped by these dualities. Once we have manifested our innate enlightenment and perceive the world as it truly is, then we can properly perceive the non-duality that underlies the apparent dualities in the phenomena of our experience. We find that the contents of our awareness are absent of attributes even though they clearly do contain attributes; we “transcend characteristics in the context of characteristics,” in Huineng’s words. Our conscious perception still detects sound and no-sound, but our mind no longer clings to these concepts in order to describe our experience, such that we are awakened to a deep sense of emptiness that lies within all the illusory forms of the world.  “Mu,” therefore, is a certain kind of nothingness, a profound formlessness, but one that our language and intellect cannot really capture or fathom, for even a word like “formlessness” implies opposition to “form.” In reality, there is not even formlessness, or to be more precise, there is mu formlessness – this is, I think, the ultimate teaching.

So there is an apparent barrier to achieving enlightenment – “mu” – but that barrier is, to the best degree that language is able to approximate it, nothing. Hence, as Mumon Ekai notes, the path to Buddhahood is best described as a “Gateless Gate.” There is a gate that we must enter, but because it is gateless, we cannot even cross through it in the first place. How do we pass through the impassable? Once we manifest our Buddha nature, then we no longer divide phenomena into binary, mutually exclusive categories. We drop the notion that a path must either be passable or impassable, that it must either have a gate or not have a gate. In fact, it becomes clear that “gate” is an artificial construct deployed by the rational mind in order to differentiate one type of path from another. Thus, an enlightened person understands that there was never even a gate to begin with, and hence no threshold that he had to cross in order to attain Buddhahood. The gate is to erase from the mind the illusory concept of a “gate.” The thinking, “either-or” mind cannot comprehend this contradictory, seemingly self-defeating idea. It appeals to an immediate, direct knowing that precedes intellection, one that manifests, for example, as the instantaneous awareness of sound before it is labeled as “sound.” So long as we cling to our dualistic thoughts, the road to enlightenment will always be perceived as either gated or gateless, and we will remain hopelessly deluded.

The “unity of opposition” – or “non-duality within duality” – exemplified by the Gateless Gate is encapsulated in the metaphysics of a groundbreaking Indian philosopher named Nagarjuna, who upended conventional logic with his “Verses of the Middle Way” in the fourth century AD. Nagarjuna thought that it was possible for a single statement to be simultaneously true and false. This concept lies in direct contradiction to the Principle of the Excluded Middle, which claims that a statement must be either true or false and never both at the same time. Aristotle was the first thinker who explicitly discussed the principle in his writing, but I’m sure that there were others before him who had thought of this idea without recording it on paper. Our dualistic mode of thinking is deeply rooted in this principle. Before Nagarjuna, I don’t think that anybody had formulated a non-dual logic that challenged the Principle of the Excluded Middle, likely because no one could come up with a statement that was simultaneously true and false. Enlightenment in Zen is essentially the act of breaking through the limited dualities of traditional logic, and the Gateless Gate is a perfect example of what Nagarjuna likely had in mind. It is both a gate and not a gate, both true and false. (4)

Many Zen teachers have sought to translate these abstract ideas about non-duality into concrete meditation practices. Dogen, who I mentioned earlier, believed that monks should participate in a daily routine of cleaning their bodies – and, by extension, the “surface of the mind’s mirror” – even though he acknowledged that every person is already free of all impurities. As he said in his text “Semmen” (“On Washing Your Face”), “Even though we may not yet have soiled ourselves, we wash and cleanse ourselves, and even when we have reached Great Immaculacy, we still wash and cleanse ourselves.” Evidently, washing ourselves is not a means to an end because it continues even after the supposed end has already been achieved. Dogen stresses that we cannot manifest our inner Buddha nature unless we have washed the inside of empty space itself. Emptiness is already pure, yet Dogen argues that we must commit ourselves to the act of cleaning emptiness with emptiness itself, even though this would obviously result in an infinite regress. Cleaning that which is already clean, like purifying a mind that is already enlightened, isn’t hopelessly futile but rather endlessly meaningful because it serves as an end that is constantly fulfilling itself. Through our daily practice, we go beyond the dualistic categories of “clean” and “unclean” by cleansing the mind of blemishes that were never there in the first place, which is consistent with the broader aim of Zen: to cross a gate that never existed from the outset.

