Dogen's 'Being-Time' - Part 2

This post is the second of two exploring Uji, that fascicle of Dogen’s Shobogenzo known to many as Being-Time. 'Being-Time' - Part 1 introduced Dogen’s primary thesis, that we are time, by thinking of “it” from an all-encompassing, cosmological perspective and then scaling back down to that of our human experience. This follow-up post will examine some of the examples Dogen uses to convey the nature of this reality that we are time. The following passage is a great place to start:

[Being-time] is the actualization of being. Heavenly beings like gods and celestials are being-time. All the things in the water and on land are being-time. The world of life and death and everything in them is being-time; it continually exists, actualizing itself in your present experience. Everything exists in the present within yourself.

Continuous existence is not like the rain blown by the wind east and west. Continuous existence is the entire world acting through itself. Consider this illustration: When it is spring in one area, it is spring everywhere in the surrounding area. Spring covers the entire area. Spring is only spring; it does not presuppose winter or summer. It is the actualization of the wind and sunshine of spring. Continuous existence is like this. But continuous existence is not spring; rather, the continuous existence of spring is spring (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 70).

Cherry blossom viewing in a Yokohama, Japan park

We are presently experiencing a cold snap here in my hometown, after being teased with a spate of warmer weather – an occurrence that certainly has many yearning for the arrival of spring. But that which we call ‘spring’ neither arrives nor departs. To think of the coming and going of spring, and time, is to think of time in the ordinary way – as something that passes. But if spring is something that passes, it must go somewhere. If time is something that passes, and we are time, then we must go somewhere – and yet we remain.

“Continuous existence is the entire world acting through itself.” What we call ‘spring’ is the entire world acting through itself. The entire world is neither arriving nor departing. The entire world is the sun and earth actualizing being-time, engaging in a spinning dance of nearness and farness. The entire world is the earth actualizing its being-time, now showing this face to the sun and now another. The entire world is life in all of its forms actualizing being-time in the present moment as all of life has actualized being-time in the present moment for eons and eons. The actualization of being-time includes warmth and rain and rising sap, buds and blossoms and birds building nests. The actualization of being-time includes the emotion and wonder of human beings gathering to enjoy that which we call ‘spring.’ But continuous existence cannot be contained or constrained by the word and concept of ‘spring’. Only “the continuous existence of spring is spring.”

Elsewhere in Uji, Dogen invokes a variation on the now well-known koan related to a monk asking his teacher, Joshu, the reason for Bodhidharma having come from the west. Bodhidharma, by the way, was the monk of Indian birth who is considered the first patriarch of Chinese Zen, or Ch’an. In the more well-known version, Joshu responds: “Cypress tree in the garden.” In Dogen’s telling of the story, however, we have a conversation between two Zen Masters, Yakusan and Daijaku, the latter with an apparently deeper realization than the former.

[Yakusan] asks, “I have more or less clarified the import of the three vehicles and the twelve divisions of the teaching. But just what is the ancestral master’s intention in coming from the west?”

Thus questioned, Zen Master Daijaku says, “Sometimes I make him [Daijaku refers to himself] lift an eyebrow or wink an eye, and sometimes I do not make him lift an eyebrow or wink an eye; sometimes to make him lift an eyebrow or wink an eye is right, and sometimes to make him lift an eyebrow or wink an eye is not right.”

Hearing this, Yakusan realizes a great realization and says to Daijaku, “In Sekito’s order I have been like a mosquito that climbed onto an iron ox.” (Nishijima, 2009, pp. 147-148).

Given the context, I think we can safely conclude that Dogen considers Daijaku’s response to have conveyed his understanding of being-time – as does, for that matter, “cypress tree in the garden.” Just as the being-time of the cypress tree reflects the deepest truth of the entirety of the universe, and just as the being-time of the sun and earth and all that lives in or on it or rains down upon it encompasses that which we call ‘spring,’ so the being-time of Bodhidharma and all those who intently practiced the Dharma with him in China encompassed that which we might call a Zen ‘spring’ on the Asian continent. But if that is what Daijaku intended to convey, why didn’t he just say it? What’s with all of this raising of eyebrows and winking – or not? My understanding is that Daijaku is conveying his understanding of Bodhidharma’s being-time by relating the truth of his own being-time, and by doing so, relating the truth of being-time in general. If he’d replied by saying “cypress tree in the garden” (someone else’s answer), Yakusan would not have understood Daijaku’s response as the deepest expression of his own understanding which, itself, is always changing, always evolving, never absolute – being-time. And so it is that Daijaku sometimes “make[s] him lift an eyebrow or wink an eye.” Daijaku is conveying the reality that being-time is the moment-to-moment “actualization of being.” He is conveying the reality that “continuous existence is the entire world acting through itself.”

