being a time being: dogen, katagiri & the flight of vultures

timebeing1The sight of five vultures waiting at the end of the driveway can be a good thing. What is the good and what thing they point to is, of course, unknowable in the immediate. And yet. That single view is enough to send me wandering on time travels to worlds of worry, regret and wondering what if.

Vultures waiting are a powerful icon for time lost, frittered away. The body/mind unbinding with nothing left but the shell of a vessel poorly treated and meagerly used. I stepped out of the car quietly not wanting to set them on flight; that would have truly signalled the end. So I watched them as they watched something off in the northeast field, unmoving yet intimately related.

Dogen¹ writes exquisitely of time as inseparable from being, time-being or more succinctly being-which-is-time. Uji. It takes a moment to drop into what that feels like because the cascade of moments seems external, impenetrable and inexorably outside our control. Our perception insists that time moves relentlessly and mercilessly as we are dragged along in its wake. No wonder I quail at the sight of an icon of endings.

Katagari² describes “The Pivot of Nothingness” as this present moment – which doesn’t exist because past is vanishing and future has yet to unfold leaving a void, a turning point, a pivot into the next unfolding. For ease of communication, we tend to position ourselves through language. “Here I am.” But the terminology fractures when we drop into the “here” “I” and “am.” Each is a construction of something from the past and a reaching into the future.

In this “here” is a train station into which pulls all manner of locomotives taking me “there.” The room where this or that happened which lead to that or the other not happening. The city where choices ended and others failed to manifest. The bus, the subway where I choose this direction and not that, where one meeting lead to another but a different route missed the intersection of time and another being.

In this “I” are a hundred thousand variations that appear to be a seamless evolution from a past point and into a hopeful future. The aspiring astronaut, the acolyte of science, the lost and wandering characters who make up this play of fools. Examined closely, the appearance of an unbroken tapestry is so heart-rendingly false. More a wildly designed quilt with each patch having emerged from an unknowable confluence of causes, conditions and other beings-of-time.

As I “am” is not enough. There is always something taunting from the future that was planted by a promise from the past. Always something that is insufficient, undeveloped and wantonly wasting time. This am-ness is a counterpoint to what philosopher Evan Thompson³ calls “selfing.” It is an accreted stuckness that takes a wake up slam of vast proportions to dislodge it from the delusion of permanence.

timebeing2And the vultures took flight.

In this pivot of nothingness which contains all that is necessary and sufficient is what Dogen says is the complete moment. Like the firewood and ash¹, it “fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.” To paraphrase, we cannot call here the beginning of there, I the end of you, or am the end of was.

When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the content of your life. Katagiri, p.78


¹Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed), The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Vol 1. Shambhala 2010

²Katagari, Dainin (Edited by Andrea Martin), Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Shambhala 2008

³Thompson, Evan, Mind in Life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010

eternity in a seed

Did you know cyclamen are tubers and not bulbs?  In the grander scheme of death and destruction, it probably means little to most of us that a plant is more akin to a potato than a tulip.  In terms of caregiving however, it might make some difference.

I’ve always loved the astonishing flowers of the cyclamen; angel wings swooping back poised to descend on earth yet never quite completing the landing.  Over the years I’ve bought several of these plants and enjoyed the displays all the more for thinking they were like forced tulips – lovely and poignantly impermanent for being constrained in a pot.  The cyclamen were even more exotic because they could not grow in my garden and were only available pre-grown.

When the first one I had began to die, I called in to the CBC gardening show and asked about saving it.  The instructions I got were simple: water it without letting it touch the “bulb.”  It died anyway and I resigned myself to having short-term romances with the plant, composting them when the flowers wilted.

One day while watering the plant, I noticed that the leaves were flattened exposing a view of the bulb shifted off-center.  Immediately I blamed our little Zen Master Sprout who had been seen occasionally testing the plants for their snooze factor.  Because, in my view, this particular plant had lasted the longest of all the plants (it might even be ten years old), I put some effort into reading up on how to revive it and solve the mystery of the transported bulb.

Apparently, cyclamens grow from tubers.  It would seem my dear plant is and is not my dear plant at all.  It is several generations removed having produced shoots from its tubers and happily procreating all these years.

Then I learned about the cyclamen fruit, a round pod left after the petals dried and fell off.  This I had thought was the end of the plant; it signalled a parting of company as I walked it to the compost heap.  In fact, it was the beginning – of sticky brown seeds and new life.

There’s a lesson in this.