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Being Time and Deep Time

Taigen Dan Leighton

From A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time edited by Stephanie Kaza © 2020 by Stephanie Kaza. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.


Joanna Macy’s work on deep time and on beings of the future echo and amplify traditional Mahayana Buddhist teachings on temporality. These teachings include the subtle Chinese Huayan Buddhist holographic array of the ten times as well as the writings of Japanese Zen pioneer Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253), especially his renowned essay Uji, “Being Time.” In the more than thirty years since I met Joanna as a graduate student at California Institute of Integral Studies, I have spoken regularly with her about her work for future beings in relation to Buddhist teachings on temporality. Joanna’s courage and insight in facing the threat to time itself from the abiding peril of nuclear weapons and waste, and now from climate breakdown, has deeply resonated with my own concerns and inquiries into the quality of temporality. She has been an important inspiration and mentor for my Buddhist studies work and social activism.



In 1994 I substituted for Joanna when she was invited to a Global Future Generations conference in Kyoto, and delivered my paper “Meeting Our Ancestors of the Future.”[1] I had worked with Joanna in her Nuclear Guardianship Project in Berkeley, and then presented her views of nuclear waste issues when I lived in Kyoto from 1990 through 1992. When we connect with and appreciate our ancestors, whether from spiritual, artistic, or social action traditions, we enrich our sense of time and see our purpose in time. As Joanna later wrote in Coming Back to Life, “To make the transition to a life-sustaining society, we must retrieve that ancestral capacity—in other words, act like ancestors. We need to attune to longer ecological rhythms and nourish a strong, felt connection with past and future generations.”[2] Such ancestors are not only in the past and acting in the present, but when we engage beings of the future, we can venerate our as yet unknown future ancestors who are looking back to support us.

Having a wide, inclusive view of vast time scales deepens our appreciation of this present time. Such a range of time is expressed by Dōgen’s twelfth century Chinese predecessor, Chan Master Hongzhi (1091-1157). He wrote, “This is the time and place to leap beyond the ten thousand emotional entanglements of innumerable eons. One contemplation of ten thousand years finally goes beyond all the transitory, and you emerge with spontaneity.”[3] When we awaken from denial of the vast depths of time with willingness to contemplate the whole ten thousand years, then finally we can dynamically and freely inhabit and exert our present being time.


Joanna’s work on general systems theory connects with the Huayan School of Buddhism in China based on the Flower Ornament or Avataṃsaka Sutra, with its rich depiction of the multidimensional quality of time. This lengthy sutra weaves a psychedelic web of similes to expound the interconnectedness of all particular phenomena with the whole universe. Its vision is far-reaching and comprehensive, from the macroscopic to the microscopic. Throughout many universes and dimensions, there is not a single place or time lacking buddhas and bodhisattvas. Joanna celebrates the Huayan teachings in the closing chapters of her masterpiece, World as Lover, World as Self.[4]

The Huayan teaching of universal buddha nature and interconnectedness describes how we do not exist in isolation. Rather, all beings are intimately interrelated in our effects on each other. We are the product of our genetic and cultural inheritance and of innumerable other unknowable conditions that bring us to our present state. One famous Flower Ornament depiction of this reality is the net of Indra, the Indian creator deity. In this metaphor the universe is described as a vast net, and at each junction where the meshes meet, sits a jewel. Each jewel reflects the light of all the jewels around it, and all of those jewels reflect others around them. In this way, the whole universe of jewels is ultimately reflected in every single jewel. This holographic image expresses our deep intimacy and interrelatedness with every being and every time in the universe.

In the Huayan “Fourfold Dharmadhatu,” the first two aspects of reality are described as the universal and the particular, also spoken of as the ultimate and phenomenal, or real and apparent. The third aspect is the “mutual, non-obstructing interpenetration of the universal and particular.” No universal truth or ultimate time exists apart from its active presence in a specific temporal situation, which completely expresses the whole truth of all times. Beyond the integration of universal and particular, the fourth aspect is the “mutual, non-obstructing interpenetration of the particular with other particulars,” so that each particular event is fully present and complementary to any other particular time with the cooperative mutuality of all times.

