Notes on Dogen’s “Being–Time”

The title of Uji, translated as “Being–Time,” essentially contains the totality of the text. Unpacking the meaning of this hyphenated word opens a vast interconnecting vista of practice. The two characters u-ji are usually translated as arutoki or “for the time being.” Dogen separates the two characters (u meaning being, and ji meaning time) and…

By Shinshu Roberts

Photographs by Denis Darzacq from the series “La Chute (The Fall)” (2005–2006).

The title of Uji, translated as “Being–Time,” essentially contains the totality of the text. Unpacking the meaning of this hyphenated word opens a vast interconnecting vista of practice. The two characters u-ji are usually translated as arutoki or “for the time being.” Dogen separates the two characters (u meaning being, and ji meaning time) and reassembles them as the one word uji, often translated in English as being–time or existence–time. As Hee-Jin Kim writes:

Dogen . . . transforms such an everyday phrase as arutoki (“at a certain time,” “sometimes,” “there is a time,” “once”) into one of the most important notions in his Zen—uji (“existence-time”). This metamorphosis is executed by way of changing its two components—the aru and the toki—into u (“existence,” “being”) and ji (“time,” “occasion”), respectively, and recombining them as uji so that it unmistakably signals the nondual intimacy of existence and time.

Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on his View of Zen

This new word uji becomes a shorthand for bundling all aspects of reality into one word/thought: being–time. Being–time embraces many of the key teachings found in Dogen’s writing. Among several words or phrases found in Uji that express these teachings are dharma position (ju-hoi): the fully embodied totality of myriad things/beings as a moment of being–time; continuous practice (gyoji): the completely realized activity and effort of each being’s time as all being–time; fully expressing the Way (dotoku): the enlightened expression of practice realization; manifesting ultimate reality (genjokoan): the totality of the actualization of the fundamental point; penetrating exhaustively (gujin): complete expression of a moment; practice-realization (shojo no shu); this very mind is Buddha (sokushin zebutsu); and buddha-nature (bussho): the totality of life’s activity, among others. Dogen’s descriptions of practice, expression, mind, and reality are also designations of actualized being–time. These words are a rich mosaic illuminating our being–time, each aimed at helping us find deep awakening as we express our rich, intimate life.

An old Buddha said:

For the time being, I stand astride the highest mountain peaks.
For the time being, I move on the deepest depths of the ocean floor.
For the time being, I’m three heads and eight arms.
For the time being, I’m eight feet or sixteen feet.
For the time being, I’m a staff or a whisk.
For the time being, I’m a pillar or a lantern.
For the time being, I’m Mr. Chang or Mr. Li.
For the time being, I’m the great earth and heavens above.

—translation by Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo

Uji begins with four couplets introducing the meaning of the text. The first two lines are attributed to Zen master Yaoshan Wei-yen, from a text called the Jingde chuandeng lu (“Jingde Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp”), a series of stories about Zen masters compiled in 1004 by Daoyuan. The rest are thought to be Dogen’s own composition.

There are two important elements in these opening verses: the repeated phrase “for the time being” and the unique moments, things, or events that it modifies. The individual moments, things, or events are called ju-hoi or “dharma positions.” A dharma position is a singular moment, state of being, or occurrence that has no fixed duration and about which we intuitively understand something of its particularity. Standing on the highest mountain peak, moving along the ocean floor, being a wrathful deity with three heads and eight arms or a golden buddha of eight or sixteen feet, a staff, a whisk, a pillar, a lantern, Mr. Chang, Mr. Li, the great earth, and the heavens above are all dharma positions.

In short, the four couplets opening the text depict unique particular situations that are illustrative of being–time’s totality. Dogen’s examples and their metaphoric meaning encompass reality as both particular and universal.

The translations of uji as “for the time being,” “sometimes,” “at a certain time,” or “once” can be read as a kind of throwaway line, especially in English. Our tendency may be to skip over these words and move on to what seems to be the meat of each sentence. But for Dogen, “for the time being” is the whole basis for his discussion of time’s relationship to being.

