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

showing up where life blooms

I read one of the most beautiful statements the other day, so compelling in its simplicity that it blew me away.

Life just keeps showing up in front of me.

It opens a post on the zen blog Contemplative Spaces titled Lucky day, Lucky guy.  And that in turn opened up more reflective paths as I continued with Katagiri’s You Have To Say Something.  Somewhere in the rich chapters, Katagiri writes that we tend to live away from where life blooms.  I’m an avid gardener and at this time of year I’m desperate for Spring.  The weekend with its glorious sunshine and melting snow had me hinting to Frank that maybe the vegetable boxes are ready for weeding.  There’s only 8 inches of snow in them, how hardpacked can it be!  Bows to his sweet heart, he actually went out to try and weed them.  Apparently, as much as I am living a few weeks in the future, the earth is not.  So I sat with the anticipation of the magnolia blooming, the Nishiki willow putting out new tendrils, and the inaba shidare, a Japanese maple that glows magenta.  This is much like I live my life – just past where it blooms.

So, I’m immensely grateful when life just keeps showing up in front of me.  (Oh, I could sing that line!)  My brother showed up unexpectedly laden with take out food for our dinner.  This left me free for the afternoon to dust off the table where I practice my brush painting.  Life showed up in some awful attempts at copying Hakuin’s lotus pond.  It showed up again in an enso that’s a definite keeper.  And again, in a playful rendition of 108 in kanji script – my new logo.

Painting took me to another of Katagiri’s chapters on Kyogen’s painted rice cake.  Making a rice cake requires the ingredients of a rice cake (rice, fire, so on).  Painting a rice cake requires the utensils of painting a rice cake: paint, brush, canvas – or in my case, “rice” paper.  A buddha is like the painting of a rice cake because it too requires the coming together of the elements of being Buddha: the Bodhi Mind, practice, and so on.  I highlight the word, practice, because this is where life shows up for me, time and time again.  In the anticipation, arising, and being with the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations & consciousness).  These are the ingredients with which, in Katagiri’s terms, I paint my life.

But the real question is, How do we, as the painters of our lives, use our colors?  Which colors do we choose?  If we use the color called “this present moment,” we can paint our life with it, but it’s very narrow.  If we use the colors of the past and future, we can paint a broader picture of our life, which is a little better than just painting our life in the present only.

This is a lovely teaching: the present moment as a narrowed view on canvas.  As for the past, oh!  How I love the black ink of my past for how it slices up the white space into seemingly organized chunks.  These past moments by themselves can be narrow too, I suppose, along with the pigments of my imagined future.

On the table is a box of different coloured ink sticks sent to me by a dear friend.  Time to mix up a new batch of visions!

Thank you for practicing,