Time and Being: Dogen and Heidegger

Isaac Newton can be used as a starting point for the discussion of time and being.  Newton believed that time consisted of two components: absolute time and relative time.  Absolute time, Newton defines:

Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows uniformly without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration (Ariew 1998, P 244).

Here, Newton defines time as being separate form the human body, and as passing in a uniform manner, regardless of our existence.  This concept of time is universal, omnipresent, and eternal, and “the flowing of absolute time is not liable to any change” (Ariew 1998, P 245).

Newton does, however, designate another type of time, which he calls relative time:

Relative, apparent, and common time is some sensible and external (whether accurate or varying in rate) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time, such as an hour, a day, a month, a year (Ariew 1998, P 244).

This concept of time is the subjective version which human beings perceive.  It is based on observation, and is not the essence of time, but merely how we measure it.  Newton elaborates: “Only I must observe that the common people conceive those quantities under no other notions than from their relation to sensible objects” (Ariew 1998, P 244).  This is the quantifiable version of time, in which “all things are placed in time as to order of succession” (Ariew 1998, P 245), which Newton believes lies in front of something more absolute and unchanging, something uniform and consistent.  This idea of universal or absolute time seems to be rooted in a belief in god, and compared to or based on god’s presence.

George Berkeley expounds upon Newton, and moves in a new direction, i.e. provides an alternative viewpoint on the subject of time.  Berkeley first points out that “the human mind delights in extending and enlarging its knowledge” (Arew 1998, P 480).  This is a response, apparently, to previous thought on the subject of time/space which “greatly disturbed the minds of the ancient philosophers, giving rise to various excessively difficult—not to say absurd—opinions” (Airew 1998, P 478).  Berkeley attempts to strip away the baggage of former philosophical masturbation, and find the true essence, or lack thereof, of time “not for the sake of proving others wrong, but on account of truth” (Ariew 1998, P 478).  He warns that we must not surrender to our imaginations for “we may easily relapse into the obscure subtlety of the scholastics, which for so many ages infected philosophy like a dreadful plague” (Ariew 1998, P 480).

Berkeley not only says that we can have no knowledge of absolute time, but that it does not actually exist.  Knowledge, for him, depends directly upon experience and perception, and empirically speaking, we have no evidence of absolute time.  If we remove the human body, and the relative time or measurement associated with the human body, then what is left?  Berkeley says, “all its attributes are privative or negative; therefore, it seems to be a mere nothing” (Ariew 1998, P 481).  He posits that without the body, time becomes nothingness or non-existence.  Time exists because humans exist, and without life or objects, there is no time.  This could be called time-being, which will later be explained more fully.

Martin Heidegger initiates his concept of time as starting from eternity.  This, he indicates, is the point of departure.  Richard M. McDonough posits:

For Heidegger, time is the medium in which the peculiar “motion” inherent to Being takes place.  So time is the medium in which “the presence of Being” obtains (McDonough 2006, P 70).

To elucidate further, Heidegger means, similar to Berkeley, that time exists only as connected to Being.  Heidegger speaks of the now-point in time as being privileged over any other, and that it is future-oriented.  He then tries to find what the actual now-point is.  Is it Being?  Heidegger, rather than answer these questions of temporality in his large work Being and Time (Heidegger 1962), merely clarifies and further develops the question.  His text The Concept of Time (Heidegger 1992) is a transcript of a lecture that preceded the aforementioned, landmark text, and in this lecture he asks dozens of questions, providing no real answers, but merely digging deeper into the conundrum:

Can an explication of time that starts here guarantee that time will thereby provide as it were the fundamental phenomena that determine it in its own Being?  […]  What is the now?  Is the now at my disposal?  Am I the now?  Is every other person the now?  Then time would indeed be I myself, and every other person would be time.  And in our being with one another we would be time – everyone and no one.  Am I the now, or only the one who is saying this?  […]  Do I dispose over the Being of time, and do I also mean myself in the now?  Am I myself the now and my existence time?  Or is it ultimately time itself that procures for itself the clock in us?  (Heidegger 1992, PP 4-5)

Time remains indeterminate for Heidegger, and rather than saying absolute time does or does not exist, he merely says he does not know, and that it is a damn good question.  He then excavates that question in an extensive way.  Heidegger has changed the question just enough to move it into a truly empirical and phenomenological realm:  “Notice that the question Heidegger asks himself is:  What does it mean to be in time?  Rather than:  What is time” (Gelven 1970, P 184).  Heidegger states that the past and future are both meaningful, and that they help define a human being, but that they are significant for decision making and self emergence.