In conventional use, “for the time being” seems to indicate a specifically limited demarcation of time, as in “at the moment” or “just for now.” Dogen’s use of the phrase, however, has a deeper meaning than “at this time.” Reading the two characters that comprise the phrase as the compound term uji, rather than as an idiomatic phrase, yields the more universal reading “being–time.” Grammatically, the characters u and ji do not indicate singular or plural. We can read the compound “being–time” to mean either a being’s time, a time’s being, or all being–time. Understanding the multiplicity of meanings within the phrase “for the time being” reveals new depths in Dogen’s opening lines. For Dogen, “for the time being” encompasses all states of being–time. Rereading the opening of Uji in light of this understanding, we find several meanings within each situation: “a particular time-being stands on the highest mountain peak,” “the time when one stands on the highest mountain peak,” “all being(s)-time(s) stand on the highest peak,” or “all time’s being and/or all beings’ time is now standing on the highest peak.” We can read the remaining lines in the same ways. No single thing and no moment of time is left out of this very moment of being–time.

Dharma Position as All Being–Time

We can’t really penetrate what Dogen means by being–time if we don’t understand the unique particular moments, things, or events called dharma positions or dharma stages. A dharma position, understood as a unique independent moment, also has multiple aspects, which, when

taken together, are being–time. Without understanding the encompassing nature of a dharma position as a being–time and all being–time, we mistakenly experience unique particular moments like the Buddhist parable of the blind men examining an elephant. One man said the ears were like a basket, another said the tusk was a plow’s blade, and a third thought the foot to be a pillar—you get the idea. Since the examiners were blind, not one of them was able to see the whole of the elephant, so they grasped what they could and compared it to something they already knew, not understanding that each thing they touched was a part of a larger unseen whole.

A dharma position is a moment, thing, or event of being–time that is also definable as transitive and impermanent. A person is a dharma position. Since nothing ever stays the same and all things are in flux due to their interactive, interpenetrating nature, it would be folly to say that a dharma position or a moment of being–time begins here and ends there. Dharma positions are not finite in this sense, nor are they sequential way stations along a continuum of past, present, and future. Although Dogen does not deny the conventional, everyday sense of time as a horizontal line of sequential events that we experience as past, present, and future, in Uji Dogen is concerned with the nondual nature of time and being as expressed in the presencing moment. From the point of view of practice, a linear view of time can impede realization.

A dharma position has a past, present, and future, but it is freed from being defined by that past, present, or future. Each dharma position is particular and independent. We are aware of past experience and future desires when actualizing our enlightened mind, but such ideas do not obstruct our ability to respond fully to the totality of each situation as it is. This nonobstructive awareness is important because the independent nature of a dharma position allows us to choose how we will respond to them. We are not caught up in some fatalistic, predetermined course of action. Dogen writes in Hotsu-Bodaishin (“Establishment of the Bodhi-Mind”):

In general, establishment of the mind and attainment of the truth rely upon the instantaneous arising and vanishing of all things. If [all things] did not arise and vanish instantaneously, bad done in the previous instant could not depart. If bad done in the previous instant had not yet departed, good in the next instant could not be realized in the present.

—translation by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo

From the perspective of nonduality, past, present, and future are present in this moment, yet at the same time each moment must have the freedom to express its individual flavor. In the example above, Dogen is describing how we are not trapped by unskillful behavior. This “instantaneous arising and vanishing” is the dharma position as fluid and all-inclusive.

At the same time, it is an independent dharma position. Dogen famously expresses this idea in the Genjokoan (“Manifesting Suchness”), where he writes about the nature of firewood:

Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless, we should not take the view that ash is its future and the firewood is its past. Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off. Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future.

—translation by Nishijima and Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo</p<

Here we have what appear to be two opposing ideas: the future of firewood is ash and the past of ash is firewood, and yet the past and future of firewood and ash are cut off from what seems like their natural progression. Each statement is equally true and important to our understanding of a dharma position or a being–time. We do have a past and future, but we are not bound by a fossilized past or future. We use our past experiences and future desires as tools for discernment. If we can engage with the present moment in this way, we are freed to respond to this moment unobstructed by motivations that might hinder a skillful response.

Dogen does not deny the conventional, everyday sense of time as a horizontal line of sequential events that we experience as past, present, and future, but from the point of view of practice, a linear view of time can impede realization.

A dharma position holds all being–time—a being’s time and time’s being—in this very moment. This is the complete nonduality of things, existence, and time. A particular being–time expresses two states. First, there is the universal state of all being–time. This is the inclusive nature of everything taken as a whole. Second, a being’s time is a particular event, person, or thing, which is expressed as an independent dharma position. Simultaneously, a dharma position is both universal being–time and a particular being–time. Everything is present at the same time without hindering the universal and particular nature of any other. This is also true of time’s-being.

