Ungraspable Mind, Deep Time, and the Bodhisattva Precepts

Taigen Dan Leighton
Published in the Sweetcake Enso blog on July 29, 2011

In his essay “Ungraspable Mind” written in 1241 in his epic Shōbōgenzō “True Dharma Eye Treasury,” the Japanese Sōtō Zen founder Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) relates an old teaching story about the classic master Deshan (780-865; Jpn.: Tokusan). Deshan had been a self-described expert scholar on the Diamond Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist wisdom text. When Deshan heard about Chan/ Zen teachers claiming to point directly at awakened mind beyond words and letters, he marched off to challenge them to debate. Nearing the temple of one such Chan master, Deshan encountered one of those Zen grannies who lived near the temples, and who was selling rice cakes. She asked Deshan about the backpack full of books he carried, and Deshan boasted about his knowledge of the Diamond Sutra. Then the old woman told Deshan that she had heard that the Diamond Sutra said that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped. She said she would sell Deshan a rice cake if he could say what mind he would take it with. Poor Deshan was speechless. So the old lady left without Deshan getting any rice cakes.*

There are many aspects of this story. Dōgen comments on it in two Shōbōgenzō essays, and is critical of both Deshan and the old lady, suggesting more helpful, illuminating responses they might each have given. The story goes on that after this encounter, when Deshan was struck speechless, Deshan went to the nearby Chan temple and burned all the commentaries he had come to see as worthless, setting an example for anti-intellectual branches of Zen. Dōgen, on the other hand, recommends a non-dualistic, expressive approach to studying scriptures and traditional Zen stories, not based on the boastful approach of accomplishment that Deshan demonstrated. Dōgen sees sutra and koan study not as part of some program of stages of attainment, but as a form of expression and ritual enactment for re-minding of omnipresent Buddha nature, much like Dōgen’s view of zazen itself.

But the main point in this story about Deshan for the purposes of this article is simply the notion of past, future, and present mind as all ungraspable. The past is already gone, no longer here for us; the future is not here yet, merely a potential somewhere out there; and the present is passing by and away very quickly with each word—we cannot get a hold of it. This is all a basic fact of reality. Nevertheless, in our sitting we can experience the fullness of time’s movements, being present here as we witness and enact all passing by in many directions.

Mind and reality are both truly inconceivable. Our human perceptions and powers of conceptualization cannot possibly capture the complexity of reality. The inclusive Tendai school of Buddhism, focusing on the Lotus Sutra but also the whole range of skillful bodhisattva practices and teachings, and in which Dōgen was ordained initially before he founded Sōtō Zen, proclaims that in each thought moment there are actually three thousand realms. Our reality is that complex and rich, far beyond definition or explanation. And time itself is illusive, ever fleeting. In the Chinese Huayan school, based on the visionary Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament scripture, ten times are depicted, the past, present, and future of the past, of the future, and of the present itself, along with the combination of all nine of those as a tenth. But each of these ten times is also as ungraspable as the Zen granny’s rice cakes were for Deshan.

Some times people have a strong tendency to regret the past, or fear the future, and then seek escape into some imaginary, static, narrow “Be here now.” But time continuously moves, and is fundamentally not confined to some objective, external container where we can find some fixed point in which to settle. Among Dōgen’s various teachings about temporality is his celebrated essay on “Being Time,” in which he encourages study of the complexity and multidimensional aspect of time. But also Dōgen strongly affirms that time is not merely external, but is exactly our existence, including our awareness, activity, and physical presence and posture. Time is our fluid experience itself, as we can see from our sense of some meditation periods whizzing by, while others seem interminable, even though the clock may indicate they are equal.

To fully appreciate Dōgen’s teaching of being time, we must now also incorporate what the contemporary Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy calls Deep Time. To fully engage the presence of all time, or of being time, requires a deeper awareness of the interconnectedness of time. Our sense of the present is deeply informed by the stories we tell about the past, often called “history.” And this awareness also includes the images we may have about the so-called future, including our hopes, fears, and various imaginations, both our own and those in our culture around us. Just as we may look back with gratitude to ancient masters in the past, we may develop respect and relationship with beings of the future. To fully be time, we must reinhabit the fullness of time, all ten times and beyond. So true practice of the reality of temporality is not a matter of some theoretical timelessness, but of time-fullness.

Such practice of timefullness and reinhabiting time enriches our present and presence. We can see how our being time is deeply interconnected with all times, just as we are interconnected with all beings in space. Indeed, these considerations of the complexity and richness of deep time enhance the meaning and possibilities of our lives. We can re-member and meet the past and future beings of our selves, and of other beings, right now, and befriend them.

These days this deep time may also be a source of deep sadness. We must face the dire threat to the future of the planet from the irrevocable changes and damage already created to our planet itself in the last twenty and forty years, created through climate disruption and other environmental devastation due to corporate pollution for personal profit, and also from our own reckless human consumption.**

Consideration of temporality is not just some theoretical, abstract philosophical discussion. Our engagement with being time in deep time has many practical implications for our meditation, and for expressions of meditative awareness in our everyday activities. Because of our interconnectedness through the ten times, we need the guidelines of the bodhisattva precepts. These precepts encourage turning toward Buddha, or awakening; not causing harm, but supporting life and vitality; including in our caring and kindness All being, not just those we like, or with whom we have special familial or tribal links. These precepts are how we acknowledge and respond to the reality and complexity and interactivity of time.

We must not ignore our karma, both our personal and our collective societal karma. We must recognize cause and effect, in all times, and how we are related to those times. Recognizing our particular limitations, including our abilities as well as shortcomings, is how we face reality. Everything in our world is an expression of this web of deep time. Like being time itself, karma is not just some external objective container that we can observe at a distance. We have the ability to respond, and response-ability for being together with all time. This responsibility is the Buddha work we engage when we take on awakening practice. Everything that happens around us is the product of innumerable causes and conditions in the ten times. And everything we do or say has effects in the future, and elsewhere in time. The future is not set, so our activities and awareness always can make a huge difference to the future and the present. With all the difficulties, our engagement of time also allows possibilities. We can recognize the possibility of wholeness, and see how that may be integrated with the particular patterns and difficulties of the times in which we practice. If Deshan was open to his responsibility to all time, he could have refreshed himself with the old woman’s rice cakes in any of those times.

* See Dōgen’s two essays, “Ungraspable Mind,” in Kazuaki Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbō Genzō (Shambhala, 2010), pp. 191-204.

** See the important book, Bill McKibben, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).