Each Moment Is The Universe

January 09, 2023 [books] #zen

Book: Each Moment Is The Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time
Author: Dainin Katagiri, edited by Andrea Martin

Dogen is the founder of the Soto Zen school of Japanese Buddhism. A writer, philosopher and poet, his reconfiguration of Chan practice is what largely informs Zen, and every Zen teacher has had to grapple with his works. Dainin Katagiri was a Roshi, a master, from that school, and this book is a compilation of talks he had given over a twenty year period on an essential element of Dogen's metaphysics, Being-Time.

Being concerns itself with existence. What does it mean to be something? Time in the sense we are most familiar with is the measure of physical processes, or more simply, what the clock says. Katagiri's Time is not just the normal, familiar time, but a combination of it with space. There is no before or previous moment or next moment, there is the present moment extending into the universe. Time and Being are not separate, but not equivalent either, and the subjective universe is produced by the interaction of the two. "When the moment begins, all sentient beings temporarily appear as particular beings in the stream of time and seem to have their own separate existences. When the moment ceases, all sentient beings disappear, but they do not go away; they are interconnected smoothly and quietly in timelessness." I don't know how to accept this other than assuming once you inhabit an altered state of consciousness that comes with certain meditation practices, your perception of time changes. Like all major proponents of non-dual awareness assert, what we perceive as the world is generated by the mind. To be rid of the delusion of the real is not the point of Zen, but to be aware of it.

A lot of what Dainin says can be mapped to non-Buddhist Indian thought, especially Karma Yoga. Take this for example:

"All you have to do is follow the technique. Just continue to act! Day after day, moment after moment, just take care of practice, leaving no trace of technique and no trace of practitioner. This is a very fundamental attitude toward human life. If you do it, finally you will be great: a great skier, a great artist, a great musician, a great poet, a great philosopher, a great businessman, or a great religious person."

Compared to Theravada Buddhism, I like it that Zen says that enlightenment is not a big deal, and one must not aspire to it. It will not change you. Your neuroses will remain. So why bother? The practice is the point.

"Sitting in zazen, practicing with all sentient beings, you become Buddha. At the same time, your activity becomes enlightenment. Carry this practice as long as possible, moment by moment and day by day, and this is called nirvana."

"...practice is to manifest the object of your activity - zazen, cooking, sports, or whatever you are doing - as a being that exists in eternal time. If you do something wholeheartedly, all sentient beings come into your life."

I can buy that. This characterization of Zen seems more like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow, an easy to attain state, while also not being a rejection of the material world. Enlightenment then is an attitude, seeing life from a universal perspective, that of Being-Time.

While the book is eminently quotable, I wonder what good all these are if you violate some very basic ethical principles. Three of the four major Zen figures who came to the United States from Japan had major public sex scandals. Clearly, power corrupts, even those certified enlightened. I suppose one should learn to separate the message from the messenger and yet I can't but help be bothered by it. Something else I find myself thinking about is the structure of the text itself. Like some other Zen books, this one is also derived from talks recorded over a long time. They are transcribed by devoted students into a collection bearing the speaker's name. There is no background provided on the talk each chapter is derived from. The chapters are organized along the theme of the book, arranged in the structure of the Four Noble Truths. I wonder, am I reading Katagiri or am I reading Katagiri as mediated and understood by the curator? And does it matter?

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