Being in Real Time

The late Dainin Katagiri Roshi explores Dogen’s concept of Being-Time and how to work with it our daily lives.

By Dainin Katagiri Roshi

Photo by Lukas Blazek

Look at our modern life! Everything is moving quickly, and it’s hard to keep up with the dizzy tempo. You try to find satisfaction, but no matter how great your effort, it seems you hardly make any progress. Finally you recognize that you cannot keep up with the bewildering, quick changes of time. That doesn’t feel good. You feel uncomfortable, upset, or sad, and you want to escape. So you cover your eyes, turn your mind away from your dissatisfaction, and live your life based on having pleasure. That is modern life. I don’t mean to criticize modern life, but something is missing.

Buddha said that in order to follow the eightfold noble path and experience liberation from suffering, first we have to see in the proper way and then we have to think in the proper way. Then he explained how we can liberate ourselves through the activities of speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, having a calm mind based on meditation, and concentrating the human life force. Buddha put seeing and thinking first, because to live in peace and harmony we have to see and think about life in the proper way.

When you see in the proper way, what do you see? You see the true nature of time. In Japanese we say mujo. Mu is “nothing” and jo is “permanence,” so mujo means “no permanence,” or “impermanence.” Seeing impermanence is not to face a kind of nihilism that leads to despair; it is to become yourself, as you really are, with joyful, open eyes. Thinking in the proper way is not to understand life through your intellect; it is to contemplate deeply how to live every day based on wisdom. When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair. That is the basis of a complete way of human life.

The Naked Nature of Time

Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth-century Zen master who founded the Soto Zen school in Japan, always emphasized how important it is to see that human life is based on impermanence. In Gakudo Yojin-shu (Points to Watch in Buddhist Training), he mentions that the great patriarch Nagarjuna said, “The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying, and recognizes the transient nature of the world, is called the way-seeking mind.” In Shobogenzo, “Shukke-kudoku” (Merits of the Monastic’s Life), Dogen Zenji said that most people are not able to acquire the way-seeking mind of spiritual awareness without deeply understanding that a day consists of 6,400,099,180 moments. This is a wonderful number. I don’t know where Dogen found this number, but saying that there are 6,400,099,180 moments in a day is not talking about a mysterious idea; it is talking about something real. A moment is called ksana in Sanskrit. Sometimes we say that one finger snap has sixty moments, so one finger snap equals sixty ksana. A Buddhist dictionary may say that a moment equals one seventy-fifth of a second. According to the Abhidharma scriptures, a moment consists of sixty-five instants. The actual numbers are not so important, but we should have a sense of how quickly time goes.

According to Buddhist teaching, all beings in the universe appear and disappear in a moment. The term impermanence expresses the functioning of moment, or the appearance and disappearance of all beings as a moment. It means that all life is transient, constantly appearing and disappearing, constantly changing. You are transient, I am transient, and Buddha is transient. Everything is transient. Wherever you may go, transiency follows you. Transiency is the naked nature of time.

In day-to-day life you don’t perceive the transient structure of time because your rational mind cannot recognize the flux of moments. The true tempo of time is too quick for your mind to keep up with, so you sense a gap between you and time. Then, because of that gap, you feel that your life is completely separate from the rest of the universe. When you sense that gap, you can hardly stand it; it is beyond bearing. You think, “Wow! How awful! What’s the matter with me?” And you feel that you can never get along in your present circumstances.

All of us experience a gap between our minds and the reality of time—that’s why we suffer. Then, instead of accepting the transient nature of life and facing impermanence with a way-seeking mind, we want to escape and find something that will satisfy us so that we can feel relief. But actually there is no gap between your mind and time, not even the space of a piece of paper. This is reality, fact. Even though your mind cannot keep up with the quick changes of time, you already exist in the domain of impermanence, together with everyone and everything in the cosmic universe. As a human being, you inherently have a great capability that enables you to realize this truth and to experience your life with deep joy.

The Search for Meaning and Security

We want to believe in the continuity of our lives so that we can say, “Yes, I exist!” So instead of looking directly at time itself, we try to escape the cruel fact that impermanence constantly cuts off our lives. Unconsciously, our minds decorate time with many ornaments in order to make our lives more secure and meaningful.

Using his own life as an example of this, in the Tenzokyokun (Instructions to the Cook), Dogen Zenji tells how, as a young monk traveling in China, he once encountered an old priest serving in the office of tenzo, or head cook. Dogen felt the tenzo was working too hard for a person of his age, so he asked him, “Reverend sir, why don’t you do zazen or read the koans of ancient persons? What is the use of working so hard as a tenzo priest?” These questions come from Dogen’s sensing the unbearable gap between his mind and time, and wanting relief. They show that the young Dogen does not know how to just be present and live comfortably in the transient stream of time. Instead, he is trying to make his monk’s life meaningful.

