Today I have been reflecting on the anniversary of my priest ordination. Years ago, on a frosty day in Obama, Japan, I vowed to live at least the remainder of this lifetime in the service of the Buddhadharma. So each year at this time, I reflect on my vows, my life, and the literal and metaphorical arrival of spring. For me, it’s helpful to mark the time and to review the conditions that have arisen. It’s helpful to look back every March 22nd, returning again and again to those moments of intention made manifest.
And yet, I remind myself, I should not be fooled into thinking that time goes around in a circle like this. The Gregorian calendar is merely a convention, one way of seeing time that was devised less than 500 years ago to ensure the arrival of Easter during the spring. It is clearly a human invention, albeit a very useful one.
In contrast, Dogen taught that time is not cyclical like the calendar. He taught that our sense of the passage of time is really based on our experience of change from moment to moment. While we tend to think , “Spring is here and therefore the trees begin to grow leaves and the snow begins to melt.” Dogen taught, “Because the trees grow leaves and the snow begins to melt, this is spring.” That’s why we can call it spring. That is, spring is nothing other than the appearance of a collection of conditions that we associate with that word. In the same way, Zen priest is nothing other than appearance of the collection of conditions associated with that word. It is an identity that can only be found as it is passing.
This way of seeing time means that looking back in time is just another activity in this moment. Is my ordination day actually here again? Well, no and yes. It is not here because it happened eight years ago, and this is a new moment, regardless of the date that appears on my cell phone. However, it is here in the sense that all of the ramifications of that day are present, including my memories of the ceremony, the fact that my head is shaved and that I am writing this blog. By embracing both of these aspects, here and not here, I can honor the past and future expression of myself without getting hung up on it. I can reflect on the past, yet not be defined by it. I can consider the future, but not be trapped by it.
This is what it means be fully present in the moment. In Genjokoan, Dogen’s chapter on life completely manifesting at the intersection of the absolute and the relative, he says things “abide in past and future…and are independent of past and future.”
And this way of seeing time means that, even though those elements of the past and the future are present, I cannot just consider it done. It means that I am a priest, but I must actually bring that vow and that activity into the present in order to be manifesting “priest.” I am only a practitioner because I practice.
Once, I was picking chamomile flowers in the garden at the monastery, and I asked a friend and fellow monk about which flowers to pick. I said, “Should I pick the ones whose petals haven’t opened? Should I pick the ones who petals have started to fall off?” My friend, Shodo, shook his head and growled, “Are you asking me when a flower becomes a flower?”
Therefore, in Zen, our moment to moment life is expressing the fullness of time. Putting words to this, Dogen wrote:
Rising, as the mountain
peaks and valleys deepen –
The twilight sound of the cicada
Singing of a day
Already gone by.
In the poem, Dogen subtly refers to the passage of time as the peaks and valleys deepening. As the sun is setting, the shadows of the valleys grow. He then points to the activity of the cicada, which is expressing the fact that the end of the day has arrived by singing.
Even more subtly, we might hear in this poem Dogen describing the awakening of discerning insight, reaching its full expression, which cannot help but include the wisdom of the past.
The great creative function of Buddhanature expresses itself in billions and billions of ways – as people, as things, as energy – and we are here for it. Yesterday, tomorrow and all of the states in between are here, in the present. It couldn’t possibly be any other way.
With a bow to my teacher, Zen Master Sekkei Harada, my American teacher Shosan Victoria Austin, the many teachers I’ve had during this life of practice and, ultimately, to Shakyamuni Buddha.