Our experience and understanding of time are vitally in need of revision in the current post-nuclear era. The large quantity of nuclear waste accumulated by nuclear power and nuclear weapons production since Hiroshima constitutes an unparalleled peril to our species and our world, due not only to its deadly toxicity, but to its inconceivable longevity. Even if the creation of new nuclear waste were to miraculously cease, the already existing poison poses urgent long term problems.
In order to safely maintain just the nuclear poisons from the past fifty years, humans must reawaken to the vast reaches of deep time. “Deep time” is a phrase the Buddhist teacher and activist Joanna Macy borrowed from Deep Ecology. This branch of the environmental movement seeks to care for the ecology, but not merely as a matter of efficient resource management to profitably satisfy human needs and desires. Rather, going beyond anthropocentric biases, it sees the total natural environment as intrinsically valuable, with humans enjoying our own appropriate limited place as an interdependent part of the natural order.
Yet none of us, especially the bureaucrats in charge of nuclear waste disposal, seem capable of conceiving of the vast stretches of time involved. As pointed out by Macy, the founder of the Nuclear Guardianship Project (NGP), one of the great psychic diseases of our time is our unacknowledged awareness of the real possibility that our species may not have a future. When we attempt to address the limitations of our own species and the longevity of toxicity, our conventional interpretations of time restrict and hamper our ability to act appropriately. NGP has worked to influence nuclear waste practice away from the denial of waste disposal in subterranean bunkers that will inevitably leak into the biosphere, and toward sustainable guardianship of the waste. Keeping this poison fire monitored and retrievable honors and cares for our descendants and our planet over the range of deep time.
The challenge of deep time is to become comfortable with our position in the vastness of time, to go beyond our impoverished relation to time. Our policymakers too often do not look past the limits of quarterly profit margins, and ignore the longer-term consequences for the environment. More personally, we have come to see time itself as an enemy. “Time is money,” and in the name of efficiency we hustle about, so busy trying to “save time” that we have no time to enjoy our time. A common wish is to transcend time entirely, to be in some timeless eternal present in which we can overcome our hectic lifestyle and be free of regret for the past or anxiety over the future.
A frequent desire for spiritual practice is such a desire to transcend the suffering of impermanence and abide in a timeless present. This denial of time in the name of spirituality is commonly sloganized in the West as “Be Here Now.” Practitioners are often encouraged to enter some mystical moment, disregarding past and future. While focus on physical presence may be a valuable meditative tool, and in some situations a useful antidote to excessive cogitation or intellection, a static abiding in the present is not the ultimate teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. Any view of enlightenment as existing outside the vicissitudes of temporal conditions is considered an extreme form of delusion.
One of the most famous and profound discussions of time in the Buddhist tradition is the essay “Uji” (Being time) by the Zen master Dogen (1200-1253). Dogen intentionally plays with the usual language patterns, poetically turning them inside out to reveal the inadequacy of our conventional ways of thinking. In “Being Time,” Dogen challenges our commonsense view of time, starting from the understanding that “time itself is being, and all being is time.” The word “being” as used here refers to the activity of existing, to the multitude of sentient beings, to each individual being, and to the universal quality of existence. Existence, and all that exists, is not at all other than time itself. All experience is exactly time. “See the myriad things of this entire world as so many times.”
While not completely negating the common view that time is flying past or passing us by, Dogen points out the limitation of this view and the importance of opening ourselves to seeing the wider dimensions of time. Being time is more dynamic and vital than the dull one-dimensional passage of past, present, future. In our actual experience time moves in all directions: from today to yesterday, from yesterday to today, from today to today, from tomorrow to tomorrow. How we experience the future or past in the present changes the meaning of that future or past. How we will see the present present in the future present, or saw it in the past, affects the reality of this present.
Time is not just past, present, and future. This aspect of being time is reflected in the vast, wondrous panorama of time in the Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra or Flower Ornament (Huayen) Sutra, which Dogen studied as a young monk and which remained the background of his thought. Huayen philosophy specifically discusses ten times: the past, future, and present of past, of future, and present, respectively, as well as the interfusion of all nine of these times. If all ten of these times were not present now, it would not be time in the fullness of its being.
Although the movement of being time is omnidirectional, in essence it is also a discontinuity in which each being and all time is fully present. The richness of being time is the active, vivid presence of each and every particular being’s time. Each time of being fully exerts itself in total expressiveness. This is the deep reality of time that Dogen encourages us to actualize right here and now in our own being.
Dogen’s being time cannot be understood outside of the context of Buddha-nature and of Dogen’s teaching of continuous practice. Buddhist teaching traditionally states that all beings without exception inherently possess the clear bright Buddha-nature, except that it is obscured by ignorance and the habit patterns of our conditioning. Dogen revitalizes this teaching by stating not that all beings “have” the Buddha-nature, but that all being completely is Buddha-nature (and all beings completely are Buddha-nature). No separation exists between ordinary beings and their Buddha-nature.
