I hate the phrase “killing time.” No one has an overabundance of time here on this earth—the idea of killing any second of it just makes me cringe. In Zen monasteries you often see an old Chinese poem written on the han, the wooden board that’s hit to call people to meditation. It goes like this:
Great is the matter of life and death
Moments go by swiftly and are lost
To squander time is a great shame
Do not waste your life
People have a great variety of definitions for what constitutes time wasting and what doesn’t. Some people want to stay busy and productive every minute. On the other hand, when asked what he thought was the purpose of life, Kurt Vonnegut said, “We’re all just farting around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” But Kurt Vonnegut accomplished a lot in his time.
Then there are unavoidable situations that seem to suck away our precious time. We get caught in traffic. We’re obliged to visit some really boring relatives. There’s no other choice but to just stand around and wait till the bus arrives, and it’s really, really late.
And what is time anyway? Dogen Zenji said time is existence and existence is time. We aren’t static things that move through time, he said. What we truly are is time itself. I’m one of those who likes to always be busy and productive. Because of this, I’ve often found it difficult to relax. The activities most people do to unwind strike me as time wasters. They accomplish nothing, which, of course, is precisely the point. And I hate that. My meditation practice was a godsend to me because it allowed me to relax while not feeling like I was frittering away precious time.
One common way to interpret the Buddhist commandment not to waste time is to think it means we should always be engaged in some sort of activity directed at accomplishing something. But that goes against another more basic idea in Buddhism, which is that one of the great causes of suffering is being too fixated on goals and accomplishments. So it must mean something else.
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