When we include everything in our understanding, we are more cognizant of the intrinsic value of each thing, and we are more aware of the place each being or event has in relationship to us. We don’t exclude anything, recognizing that everything is already present. Accepting things as they are is predicated upon knowing that the present includes all those things we want and those things we don’t want. We cannot reject anything merely because it causes us discomfort or does not fit our idea of how it should be. Our suffering arises from this overlay of likes and dislikes, but truthfully there is nothing obstructing the fully realized moment because nothing is excluded and all things arise simultaneously.

Furthermore, everything interpenetrates everything else and is all other beings and times, within a particular dharma position. This idea is articulated in the Huayan phrase “to know one thing is to know all things.” If you understand this foundational truth about a thing’s essential nature, you will also understand the basic truth of all things. Our interconnecting, interpenetrating, unobstructed nature is the basis for intelligent empathy resulting in compassionate and wise action.

Since a dharma position is interconnecting, interpenetrating, impermanent, and fleeting, it functions within the context of all other dharma positions. In concert, these dharmas practice together and make the world. From this perspective Dogen writes in Zenki (“All Functions”) “life is what I am making it, and I am what life is making me . . . life is the self and self is life.” Lest we get too anthropocentric in our views, he also writes in Uji “each grass and each form itself is the entire earth . . . each moment is all being, is the entire world” (Nishijima and Cross).

Included in each moment is the entire world and the individual being–time-ness of each being making the world. Dogen calls this all-inclusive activity gyoji, or continuous practice. Continuous practice is the practice-realization of the Buddhist ancestors, and it also includes the continuous practice of all other beings: trees, rocks, insects, etc. It is the wholehearted effort and total presencing of each being in the ten directions within the context of each dharma position or being–time. Dogen writes in Gyoji (“Continuous Practice”):

The working of this activity-unremitting upholds the self and the other. Its import is such that through one’s activity-unremitting the entire earth as well as the whole heaven of the ten directions share in its working. Even if others are unaware of it, and you may be unaware of it, that is the way it is.

—translation by Kim, Flowers of Emptiness: Selections from Dogen’s Shobogenzo

When does this practice happen? It happens within a particular dharma position as one, all, and everything as it is right now. As Dogen writes in Gyoji, “The time when continuous practice is manifested is what we call ‘now’” (Francis Dojun Cook, How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo).

Line-by-Line Reading

Again, the opening verses are presentations of being–time as dharma positions. The occasion of the verses themselves are being–time. They are the being–time of Dogen, Yaoshan, the reader, and all beings. As soon as we read these words, the connection comes forward:

For the time being, I stand astride the highest mountain peaks.
For the time being, I move on the deepest depths of the ocean floor.

The top of Mount Everest as the world’s highest peak and the deepest point of the ocean in the Mariana Trench seem very far apart. Since the verses are written in couplets, it is understandable that we would interpret them as being in opposition to and separate from each other. They seem to be linear in time and position, an idea further strengthened by the phrase “for the time being,” as if this were just a temporary state, definable in a dualistic scheme.

Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of being–time, although they may appear to be different, they are not. Perhaps we think the highest peak is some rarefied place and the deepest ocean is mysterious and unknowable, but both of these states are within the realm of our experience. Nothing is left out. The mountains are our world, and the oceans are our world. When we stand on the highest peak, it is just this moment, and when we stand on the ocean floor, it is just this moment.

Dogen associates both dharma positions with realization. He writes in Kai-in-zanmai (“Ocean Seal Samadhi”):

Encountering the buddha face . . . is nothing other than fully recognizing myriad things as myriad things. Because myriad things are all-inclusive, you do not merely stand atop the highest peak or travel along the bottom of the deepest ocean. Being all-inclusive is just like this; letting go is just like this.

—translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

Both the mountain peak and the ocean floor are the territory of realization. “The buddha face” is our life seeing the true nature of “myriad things.” Even if you are on the mountaintop or at the bottom of the ocean, the myriad things, times, beings, and events are never absent in your present now. Actualizing this place includes the peak and the ocean floor, and at the same time it has the independent nature of making oneself present for the “right now” of either state without holding on to anything.

