Dogen's Time Being (Uji) 1
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | August 19, 2009
Transcribed and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
We're reading Uji, which is most often translated as "The Time-Being." It is a fascicle of Dogen's from Shobogenzo, his great work. The main translation we're using is the one in the book Moon in a Dewdrop - Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kaz Tanahashi.
This is a particularly unique and important writing by Dogen, because very few religious writers write specifically on the subject of time. It's unusual that someone would take up the question of time as a religious matter, and so this essay of Dogen's is well-known. Also, it just so happens that it has exactly the same title as a work by Martin Heidegger called Sein und Zeit (Being and Time.) This is Heidegger's great work, and since Heidegger is probably the most seminal Western philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century, the fact that Heidegger says in many ways the same things that Dogen is saying is really noteworthy and interesting to a lot of philosophers, writers, and scholars.
We'll read the text a little bit, and I will make some comments. Dogen is quoting here, I think, from Yaoshan, who says:
"For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being stand on the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms. [Which means a fighting demon and thus an agitated, angry mind.]
For the time being an eight - or sixteen-foot body. [That means Buddha. These are opposites: highest peak - deepest ocean. Fighting demon - Buddha.]
For the time being a staff or a whisk. [These are symbols of the Zen teacher - the realized Zen teacher who has a staff and a whisk.]
For the time being a pillow or a lantern. [These are objects that signify a monastic - the striving and struggling to be realized. Again, a set of opposites.]
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li. [Meaning your average Joe - "Joe the Plumber."]
For the time being, the whole earth and the whole sky."
Last week we noted something interesting. Typically the Japanese word "uji," which can mean "for the time being" or "at that time," can also be translated in different ways according to the context. Often in Zen stories you will see the word "uji" in the part of the story where it will say that so-and-so became enlightened. For example, "At that time (uji), he became awakened." Dogen's point is that when you read the story, the phrase "at that time" is a throw-away. Who notices those words of the story? You notice the dialogue and the enlightenment. You don't focus on the phrase "at that time." Dogen says that the whole thing is about "at that time." The pivot of the story is not what these guys are saying. The pivot of the story is "at that time."
Similarly, I think Yaoshan is very innocently saying, "For the time being." Dogen is now going to write a whole essay on the part that says "for the time being," which I think Yaoshan didn't mean to emphasize in his original writing. So Dogen does this very odd thing. It would be as if you were interpreting a literary text, and you decided that you would do a major book on the words "the" and "an" in Shakespeare. Shakespeare's profound theme of "the" and "an." That's what Dogen is doing here.
"For the time being" here means time itself is being, and all being is time. A golden sixteen-foot body is time; because it is time, there is the radiant illumination of time.
So, this is a beautiful thought. It comes from a sutra that says, "There is not a place anywhere in the cosmos - an actual place - that the Buddha, in his many, infinite lifetimes of the past, has not practiced." In other words, right there where Jack is sitting, at a previous time, a Buddha literally sat there and practiced meditation. And the same thing where Mary Ann is sitting. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it is not that the Buddha was in the past, but is in the present moment. If you actually had a microscope strong enough to see what was going on in the molecules of the present, you would see that on every atom of space, in this moment, there's a little buddha sitting on top of the atom. The buddha has a whole retinue of disciples and he's giving a dharma talk to the disciples. This whole thing is there on every atom of space, everywhere.
That is what he is saying here. Time is illuminated by the presence of awakening. It's funny to make these little visualizations, but what they amount to is this profound thought that time and space are illuminated - the way that I would put it nowadays - by love. Think of that. Time and space are actually illuminated at all points by love. We are missing it, of course, because we are so burdened by all of our problems, but it is actually so.
Study it as the twenty-four hours of the present.
In other words, study the twenty-four hours of your day. Study them. Look for the illumination in every moment.
"Three heads and eight arms" is time;
This is astonishing, because we get it that Buddha is time. That sounds nice. But our angry, confused mind is also time, and, therefore, it is also illuminated.
because it is time, it is not separate from the twenty-four hours of the present.
So I'm going to share with you an exercise that I really encourage you to take up. This would be a great thing. Take any two sections - maybe one we've gone over or one we haven't gone over - and give your own interpretative translation of it. Free translation. Following along the sentences, but doing it in a way that is actually what you understand from the text. So that is what I've done with section 2 and section 3 of the Kaz translation, and I'll share those with you:
First, Dogen's words for section 2,
Even though you do not measure the hours of the day as long or short, far or near, you still call it twelve hours [which means twenty-four hours, because the Japanese way of telling time is every hour is two hours. It means twenty-four hours of the day]. Because the signs of time's coming and going are obvious, people do not doubt it. Although they do not doubt it, they do not understand it. Or when sentient beings doubt what they do not understand, their doubt is not firmly fixed. Because of that, their past doubts do not necessarily coincide with the present doubt. Yet doubt itself is nothing but time.
