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From Present to Past

May 16, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Continuing our discussion of the chapter on “Control” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind I’d like to say just a few things about what Suzuki says about time. He rephrases what Dogen said several times: Time goes from present to past. He admits that this makes no sense, but he says it is really so. I have to admit that I’ve never thought about time like this before.  

But I have thought a lot about time—first as a philosophy student and then as a Zen student. I remember reading St. Augustine who said that he knew what time was until someone asked him to explain it. The Bishop of Hippo was right—thinking about time is almost impossible—at least that’s the way it seems to me this morning. Katagiri Roshi, the founder of our lineage, says that thinking about time is of no help because it always creates a gap.  He tells us that it is “very hard to put [these things] into words, but through experience [we] can understand [them].” 

Yes, we need to experience the Dharma in our flesh and bones, but we also need to try to think about what the Buddha said about time.  According to Buddhist teaching everything exists together simultaneously in a moment.  We usually think that time is separate from beings, but there is actually no separation. In Kuge, Dogen says: Time has such colors as blue, yellow, red, and white. Spring draws in flowers and flowers draw in spring. There is absolutely no difference between time and such colors as blue, yellow, red, and white. The time we call spring blossoms as an existence called flowers. The flowers in turn express the time called spring. This is not existence within time; existence itself is time.

So I see that as I try to think about time in this way, I start to go inwards.  Thinking about time I wind up looking at myself!  When I do this I get the impression that I can’t really distinguish myself from time.  If I stay with this impression, I see that my sense of who and what I am is put in question. When Suzuki Roshi says that time can go from the future to the present to the past, I feel that he is really talking about me in a way I have never heard before.  Most important, I get the sense that a resolution of this “problem” can only come from inside myself. I am a moment in time.  I am time. 

We usually think that time is separate from beings, but there is actually no separation. Nothing is separate from the moment.  Each moment is the expression of all sentient beings and Buddha.   Dogen says: Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.  He goes on to say: The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world.  See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.  

I have read a lot of scientific books on time, but they never brought me back to myself.  Instead, books about relativity and quantum theory and the like always brought me out of myself into the external world of vast distances and endless time. These books may have changed my perception of the universe but didn’t touch me at all—I was just an observer.

But thinking about Suzuki Roshi’s and Dogen’s statements about time and being, brings me back to the question that first brought me to Zen practice, many years ago: What do I mean when I say “me?”  Over the years, my Zen practice has helped me keep this question alive and even more relevant to my day-to-day life.  It is my question.  Or perhaps I should say that I am that question.



From → Zen Buddhism

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