Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dogen: Existence-Time and Dharma-Transmission

Existence-Time and Dharma-Transmission

To fully appreciate of Dogen’s view of Dharma-transmission it needs to be understood within the context of the nonduality of the temporal and the eternal as presented by the essential doctrine of “existence-time” (uji). “Uji” or “existence-time” is Dogen’s uniquely dynamic vision of the nondual nature of existence (ontology, being, place [space, location]) and time (temporality, chronology, temporology).1

Many, if not most Zen students are familiar with the Dogen’s unique teaching about existence-time due to the fact that the Shobogenzo fascicle of the same name – “Uji” – was one of the earliest, and has proven to be one of the most numerous, translations made available.2 “Knowing of” Dogen’s teaching on existence-time, however, is not the same as accurately understanding it, much less verifying it in experience and incorporating it in practice-enlightenment.3

Briefly then, the significance of “existence-time” (uji) is given a central position in Dogen’s vision of Zen cosmology. This means, for one thing, that all of the implications of Dogen’s view of existence-time are presupposed as intrinsic to all his teachings.

Now, the point we want to get at is this; Dogen’s teaching on “Dharma-transmission” – when seen from within his view of existence-time – presents a remarkably dynamic vision of the universe as an ever-present activity of becoming Buddha. In short “becoming Buddha” is not something limited to the present time, not something that will cease in the future, nor something that will vanish in the past – becoming Buddha now (i.e. in the present) is not independent of becoming Buddha then (i.e. in the past or future). For Dogen then, “Dharma-transmission” describes the coordinating activity of becoming Buddha as the inherent “virtue of ascending and descending” (the up and down, or forward and back flow of “time”) of each and all things, beings, and events (dharmas) exist.

In short, the Dharma is not merely something that Buddhas and ancestors “pass on” from the past, to the present, and into the future; Dharma is also transmitted from the present to the past, and from the future to the present and the past. Thus Dogen is able to express this astonishing vision for instance:

The succession of the Dharma by ancestral patriarchs is forty patriarchs from the Seven Buddhas to Sokei and forty buddhas from Sokei to the Seven Buddhas. Because each of the Seven Buddhas has the virtue of ascending and of descending, they extend to Sokei and extend to the Seven Buddhas. Because Sokei has the virtue of ascending and of descending, he receives the authentic transmission from the Seven Buddhas, he receives the authentic transmission from Sokei, and he passes the authentic transmission to later buddhas. But it is beyond only former and later. At the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, all the buddhas of the ten directions are present; at the time of Seigen, Nangaku is present; at the time of Nangaku, Seigen is present; and so on—at the time of Sekito, Kozei is present. Their not hindering each other may be different from having no connection. We should investigate the presence of such virtue. Each of the forty Buddhist patriarchs mentioned above is an eternal buddha. At the same time, each has a mind, a body, a state of brightness, and a national land. Each has passed away long ago and has never passed away at all. It may be that both never having passed away, and having passed away long ago, are equally the virtue of an eternal buddha. Those who learn in practice the truth of eternal buddhas realize in experience the truth of eternal buddhas; they are the eternal buddhas of each age. Although the “eternal” of “eternal buddhas” is exactly the same as the “old” in “new and old,” [eternal buddhas] have completely transcended past and present; they belong directly in eternity.

Shobogenzo, Kobusshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross


1.      “Temporology” is the term applied to the “science of time” inspired by Dr Kozyrev and under active investigation at Moscow State Univeristy, which offers this brief definition on their website: “In our understanding, the ‘nature’ of time is the mechanism [that brings about] appearing changes and occurring newness in the world. To understand the ‘nature’ of time is to point to … a process, a phenomenon, a ‘carrier’ in the material world whose properties could be identified or corresponded with those of time.”

2.      The “Uji” fascicle of is probably second in popularity only to “Genjokoan” – the other popular Dogen work, “Bendowa” is not a Shobogenzo fascicle.

3.      Even the first step of incorporating the reality of existence-time (i.e. achieving an accurate understanding) cannot really be accomplished with the “Uji” fascicle alone – for “Uji” is but one chapter (fascicle, part, section) of a single, complex, literary expression consisting of (at least) seventy-four other chapters.



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