gyres of time & space – a review of ruth ozeki’s a tale for the time being

So here I am, at Fifi’s Lonely Apron, staring at all these blank pages and asking myself why I’m bothering, when suddenly an amazing idea knocks me over. Ready? Here it is:

I will write down everything I know about Jiko’s life in Marcel’s book, and when I’m done, I’ll just leave it somewhere, and you will find it!

How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!

tb-cover-993x1500Ruth Ozeki, in A Tale for the Time Being, sets up an unimaginable relationship between Nao Yasutani and an anticipated reader. Sixteen years old, Nao is sitting in a parody of a French café in Tokyo, with a gutted book whose cover is the only hint that it once contained Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. She has a plan to write her great-grandmother Jiko’s life story, all the while also intending her suicide when the task is done. Yasutani Jiko, “the famous anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun of the Taisho era,” is 104 years old and lives in her temple in Sendai, where the 2011 tsunami struck, sweeping most of the district out to sea.

Across the Pacific, on an island off the British Columbia coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox in the debris along the beach. It is packed with several objects each packed in a freezer bag. She takes out a book, a gutted volume titled À la recherche du temps perdu. And she reads:

Hi!…My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is?…

Like the gyres¹ weaving across the ocean carrying warm air and debris, the story of Nao and her family link into Ruth’s life on an isolated island where she unintentionally has fallen behind herself. Nao writes with a coy approach-avoidance but slowly, as the muse works its way into her heart, the pain of her losses reveals the currents in her story. Intermittently, Jiko contributes to easing her confusion or mediating the fascinating dialogue between Nao and her reader (Ruth) across time and space. Interpenetrating the narrative are Jiko’s wisdom conveyed through the essence of Dogen’s teachings which Nao takes to heart and which open Ruth to her own.

Nao’s discovery of her family history and its lineage of suffering stops the breath as it unfolds. The assumptions about weakness and strength, anger and sorrow, play out as Nao survives being brutally bullied and learns, with Jiko’s training, to see beyond the humiliation. Nao’s parents flow along a parallel current, dragging their own weighty hopelessness and misunderstandings. Like most teenaged girls, she has little time for their way of being time beings. Yet, her fears are no different from any child: that she might be abandoned by their decisions, that she has been abandoned by their neglect, that she has no refuge because the apartment they inhabit is choked with their collective pain.

Obsessed by the contents of the Hello Kitty lunchbox, Ruth searches for evidence that Nao and her family are real. A novelist herself, she dredges the internet for information, uncovering bit by painful bit what is possible to know. Woven into her search is also a search for refuge, for home, for settling into the time and place she inhabits. Her own losses are covered over by her assumptions and misunderstandings of how relationships express sorrow and hopelessness. As Ruth discovers more about one member of Nao’s family, she begins to understand that satisfaction is not a companion of living to ones values, that the complex process of being true to oneself can exact an enormous price, wittingly or unwittingly.

Ruth Ozeki has crafted a complex story of love. Nao is unflinchingly teenaged, with all the raw wisdom that it embodies and all the rampant passion with which it is expressed. Ruth (the character, though one wonders if there are threads of Ozeki herself, how could there not be) is wonderfully obsessed as a researcher, affronted when her protectiveness is disregarded, aloof in her sorrow, and intimate in her not knowing. Jiko is a solid rock in the winds that tear around her family, a solidity that comes only from profound pain and profound dedication to being alive. Crossing both time and space yet resisting actually anchoring in either requires a master craftsperson and Ozeki doesn’t fail to deliver. On reflection, although the entire book is hinged on the possibility of the tsunami’s role in bridging space, one is left with that ultimate not knowing: is it? There are other plotted moments of not knowing how…who…what?? But ultimately it matters less that the currents are purified than to simply enter the fundamental unknowability of anything.