Dogen emphasizes the unending, perpetual nature of meditation practice. It never stops, even once we have manifested our innate, enlightened nature. (5) As I have said before in this essay, enlightenment is not a goal that we reach after a certain amount of practice. In fact, every person is enlightened, even those who have never meditated in the past. Our mind, in its original state, is empty of thoughts. But as soon as we become absorbed by the delusory thoughts that enter our stream of consciousness, we lose sight of our intrinsic Buddha nature, even though it always stays with us. To express our inner wisdom, we must constantly maintain focus on every thought that we experience, through meditation, so that we don’t get caught up in our mental monologues. We can’t let our attention drift away, otherwise we will be engaged in the illusion that we are being pulled farther away from our original nature. Hence, to express our wisdom at all times, we must be meditating at all times. (6) Those who are truly enlightened have turned every moment of their lives into a meditation. Meditation and wisdom are inextricably tied to each other; just as Huineng said, they are one and the same thing.

And indeed, if we think that meditation is only for those who are not yet enlightened, then we fall into the trap of separating the “enlightened” from the “unenlightened.” We must abolish this dualistic distinction from our minds. It must be the case that we are achieving enlightenment at every moment that we are practicing meditation; if at any point we think we are unenlightened, then the false duality will persist. Therefore, spiritual practice is an endlessly infinite attainment of that which has already been attained. 

At the very moment that we have begun our spiritual practice, we have become awakened. We reach the destination as soon as we depart from our origin. And we continue arriving with each successive step that we take, as the Zen teacher Kazuaki Tanahasi notes; with more practice, we continue to express our enlightened being, which we have already achieved. The circle of practice and spiritual awakening is, therefore, a “strange loop,” a concept that I’ve discussed before; even though we think that we are moving farther and farther away from our starting point, we end up exactly where we started. (I’m paraphrasing from Douglas Hofstadter’s definition of “strange loop.”)

Yet even the notion that we attain enlightenment the moment that we start meditating is, in fact, slightly misguided. Our pure Buddha nature doesn’t arise from an origin or source. We’ve always had it, so it doesn’t have a beginning. Furthermore, as the Zen scholar David Loy pointed out, our meditation practice can’t have any beginning either since it’s one and the same with our manifestation of our Buddha nature. In the words of Dogen, “As it is already realization in practice, realization is endless; as it is practice in realization, practice is beginningless.”

How can the cycle of practice and enlightenment be complete before it has even started? This idea seems to demand a complete revision of our understanding of the nature of time and causality. In his text “Uji” (Being-Time), Dogen seeks to formulate a theory of time that accommodates his views on the non-duality of practice and enlightenment. (7) “Uji” is short but dense and very difficult to understand. Even after several days of careful study, I’m still not sure that I’ve completely gotten it.


Dogen’s conception of time (and enlightenment)

In our ordinary, day-to-day lives, we tend to think that time is constantly flying by. We don’t have enough of it; we need to “make the best of it” before it runs out. We often think of ways to fill our time, even though we naturally fill time with every moment that we exist. We may feel like we cannot keep up with the passage of time, but ironically every single moment of our lives is spent inside of time.

Our conventional worldview drives a separation between us and time. The future is not here yet. The past is already gone. And the present moment passes by so quickly that, by the time our minds have conceptualized it, it is no longer the present. Hence, it seems like we’re perpetually standing apart from time, viewing it from the outside.

And yet, as Dogen notes, our being is inextricably linked with time, and he refers to their oneness as “uji,” or “being-time.” There is nothing that we do that could possibly happen outside of time. Every single moment that we experience is occurring right now, even though our rational minds cannot truly grasp the concept of “right now.” True understanding of the absolute Now can only stem from a direct experience of the world that precedes intellectual apprehension. It is not surprising, therefore, that Dogen sets out to challenge many of our (supposedly) rational preconceptions about the nature of time, along with our entire framework for making sense of our place in the world.

