Time is Passing 3: Dogen and Martin Scorsese

(7 Day Intensive at Centre of Gravity, 180 Sudbury Street, Toronto, Spring, 2011. Talks by Michael Stone, notes by MH (with errancies, mishearings, conjectures.) This is talk 3 of 8 on Dogen’s text Time is Passing), written in 13th century Japan.)

Ancient Buddha
Dogen starts his essay on time with a quote by Yakusan, who we don’t know, but he was obviously a well known teacher at the time, he might have been Chinese. If you think about it, if Dogen was in Japan and he’s writing this text and he’s 41 and he wants to write something serious, he might start by quoting someone who is Chinese. But instead of calling Yakusan by his name he just calls him an ancient Buddha. I love that, it’s like if you’re going to quote your parents, instead of saying, “My father used to say,” you say “An ancient Buddha used to say” and they’ll be offended because they’ll say “Ancient?” An ancient Buddha said, and I think if you wanted to go deeper with this it’s interesting that an essay on time begins with the term “ancient.” An ancient Buddha.

Uji: The Time Being by Dogen
An ancient Buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

This is a quote, he’s quoting Yakusan. So let’s look at this, it’s a little impenetrable. And for those of you who study Dogen you might know that the technique for Dogen is that the first sentence in any fascicle explains the whole thing. So if you understand this quotation you get the whole thing. He always does this. So “for the time being stand on top of the highest peak.” What day is it today, Monday? Last week I was in Victoria, last Monday at about 2 in the afternoon I walked up Mount Douglas, it’s not so huge, but from the top of Mount Douglas it’s so clear. You can see all the American islands, you can see Mount Baker, if you look in the other directions you can see Salt Spring Island and Pender Island and some of the smaller little islands there. So when you’re on the top of the mountain it’s clear, it’s totally clear. One of the happiest experiences of my life actually is… Golden Gate Bridge runs into a mountain called Mount Tamalpais, they call it Mount Tamalpious, Americans pronounce French words in the strangest way. I walked up the mountain and it’s always in fog in the morning, and I went higher than the fog line. I was walking with my brother on the hills there, outside Green Gulch Farms, and some clouds started rolling in above the fog line. And then the strangest thing happened where the sun came out and then it projected our shadow onto the cloud about two feet in front of us. So we’re walking and our shadow was right there, in the cloud. We just started laughing and crying, it was the most beautiful thing. We started spontaneously running down the hills together, holding hands, and we were both crying, it was the strangest thing. I don’t know what they have in the air in San Francisco.

So for the time being you can stand on the highest peak. For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean. Jung used to say that when you have a dream about the bottom of the ocean it’s what is unconscious. It’s what is underwater. In 13th century Japan the bottom of the ocean was mysterious, no one has been there. Now we’ve mapped it, explored it, found everything under there and basically wrecked it, but once upon a time, in 13th century Japan, no one had ever gone to the bottom of the ocean, it would be like going to the moon, it would be as crazy as going to the bottom of the ocean. In this century we’ve done both.

For the time being you can go to the bottom of the ocean. The bottom of the ocean is the place where things are hidden, and maybe nobody is awake there. In The Lotus Sutra there’s a little girl who wakes up in the body of the ocean, and whenever there are teachings they want to protect… like Nagarjuna supposedly found his teachings at the bottom of the ocean. So for the time being crystal clear at the top of the mountain, for the time being at the bottom of the ocean. Have you ever felt these ways during a day? Has anyone ever had a day like this? One moment the peak, adolescence is like this. 12-year old girls are like this. Everything is perfect and everyone is your friend, the next moment no one gets along with you and no one is in your group. Have you ever had this before? Perhaps you’ve heard about it.

