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.



‘You may want to say it is real, yet no defining characteristic can be found; you may want to say it is unreal, yet it functions without interruption. Therefore it cannot be said not to exist, yet cannot be said to exist. It can be nothing, yet it is not nothing; no words or metaphors can reach it – does is not describe true wisdom alone?’ (Commentary on the Diamond Sutra)

I am an Immigrant

My protesting days were mostly several decades ago; the early eighties was a rich time to become more politically aware, as Reagan and Thatcher stepped in to dismantle the post-war consensus. It feels to me these days that we are living through the last part of that swing of the pendulum, and I am optimistic in some ways that we will start the swing back to equality and progress after these turbulent times.
My college girlfriend was well-versed in the feminist politics of the time, and I am still deeply grateful to her for her consciousness-raising work on me (as we called it in those days). We found plenty of things to protest, and plenty of events, many of them musical, to attend: the protracted miners’ strike and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were my two starting points. Ken Livingstone was in his first stint at the Greater London Council and organising enough opposition to the government that the latter simply abolished the council, along with the other predominantly left-wing city councils. The year I lived in Paris was full of anti-racism efforts, and the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement, which also was going strong in London.
Having missed the marches around the inauguration and the airport demonstrations a week ago, and having only joined the post-election march because it was passing directly in front of my house, this past weekend I made an effort to attend the protest in Civic Center plaza. I remembered the last time I had been there in a big crowd was watching the World Cup on a giant screen, and the mood was equally as buoyant and inclusive. The rain moved through just in time (on a lunch-time run, I had come back over Liberty Hill to see a rainbow fittingly stretched low across the Castro), and the sun shone across the plaza until it dipped behind City Hall.
Having been energised by seeing pictures of banners that people were preparing for the event,  I wondered what I could bring. Then I remembered one of the diversity trainings we had done at Zen Center in my early years there, where people talked about how long their families had been in the States; it was a surprise to me in those days that most people were only a generation or two removed from immigration, and that I was just a little more freshly through the process. So I wrote a sign that said ‘I am an immigrant’ and hung it round my neck. It was heartening that when I arrived at the plaza, the first person I saw also had a sign that started ‘I am an immigrant’ – she was also English as it turned out (she appears briefly a little earlier in the video linked to below).
There were many inspiring speakers – refugees and immigrants, children of refugees and immigrants, from Vietnam, the Middle East, and South America (places where the US has been busy interfering in the political process…); a speaker from the ACLU, and former representative Mike Honda who talked about the internment of the Japanese community. Perhaps most moving for me was the call to prayer that was offered. In my years working at the BBC World Service, where I met and worked with people from all over the globe, I spend many overnight shifts with the Arabic service, and the first piece of programming each day, around 4am local time, was a section of the Koran, on very old tape, beautifully intoned.
I have no doubt that there will be more occasions to protest before all this is over; as I left the area and its wonderfully diverse crowd, I was thinking to myself, this is what humanity looks like:

The gentleman at the mic is doing the call to prayer; the organisers are at the back of the stage; the woman with the blonde hair was in charge of security for the afternoon.



Don’t be distracted by the King of Emptiness when you are still on the Way.
You must drive your staff forward, moving on until you reach home.
If you travel for a long time like clouds and water, don’t get attached to it.
Even in the deep recesses of snowy mountains, don’t forget your mission.
Ah! I regretted that in past days my face was like jade.
And I lamented that at the time of my return my hair had turned white.
Returning to my old home with dangling arms, there was no one who recognized me.
Also, I had nothing to offer my parents.

(Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth – The Song of Returning Home)

Blanche Hartman

‘I noticed somewhere in the early years of my practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here. I wanted approval from here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has become this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind over more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life. ‘ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)

Having known Blanche over the last fifteen years of her life, I can attest to how hard she could sometimes be on herself, but it was clear how she used her practice to work with her own tendencies, and it is wonderful how honest she was in her self-appraisal. I also remember her telling me, when I was tenzo, in charge of feeding the community, that Sojun Mel Weitsman had made her tenzo, knowing that she wanted everyone to love her, and that in that role, she would soon realise that she could not keep everyone happy, because someone would always have an opinion about the food that was served.

It is important not to come away from this passage with the idea that since other people’s opinions don’t matter, so we can just behave as we wish. As Blanche concludes, we exist as a self only in conjunction with the people who surround us and help us become who we are, and we in term help them become who they are. That awareness will foster a desire to be more skilful in our interactions with people, rather than trying to run roughshod over them because we are not concerned with how they feel. This is another example of expedient means: because of her tendency to over-value other people’s approval, Blanche knew she had to cultivate a little more self-stability. My karmic upbringing was more aligned with wanting to appear to be independent and not worrying about other people, so it is always helpful for me to pay attention to the feedback I get, especially when I make mistakes, and to consciously cultivate connection with others.

Tara Brach

‘Especially when things seem to be falling apart – we lose a job, suffer a serious injury, become estranged from a loved one – our lives can become painfully bound by the experience that something is wrong with us. We buy into the belief that we are fundamentally flawed, bad and undeserving of love… we forget our goodness and feel cut off from the heart. The Buddha taught, however, that no matter how lost in delusion we might be, our essence, our Buddha nature, is pure and undefiled… Basic goodness is the radiance of our Buddha nature – it is out intrinsic wakefulness and love.
This doesn’t mean that we can do no wrong. But in sharp contrast to our cultural conditioning as heirs of Adam and Eve, the Buddhist perspective holds that there is no such thing as an evil person. When we harm ourselves or others, it is not because we are bad, but because we are ignorant. To be ignorant is to ignore the truth that we are connected to all of life, and that grasping and hatred create more separation and suffering. To be ignorant is to ignore the purity of awareness and capacity for love that expresses our basic goodness.’ (Radical Forgiveness)

Toni Packer

‘Seeing is never from memory. It has no memory. It is looking now. The total organism is involved in seeing. Not thinking about what is said from memory, but listening and looking openly now. No one can do that for us. We can only do that ourselves, discovering directly whether what is heard, said, or read is actually so.
Most of the time we take on faith that whatever comes from a respectable or traditional source is true. But we’re asking whether one can find out firsthand, not secondhand, but firsthand, first sight, whether what is said, heard, and read is actually so. Not that one takes over mechanically what someone else says. One has to be very clear within oneself that “Yes, this is so,” or “No, it isn’t so,” or “I don’t know, let me find out.”‘ (The Work of this Moment)

I noticed that my first reaction when I read this again recently was something along the lines of ‘there is no fake news in zazen’ – and yet I know only too well that we can easily delude ourselves with our thoughts even while sitting. What Toni Packer is talking about is the deep rigorous self-inquiry that Buddha spoke about to his disciples; it is interesting that these timeless instructions, which in this case come from a book published in 1990, before the internet bloomed, take on a different hue when read in these current times.

Uchiyama Roshi

‘If you live in a noisy situation, you cease to notice the noise. If you are in a quiet place, leading a life of zazen in a temple, you can perhaps see the true face of the world.’ (The Zen Teaching of “Homeless” Kodo)