Dogen's 'Being-Time' - Part 1


From my first ponderings as a young child intrigued by the deep time of both the fossil record and the cosmos alike, to the graduate level coursework in Einstein’s theory of relativity that I managed to survive on my way to deciding against an advanced degree in physics, I’ve always been interested in the nature of space and time and the answers “out there” waiting to be found. Of course I now know that space and time are not two separate entities at all; rather, they are so inextricably linked as to only meaningfully be referred to as space-time. Ah, but I risk getting ahead of myself.

Dogen gazing at the moon

I suspect that Dogen Zenji, the 13th century monk so prominent in Japanese Zen, was likewise interested in what answers might be found “out there.” What else could have motivated him to embark upon a dangerous maritime journey to China in the hopes of assuaging his greatest doubt? In time, however, Dogen came to realize (as did this author) that all of our searching “out there” only leads to more and more questions. The examination of what is “in here,” however, provides a truly timeless answer:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization (from Dogen’s Genjokoan, a fascicle of the Shobogenzo, as translated by Okumura, 2010, p. 2).

In my entire life there have been only two books that intrigued me enough, were unavailable enough (or so it seemed at the time), and were deemed important enough to “my search” that I was prompted to photocopy the entirety of their contents from the only copies I could find in order to study them at my leisure. The first of these was Hans Reichenbach’s The Philosophy of Space and Time – copied at a nickel per page on a coin operated machine at my old alma mater after my professor cited it in one of his lectures on the philosophy of science. The other was the four-volume set of Kosen Nishiyama’s translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo: The Eye and Treasury of the True Law – discovered as if a diamond in the coal mine of a local seminary library. (No offense intended to any readers who might relish getting lost amongst stacks of Christian theology texts!)

At this point it should come as no surprise that Uji is one of my favorite fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Variously translated as Being-time (Nishiyama, 1975), The Time-Being (Welch & Tanahashi, 1985), and Existence-time (Nishijima & Cross, 2009), amongst others, Uji is a treatise on the nature of time, our experience of it, and the ramifications of our understanding (or lack thereof) of our true relationship to it. Let’s see, then, if any of my scientifically oriented explorations of the nature of space-time might be of assistance in making sense of a 13th century Zen monk’s exposition of the nature of existence and time – being-time. Here goes…

Dogen’s ‘Being-Time’

There are many ways to think about time, one of which is to think of it as something that passes, or as something that we pass through. This is the way that we commonly think of life and time – dualistic, though it may be. Dogen’s realization, however, is that in addition to this everyday way of thinking about time there is the reality that we are time:

“Being-time” means that time is being; i.e., “time is existence, existence is time.” The shape of a Buddha statue is time. Time is the radiant nature of each moment; it is the momentary, everyday time in the present (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 68 – all subsequent translated passages from Uji are also from this source).

The Universe Is Time.

So, what are we to make of this “we are time” way of thinking about reality? Let’s veer into the scientific realm in order to apprehend the big picture. Think of the Big Bang, if you will. If you’re like me, when you think of the Big Bang you imagine something similar to the image below. Actually, the image below is of a supernova, but that’s also how I imagine the Big Bang to have happened – despite my recognition that neither viewer nor vantage point could have then existed. Indeed, how can a viewer, one who exists, precede all of existence; and how can a vantage point, an existent point in space, precede the Big Bang’s creation of any and all points in space?

Hubble telescope image of a supernova

If a void were to have existed into which the universe then flowered into existence, then that void would have been devoid of space and time (in addition to being devoid of everything else), for space exists only in relation to things, and time only to their movement. Within such a conceptualized void there would be no things, and thus no space to exist between them. Within the void there is no time. For time to exist there needs to be something happening, things moving – interstellar gas collecting into nebulae and then condensing into stars; continents colliding and thrusting mountains into the air; water raining downward, forming rivers and carving canyons; a mind lost in concentration one moment, becoming bored the next. Neither time nor space existed until the universe exploded into existence – until the universe came into being. Thus, the existence of the universe and the time of the universe are one. This is the being-time of the universe.

At this point an unconvinced reader might be eager to suggest that we do away with the vantage point “outside of” the Big Bang and focus only on the “inside”. Okay, let’s conceptualize a vantage point “inside of” the unimaginably dense, undifferentiated unity that was the pre-explosion seed of our universe, the seed which has since blossomed into our universe. Keep in mind that there is no “outside” – that is why we’re imagining ourselves “inside,” after all. The “inside” of this thingless, spaceless unity that we are imagining would likewise be absent of time for the same reasons that the void is absent of time. Thus, existence and time are one.  

We Are Time.