Because practice and enlightenment are completely one with each other, they must occur simultaneously in the absolute Now. If there were even a moment’s gap that separated the two of them, then they could not be one and the same. Furthermore, since every being in the universe (including those that are not sentient) has always had a Buddha nature, there cannot be a single moment in the history of time in which even a single human, animal, or blade of grass was not enlightened. To paraphrase from David Loy, it is not the case that enlightenment will occur “when the time comes,” for there is no time right now that hasn’t come yet. Enlightenment is expressed at every single moment in time.

The practicing self, therefore, does not become the enlightened self because time does not pass between the moment that practice begins and the moment that enlightenment is attained. Indeed, in order to understand that enlightenment does not occur after we have concluded our practice, we have to refine our mistaken belief in the sequential nature of time, although it wouldn’t make sense to discard it in its entirety. It is too simplistic to state that time moves solely in one direction from past to present to future. Because all events are unfolding in the absolute Now, time does not actually flow. In Dogen’s words, “Since one sees [time] as passing, one cannot understand that it stays just where it is.” Yet nevertheless it is clear that the self does change over time; even from Dogen’s life, we can see that the time he arrived at a Buddhist monastery to start studying meditation obviously came before the time that his mind and body “fell away completely.” How can we claim that time doesn’t flow between these two moments, that the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ is nothing more than an illusion?

There’s a fair deal of scholarly debate over Dogen’s resolution to this question, especially given the number of contradictions in his text. The most tenable interpretation, in my opinion, is that Dogen believed passage and non-passage to be two opposite perspectives on one entity, time, which nevertheless bears both of those aspects in spite of their mutual exclusivity. That is, time flows and does not flow, and in this sense it bears a deep resemblance to the “Gateless Gate” and other concepts in Zen texts that are, in some way, simultaneously true and false. Thus, time, along with the “Gateless Gate” and its relatives, is an example of complementarity, which I discussed in my previous blogpost. One philosopher defined the idea as follows: “The feature of complementarity … pertains to two aspects of a situation that are incompatible. They are both necessary to describe the situation exhaustively. Neither one of them alone is sufficient, yet observing one of them in a given empirical context excludes observing the other one in the same context.”

A case in point of this complementarity is Dogen’s metaphor of firewood and ash, which he discusses in one of his koans. It seems impossible to deny that the ash would not have existed unless the firewood had been burnt first. Evidently, the firewood causes, or is necessary for, the ash, thus implying an arrow of time. Dogen acknowledges that the ashes can only occur after the fire has taken place, but “before” and “after” are “cut off” from each other.

What does that mean?  He claims that the “being-time” of the firewood and the “being-time” of the ash are totally independent of each other. Each one is complete in itself because it manifests the whole of its Buddha nature and thereby lacks nothing. To understand Dogen’s point, we have to revisit the concept of Buddha nature. According to Dogen, Buddha nature is not a property that we have; rather, it’s what we are. It is the “such-ness” of reality, the nature of things as they truly are. What could be more real than the way that each thing naturally expresses itself in the present moment? The firewood displays its Buddha nature, therefore, through the full activity of being firewood right now. It is important to note that the firewood does not depend on events in the past (or the future) in order to realize itself as “firewood.” Although we tend to think otherwise, its true identity – its Buddha nature – is not contingent on the actions of the lumberjack who cut it from a tree. Additionally, the firewood continues to be firewood even if it has burnt into ashes. Because Buddha nature never really disappears, the ultimate essence of the firewood is maintained throughout every moment of time.  The same underlying reality – a self awakening to itself in the present moment – never changes across all the myriad forms in which it manifests. Since being-time is nothing more than this act of circular self-realization, the being-time of the tree and the being-time of the ashes are, at the most fundamental level, the same as the being-time of the firewood. Furthermore, because every single thing in the universe is engaged in the act of realizing itself by being itself, the being-time of a single piece of firewood contains the being-time of everything in the entire cosmos, across all possible times. “We should not view ash as after and firewood as before,” Dogen says, because the past, the present, and the future of the firewood are all encapsulated within this moment, right now, as the firewood expresses its own “such-ness” or Buddha nature. Thus, we come to a revelatory conclusion: this single moment encompasses all other moments in the history of time. If all of eternity – which includes our entire path to enlightenment, from the time that we start meditating to the final culmination of our spiritual practice – is contained within each and every moment, then of course we have always been awakened!