But that is not quite all there is to Daijaku’s understanding of being-time. By his own admission, that answer is sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect. Being-time encompasses enlightenment as well as delusion. Perhaps Bodhidharma himself, if we could ask him why it was that he came from the west, would respond very much as did Daijaku: “Sometimes I head east, and sometimes I head west;  sometimes to head east is right, and sometimes to head east is not right.” Such is being-time.

Sometimes spring arrives ‘right on time’ and sometimes spring is ‘late.’ Sometimes spring comes ‘early’ and with it the awakening of myriad beings which then freeze or whither or starve. This, too, is being-time. To say that spring has made a mistake or that all of those myriad beings have been mistaken is to not understand being-time. Arriving early is being-time. Arriving late is being-time. Heading east with the intention of heading east is being-time Heading east with no intention whatsoever is being-time as well.

And yet, even after all of this discussion of being-time, and how we and all things are time, and how what we call ‘the passage of time’ is just the ordinary way of thinking about time, and so on and so forth, we might still say to ourselves: “It’s Monday morning and my glorious weekend is over; now I’m back at work. Yesterday was fun, but yesterday is not today – time has passed.” Indeed, Dogen is not denying this ordinary view of time, for even the ordinary view of being-time is still being-time. Here is Dogen once again:

Ordinary people, unlearned in Buddhism, think that being-time sometimes takes the form of a demon, sometimes the form of Buddha. It is like the difference between living in a valley and then wading through a river and climbing a mountain to reach a palace. That is, the mountain and river are things of the past, left behind and have no relation to living in the present. They are as separate as heaven is from earth.

That is not true, however; when you cross the river or climb the mountain, you are (time). We cannot be separated from time. This means that because, in reality, there is no coming and going in time, when we cross the river or climb the mountain we exist in the eternal present of time; this includes all past and present time. Crossing the river, climbing the mountain, living in the palace exist together, interrelated, in being-time. Demons and Buddhas are yesterday’s time, a tall Buddha image is today’s. Yesterday’s time is experienced in our present existence. It appears to be passing but the past is always contained in the present. Like this, the pine tree is time, the bamboo is also time (Nishiyama, 1975, p. 69).

Perhaps a climb to the top of Pikes Peak will help us understand the subtle but radical point that Dogen is making here. Pikes Peak is a mountain in the Rockies that is over fourteen thousand feet tall. From its summit you can see the Plains stretching eastward to the horizon as far as the eye can see. Of course, that is not so very unique; all Colorado fourteeners have exquisite views stretching as far as the eye can see. What is unique about Pikes Peak, however, is that there is a road on which one can drive one’s vehicle right to the top! Imagine, then, three people standing at the summit and drinking in the “very same” view: one has completely exerted him or herself, hiking miles and miles of rugged trails into the thinning air to get there; another has driven up the well-maintained, but still vertigo-inducing roadway, gradually experiencing ever more sweeping vistas along the way; yet another, after a breathtaking ten minute helicopter ride from Colorado Springs, lands in the parking lot and strolls up to the summit. The resulting view for each of them is “exactly the same,” and yet it is not. Each of them will experience the summit in entirely different ways. Everything…, everything…, is manifested in the present moment of being-time. The journey to the summit, no matter how long or short, easy or trying, enjoyable or scary, can only be experienced in the present moment. ‘Yesterday’ can only be experienced in the present moment. ‘Last year’ can only be experienced in the present moment. ‘My childhood’ can only be experienced in the present moment. And so it is that what we call ‘the passage of time’ is but the blossoming of being-time ever and always in the present. The three people standing at the summit are sharing being-time, but each has his or her “own” being-time as well.

As an aside, I should point out the subtle difference between what Dogen is saying and the well-worn aphorism that happiness and well-being are related to our ability to “stay in the present moment.” The notion of “staying in the present moment” does not preclude our ordinary way of thinking about ‘the passage of time.’ A complete understanding of being-time does indeed include the possibility that the blossoming of the present moment is manifested with a mind immersed in thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow, or a mind that firmly believes in ‘the passage of time.’ Being-time encompasses delusion and enlightenment alike.

Now, at least one reader must be thinking to him or herself: “Yes, this discussion has been intriguing, but what does the correct understanding of being-time have to do with the way I live my life?”