I think it's hard to understand what is being said here. If you are a translator, and you're really trying to stick to the text and not add extra words and explanations, something that may be clear or understood in the original would not be clear or understood in the translation. But then you feel constrained not to make it clear if that means adding all kinds of things. See what I mean? In a way, I think it is hard to grasp the meaning of this section, because Kaz is being faithful to the original, but maybe if you were a Japanese 13th century speaker, you would understand.
So now in my version I'm adding more words. It's not a translation. It's an interpretation. So here's what it says: "Although we may not have actually measured the twenty-four hours of the day to see how long or short they really are..." Which is true. Who has sat down and actually measured time other than with a watch? How would you measure it? "Although we may not have actually measured the twenty-four hours of the day to see how long or short they really are, still we call them twenty-four hours, and we're confident of their length. The traces of time, having come and gone, are clear." A picture of you twenty years ago is different from a picture of you today, so we conclude that time has passed, because there are reasons to believe so. "The traces of time, having come and gone, are clear, so people do not doubt that these twenty-four hours have actually occurred." So, although we haven't verified the amount of time, we still figure that time really did pass. "But, even though people commonly have no doubt about time having occurred, they cannot know for certain that the past did occur, because it is now past and therefore cannot be concretely verified." We assume that the past happened, but it's passed - it's gone - so there is no way to concretely verify that it happened. In other words, there is a lot here to be doubtful about, but we do not doubt any of it. We take it completely for granted, even though when you think about it for even a minute, there are a lot of doubtful things - about the passing of time, the amount of time.
"So though people commonly have doubts about things that they can't be entirely sure of, in fact, they can't even tell whether a doubt that they had in the past, or even a doubt that they had a moment ago, is the same as the doubt that they have now. And so, they should be doubtful about their doubting - not as certain of it as they so often seem to be. Doubt is doubt for the time being. Nothing more. Doubt itself is time."
So, in effect, Dogen is - in a very skillful and logical way - pointing out that we should all be very doubtful about the passing of the day. We don't know whether or not it really occurred, and so now we become doubtful. Then he says that even though we become doubtful, we can't even be sure of our doubtfulness, because time is passing while you are doubting. A doubt of a moment ago may not be the same as a doubt of this moment. So all we know is that life is time. Our assumptions are probably wrong, and even our doubts about our assumptions are probably wrong.
In section 3 Dogen says:
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.
Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another. The way-seeking mind arises in this moment. A way-seeking moment arises in this mind. It is the same with practice and with attaining the way.
Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is the understanding that the self is time.
I think, again, that we have the same problem. In a way, we can understand the words, but the significance escapes us, I think, because of the trueness of the translation. So here is my interpretive version of that same section:
"What do we mean by me, myself? Ultimately, if we contemplate this far enough, my self, my body, my position in space, and all that is involved with it, is all-inclusive. The whole world of location is involved - each and every place and thing." If you really think about, ‘What is me? What is my self? Where do I end?' I think that's where you end up. You end up realizing that the self is all-inclusive, and each and every place and thing - being as it is[DR1] - is time. So the self is actually all of space and time."
"Although it seems that things cannot occupy the same space, and so must hinder one another each vying for its space..." As in the game "musical chairs," which is based on that idea. When the music stops, somebody doesn't have a chair, because somebody else is sitting in it. And our whole lives are based on that. I have to get enough money, because if so-and-so gets it all, then I won't have any. I have to get enough love, because if so-and-so gets it all, then I won't get any. Our whole sense of the way we live is based on the fact that things hinder one another, and so we all have to stand up and get what we need, right? "Although it seems that things cannot occupy the same time and space, and so must hinder one another - each vying for its space, in fact, things, as being, do not ever hinder another, just as time moves freely without hindrance." So time flows on. There is no problem. Does yesterday get mixed up and become today? It doesn't happen. You don't wake up one morning, and all of a sudden it is five years later - except in a movie, maybe. Time has a way of flowing freely without any hindrance.
Well, he says, it's the same with everything else - things too. So then love arises as time, because that's what way-seeking mind means. Way-seeking mind means bodhicitta. We've had many long discussions and months and months of seminar on bodhicitta - which is compassion and love. Way-seeking mind, which he mentions here, is love. He doesn't use that word, but that's how I interpret it. "So you see how the arising of things, without hindrance, flowing together, without any problems, mutually supporting everything - what is that but love? Love arises as time, and time arises as love. In the same way, ongoing effort and practice, and the joy and release of full, culminated practice, arise as functions of one another and support one another."
This is one of Dogen's most important ideas and one of his most profound religious thoughts - that one moment of practice is one moment of awakening. Full awakening is there in every moment of time. Buddha is in every moment, so in every moment of your practice is the full culmination of the whole of practice. Enlightenment supports your effort every moment, and your effort every moment supports enlightenment.
"And so, each of us arrays ourselves as the world. When we see the world, we see ourselves. When we fully enter time, we see that we and the world are nothing but time. Nothing but love."