Past and Future are Cut Off.

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Past and future

In the first chapter of Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō he discusses time, telling us that past and future are cut off from this present moment. Using the example of firewood Dōgen writes,

“Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after.”

The typical understanding of time is that the present flows like a raft on a river from the past into the future. In this view, ‘before and after’ is primary to the present moment. Firewood comes before ash that, in turn, comes after firewood. Adulthood comes after childhood and before old age. Depending upon one’s personal temperament, life under the sway of time is either ceaseless becoming or endless dying.

Dōgen tells us that this is not how things are. The immediate moment or space you are in, he tells us, is primary. What is here and now does have a before and after but that past and future is cut off. Our only actual experience or reality that we know, in other words, is this present moment and not of something coming into existence or ceasing to be. As Dōgen wrote it, “firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after… Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before or after.”

We may express these two views in terms of a motion picture. When we watch a movie we see one scene coming after another. When we examine the actual film, however, we discover that we were really watching a series of still images. Each image occupies its own position on the film with an image coming before and after it (except the first and last images, of course!) The before and after images, however, are ‘cut off’ from the center image by clear strips on the film. Every image is like this, having its own position and its own before and after.

Dōgen is not playing the cosmologist when he takes up the discussion of time. He is presenting us with a way to approach mindfulness and meditation.

The ordinary mind is continually thinking in terms of before and after. It is looking to the past for experience to draw upon and to the future for results. It is always occupied with a thousand desires and a thousand plans, searching and never still. This is the nature of temporal consciousness.

Dōgen presents us with an alternative to temporal consciousness that I call spatial consciousness. This consciousness is always here but is hidden by the noise of temporal thought and desire. To realize it all we need do is drop ‘before and after’ and stay with what exists now, in the present moment. We do not try to alter or deny it. Nor do we think of how it was in the past or how we want it to be in the future. We just stay with what is here in the present moment as it is. This is how we approach mindfulness and meditation.

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