Regular readers of this blog, in addition to many other Buddhist practitioners, will be familiar with the teaching of no-self. The teaching of no-self is essentially the recognition of the emptiness (the lack of fixed and independent existence) of all phenomena, including the collection of phenomena that we commonly refer to as ‘the self.’ Now, the Heart Sutra’s insistence that ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ might prompt us to focus on emptiness as something that applies to the realm of materiality (existence, being). Dogen’s Uji, however, invites us to explore what emptiness means in the temporal realm as well. Please keep this in mind as we continue unraveling what Dogen means when he says “being-time.”

Okay, if the universe in its entirety is being-time, then everything contained herein is being-time. Just as the universe blossomed into being and with it, time, so we arise in form, each with our own time. This is Dogen’s being-time. However, just as the Heart Sutra encourages non-attachment to form (being), we should likewise refrain from attachment to being-time. With that in mind let’s explore another couple of pertinent passages:

Every thing, every being in this entire world is time. No object obstructs or opposes any other object, nor can time ever obstruct any other time (p. 68).

The central meaning of being-time is: every being in the entire world is related to each other and can never be separated from time (p. 69).

If We Are Time, Then Where Does The Time Go?

We’ve gotten very good at measuring ‘the passage of time.’ With ‘the passage of time’ we came to refer to some periods of time as ‘years’, and fragments of those years as ‘months’ and ‘seasons’. With ‘the passage of time’ we went from measuring time as the transition of daylight to darkness and back again, to measuring time in hours and minutes and seconds. Note that all of these periods of time are based upon the relationship between things – between the sun and the earth, between the moon and the earth, and increasingly refined increments thereof. At the present time we have atomic clocks that define a ‘tick of the clock’ to be "the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of microwave light absorbed or emitted by the hyperfine transition of caesium-133 atoms in their ground state undisturbed by external fields" (General Conference on Weights and Measures of 1967 as quoted in the preceding Wikipedia link). By the way, caesium-133 atoms are merely collections of “things” that we are making use of in order to track ‘the passage of time.’

But if time passes, where does it go? If time passes and we are time, where do we go? It is the seemingly universally shared experience that time is something that passes us by that inhibits us from enquiring more deeply into its nature. As Dogen says:

Even though we have not calculated the length of day by ourselves, there is no doubt that a day contains twenty-four hours. The changing of time is clear so there is no reason to doubt it; but this does not mean that we know exactly what time is (p. 68).

Do not think of time as merely flying by; do not study the fleeting aspect of time. If time is really flying away, there would be a separation between time and ourselves. If you think that time is just a passing phenomenon, you will never understand being-time (p. 69).

Why don’t we leave it right here for now – even though we’ve only made it through two pages of what is actually a much longer fascicle! Indeed, Dogen’s writing can be like a bramble, dense and thorny; so let’s back away for a bit before trying to make further headway. After all, we’re pushing the limits of our ability to comprehend – if only for the time-being!

Please note: Though I’ve primarily quoted from just one source translation, Nishiyama (1975), the reader might want to check out others listed in the reference section below. At least a couple of them are available online – links provided. I’ve made use of all of them at one time or another as I’ve read and reread this piece. Be forewarned, though, comparing any two translations line by line can yield some surprises. Furthermore, due to the fact that Dogen was frequently writing from a place of understanding that is difficult to put into any words at all, let alone words that are easily understood, it behooves us to approach his writings from the vantage point of a solid meditative practice. Until next time!


Cleary, T. (2001). Shobogenzo: Zen essays by Dogen. In Classics of Zen Buddhism: The collected translations of Thomas Cleary, Vol. Two. (T. Cleary, Trans.) Shambhala Publications by special arrangement with University of Hawaii Press (Dogen’s original work from 1240.)

Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Dogen’s original work from 1240.)

Nishijima, G. W., Cross C. (2009). Shobogenzo: the true Dharma-eye treasury, Vol. I. (G. W. Nishijima & C. Cross, Trans.) Published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. (Dogen’s original work from 1240.)

Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. I. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Dogen’s original work from 1240.)

Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo (S. Okumura, Trans.). Wisdom Publications. (Dogen’s original work from 1233)

Welch, D., Tanahashi, K. (1985). The time-being: Moon in a dewdrop – writings of Zen master Dogen. (D. Welch & K. Tanahashi, Trans.; K. Tanahashi, Ed.) North Point Press. (Dogen’s original work from 1240.)

Image Credits

Hubble telescope image of a supernova (slightly retouched by author in order to remove extraneous "things") courtesy of Nasa via:

Image of Dogen looking at the moon courtesy of Shii via:

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank


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