Recently I’ve been studying a text called “Being–Time” (Uji) by Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan. It’s a difficult read; I wouldn’t dare try to unpack it all in just a few hundred words. But put simply, Dogen is asking the reader to look closely at time, at this moment, and to see if it is in any way incomplete.
Early on, Dogen writes, “Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another” (translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Dan Welch). I’m guessing that stops you—it stops me. I can easily describe my life in terms of obstacles. On the map of my life, there is the arrow that says “You Are Here,” and then there are all the destinations, some of which I can reach easily but some of which I may never see—the path is too treacherous, or they’re just too far away. There are things I want to create, people I want to protect, experiences I want to have. I’m here; those things are over there.
Even in a single day, how many obstacles do you face? If you’re fortunate, maybe what comes to mind is traffic, or hoops you have to jump through at work to get ahead. Maybe your biggest obstacle is a person, or a group of people. Maybe your obstacle is money—maybe you don’t have enough of it to feel safe. Or maybe your obstacles are systems intended to keep you down: institutionalized racism, sexism, class structures that seem set in stone. If you’re looking for obstacles, all you have to do is look in front of you.
Is there another way to see our lives? Dogen clearly thinks so. I’m not saying he’s right—I don’t think we should ever assume the teachers of the past were right. But I do think they’ve earned our attention, maybe even some trust. So we can pick up something like “Things do not hinder one another” and hold it up to the light, see how it feels in our hands, inspect it.
My simple understanding of what he’s saying goes like this: obstacles can only exist in a world of separation, one in which I’m here and things are over there; obstacles are only possible in a linear view of time, in which this moment is a stop on the way to the next moment, and the next. Those are reasonable, normal ways of looking at space and time, but Dogen wants to talk about now—not as part of a continuum but as something complete in itself, not dependent on before or after, on here and there.
This is a big idea, but we’ve all already learned it: in high school geometry. We learned that a line is made up of points—but a point, for these purposes, is not a dot on the page. A dot on the page can be measured; it has a start and a finish. That dot is just a really short line. Points—though everything is made of them—don’t exist in a conventional way. They are immeasurable, and that places them beyond ideas like “big” or “small,” “long” or “short.”
I think Dogen is asking us to consider the possibility that while, yes, we can see obstacles all around us, we can’t actually find any obstacles where we are now. That doesn’t mean there’s no poverty or racism, or that your manager at work isn’t tripping you up, or that the roads are clear. But it does mean that in this moment—this immeasurable moment, right now—none of these things can get in your way, because you are fully here, not on your way to something else. It’s the freedom of having no place else to go.
Some would argue that the point of meditation is simply to connect with this, nothing more. For a few minutes a day, we sit down and notice that beyond the stillness we choose, there is an underlying stillness, a parallel reality in which we are not on our way to anywhere or late for anything. We see that we’ve arrived, that we’ve always already arrived. The arrow on the map says “You Are Here,” and you know, in this moment, that it’s true.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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