This is a colossal, beautiful idea. It signifies what Dogen meant when he called time a “passage-less passage.” (8) Time is perpetually passing since all of time is unfolding within this moment, but it’s also completely still because every moment is the same. Firewood has a past, present, and future in which its form superficially changes from trees to ashes, yet nevertheless it abides in its own being-time throughout all times. The Zen teacher Toni Packer conveys the steadfast being-time of the firewood quite poetically:

Zen Master Dogen once said, “Firewood does not turn into ashes.” When I heard that the first time, I didn’t know what he was talking about because obviously firewood turns into ashes. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. And the next time we had a campfire, I watched and observed, and the time quality fell away. It was just being there and there was no change from fire to ashes; it was just what was. Fire. And then sometimes it collapses, and there are some sparks, and it seems to turn black. But when you’re really there, timelessly, it is not a process of time that is observed but presence: eternal, everlasting, without time.

Based on this description and the account that I gave earlier, one might get the sense that being-time and Buddha nature are akin to an everlasting soul. This is, in fact, not entirely correct. Unlike many of the Indian philosophers who shared Dogen’s opinions on time, enlightenment, and spiritual practice, Dogen did not think that we unite with a universal Mind or Soul once we die. He firmly believed in the reality and irreversibility of death; there is nothing left of us when we pass away from this world. As stated in David Loy’s commentary, “We should not speak of the body perishing and the mind abiding.” But if absolutely nothing remains upon our deaths, then how can we say that Buddha nature is eternal? Here is where we gain true insight into the essence of enlightenment.

As I have said in previous essays, the tools of contemporary science have shown that everything is undergoing some kind of transformation all the time, such that, at least in terms of its material constitution, no thing is exactly the same from one moment to the next. This scientific knowledge was not available to Dogen during his lifetime, but I’m sure he understood that, on an atomic level, an object as seemingly stable as firewood can change dramatically in the span of one second. The notion that objects retain their identity over time is nothing more than a delusion crafted by the mind in order to navigate the world more efficiently.

Dogen observed the same impermanence in time. As I wrote above, each moment, by the time that we measure it, has already gone into the past. If we were to imagine time as an hour glass with very tiny particles of sand dropping from the top to the bottom bulb, we would discover that the grain of sand in the middle – the instantaneous present – had already fallen to the bottom by the time that we looked at it. As this writer points out, we can only wrap our minds around the grains of sand that have yet to come down and those that already have.

So the present moment is what, exactly? It lacks duration and doesn’t have any real substance. It cannot be grasped. It is, therefore, nothingness. There is zero Now.

One may think that Dogen rejected the sequential conception of time precisely because he did not accept the contradictory notion that the Now was never present; rather, the Now is forever. He did indeed believe in an endless present, but he also noticed that when we examine its content, what we find is nothing other than pure emptiness. In other words, the absolute Now is an unceasing nothingness.

But how can it be nothing if the whole being of the universe fills each and every moment of time!? Time and time again (pun intended), we return to this unremitting paradox. If time and being are one and the same, as Dogen argues, then negating time will also negate being, and obviously we cannot hold the position that nothing exists in the universe. The Zen Buddhists are not nihilists.

Better put, then, the absolute Now perpetually resides on the cusp of nothingness. Perhaps it arises at each moment like the grain of sand in the hourglass, only to immediately fade away. In fact, it simultaneously appears and disappears; hence it’s the fullest manifestation of impermanence. How can we describe this impermanence without reducing it to a complete void? Dogen depicts it as “the full aliveness that exists … before your thinking takes over and creates an imaginary world.” It is the reality of each thing dynamically expressing itself as it is before the mind attaches a set of concepts to it, thereby resulting in the illusory belief that its identity persists over time. Just as I said earlier in this essay, it is the experience of hearing sound before the rational mind conceptualizes it as “sound.” When the next moment arrives, it is no longer the same sound. And the whole actuality of self-expression in the universe dies along with that one sound.

