What could be more obvious than time?
We don’t often stop to examine our most basic assumptions. Like the proverbial fish unaware of water, time is the medium in which we move. Yet on a closer examination, what time is, and how we are to understand it, is not so obvious.
Is time literally a medium, like water, that we move through? Are we separate from time, or is time somehow part of our being? Is time objective or subjective? Does past time cease to exist? Is the future non-existent at this moment, ushered into being by the totality of causes in the next moment, or does the future already exist? Does the present moment have its own identity, or is it utterly determined by the past?
Long before Einstein or Heidegger delved into these issues in the last century, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), wrote on them extensively in his collection of philosophical essays, Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye).
Among the ninety five essays in this challenging and voluminous text is Uji, “For The Time Being”, which examines, as the title suggests, the relationship between being and time.
As well as several english translations, the short text has already received book long treatments, one from Dogen scholar Steven Heine (Existential and Ontological Dimensions of Time in Heidegger and Dogen), one from philosopher Joan Stambaugh (Impermanence is Buddha-Nature: Dogen’s Understanding of Temporality), and one from the late Soto Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri (Each Moment Is The Universe:The Way of Being Time). The essay is, as Joan Stambaugh writes in the aforementioned book, “difficult for even the most advanced and sophisticated scholars of Eastern thought.”
Why should we care about time? Frederic Jameson, in his seminal Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argued that the modern era is marked by the predominance of “space over time.” Our sense of embeddedness in a meaningful historical narrative, our connection to past and future and to rituals and cycles of time, including natural, seasonal ones, has been replaced by an orientation to the present alone, an open field, now amplified by the internet, where we manipulate and consume objects within a meaningless cosmos where neither…