If you become a monk, you ask, What is the purpose of monks? If you become a human being, you ask, What is the purpose of human beings? But no matter how long you try to follow a meaningful purpose in life, impermanence always cuts it off. When you realize this, you really wonder, why do we have to live with effort? Why don’t we just live as we like? Dogen was looking for meaning when he went to China to find an answer to the question, If we are already buddhas, why is it that we have to do spiritual practice? That is really Dogen’s question when he asks, “What is the use of working so hard as a tenzo priest?” He thinks the old man should forget about daily living and just do zazen or study the writings of the patriarchs. But Dogen is just creating ornaments.

Since human beings have been born in this world, we have decorated our lives with lots of ornaments in order to make time more meaningful. We develop remarkable civilizations of culture, politics, beauty, and pleasure. We create intellectual disciplines such as history, economics, science, philosophy, or psychology, and then we believe that they make life meaningful. Maybe we believe that a spiritual life can help us find meaning. So we create ideas such as God, Buddha, universal energy, the last judgment and paradise after death, theology, mythology, or morality and ethics, and then we try to depend on them to make us feel that life is worth living. Century after century we have done this, trying to find real spiritual security through making time meaningful. But still there is no solution, because they are all just ornaments.

We believe that we can make time meaningful, because we usually suppose that time is running on a road from here to there, toward a certain destination, from 12:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. We believe there is a stream of time that flows continuously from the past through the present to the future, so we say that there is one beginning and one end to this world. Then we think that time goes from a beginning to an end with a particular purpose, and we expect that we can make progress and feel satisfied as a result. But if you are seeking to know time in its naked nature, you cannot believe this because time is not a succession of constantly connected moments going toward a certain destination; in the transient stream of time, moments appear and disappear. Impermanence constantly cuts off your life, so every moment is separate.

I don’t want to reject ornaments. There’s nothing wrong with science, culture, and religion. Ornaments are important. Without ornaments you cannot exist. But if you take those concepts and ideas away, what’s left? Just the transient stream of time! No matter how long you try to make your life meaningful, you cannot find a way to do it unless you face the original nature of time. So before you use ornaments, make those ornaments more meaningful by seeing deeply into human life based on time. Be present, from moment to moment, right in the middle of the real stream of time.

Timeless Freedom

In Shobogenzo, “Uji” (Being-Time), Dogen Zenji says: Open your eyes and let’s see time from a different angle! When you see your life from the broad view of time, you see that your life is not something separate from time—your life is time.

It is very important to see your life not only from the narrow view of your egoistic telescope but also from the broad view of the universal telescope called egolessness. This is why we have to practice. Right in the middle of the stream of time, we have to open our eyes there and see the total picture of time. Through spiritual practice we can go beyond our egoistic point of view. We can touch the core of time, see the whole world in a moment, and understand time in deep relationship with all beings. Then we cannot be isolated and cold people. We become beautiful and warm people, appreciating and helping all beings. That is why Dogen always emphasized seeing time in a deeper way.

Dogen Zenji’s view of time is very difficult to understand. No one else has expressed the meaning of time exactly the way Dogen did. So when you read “Being-Time,” probably you don’t understand it. But even though it’s difficult, try to get a taste of it. Try to understand, because through the words Dogen is expressing his deep experience of time. He is compassionately showing us how to make time alive in our lives. Dogen really wants us to understand how time influences human life so that we know how to live in the best possible way.

When you understand how the various aspects of human life unfold in a moment, you can live freely in the realm of time. You can face the moment and know what to do. Then, through conscious action, you can create your life, and your life really works.

Time, Space, and Being

In the common sense, time seems to be something separate from beings, but Dogen Zenji says this is just our idea of time, a provisional picture we create, not the total picture of time. Dogen understands time in terms of all sentient beings. He says that time must be considered in relation with all sentient beings because time can be correctly understood only in deep interrelationship with all sentient beings. The phrase “all sentient beings” refers not only to human beings but to everything that exists—animate or inanimate, visible or invisible—in the vast expanse of the universe.

According to Buddhist teaching, everything exists together simultaneously in a moment. This is not the usual way of understanding human life, yet you are always experiencing this in your life because you can think of many things simultaneously. A dream is a good example. When you dream, many beings come together into the moment. You might see someone who existed in the past, ten or twenty years ago, and also someone you could meet in the future. When I was a child, I dreamed that I was on a train and needed to use the toilet. It was difficult to find the toilet because the train was jammed with people. I tried to get through them, but it was too difficult. So I tried to get off the train, but it was impossible. Somehow I did it anyway. I got off the train, found a forest, and relieved myself there. I felt a wonderful relief and, simultaneously, I woke up. I was in my bed! I couldn’t understand how all these things could be connected, but it was a fact. The train, the people on the train, finding a forest—many things existed simultaneously in a moment.

