Why should we care about how we understand time? In his essay The Time Being (Uji), Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), the revered founder of Japanese Soto Zen, reconstructs our sense of time, providing a profound way of understanding it from the point of view of Zen practice. In the new book Being-Time, Shinshu Roberts, a dharma heir of the Berkeley Zen Center’s Sojun Mel Weitsman, invites the readers to grapple with Dogen’s famously rich and difficult text. “Even if we cannot completely understand Dogen’s teaching,” writes Roberts, “it will still impact our practice. His vision of life is vast, poetic, and concrete all at the same time.”
In The Time Being, Dogen says that people do not doubt their experience of time, and so they do not understand it—like the proverbial fish unaware of water. He initiates a deep examination of time as we live it, waking us up to the intimacy of our embodiment not only of our own time but also of the time of all beings. Dogen turns us away from a future-centred striving that uses, fights with, or weeps over time, seeing it as a commodity we must capitalize before it runs out. Instead he guides us toward a view that opens up to us the richness of time right now, our intimacy with it, and our connection to all time past, present, and future. Dogen frees us to settle into the present moment, revealing all moments in the life of our practice as expressions of awakening.
In Being-Time, Roberts moves through the text line by line, attempting both to clarify Dogen’s thought and to show us how to apply it in the midst of both our meditation and our “mundane” activities like driving a car, riding a bike, or having a difficult conversation. Yet, in drawing out the practical implications of the enigmatic text of Uji, Roberts isn’t so much offering definitive answers on how to interpret it as providing an inspiring model of how to live with and contemplate one of Dogen’s texts—or any Buddhist text, for that matter.
At the core of Roberts’ treatment of Uji is a focus on meeting the present with a fully engaged, unobstructed mind in tune with the holistic being-time that “presences” right now, in her turn of phrase. Roberts’ courageous book possesses many moments of grace and insight, but would have benefited
from a sharper clarity derived from a rigorous examination of her arguments as well as definitions of contested terms like nonduality or emptiness. A straight line from Dogen’s text to her interpretation is also not always visible.
Nevertheless, Roberts’s work is remarkable in at least two ways. The first is that she brings a wide range of Dogen’s writings into dialogue with The Time Being, helping to clarify Dogen’s thought in general and thus shed light on his meaning in this text. This approach is effective at both revealing the patterns and depths of Dogen’s thought as well as offering a model that readers can and should follow if they want to better understand the notoriously difficult-to-understand Zen philosopher.
The second is that Roberts’ book is a rare example of a Western Zen teacher offering a popular exposition of a Dogen text of this length—Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, a book entirely dedicated to essays on the Shobogenzo for a popular audience, might be the only other well-known one. With Being-Time, it feels like another important step has been taken in Western Zen’s relationship with Dogen.
As Dogen reveals to us, in touching the present moment, we touch all past times (like, for instance, the time of the Buddha’s enlightenment) and all future times (like the future deepening of our own realization). We ourselves are moments of being-time held in the palm of the Buddha. As he writes in The Time Being, “A golden sixteen-foot body [a Buddha] is time; because it is time, there is the radiant illumination of time.” Roberts’s own text is an invitation to join her in entering into the Buddha’s radiant illumination of time to see what we can find to enrich our own practice of the dharma.
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