Huayan theory and the Flower Ornament Sutra itself speak of ten distinct times: the past, present, and future of the past; the past, present, and future of the present; the past, present, and future of the future, and finally the combination of all these nine times.[5] The past of the present may also be the past of a future. The present of the future will be intimately connected to the future of our present, yet it is not necessarily predetermined or limited by our present future. We can reclaim the past in the present, and thus actually change our past, as well as our present, for the sake of the future. History is the changing process of defining the past for the present, and the stories we tell about the past in the present change the meaning of past events. We cannot bring back extinct species, or detoxify nuclear poisons. But seeing those events as opportunities to change how we care for the world can change the meaning of this past and mitigate its effects, enhancing the possibilities of some future. We can rewrite the history of the future in the present as well as in the future.


In the realm of being time elaborated in the writing of Japanese Zen founder Eihei Dōgen, time does not only flow from past to present to future.[6] Time moves in mysterious ways, passing dynamically between all ten times and beyond. Time is not some intractable external, objective or independent container we are caught in. We are time. When we fully express ourselves right now, that is time. We cannot avoid fully expressing our deepest truth presently in this being of time. Dōgen offers the consolation that even a partial, half-hearted exertion of our being time is completely a partial being time.  Dōgen says, “In being-time there is the distinctive function of passage; there is passage from today to tomorrow, passage from today to yesterday, passage from yesterday to today, passage from today to today, and passage from tomorrow to tomorrow. This transpires because passage itself is the distinctive function of time.”[7] This multi-directional flowing makes it possible for beings to realize how they fully inhabit all times as the present time, rather than seeking some present as a restricted escape from regret for the past or anxiety over the future. Dōgen’s concern matches Joanna’s call for re-inhabiting time “in a healthier, sane fashion.”[8] Joanna cautions that spiritual “injunctions to ‘Be Here Now’ can serve to devalue chronological time and encourage disregard for the future.”[9]

Throughout his writings, Dōgen emphatically highlights the responsibility of practitioners. When we realize that we are ineluctably being time in this very body-mind, we can choose to be and act from our deepest and noblest intention. We can choose to express our being of time in a way that connects with all beings here now, and also connects with all beings, all our ancestors, throughout the generations of past and future. We can be a time that accepts the support and guidance from all beings of all times.


Along with expressing the dynamism of temporality, Dōgen applies the vitality of reality to space as well. He clarifies space not as outer space or mere emptiness, but as the reality of forms, the substance of our bodies and world. For us, this spatial quality lives in the spiritual depths and agency of the space of our earth. Our connection to all space and to all time is also our connection to the Earth.

The ground of our being is the same ancestral ground that plants us in time. This truth is strikingly depicted in a story in the Lotus Sutra, arguably the most important Buddhist scripture in East Asia, and crucial for Dōgen. Myriad bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, arrive from other dimensions or distant solar systems to hear Śākyamuni Buddha’s teaching, and ask if he needs their help to maintain this teaching in the future. From our vantage point, 2500 years later, I imagine the question from Buddha that they are responding to as: “In the distant age of television, automobiles, internet communications, global climate breakdown, and toxic nuclear waste, how will those people hear the true teaching of universal awakening?”

The Buddha tells them not to fear, and suddenly from out of the empty, open space under the ground spring vast multitudes of noble, gentle beings, dedicated to the emancipation of all creation.[10] The Buddha declares that these bodhisattvas practice diligently within the earth, forever guiding confused, worldly people. Moreover, they have all trained intently with him, even though many apparently are ages older than the Buddha himself. He is the ancestor even of those from his past.

In time, our connection to earth is the connection to its natural rhythms. With patience we can find our own expression of these rhythms. Despite all of our tantalizing technologies, we cannot control or manipulate the deeper rhythms of the earth. Efforts to garner corporate profits from the earth’s resources are now reaping disastrous consequences for all life. Attuned to earth’s rhythms, appropriate actions may become clear and we may become ready to act helpfully. Our multiplicity of ancestors has bequeathed valuable guidance in finding our footing in this time-ground. Yunyan (780-841), an early Chinese predecessor of Dōgen, was once sweeping the temple grounds and his brother monk passing by commented, “Too busy.” Yunyan responded, “You should know there is one who is not busy.”[11] How can we recall the one not busy, and proceed with grounded, patient vision, rather than operating busily from the time-frame of quarterly profit margins?



When the underground bodhisattvas emerge in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is questioned about their provenance by Maitreya, the bodhisattva of loving kindness predicted to be the next future buddha. This leads to the central revelation of the sutra, that Buddha truly only appears to be born, leave his palace, awaken, and pass away into nirvana. Actually, he has a vast, inconceivably long lifespan, described with astronomical metaphors that challenge our imagination and conventional conceptualizations of temporality. This lengthy lifespan is revealed only when it inspires beneficial action, and otherwise remains hidden should it encourage indifference to present conditions.