Time seems to be separate from beings, but actually there is no separation. From moment to moment, all sentient beings exist together as a completely independent moment of time. When the moment begins, all sentient beings temporarily appear as particular beings in the stream of time and seem to have their own separate existences. When the moment ceases, all sentient beings disappear, but they do not go away; they are interconnected smoothly and quietly in timelessness. Dogen’s word being represents all sentient beings existing in the formless realm of timelessness, and time characterizes the existence of completely independent moments. Being and time work together, so Dogen doesn’t separate them; he uses the one term being-time.

But the total picture of time cannot be understood only in terms of being and time; it must also be understood in terms of space. Space is the vast expanse of the universe where everything exists. Dogen’s understanding of space is not our usual understanding. According to our usual understanding, when something exists it takes a place that is a portion of space. We understand existence as something opposed to space. But that is dualistic thinking. If everything exists together simultaneously in a moment, then everything can’t occupy a portion of space, everything must occupy the whole of space.

When we say “being,” it means all sentient beings exist in space and occupy the whole of space. Being occupying the whole of space is called timelessness. Timelessness is a sort of energy that links the whole universe without creating any gap. In the realm of space as being, all sentient beings exist, but they are not separate; they are dynamically interconnected and interpenetrated in peace and harmony.

Yet we can’t understand life just according to being, becoming attached to a fixed idea of space as being and thinking that time is not also there. If we say so, our life can’t move at all. Nothing has a fixed existence, so being must also be no-being. No-being means being disappears into the arising moment and becomes one with time. When being is time, being manifests as the particular forms of the phenomenal world, and time occupies the whole of space as the present moment.

But in order for life to change, there must be another moment. So time must be no-time. No-time means the present moment returns to timelessness and becomes one with being. When time is being, time is nothingness. Nothingness has no form, it is just functioning energy. All sentient beings are dynamically interconnected and interpenetrated by the energy of timelessness, and being occupies the whole of space. When all sentient beings are interconnected in timelessness, the next moment can begin. Then being manifests itself anew as the phenomenal aspect of a fresh moment. So the source of time is being, and the source of being is time, but both depend on space. This is the total picture of time that Dogen really wants us to understand.

We say that human beings are just particular beings located at the intersection of time and space. You cannot separate time from space or space from time, but you cannot think of them as a combination. You have to think of time and space separately, but you cannot understand time separately from space. The intersection of time and space is called “right now, right here.” At the intersection of time and space, time and space come together and work together mutually. We don’t know how, we don’t know exactly what happens, but it’s a fact. This is reality. This is the place called truth, or nonduality, the place where you can see the overall picture of existence.

If you see the intersection of time and space, you experience complete freedom of being. This state of existence is completely beyond any idea of time, space, or being. In that liberated state you can see fundamental truth and the phenomenal world simultaneously. That is called Buddha’s world. That is the place where all sentient beings exist, so you can stand up there and see all beings, myriad beings. Then you know very clearly, through your own emotional and intellectual understanding, how all beings exist.

The Pivot of Nothingness

In “Being-Time,” Dogen Zenji constantly encourages us to see time from a different angle by being present at the source of time. The source of time is the place where you can see your human life from a broad view. We usually think of time as streaming from the past through the present to the future, but at its source time is not like that. There is no stream of time from the past through the present to the future.

The past has already gone, so it does not exist. The future has not yet come, so it also does not exist. So the past and future are nothing, no-time. Then is the present all that exists? No, even though there is a present, strictly speaking the present is nothing, because in a moment it is gone. So the present is also nothing, zero, no-time, no-present, no form of the present. But that nothingness is very important.

Nothingness means total functioning, just functioning energy. When the present is no-time, it is interconnected with all sentient beings in the peace and harmony of timelessness. But when nothingness functions, there is a pivot, and it becomes the present. That pivot is called the pivot of nothingness. At that precise point—the intersection of time and space, which is called right now, right here—all sentient beings come together into the moment and a vast world comes up: past, present, future, earth, trees, planets, moons, and suns. In one moment, every possible aspect of human life, everything we can be, spreads out, unfolds, and a huge world comes up. That is called interdependent co-origination. Life is always at the pivot of nothingness; it is always right now, right here. Right now, right here is the eternal moment of the real present.

