Treeleaf Zen

We break our world into pieces by the words we use. Two such words are “now” and “then”.

Of course, in our day-to-day lives, we need to live in changing time … past becomes present beomes future … we awake in the morning, go to bed at night … we are born, are children, grow up, grow old … work must be done on time, bills paid on time, our kids brought to school on time …

This is all necessary, and so long as we live – we must live in passing time. Even monks carry wristwatches in their robes, for the noon meal must be served at noon, the evening bell rung in the evening. Nothing is “wrong” with time, there is nothing about it to escape, and time will keep passing so long as we live. It is life, and living takes time.

But those monks may know another experience of time, for the dividing words “now” and “then” can be dropped from mind. Passing time is simply forgotten. We discover something that is not “then” and not “now”, yet is both of those. It is not “past/present/future”, but more “is/is/is”.Even “present” is empty absent a “past” or “future” in contrast. Instead, it is “what-is-that-was-that-shall-be”. Thus, we don’t “live in the present,” but “just live!” We can call it “just being.”

Putting aside all philosophizing about time, “timelessness” can be tasted in Zazen as another model of reality, an equally valid perspective on life. The parts of the brain that create a sense of time become quiet, and we realize that, “Oh, I can experience life in this way too!” Both time and timelessness are good ways to see things … at the same time.

We can stop time too, and each moment may be viewed as perfectly just-what-it-is, whole in its instant: When you ring the evening bell, each strike of the bell is just that moment’s single strike. When you are late for school, you are perfectly late just at that moment. In such sense, each moment is completely each moment, with nothing in need of change. Time stands still while it flows.

And this can be experienced, not merely philosophized about.

Think of all the little complaints made meaningless by our dropping a sense of passing time: “life is too short”, “where has my life gone?”, “children grow up so fast” etc. etc. Part of us can stop rushing, for that part of us can never be late.

Master Dogen wished to convey that each moment of time and being is not anything apart from you, is your existential time-and-being. So, he wrote in Uji, Being-Time

Because real existence is only this exact moment, all moments of Being-Time are the whole of Time, and all existent things and all existent phenomena are moments of Time …

If Time does not take the form of leaving and coming, [a task done in the past] is the present as Being-Time, If Time does take the form of leaving and coming, you yet have this present moment of Being-Time, which is just Being-Time itself.

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    Please join us for a moment of Zazen …

    About 20 minutes in which nothing, and everything, happens …

    True Story. Visiting Florida last week, in a canoe on the Loxahatchee river, my wife at the front, me in back paddling, wind comes up suddenly and blows us sideways toward the muddy bank … right into the backside of a sleeping 4-foot alligator. (Now, it’s not so easy to hit a gator, even in the Everglades with lots scattered about. Just, I suppose, where chance brought all of us) Gator is none too pleased, you know. Bangs the little boat with his tail a couple of times, lets out a mean roar, shows some teeth, scampers away into the tall grass.

    Shaken, but still afloat, we steer the canoe back to the center of the channel and proceed with our journey … rather glad he was not a 5-foot gator, rather glad we hit the backside and not the front.

    Suddenly, whole meaning of this Zen thing is clear. (For those not picking up the literary symbolism, gator represents the problems of life, river is life, the wind is fate, a balanced canoe – equanimity of body and mind, a disturbed vessel a disturbed mind, the paddling is just moving forward. My wife represents my wife.) Here goes:

    In the canoe of life, you, your wife, the canoe, the paddle, the river, the alligator, the grass, the mosquitoes and the whole damn Everglades are just One Great Swamp. Accept all alligators, and seek to embrace their existence, for they — and you too — are the life of the river. But, at the moment your canoe crashes into the alligator’s backside, try explaining that to the alligator … or to yourself (or to your wife in the front of the boat, also baring her teeth). It is okay to paddle furiously to get away, if that is possible.

    (If not possible, practice famous Zen parable about plucking a strawberry when chased over cliff by hungry tiger)

    In the canoe of life, our Zen practice is allowing the vessel’s natural balance, heading down the twisty channel as best we can. Sometimes we paddle badly, sometimes the wind comes up despite our hard paddling and blows us into gators. No matter. Every time you crash into a gator, merely allow your canoe to settle, find the middle of the channel.

    (If unable to find the channel, just be where you are)

    In the canoe of life, sometimes you foolishly stand up and rock the boat, sometimes the boat is rocked by forces beyond your control. Sometimes the whole thing tips and you tumble into alligator infested waters. Every time you stand up and rock the boat, or the boat is rocked by circumstance … JUST SIT … The best balance is there, in just sitting. If you’ve fallen into the water, seek to get back into your boat.

    (If unable to return to boat, appreciate the wetness of the river)

    In the canoe of life, you may not know who (if any “who“) made the canoe, the river, you, your wife, the gator, etc. etc., the Whole Darn Swamp. But, here you find yourself, in life’s canoe, with a paddle, heading down that river. River runs before you, seems like you came from behind. You do not know why (if any “why“). What to do?

    …. Just paddle paddle, sometimes drift drift, try to stay in the middle of the channel.

    Oh, and where possible, avoid gators.

    Where are you at the instant all thoughts of “here” and “there” are dropped from mind?

    In Zazen, those words, those concepts, can be dropped quick away. The mind thinks the thoughts “here” and “there,” and thus the mind can be let to stop doing so too. We need not experience some “here” where we are, as opposed to all “theres” where we’re not.

    So then, where are you?

    At this instant, I ask you … where are you not?

    Why do we fill our heads with such limiting words as “here” or “there”? Or “now” and “then”, “self” and “other” ?

    Of course, we need limiting words to function in life. For example, I get up in the morning and I must go from “here” … my house … to many “theres” … my work, my school, etc. We need “here” and “there” to live in this busy world of places to go and things to do. We cannot live without that. It is necessary, and not wrong.

    But is that the only way to view reality? Is that the one way to live?

    Can we, not apart from divided reality, experience too reality as without need or possibility for going elsewhere, no place to leave behind?

    Historically, Zen came from India to China to Japan, then spread from Japan now to the West. It went from there to here and here to there. In the past, many Zen students travelled from place to place, country to country, to study the Dharma, looking for it here and there, wondering where it is found. I myself live in Japan, and sometimes go back and forth from there.

    But need we do Zazen in a Japanese Zen hall? No, it can be done any place … any place at all.

    As well, if we drop all thought of “here” and “there”, where is Zazen not being done? Where is Zazen not, right in the moment we are sitting Zazen?

    So, Dogen Zenji wrote in the Fukan-zazengi:

    Why should we abandon our own seat on the floor, to come and go without purpose through the dusty borders of foreign lands. If we misplace one step, we pass over the moment of the present.

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