Sunday, March 10, 2013

No time but now

It's daylight savings here in New Jersey, a day that requires more than a little mental gymnastics on my part twice per year. We moved the clocks forward an hour so I inevitably try to calculate how much sleep I got last night.

My daughter just sat down next to me, and trying her best to understand the concept of daylight savings, said, "It's not this time."

The clock read 8:09 AM and she was absolutely right: it's not this time.

Without turning this into a philosophical discussion, time is a tool, a unit of measurement without any empirical reality. It's the temporal equivalent of an inch. We can no more demonstrate a minute than we can an inch (for you smart alecs out there, we can only point to an inch of something like an inch of wood or carpet, but never an inch itself) because neither exist.

Time is a concept, and a very useful one at that--that is, when it's used properly. Time can help us plan, organize, and reflect. Come to think of it, the history of time (the concept) would make for a fascinating book, if it hasn't already been written. But I digress.

Time can be very helpful, provided we use it, and not the other way around. But the problem is that the latter is all too often the case. We are time slaves, chained to the imaginary concept. It's like The Matrix or The Terminator; we've been enslaved to the construct we have created. We try to "save" and "use" time like it was a physical commodity. Obviously we can't, and so we suffer.
Time has no substance, nothing we can take hold of. In fact, nothing does. That's emptiness, the Buddhist principle of insubstantiality of phenomena. 

The modern remedy to time obsession is the slogan, "Be here now." But even "now" is an idea that only gains meaning in comparison to the past and future. The present is just as much of an illusory construct as any other frame of reference, for the sheer fact that the present is ungraspable; it's always changing!

So where does this leave us? In the timeless realm of the Dharmadhatu. Nirvana. Or in Mahayana terms, the Bodhisattva realm of How may I help you?

"Hi, how are you today?" "What can I do for you?" "Do you want something to drink?"

All we can do is function.

Wake up, stay awake, and save all sentient beings. 


  1. i am enjoying your podcasts, but i have some questions. do you think that zen can become an excuse for us to become complacent about the material suffering of other people? if we accept that there is no hierarchy of experience, where is the impetus for us to, for example, engage with politics to better the position of the poorest in society? wouldn't the purest zen view be that there's no difference between having a mansion and living on the street?

  2. Wonderful question! In the lineage that I practice we always stress three important factors: situation, relationship, and function. What's going on? What's our role in this context? Both of which determine how we function.

    So say you see someone crying in the bathroom where you work. What do you do? You ask, "Are you all right? How can I help you?" That's spontaneous compassion. All you want to do is help this person, maybe get them water, maybe call a doctor; it depends on the circumstances.

    Any insights that we have concerning the emptiness or unity of reality needs to be balanced with a concrete grounding in THIS world, the relative. That's where the Bodhisattva Vows come in. "We vow to save all sentient beings..."

    I agree that some people exploit emptiness to suit their own ends, to justify their own attachments. "Why do I drive a BMW while people starve? Obviously you don't understand reality. Hahaha!" That's the work of ego.

    True Zen is about helping all beings wake up to their true nature. Sometimes that means patting someone on the back while they cry, other times it might mean marching on Washington to protest injustice.

    The broader question we must ask is, "Why do this?" Why do we meditate? Why do we protest? If the answer is for me, then our action is not so clear. But if our answer is to help other beings--to completely relieve their suffering--then there is no separation between self and other. There is only "How can I help you?"

    I hope this helps!

  3. it does help, thank you for taking the time to respond.