The real present is not exactly what you believe the present to be. In everyday life we constantly create some idea of what the human world is because we are always thinking of how things were in the past or how things will be in the future. When you are thinking about the past and future, the contents of the present are just imaginary pictures of the past and future, pictures fabricated by your consciousness at the pivot of nothingness, so it is not the real present. The real present is the full aliveness that exists at the pivot of nothingness before your conceptual thinking creates an imaginary world through human consciousness. So to understand the present as a pivot of nothingness, your concept of the present must be negated. It must become no-present; then you can see the real present.

Even though you believe that the past, present, and future are separate because you can think of them as separate ideas, the real present is related with the past and future simultaneously, not separately. How is it possible for the past and future to exist simultaneously in the present? How can the present exist with the past and the future? It is possible because when time is no-time, time doesn’t move according to common sense, time moves anywhere: to the top, to the bottom, to the right, to the left, from today to yesterday, from yesterday to tomorrow. There is nothing to pin down, no concept of time based on cause and effect, just total functioning energy.

You don’t believe this, so you attach to your usual concept of time. But what is your concept of time? When a moment begins and all sentient beings appear as the particular aspects of the human world, your concept or idea of time is also a being that appears. When the moment ends and all sentient beings disappear, your idea of time also disappears. This means that anytime, anywhere, you can be free from your idea of time.

When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the contents of your life. This is called egolessness. From that point of view, you see that real time is completely nothing, it is just a dynamic working process, functioning, going constantly. And you understand that your individual, human life is not something completely separate from others’ lives; it is manifested in the vast universe together with all sentient beings.

Real Time and Daily Life

Life at the pivot of nothingness is nothing but motion and process. Through spiritual practice you can really understand this and enjoy your life. But no matter how long you think about it logically, you won’t understand, because thinking always creates a gap. Then your daily life is not grounded in the real present; it is up in the air. You are mixed up and your life is really suffering.

In daily life we manifest the past as memory, heredity, or tradition and the future as plan, prediction, hope, or perhaps ambition, and then we feel uneasy. We cannot ignore the past and the future, but we also cannot ignore the fact that Buddhism tells us those manifestations are nothing but pictures drawn by our consciousness. So what should we do? How can we see real time?

We cannot see real time unless it is manifested in daily life because real time is nothing but function and process. So if we want to know real time, we have to learn what it is through everyday life. Your daily life is exactly the same as the source of human life. Being in the stream of time is exactly the same as being at the source of time. To understand this, we have to stand up in the dynamic working process at the pivot of nothingness and do something with wholeheartedness.

In Shobogenzo, “Kai-in zammai” (Ocean Seal Samadhi), Dogen Zenji says that when you swim on the surface of the ocean, your foot touches the bottom of the ocean. In common sense this is impossible, but it is really true. The surface of the ocean is the human world in the stream of time, the huge world we create through our memory, imagination, ambition, hope, and plans. That surface of everyday life is rooted in the absolute reality at the bottom of human life. Your foot already touches the bottom of the ocean, you are already walking there, but you don’t believe this.

We don’t believe that our life is walking on the bottom of the ocean because we are always living on the surface, hanging on to the past, present, and future. We think the bottom of the ocean is something other than daily life. But we cannot ignore the fact that our life in the stream of time is constantly changing. It is constantly changing because it is manifested from moment to moment at the pivot of nothingness. So if you want your life to really work, then whatever you do—dance, art, painting, photography, or sitting zazen—your life must be swimming on the surface, and simultaneously it must be rooted, walking on the bottom of the ocean. That is living wholeheartedly.

When we live wholeheartedly, we can create many aspects of human life. This is a little difficult to understand, but actually you often experience this in your daily life. For example, if you graduate from university and receive your Ph.D. degree, you may think you have reached your final goal, and now you can stop learning. But I don’t think you can stop learning. The Ph.D. is, of course, something you have achieved, but you cannot stay with it. In the next moment something changes and you must learn more. You live in a huge world that is constantly changing, and you share your life with all sentient beings in many ways. Something always compels you to move forward, and you really want to learn more. That means you have to move! Then, when you take step after step wholeheartedly, your life really works, and you constantly deepen your life.

When I try to explain it using words, it seems to be difficult. But I don’t think it is difficult. You can do it! This is our practice. When you do zazen, whatever you are thinking, just practice zazen. Very gradually you can understand my words. Do zazen until there is no gap between zazen and you. Finally, “Aha! This is the pivot of nothingness!” Even though you don’t understand now, just accept the words and keep them in your mind. Then if you see the total dynamic functioning at the pivot of nothingness, the place where all aspects of human life unfold, there is no confusion, no suffering, and you can live freely in the stream of time.

This article is adapted with permission from a new book of Katagiri Roshi’s teachings titled Each Moment Is the Universe, published by Shambhala Publications, 2007.