That’s right: nothing at all remains from one moment to the next. This includes our Buddha nature. Buddha nature is not some metaphysical entity that endures throughout and thereby transcends the impermanence of the material world. As I stated earlier, Buddha nature is the true essence of the universe, manifested in the activity of its being in the present moment. Given that this present moment is no longer here as soon as it is here, the true essence of the universe will also disappear as soon as it appears, and it exhibits this impermanence in every single moment of time. Thus, Buddha nature is timeless precisely because it is impermanence itself. To quote from Dogen, “Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is the Buddha-nature, is impermanent. Great nirvana, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha-nature.”

When I say that the essence of the universe disappears in each moment, I don’t mean that all the atoms of the cosmos literally dematerialize with every passing instant. Rather, our consciousness creates an image – a felt perception – of the universe at every single moment in time. Because the moments are infinitesimally short, that image is perpetually renewed. But since the mind manages to stitch the various pictures into a single, coherent sequence, we don’t typically realize that we recreate our perception of the world all the time.

Like “sound,” the “I” is just another concept fabricated by the mind in order to project a sense of stability onto our experience of the world. Yet even the “I” is fading away with each moment. Consequently, there is no “I” that is becoming enlightened. Rather, “self-awakening self-awakens self-awakening.” The self that is reaching enlightenment at this moment will no longer exist by the time that the next moment arrives; in fact, it was never even here in the first place. The self that is becoming enlightened, then, is the no-self, which is nothing more than impermanence.

Where is the no-self? It certainly isn’t at a particular point in space and time. It is neither here nor there; it is neither in this body nor that body, this mind nor that mind. Actually, it is everywhere; it permeates the entirety of the cosmos and the whole of eternity. As Dogen says:

When even just one person, at one time, sits in zazen, he becomes, imperceptibly, one with each and all of the myriad things, and permeates completely all time, so that within the limitless universe, throughout past future and present, he is performing the eternal and ceaseless work of guiding beings to enlightenment. It is, for each and everything, one and the same undifferentiated practice, and undifferentiated realization.

Our entire journey to enlightenment is contained within each step that we take.

But there are no steps.



In the second part of this series, I’ll talk about some ideas in contemporary physics that substantiate Dogen’s views on time.

(1) Alternatively, one might say, “Without the light, the lamp wouldn’t have any meaningful function.”

(2) The Buddhist abbot Shodo Harada Roshi defines a koan as follows: “Special words and experiences of the masters of old that are used to train our mind going beyond the intellectual abilities. In Zen training they are being used to help the student cut through their dualistic way of perception. They are given by a rosh [teacher] to the student, and are mulled over during zazen in an intuitive way.”

(3) The late Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi has said that “mu” is better defined as “does not have.”

(4) I wonder whether Nagarjuna was under the influence of psilocybin or other mind-altering substances when he came up with his non-dual logic. It strikes me that he must have been high on something special in order to have conceived of such a breathtakingly novel idea.

(5) One must take care to phrase his ideas correctly and avoid contradictions when discussing Zen philosophy, particularly since it relishes in paradox. Manifesting enlightenment is not the same as being enlightened. Everyone is enlightened, but not everyone has realized this fact yet.

(6) This doesn’t mean that we have to be sitting down, paying attention to the breath, in order to be enlightened at every moment. Meditation is a state of being, not a technique.

(7) The title of Dogen’s work bears an uncanny resemblance to Heidegger’s highly influential book Being and Time. It seems like there are deep parallels between the two. However, I have very limited knowledge of Heidegger’s philosophy, so I can’t comment very much on the similarities.

(8) Dogen didn’t actually call time a “passageless passage” in any of his texts, but the Zen scholar Abe Masao uses this phrase in his translation and analysis of “Uji” in order to accurately characterize Dogen’s views on time. I like his phrase because it properly expresses the complementarity of time in Dogen’s philosophy.


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