By John Lee Pendall
On the nature of time, Dogen said that:
“We must look on everything in this world as time… All beings are time; Buddhas are time… Other beings on land and in water also arise from time-being. All things in darkness and light arise from time-being. These manifestations become the time process. Not a single thing arises apart from time-being.”
Or, as my grandma said, “There are lots of things you can do with time.”
Time-being is how we usually translate Uji, which is also the name of the fascicle that that quote’s from. Dogen was a prolific writer and an avid lover of wordplay. He’s been baffling translators, scholars and teachers for centuries.
There are dozens of commentaries on Uji, but a lot of commentators get lost in the words and miss the point. What Dogen’s pointing to has to be grokked through Dogen’s practice: shikantaza. A lot of people also seem to take Uji out of its Mahayana Buddhist context. Dogen isn’t inventing some new metaphysical theory here, he’s rolling mind-only, Buddha-nature, suchness, and emptiness up into one term: time-being.
So, let’s untangle this mess a bit by bringing it into a different model.
We could say that everyone has three minds: past, present, and future. For giggles and shits, I’ll call ’em memory-mind, maybe-mind, and moment-mind. We spend most of our days drifting between them, and we’re usually not aware of it. A huge part of practice is learning to spot the drift so that we don’t get carried away by it into a distorted vision of reality.
That’s where shikantaza comes in.
I might be brushing my teeth while imagining conversations I plan to have, things I’m going to do, or things I don’t want to happen. If I catch myself, I can think, “Maybe-mind,” and then come back to the here and now, letting go of everything I was pondering before.
Or maybe I’ll start to get lonely when I think of friends I don’t see as much anymore. I start to drift into daydreams of things we’ve said and done together that make the present seem shitty by comparison. When that happens, I think, “Memory-mind,” and then let it go.
We can use the same method while we’re sitting in meditation. We just sit while being mindful of whether we’re drifting or not. If we do drift, we acknowledge it and then go back to watching for drifts. We’re not focusing on objects, not even the breath. We’re just sitting without the past and future minds.
Eventually, the mind doesn’t drift at all. That’s moment-mind. There’s nothing we can say about this experience, since all descriptions and comparisons depend on the past and future minds. Some old teachers said that the mind’s like space, a mirror, or a placid lake reflecting the moon.
I’d say it’s like a guitar string one moment before it’s plucked. It’s like when someone counts the band in with a, “One, two three, four.” There’s a silent beat between that four and the start of the song. It’s that beat—silent but full of potential.
Moment-mind doesn’t have any fixed identity, beliefs, or persona. Sometimes it’s like this, sometimes it’s like that. It’s free because it’s in harmony with this interdependent, impermanent reality. But there’s a hardwired urge to put the moment into context, to give it a shape. That’s where the problems start, that’s when the memory and maybe minds show up.
The one thing we don’t do in this practice is notice or label the moment-mind, just the future and past. If we’re truly in the present, there won’t be anything to label.
But, here’s the thing: there’s only ever moment-mind.
When we drift into thoughts and images about the past or future, we’re drifting right now. The past and future minds depend on—and actually are—moment-mind, and moment-mind is the same in all beings. Everything depends on it, even enlightenment and delusion.
To tie this altogether, we’ve got to clear up one more term. What is mind? The mind is the dynamic interaction of the self and other. It’s seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and so on. You’re there (self) reading these words (other). These words wouldn’t be here without you, and you couldn’t be there reading them without them.
As Dogen says in the Genjokoan, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”
We usually think of ourselves as separate from our experiences. This causes all our suffering. If we flip it, we can see that everything we think of as “other” isn’t other at all, and everything we think of as “self” isn’t self.
A few paragraphs later, Dogen says, “To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Memory-mind and maybe-mind setup this sense of separation between us and everything else. When we sit as moment-mind, that separation disappears. My body is no longer my body, my mind isn’t my mind.
Dogen didn’t talk about mind often because the word kinda lost its popularity in Song-era Chan, but it’s a given in all Zen teachings. When we overlook the mind, then Zen gets taken out of context and gets too big for its britches. From the Pali Canon on, Buddhism has always been about the mind.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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