About Time

The  New Yorker provides me with regular intellectual stimulation, but I do sometimes get exasperated with the way that western intellectuals get stuck in their thinking. This recent article was a case in point (there have been several others, most of my reactions to which mostly moulder away in my pile of draft posts). It was informative about history, especially about St Augustine’s musings which I was not familiar with, and  I enjoyed setting the quote “There are three tenses or times: the present of past things, the present of present things, and the present of future things” against the equivalent in the Diamond Sutra, “Past thought is not got at; future thought is not got at; present thought is not got at.”

But when it came to this statement, “Either way, in considering the moment right here before us, we can never quite escape ourselves,” my response was to feel that the exact opposite is true in zazen, and that it is only thinking, which inevitably takes us out of the present moment, that causes us to get caught in the trap of the self. This quote from Kobun Chino, which I came across around the same time, serves to illuminate the point: “The time of sitting is timeless, actually. When you take the right position you have nothing to think about anymore, nothing to bring up from any place, past or future. That which can be called the present moment, where you are and what you are, actually is there.”

Dogen, naturally, makes you work a little harder to grasp this, especially in Shobogenzo Uji:Because flowing is a characteristic of time, moments of past and present do not overlap or line up side by side. Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.”

Which I think is also the point being made in this wonderful exposition.

Musing on all of this also brought to mind Camus, and this passage from La Peste, which I read as part of my French studies as a teenager, and which had a deep impact on me overall: ‘Tarrou added: “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in the dentist’s waiting room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to the lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course by standing all the way; by lining up at the box office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”‘

I think we can all understand that way of measuring time.


2 thoughts on “About Time

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