For the time being, I’m three heads and eight arms.
For the time being, I’m eight feet or sixteen feet.

We again seem to have two ends of the spectrum. There is the being with three heads and eight arms: the demon of delusion. Opposed to this image is the golden body of the buddha, often described as sixteen feet or eight feet tall. If we look more closely at Dogen’s teaching on these two apparent opposites, we find that he writes later in Uji:

So even that three-headed, eight-armed creature makes a passage as my being–time. Although it might seem as if it were somewhere else far away, it is the time right now. The sixteen-foot Buddha-body also makes a passage as my being–time. Although it might seem as if it were somewhere else over there, it is the time right now.

The “right now” of our experience holds both realization and delusion. From the perspective of nonduality, both must be included in our understanding. When we are responding with our buddha-mind, where does the demon mind go? When we are responding with delusion, where does our realized mind go? Or we could ask, “when we respond skillfully to a situation, where does our selfish mind go, and when we respond unskillfully, where does our compassionate mind go?” Both are present, although we generally experience either one or the other.

Accepting things as they are is predicated upon knowing that the present includes all those things we want and those things we don’t want. We cannot reject anything merely because it causes us discomfort or does not fit our idea of how it should be.

Hee-Jin Kim writes, “The relationship between delusion and enlightenment is such that one is not the simple negation or absence of the other, nor does one precede or succeed the other.” If both were not present, we could not respond so readily with one or the other. One aspect comes forth and the other aspect is hidden, yet both are still part of the other’s appearance. The world of myriad things is all of being–time fully presencing itself. This world has no labels, although there is delusion and enlightenment. We should not say, “Oh, I’m enlightened, so everything I do is okay.” Nor should we say, “Oh, I’m so unskillful, I will never be compassionate or wise.”

When we realize the nondual nature of a dharma position or particular being–time, we can include everything and avoid getting caught in a constricting story about our current situation. Making up a defining story line takes us further away from the true state of our experience. For example, we may find ourselves wanting to deny our own unskillfulness (the three-headed demon) because it doesn’t fit our idea of a Buddhist practitioner. Denying our difficulties will only draw them forward, often when we least expect or want them to arise.

It is only when we accept and investigate our experience as flawed human beings that we begin to exhibit wisdom and recognize the totality of our life.

Dogen writes in Sesshin Sessho (“Speaking of Mind, Speaking of Essence”):

From the time we establish the bodhi-mind and direct ourselves toward training in the way of Buddha, we sincerely practice difficult practices; and at that time, though we keep practicing, in a hundred efforts we never hit the target once. Nevertheless, sometimes following good counselors and sometime following the sutras, we gradually become able to hit the target. One hit of the target now is by virtue of hundreds of misses in the past; it is one maturation of hundreds of misses.

—translation by Nishijima and Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo

We will never hit the target if we refuse to realize that our arrows are missing. Missing the target is not about being a good or a bad person; it is just our sincere effort to hit the target of skillful means. Our human life, the arrow, and the target are not different. Missing and hitting are not opposites, as long as we are sincerely present for our life as it unfolds within the being–time of self and others practicing together. Including both is the key concept here. If we only think of this moment as a reflection of our individual needs, then we miss the mark. We must include the totality of both self and other, then act in accord. This is the basis of sincerely shooting the arrow. In this way, our ideas about having three heads and eight arms or standing sixteen feet tall will not obstruct our actualization of the Way.

For the time being, I’m a staff or a whisk.
For the time being, I’m a pillar or a lantern.

The staff and whisk are symbols or tools of the realized teacher. The outdoor pillar and stone lantern represent the monastic structure and garden, respectively. Pillars and lanterns are a metaphor for monastic training. These objects point to our spiritual training or the path we follow in order to actualize our understanding. The everyday interpretation would be that “at a certain time” we are a teacher and “at a certain time” we are students. In this way of thinking, “for the time being” I am this or that. But being–time is larger than our definition of our experience and our quantification of spiritual progress. At the time of being a student, the teacher is already present. At the time of being a teacher, the student is also present. There is the dharma position of student and the dharma position of teacher, distinct states, but simultaneously present within each other’s position. The key to skillful response is seeing and acting from the appropriate position.

