Dogen`s Being Time
St. Augustine asked, "What really is time? If I am not asked, I know this, but if I am asked, I do not." Wittgenstein cites Augustine's puzzlement about time as highlighting a very basic problem in philosophy, one which I hope will illuminate some of the notorious obscurity of Dogen's essay, Uji, which comes to us translated as this mysterious phrase Being-Time.
Wittgenstein remarks that Augustine acts as if a very deep mystery is hidden in the elusive definition of time. Yet, Wittgenstein asks, what exactly is the problem? "If I know how to use the word 'time,' if I understand it in the most diverse contexts, then I know precisely 'what time is' and no formulation can make this clearer to me. And should I have to explain the meaning of the word to somebody, I would teach him to use the word in typical cases, i.e., in cases such as 'I have no time,' 'this is not the time for that, 'too much time has passed since then, etc. In short, I would lay out the whole complicated grammar of the word, I would, as it were, travel down all the lines that language has prepared for the use of the word - and that would convey to him an understanding of the word 'time.'"
Yet, somehow we are left unsatisfied by this explanation - we might say he has explained the word, but not the thing, time itself. But this for Wittgenstein is precisely where we go astray. We come upon certain substantive nouns like space or time or truth or good and, as Wittgenstein says, "we search for formulas which are to enunciate the innermost essence of concepts. One asks, 'What are space and time? What is their essence?' One complains that psychology has not yet unearthed the secret of consciousness. One specifies as the ultimate goal of logic the fathoming of the essence of truth. And so on... A substantive [noun] misleads us into looking for a substance." Wittgenstein called this "Socrates' Problem," because Plato famously had Socrates ask how we can understand the meaning of the word "good" in all its various contexts (a good man, a good hammer, a good meal, a good life etc., etc. ) unless we understand what the "Good" is in and of itself.
To Wittgenstein's list of misleading substantives, Buddhism most notably would add the word "self." Buddha's declaration that the self is "empty" is exactly Wittgenstein's point about time and truth and the good and so on. To say the self is empty doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Rather, emptiness means that the self has no fixed, inner non-changing essence that defines it. Self is a myriad. We can use the word to cover both our sense of extension over time - the feeling that somehow I'm the same person I was as a child - and for the constantly changing ungraspable flow of consciousness. Which is the "true" self? That question, the basis for so many koans, immediately leads us astray. "Self" is not a single thing in a thousand guises; it is the thousand guises themselves. To understand the self is to allow ourselves to experience the full range of its seeming contradictory manifestations. Now this, now that. Only when we try to grasp an essence or assert the priority of one aspect of self-experience over another do we find ourselves entangled philosophical brambles with very real emotional thorns.
Wittgenstein repeatedly says that the job of philosophy is not to answer questions like these, but to dissolve them, to show that they are nothing but pseudo-problems thrown up by particular aspects of our language. How can we train ourselves not to be misled? One temptation that is very strong is to try to rewrite our language into a new super-logical, mathematical or scientific language that will clearly display meaning without ambiguity. Wittgenstein's first book, the Tractratus, was just such an attempt: to show the limits of what could be stated logically. The problem is that so much of our life as it is won't fit into a logical box. So one either rejects most of ethics and aesthetics and religion etc., as outside the scope of philosophical discussion -as did his first group of followers, who became known as the Logical Positivists - or you accept life and language as they are and simply try to lay out clearly how they function.
Dogen's alternative is the alternative of poetry and mysti-cism. He proceeds to demonstrate what it's like not to use words like "being" and "time" as substantives. Because we are so used to our language employing these words in just that way, Dogen's language sounds very strange indeed. But we must take the strangeness of Dogen's language as sign of the confusion latent in our everyday way of speaking. Look at his title, Being-Time. A strange phrase indeed, but when you think about one that exactly corresponds to our actual experience. Each moment in our life has both an experiential content and a temporal duration, and we never experience one without the other. (The fact that we never experience something we can call time directly, apart from its measurement in changing experience, is what made Augustine think it such an elusive and slippery idea.)
Dogen says, " We cannot be separated from time... we, ourselves are time... " To say that we are ourselves are time is to say we are always changing. Yet we are also always being in the present moment. Both constant change and our continuous presence in "now" are the complementary realities of time. Whether we're talking about a single dharma, a fleeting momentary experience, or a lifetime, the content and the duration are inseparable. As soon as we try to define a moment we immediately run into what feel like paradoxes - but which Wittgenstein would remind us are simply part of the normal grammar of our language. The content of each moment feels both singular and unique to that moment and is brought about and can be defined only in relation to everything else that is going on around us in every direction. Each moment is an eternity unto itself and is part of an unalterable sequence. Because content and temporality are inseparable, any moment can be described as some permutation of these qualities: unique, interconnected, universal, instantaneous and eternal. The play of Dogen's language in Being-Time constantly shuffles and re-shuffles the possibilities to shake us out of a habitual way of looking at being and time as "things." Thus Dogen says, "Most people think time is passing and do not realize that there is an aspect that is not passing. To comprehend this is to realize being."
And, " Even though you think you know exactly who you are, it is very difficult to have real understanding of oneself. Your self-conception continually changes as you discover more and more about your Real Self. If you have complete understanding then even ideas of the wisdom of enlightenment or the status of detachment will be seen for what they are - tentative and delusive."
As always in Dogen, our usual dichotomies of being and becoming are overturned. Zazen is not a way of becoming enlightened; zazen is our expression of being enlightened. What we ordinarily think of as separate sequential stages - aspiration, practice, realization - are all present all at once, all contained in each moment of zazen. Because, Dogen says, everything exists in time and as time, every moment implies or contains every other moment.
As soon as we try to nail down being, time, self, delusion or enlightenment by some fixed definition, we've missed their true nature, which is impermanent, indeterminate and interconnected.
How do we bring all of this into our daily practice? Watch how you define "sesshin" to yourself as we sit together today. What is it? No -"thing" at all.
References Dogen (1975). Shobogenzo, Volume 1 (translated by Nishiyama, K. and Stevens, J.).¬ Nakayama Shobe, Tokyo, pp.68-72. Wittgenstein, L. and Waismann, F. (2003), The Voices of Wittgestein (edited by Baker, G). Routledge, London, pp.481-486.