“For the time being three heads and eight arms.” This is a representation of a wrathful deity. The part of us that is wrathful. “Before espresso” is basically what this means. For the time being before espresso. “For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot Buddha.” Has anyone here been in a country…? There’s lots left in Thailand. Huge Buddhas, 16 feet golden Buddhas, or maybe even bigger. For the time being you are a 16 foot golden Buddha. And you can go from being a wrathful deity to being a 16 feet golden Buddha. “For the time being a staff or a whisk.” People are debating about what this means. The first meaning that obviously comes to mind if you’ve ever studied Zen is that the head teacher always has a staff or a whisk. Usually with amazing grey hair coming out of the top. So for the time begin you are a Zen master. “For the time being a pillar…” just a plain pillar, or something like a lantern, an everyday, ordinary object. A staff or a whisk is not an ordinary everyday object. They are special objects. And a lantern, everyone has a lantern, but not everyone has a staff or a whisk. Right? But you could also say that these are all objects. Time is also a staff. This staff, this apple, for the time being an apple. Being time, an apple. Sometimes an apple. Sometimes a 16 foot Buddha. Sometimes a wrathful deity. Sometimes the top of the highest peak. Sometimes depression. Next time you have a friend who is depressed, you can say, “Sometimes depression.” As opposed to, “I’m depressed.”

“For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.” Which basically means Smith and Jones. These are really common names. For the time being you’re the son of a common person. In other words for the time being you’re an ordinary person among many. One of the places I love to go visit through the year is Copenhagen. It’s one of the few languages on earth that I have no interest in learning and don’t like the sound of. People speak Danish and I have no desire to speak with them in their language. So basically when I walk around Copenhagen I just kind of tune it out and I feel like an ordinary person. It’s completely anonymous and it’s on the verge of lonely but it’s not quite lonely, it’s just being an ordinary person.

And for the time being intimate like the earth and the sky. When you’re ordinary you’re still ordinary and human, you’re the son of Zhang and Li. But also at the same time you’re not-human, you’re just part of the earth. Maybe your ears are part of earth, and it’s just the earth listening. Perhaps the earth has invented ears, through evolution, so the earth can listen. You think you’re listening, but it’s just the earth listening. Or maybe your eyes are the eyes of the world, and the earth is just looking out through your eyes. Sometimes it’s just the earth looking out through your eyes. When Shankaracharya defines drishti, gazing in the yoga postures, he says, “Nobody looking at nothing.” That the eyes are gazing but it’s not happening to you, not fixing on objects. Most times when you’re walking down the street you think, “I want that. I don’t want that. I want to move to Toronto. I don’t want to move to Toronto. This is a great area. This is a terrible area. The air is so good, the air is so bad. Abattoir, no abattoir. How can your eyes just be the eyes of the earth? I think if your eyes are the eyes of the earth, time is not happening to you. And as soon as they’re your eyes and ears, time is happening to you. And then you’re separated from time. Maybe dukkha or suffering or discontent is when there’s a gap between your life and time. Whenever you’re suffering, maybe, Dogen is suggesting, there’s a gap between your life and time. As opposed to thinking about suffering as craving, as wanting, as aversion, maybe it actually has to do with your experience of time. For example right now it’s 2:59 and maybe we’ve been here all day and maybe you’ve lost track of time. Or maybe you’re impatient. I can’t wait to stop thinking, all these people thinking. Why are we thinking so much? I just want to go swimming in the lake. Come home tomorrow glowing. Gap between time. Any thoughts on this? Dogen didn’t want to say this. Such a good quote, right. (car horn honks) Imagine if you could start an essay with a car horn. Whatever comes after Kindle will be able to do that. Any comments, questions?

Bryan: Could you talk a little more about the 12 hours?

Michael: A day was 12 hours, that’s how people thought of a day. A day is 12 hours, a night is 12 hours. You think of the day, you measure the day in 12 hours, you enter it into your calendar. If you’re Carina you measure it every 20 minutes. That’s a human conception. Dogen is not going to go to the extreme of saying time is just a concept because he’d be caught there. That’s a concept that time is just a concept. He wants to go through that too. He wants to value your human concept, he’s not letting you go oh time is conceptual, forget about time. He’s writing in a monastery where they’re on the clock. Bells are ringing. So 12 hours of the present. What does that mean?

Student: That time only exists in our minds. That form is empty and emptiness is form.