Dōgen sees the revelation of the Buddha’s vast lifespan as “the one time in which the Buddha is living,” a striking, evocative phrase referring to this ultimate time outside of conventional time. Dōgen provides many references to Śākyamuni’s inconceivable lifespan and its sustained time-frame as vitally present in current wholehearted practice, fully illuminating the quality of all time as present in this being time. The significance of the enduring Śākyamuni is not merely that Buddha is immanent in the world, but that his vigorous, inspiring practice continues through his successors.[12]

The problem of temporality is embodied in the figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha defined as not yet a buddha. As such he expresses the unfulfilled aspect of the bodhisattva as a mere shadow of his future self. His predicted buddhahood is variously described in scriptural sources as being 2500 years from now, or perhaps not for hundreds of billions of years. Meanwhile, he patiently contemplates the complexities of human consciousness and how we create suffering, a study that makes Maitreya the primary bodhisattva of the Yogacara branch of Mahayana, which describes levels and aspects of consciousness.

As a bodhisattva representing and sponsored by the future, Maitreya invites us to re-envision and reinhabit time itself. Buddha’s view of time sees all times as included in the immediate present, here and now. Just as the bodhisattva path includes all beings, it includes all times. Maitreya encourages us to consider the historical as well as the existential future, and the relationship and implications of the future to our present situation. Maitreya serves as a protector of future beings, like Joanna, calling us from the promise of the future to revitalize our concern for future generations.[13]

Joanna has expressed Maitreya’s Buddhist teaching and psychology in her study of contemporary Western systems theory, and also as an active spokesperson for Deep Ecology. In all of her work, Joanna powerfully brings the truth and depths of Maitreya’s contemplation of the future to bear on crucial dilemmas in our present world.[14] Joanna has used the dilemma of nuclear waste and its multi-millennial toxicity to offer a positive, hopeful vision of a long-term human future based on guardianship of nuclear waste and our world with clear, spiritual awareness. Such guardianship could also apply to the dangers from climate breakdown through implementing some version of a long-term “Green New Deal.” Joanna’s insight and faith are that we can acknowledge and use the dire perils to our own and other species as opportunities for consciously taking responsibility for our world and our own garbage, living in a more caring, intentional manner. In workshops on deep time and future generations, Joanna encourages participants to imagine and envision themselves as beings from specific future times and places. She proclaims the fact that every being who will ever live on earth is present here and now. This is true as a biological certainty, as all future life will collectively be produced from the DNA of present creatures, but also all future beings depend on our choices now for their lives and health.[15]



[1] For an expanded version of that paper, see Taigen Dan Leighton, Zen Questions: Zazen, Dōgen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011), pp. 243-253.

[2] Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publisher, 1998), p. 136

[3] Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu, Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi (Boston: Tuttle: 2000), p. 49.

[4] Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, Parallax Press, 2007), pp. 199-202.

[5] Thomas Cleary, trans. The Flower Ornament Scripture (Boston: Shambhala, 1984-1993), p. 1029.

[6] See Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), p. 51; Cleary, Shōbōgenzō: Zen Essays by Dōgen (Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1986), p. 106; and Kazuaki Tanahashi, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, vol. 1 (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), pp. 106-107.

[7] See Waddell and Abe, The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, p. 51.

[8] Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, p. 171.

[9] Ibid., p. 179.

[10]  Gene Reeves, The Lotus Sutra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), pp. 279-281. For a detailed discussion of this story, including Dōgen’s commentaries on it, see Taigen Dan Leighton, Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dōgen and the Lotus Sutra (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[11]Thomas Cleary, The Book of Serenity (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), pp. 91-94. For commentary on this story, see Taigen Dan Leighton, Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness (Boston: Shambhala, 2015) pp. 58-67.

[12] Leighton, Visions of Awakening Space and Time, pp. 82, 86-87, 90. Joanna Macy’s laudatory endorsement of this book included that it “reveals a transmission of the Buddha Dharma in which the utter reality of the phenomenal world is not to be questioned. Right now, when ecological crises imperil the future of conscious life, this work of scholarship is good news indeed.”

[13]  For more on Maitreya, see Taigen Dan Leighton, Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012), pp. 241-274.

[14] For Joanna Macy as Maitreya exemplar, see ibid. pp. 272-274.

[15]  Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, p. 201.