First and foremost, I think, is the fact that the understanding of being-time (or even movement towards an understanding of being-time) helps shake us out of our ordinary way of looking at “our” life. Our ordinary way of looking at life involves the view of ourselves as almost completely autonomous entities moving through space and time, but not so completely enmeshed in either as to preclude from coming true such fantasies as time-travel, or the transmigration of our soul to another world, or its being raised up to a heavenly realm (another space-time dimension, perhaps?). The flower of being-time, with its blossoming forth of all things in a seamlessly integrated whole, is not the sort of flower upon which the petals might be so rearranged!

Which brings us to the Buddhist concept of emptiness – sunyata. Our understanding of being-time fosters the deepening of our understanding of emptiness by nudging us toward the realization that emptiness is more than just the fuzziness of the boundaries between things – emptiness of the material; rather, emptiness encompasses the temporal as well.

Thirdly, I think our deepening understanding of being-time is accompanied by a deepening understanding of karma. When we view each moment as the totality of all moments that have ever been the immediacy and unwavering and unequivocal nature of karma becomes clearer. Every thought, every emotion, every action, and every word ever spoken is ever present within the blossoming forth of being-time. When seen in this way, the precious nature of each moment is realized. This present moment is the entire world. Thus, what we do with this present moment is of utmost importance. Will we squander it or use it in some detrimental way, or will we use it to reflect the entirety of being in the best way that we might actualize it, e.g., “cypress tree in the garden”?  

Finally (at least with respect to what I have to convey), the reality of being-time sheds light on one of Dogen’s most intriguing teachings: that practice and enlightenment are one. The idea that practice leads to enlightenment is the product of our ordinary (and dualistic) way of thinking about ‘the passage of time.’ That yesterday’s demon might become tomorrow’s buddha implies that the demon will depart and the buddha will arrive. But where will the demon go and from whence will the buddha come? In being-time all things are present.

Here is one more quote from Dogen’s Uji:

“Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment” (Welch & Tanahashi, 1985, p. 77).

May each of us actualize ‘springtime,’ and all of time, with the entirety of our being…


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.)

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

Cherry blossoms in Mitsuzawa-park at Yokohama, Japan by Kounosu via:

Temple cat amongst cherry blossoms by Tanakawho via:

Cherry blossoms and koi fish design and tattoo by Joey Pang via:

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. I've been thinking about how there can't be a bad intention ... since intention connotes mindfulness, and mindfulness at its best would recognize the best action.

  2. Kim, I think your nugget of a comment could be explored for a long, long time! What comes to mind for me is that the marriage of wisdom and mindfulness is what produces the so-called best action. On the other hand, one MIGHT consider wisdom to include mindfulness... Words are like that sometimes.

    I wonder how much intention does connote mindfulness... For instance, we can rather foolishly wish the best for the world and the environment and then, because of our ignorance, not really engage in actions that make it as we would wish. Conversely, acts of brutality might be engaged in with great mindfulness without being wise or good.

    Perhaps we use the word mindfulness in different ways - or we've expanded its meaning over time. The mindfulness of the earliest Buddhist texts, as I understand, relates to being mindful of the breath, mindful of the body, mindful of states of mind. When we speak of mindfulness as modern world-aware Buddhists we often speak of the mindfulness of considering all possible outcomes of our actions and so forth - something that requires wisdom.

    So, that's what your nugget brings up for me! Your thoughts? Thanks!

  3. I've discovered there are two ways to walk in the zendo. If we lift up our foot and then let it drop, the floor will creak. If we lift up our foot and then set it down, then the floor will not creak. It actually takes a lot of strength to set your foot down with intention ... rather than letting it drop. We think it is the lifting up that is hard. The setting down is really the hard one.

    I think the word intention means two very different but deceptively similar things. One is about where our attention is when we are doing something, and the other is what was our "intention." The Buddhist intention seems to be the first, where the question of consequences is about the second. It is not that the Buddhist doesn't care about results. It is a different mindset to do that.

    I believe that intention is wisdom. We'll see the consequences of our actions because our eyes are wide open. When one says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, they are speaking of the other intention. When we judge ourselves by "our intention" we are speaking of the other intention. When we are awake, we are speaking of the Buddhist intention.

  4. You describe that nicely, Kim! Thanks!

  5. Kim, I have to thank you! Your comments here very much inspired my latest post entitled 'Seeing That Which Is':

    I hope you find it worthwhile. Thanks! Mark


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