Michael: So you can only experience the 12 hours actually in the present. So you can’t experience 8pm until you’re in the moment of 8pm.

Student: Does 8pm even exist? We’ve created it.

Michael: Yes, and Dogen likes that. Just like your boss likes it. Just like your kids like it. My son wants me at 3:30, he doesn’t want me to be a 16-foot golden Buddha, he wants to be picked up from school at 3:30.

Student: Wouldn’t you have to study for 12 hours in order to understand?

Michael: Yes, that’s what we’re doing this week. Please be here on time. (laughs) There’s lots of stories of Zen teachers and clocks. One famous one is about Thich Naht Hahn. That throughout the day at random times at Plum Village they ring a bell, and when they ring a bell everybody stops and has a minute of mindfulness, come back to your breath, whatever you’re doing, you do with more attentiveness. Or Shunryu Suzuki comes to mind. When he woke up in the morning apparently his wife used to ring a bell to come down for breakfast. Apparently as soon as he heard the bell he would say out loud, “Yes.” And then after breakfast he would go practice calligraphy and a bell would ring and he’d say, “Yes.” Most people they hear an alarm clock and they throw it across the room. But he hears this moment in time and he says yes. Could you say yes to time?

So to be both in time and to be aware of time, this is what Dogen seems to be saying simultaneously. To have this conception of time and to see it as a conception of time. I wanted to end today with a passage I love, it is from this week’s  (July 2011) issue of Harper’s Magazine, it’s a critic writing about Martin Scorsese, after The Last Temptation of Christ, how many of you have seen The Last Temptation? It’s wonderful. In it, Christ is a sexualized being, he has desires for people, and the critics took him to task for this interpretation. So here is an interview with Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese: …yes, you’re talking about (divine) revelation and that’s what we have to deal with. But we wanted to talk about those other things-about Jesus, Judas, Mary too.. Paul Schrader (called it) “the dirty parts.” Funny.

Schickel: What dirty parts?

Scorsese: Well, the concept that Jesus would have sexual feelings.

Schickel: Oh, that.

Scorsese: This was the big issue. That’s what the critics claim it was.

Schickel: But this character is, for better or worse, half man and half God.

Scorsese: Oh no, he’s full man and full God…

Schickel: Whatever.

Scorsese: That’s the beauty of it. Let’s accept him as completely God and completely man, and therefore he’s going to feel everything a man feels.

Schickel: Of course.

It’s a beautiful passage I think. Some critics insists that Scorsese is the only American director who knows how to deal with tragedy. But anyways, this idea of half man, half God is not enough for Scorsese. It’s to be full man and full God at the same time. Tallest peak, bottom of the ocean. Son of Smith and Jones, and also the earth and sky, at the same time. How can you be in your life with contradiction? Maybe Dogen’s not even talking about time, maybe Dogen’s using time to wake you up to the contradiction of being in a life where when we’re present we’re completely here, alive, and time seems silly, and at the same time we also need to get around. My son doesn’t want me to be a half-god. He doesn’t want me to be half with him at 3:30. He wants me to be fully there at 3:30, I’m a dad and picking up at my son, and at the same time he’s not my son. At the same time on father’s day, your father can’t be your father, you have to see the man. And maybe you only see him because it’s father day. This seems to be the paradox that Dogen and Martin Scorsese is asking you to receive. To be fully a woman and fully a God at the same time. To be fully in the 12 hours of the day, to see that they are not the 12 hours of the day, and to abide by them. The 12 hours of the day. This will be our task for this week, to show up at 7:30 even though it doesn’t exist. To relate to other people fully as yourself, even though you don’t exist in the way that you think you do. And you go too far on either side, one side you get your social face, and one side you have no boundaries. How do you put it together? Maybe you don’t need to. Maybe it’s all put together? Why do you practice? Because it’s already put together. Dogen’s parents died. He was so small. He was so young, this is really important that he articulates this at 41. Maybe this week we can all be 41 and try to articulate this for ourselves, to be fully wounded, with our loss, our grief, our loss. And also to be fully awake.