Dogen writes extensively about equating the four objects—a staff, a whisk, an outdoor pillar, and a stone lantern—with realization. The staff, whisk, outdoor pillar, and stone lantern may be understood in the same dynamic relationship as Dogen’s well-known paring of practice-realization (shusho-itto). Conventionally, we understand practice as the stone lantern and outdoor pillar and realization as the whisk and staff; we think of practice as before and realization as after. In truth, realization is fully expressed in practice. Even as we endeavor to learn practice, we are exhibiting the mind of realization. Our efforts to understand and enact realization are driven by realization. In this way, the pillar and lantern do not represent steps along the path to attainment of the whisk and staff but are already fully engaged with actualizing the Way.

We are not waiting for realization to arrive, as it is manifest in the now of being–time. Being fully present ourselves, here and now, in company with others, is realization.

On one hand there is practice, as expressed in the above quotation, about shooting an arrow at a target. On the other hand there is realization—hitting the target. But when we look at the totality of the activity of making the effort to hit the target or enact realization, this can only come from the mind of realization. It is realization, fully present, that is the foundation of our sincere effort. Dogen expresses this when he writes in Bendowa (“Wholehearted Practice of the Way”):

To suppose that practice and realization are not one is nothing but a heretical view; in buddha-dharma they are inseparable. Because practice of the present moment is practice-realization, the practice of beginner’s mind is in itself the entire original realization. Therefore, when we give instructions for practicing we say that you should not have any expectation for realization outside of practice, since this is the immediate original realization. Because this is the realization of practice, there is no boundary in the realization. Because this is the practice of realization, there is no beginning in practice.

—translation by Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen

We are not waiting for realization to arrive, as it is manifest in the now of being–time. Being fully present ourselves, here and now, in company with others, is realization. The whisk-staff representing realization and the pillar-lantern representing dharma training are not so far apart.

They are all speaking the truth of realization as it is actualized in practice. This practice is in and of itself realization.

For the time being, I’m Mr. Chang or Mr. Li.
For the time being, I’m the great earth and heavens above.

“Mr. Chang or Mr. Li” is the same as saying “every Tom, Dick, or Harry” in English. Yet, as common as we are, when we look into the night sky, do we also recall that we too are made of stars? The true nature of our life is that we are not separate, we inter-are (as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh would say). We know from scientific study that the carbon from the Big Bang is also in us and in all things. We know from observation that in this very moment we are dependent upon heaven, earth, and everything in between for our very life. We cannot live without air and water. We are dependent upon and enmeshed with all beings for all time, at this moment. Yet we persist in thinking there is a disconnect between ourselves and others. What a trick our senses play on us! This great life of the cosmos is just the everyday life of the common person.

Practicing with Being–Time

The verses opening this fascicle present particular dharma positions, being–times, or individual moments. These moments are examples of particular events: standing on a mountain, holding a whisk, viewing the temple pillars, or being an ordinary person. None of these situations obstructs the complete expression of the other examples given. Each situation is an opportunity to fully enact our being–time, as it is right now. If our worldview is a being–time that entertains all possibilities, this enables us to let go of our attachment to any particular ideas about our situation and thereby actualize the totality of the moment. Our being–time’s moment must include all being(s)–time(s). When this inclusivity is actualized, we are fully present with whatever is happening in its totality and we respond. This response is unobstructed. It alleviates suffering.

I am walking on the sidewalk; next to me is a bike lane in the street. Approaching me on the sidewalk is a person on a bicycle. Without thinking and without judgment, I step into the bike path and let the bicyclist pass me on the sidewalk. My response is immediate and without thought. I don’t feel angry or have some idea of how it is supposed to be. I just respond to what is, at that moment. There is the being–time of a bicycle and the being–time of a person walking. Each is a particular manifestation of two being–times sharing and expressing their mutual, unique, fully realized being–times as one being–time.

From Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji, by Shinshu Roberts (Wisdom 2018)

Shinshu Roberts

Shinshu Roberts

Shinshu Roberts is cofounder of Ocean Gate Zen Center in Santa Cruz, California, and holds the appointment of Kokusaifukyoshi (international teacher) with the Soto Zen School in Japan. A student of Sojun Mel Weitsman, she trained at San Francisco Zen Center for seventeen years. She is the author of Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo Uji; her writings also appear in Record of the Hidden Lamp and Receiving the Marrow.