The beauty of A Tale for the Time Being is that, despite the intricacies, it keeps the reader planted firmly in the moment of reading. And yet when the last page arrives, inevitably, there is an in-breath as if there could be more. And there is…

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¹Gyres are rotating ocean currents that move with wind currents.

the blinding sound of a calling

calling

I’ve been feeling more deeply how frustrating my peripatetic spiritual path has been. Is. And, for whatever the reason, it’s been more piercing than ever lately. Even more, it doesn’t escape my symbol-loving mind that it began 9 months ago when I made the decision to forego Summer Ango and Rohatsu so I could be with family, awaiting the arrival of the Gr’Kid.

The intent of Ango and Rohatsu however is not only the ongoing cultivation of my spiritual path but also the process of engaging in the path of the novice priest. It looks strange writing it out; some of you already know of this aspiration and practice and I bow deeply to your patience as I harangued you with all my doubts, convoluted cognitions, and self-serving angst.

This is a huge piece of my spiritual life. I knew in a flash of  a moment at the age of 9 years, standing in a church hall watching a young girl who was part of a diorama of  a Methodist nun caring for little baby (it was a doll, but powerful nevertheless). I knew it again sitting zazenkai at the Montreal Zen Centre with master Albert Low as his attendant stepped up to adjust Low’s robes and set the stage for the teisho. I know it again and again standing across from my teacher at morning services at Upaya, blinded by the power of eye-to-eye contact and heart-to-heart connection.

And I know it more powerfully than ever as I walk the hospital halls with my Chaplain colleagues or sit round-table with them developing more and more compassionate ways to met the great matter of living and dying.

And  yet… and yet… this dewdrop world is far-flung and complex.

When I first tried to articulate this ephemeral sense of a calling, it was met with stunned silence which I took to mean I was unworthy. And then there was the mind-twisting advice to not ask because by asking it showed wanting which meant craving and how could it be a real calling if it was a craving. That was easy to dismiss as zennobabble. The wiser mitras pointed out that the practice was in stepping off that 100-foot pole, in letting it all explode into dust, and to know that asking was just another way of piercing the illusion of something to be had.

While there is truly nothing to be gained from ordination, there is much to be lost from not honouring the calling. The power of that driving force is inescapable. It pervades every thought, word, and action. It is cetanā, intention, of every connection. It is all-consuming and abjects us to all means of being in service. And for many of us, it is not necessarily available. And that is a profound loss for both the individual and community.

In my conversations with two of my dearly loved dharma sisters and brothers, I explored all these aspects. The possibility is that we already live a priesthood; true and yet that begs the point of serving overtly in community. The possibility is that it can be sublimated into a lay form of service; true and yet it contradicts the intent of practice being the realization of our true nature. The possibility is that it can happen but not in the specific community or way one had hoped; true and for some of us, this is the most non-negotiable because ordination is a public celebration of our relationship with our spiritual birth-community.

And then there’s the specific one I face and struggle against: the possibility that there may not be a configuration of time and energy. This takes time, a never-ending series of renunciations of the dew drop world. Months away from family (and work  income that supports all this – a financial ouroborus), reconfiguring all the responsibilities of being a householder, letting go of commitments to be present for birthdays, anniversaries, and the likelihood that this body may no longer be able to withstand the physical rigours of this form of practice. I hold out the hope that being a time being, it – and I – will unfold in time.

Not surprising, this week there was the blinding call of time pressing. James Ford wrote here of what a couple of wrong decisions could have meant and why the evening chant is a deep calling. And Brookie at The Blue Lotus Seed wrote here of the ever-changing identity of the sangha’s meditation space and the heart that continues to be present, concluding with the call to find a seat because time is fleeting. And Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being wrote of the merits of home-leaving and Dogen’s exhortation of his monks:

Life is fleeting! Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life!
Wake up now!
And now!
And now!

We lose many things on the path. A sense of entitlement, righteousness, specialness. Gone. Gone, the sense that time limits us. Worn away in the chaffing against time beings.

We take on many things on this path. A sense of duty, loyalty, service. Of being blinded by a calling yet not blind to what it means as it unfolds in time.

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About the photo: I chose it for the piercing points of the ice. As I was playing with the image, it revealed the twisting colouration embedded in the ice. A reflection of the pergola caught, frozen into the icicle. Somehow it seemed very fitting to the topic.

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

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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