An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.
–Eihei Dogen (The Time-Being, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Dan Welch)

FOR THE TIME BEING, my knees are killing me. It’s the second day of the sesshin, a seven-day meditation intensive at the Rochester Zen Center, and I’m in big trouble. The stiffness in my legs has not gone away. I’m hot, tired, and clammy under the brown robe. Worst of all, I cannot find my way in into a deeper, more concentrated sitting. I’m not engaged in meditative absorption. I am not breaking through to insight and enlightenment. Instead I’m stranded, left with nothing but the pain in my legs and my endless exasperating thoughts. The bell marking the new meditation round fades, and I sit staring straight into a thirty-five-minute Death March of boredom and discomfort. As a theoretical physicist, I’m fairly well versed in human speculation about time and its subtle nature. Now I’m getting a lesson on its not-so-subtle nature. Time, that most elusive and slippery concept, has abruptly jumped from the realm of the abstract into the domain of the concrete. And all that concrete is crushing my knees.

© Sally Mundy/Millennium Images, UK
© Sally Mundy/Millennium Images, UK

Every culture in every era has its own way of understanding and making use of time. From Stonehenge to the digital chronometers staring down on Times Square, humans have always woven their idea of time into the organizational fabric of their societies.

Contemplative practice, on the other hand, takes us beyond our mere concept of time and forces us to engage with it directly. For better or worse, the flow of moments is the raw material of meditation. The nature of time is also central to the work of physics as it attempts to reveal the fundamental laws shaping physical reality. The dialogue between science and the contemplative tradition of Buddhism is still a relatively new addition to the contentious four-century-old “religion and science” debate. The first wave of that dialogue, focusing on relatively silly New Age enthusiasms for quantum physics, has passed (at least one hopes) among those who take the conversation seriously. Now the real work (and fun) can begin. Any attempt to understand if andwhere points of contact exist between the great investigative traditions of contemplation and science requires an open mind, sharp skepticism, and perhaps a little taste for mischief. Given the centrality of time in both the Buddhist and the scientific worldviews, it just may be the right place to begin a search for authentic parallels between them.

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