The conventional view is that the Buddha-nature is permanent and eternal, unlike the transient world of impermanence. Dogen, however, turns this inside out by stating that impermanence is actually Buddha-nature. Nirvana is itself impermanence. It is only in the midst of the difficulties of impermanence that beings are impelled to truly express their Buddha-nature in practice. Dogen affirms that Buddha-nature is precisely temporal conditions themselves. Buddha nature does not exist in some abstract theoretical state outside the actuality of these present temporal conditions. The intense manifesting of presence in being time is not a “be here now” that seeks escape from the world of impermanence. We do not need to become some other person with some other karmic conditions existing in some other time, place, or mental realm. Rather, just being fully ourselves, amid this particular set of impermanent temporal conditions with whatever problems they bring, is exactly how we each express our unique Buddha-nature.
Our usual tendency is to evaluate some time of being as a more or less full expression of Buddha-nature. We are constantly making dualistic judgments about the quality of our experience. But Dogen says:
just actualize all time as all being; there is nothing extra. A so-called “extra being” is thoroughly an extra being. Thus, the time-being half-actualized is half of the time-being completely actualized, and a moment that seems to be missed . . . is also complete-in-itself the time-being. Do not mistakenly confuse it as nonbeing. Do not forcefully assert it as being. [Tanahashi translation.]
This time of being is not something that exists independently from us and our active participation. Central to Dogen’s teaching of Buddhist practice is the oneness of practice and enlightenment. This immediate practice is not a means to attain some experience of enlightenment some other time in the future. Our practice is the expression of the present enlightenment right now. Our self is exactly time. Our activity is time being, time as it exists. Dogen understands our practice of being time as dynamically permeating all times. The power of this practice is such that “even if only one person sits for a short time, because this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all time, it performs everlasting Buddha guidance within the inexhaustible dharma world in the past, present, and future.”
One might compare the intensity of the sustained exertion of being rime that Dogen attributes to the activity of just sitting (zazen) to the experience of time often reported by virtuoso athletes or musicians during their peak performances. This is not some objectified or alienated time quantifiable outside of the body-mind of the practitioner. We do not stand outside of time, and time is not some external container within which we exist. Rather, this is our own, fully inhabited time. The dedication and commitment of such an athlete or musician to his or her craft is also relevant to the being time of Dogen’s wholehearted practice of the Way. The starting point for such practice is the initial impulse of deep caring and dedication of the “mind that seeks the Way” (in Sanskrit, bodhicitta). Because of the arousing of such total intention, Dogen can say that even one person sitting briefly for the first time provides awakening guidance to beings in all times.
Dogen founded his monastery Eiheiji on the remote Japan Sea coast, far from the political pressures of Kyoto. The schedule and rituals, attuned to daily and seasonal natural cycles, that Dogen established for his community in the 13th century are still largely practiced there. But ironically, the region around Eiheiji today has one of the highest concentrations of nuclear power plants in the world. This includes the extremely dangerous “Monju,” the prototype fast-breeder reactor for Japan’s plutonium-fueled energy program, grotesquely misnamed after the bodhisattva of wisdom. Monju has incited international protests and was closed down, for now only temporarily, due to a serious “accident” on December 8, 1995 (appropriately, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day).
How would Dogen respond to the nuclear wastes accumulating in his backyard? The distant past and distant future cannot exist separate from the presently being time. A fundamental principle of Dogen’s teaching is our responsibility in being time. In an essay called “Deep Faith in Cause and Effect,” Dogen emphasizes the importance of not ignoring the karmic laws of cause and effect. How we stand in this present time of being completely includes and affects all being times. Our determination now to take care of the effects of nuclear poison from our current use of electric power profoundly affects beings in the deep time of the future. And our ability to include the time of beings of the distant future in our present being time deeply enriches the total exertion and experience of our present time of being.
East Asian Buddhism historically has survived by staying aloof from direct involvement in social policy conflicts, instead offering an example of a counterculture in its monastic communities. Contemporary Western Buddhist communities, on the other hand, display a strong tendency toward activist, “socially engaged” Buddhism, as exemplified by Joanna Macy’s work on nuclear waste guardianship.
Dogen’s sense of connection and responsibility to the ecology might be inferred from another pas sage in “Being Time,” in which Buddha’s enlightenment is equated with the maintenance of our environment’s being time:
Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated. This being so, the morning star [at the time of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment] appears.
I am not suggesting that all nuclear wastes be shipped forthwith to Buddhist communities for safekeeping.
But it seems clear that the kind of dedication, attentiveness, and everyday carefulness cultivated in such training centers will be necessary if we as a species are actually to survive and sustain guardianship over the poison fire of nuclear waste throughout the reaches of deep time. As spiritual practitioners we can more fully connect with the richness of our presence in being time by including this vastness of deep time.
Excerpted from an article published in Kyoto Journal, no. 20.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.