The emerging into the present-moment now depends partially upon conceptual notions of past and future, but ultimately, the now trumps, as Michael Gelven illustrates in his interpretation of Heidegger:  “It is because of my possibilities that the future is significant; in fact, ultimately, my ability to have possible ways of Being is what the future means” (Gelven 1970, P 187).  The present, for Heidegger, does not have meaning as an abstraction, or in relation to past or future, or even just as a concept, a knife-edge, but the present has meaning because of activity.  The emergence, the activity, the situation, the Being of now, that is what creates time.  This means that time if finite, just as human existence is finite, at least in existential terms.  Does this mean that time is subjective?  And that it ends after the body dies?  Heidegger answers this somewhat obscurely, but also clearly, as Gelven elucidates here:

To conceive of time, then, as either subjective or objective is to overlook the essentially existential character of how to view time.  Time and temporality are not objective, in the sense that they can be conceptualized as independent entities, or that they have significance independent of human existence; nor are they subjective in the sense that they are the pure forms of intuition or the mere faculty by which change is measured.  Time and temporality are insofar as a human being is; but this is not to suggest a subjectivism, because it has nothing to do with the problem of knowledge or the subject of any other kind of activity.  Temporality is exposed as the necessary ontological condition for the ways in which we exist (Gelven 1970, P 189).

In a sense, humans act out time, or are time.  Time is not to be understood as something separate that exists before existence, nor is it to be thought of as something that humans create by Being, but time, in a sense actually is Being.  It is not behind it or past it or under it.  Time, then, and Being, conflate to what could be called Time-Being.

Eihei Dogen wrote of Time-Being, in a very similar vein as Heidegger.  His philosophy came from Zen Buddhist thought, and was written down during the latter part of his life, which was from 1200 CE to 1253 CE.  He lived in Japan, but travelled for several years in China seeking out the deep and more esoteric teachings of Zen, and then moving back to Japan to teach and write his findings.  In terms of Western philosophical thought, Dogen has only entered into Western consciousness in the last fifty years.  Some of Dogen’s works were translated to English in the 1960s and 1970s, and only in the last ten to twenty years, more extensive translating and study of Dogen has taken place.  His influence in Western philosophical thought comes in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, even though he is actually a thirteenth century thinker from the East.

Dogen says, “Time, just as it is, is being, and being is all time” (Abe 1992, P 70).  Dogen attempts to entirely break time out of the dualistic notion of it being absolute or relative, and explains, or presents questions that point toward an understanding that allows it to be both, simultaneously.  Everything, for Dogen, is impermanent, including time, so it cannot be absolute, yet time exists with and as everything:

Mountains are time and seas are time.  If they were not, there would be no mountains and seas.  So you must not say there is no time in the immediate now of mountains and seas.  If time is destroyed, mountains and seas are destroyed.  If time is indestructible, mountains and seas are indestructible (Abe 1992, P 70).

Time, in Dogen’s view, does not move past, and has no passage.  Time is a state of being.  Firewood turns to ash, and cannot turn back, yet firewood is not before, and ash is not after.  Firewood is the stage of firewood, and ash is the stage of ash.  In other words, there is no entity moving through time, but there is only emergence into now, in an immediate way.  The moment of now emerges, or is reborn, one-hundred-thousand times a second, and only the delusional human mind tries to connect these into a before and after.  Steven Heine says about Dogen’s inclusive present-moment:  “Beings are invariably temporal occurrences; time always presences as all beings.  There is not being in the entire [Truth]-realm outside this very moment of time” (Heine 1985, P 51).  This non-dualistic understanding of time and being (time-being) pervades Dogen’s thought.  Taigen Dan Leighton reiterates the point:  “For Dogen, time, […] is not some intractable, merely external container within which beings are caught.  All beings are time” (Leighton 2007, P 113).

Winter does not become spring, and spring become summer.  But they are stages, and there is no entity called season, really.  Dogen clarifies, “time itself is existence and all existence itself is time.  […]  since all is time, time is expressed in all things and they become, as it were, its ornamentation  […]  all things in this world must be regarded as time” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, PP 198-199).  This passage seems to elucidate time-being as an absolute and universal concept, but upon a closer look, it becomes apparent that time is not a universal in which things exist, but that things (the relative) are the same as the universal.  This alludes to a deeper aspect of Dogen’s philosophy, which is that objects are not separate, and that, according to him, objects, in fact, do not exist.  All existence becomes an activity, a process, or a “happening.”  The mental construction that anything—any being or object—contains a permanent or tangible quality is deconstructed by Dogen, and existence becomes a flowing, sliding, knife-edge moment of process/activity/happening/doing.  Being for Dogen translates to doing.  In this sense, time acts out existence, or time is exactly existence.  Scientific examination confirms that, really, humans are not separate, but that they are biological processes happening which mesh with the rest of the environment that is also happening.

Dogen goes on to contradict his apparent designation of time as absolute, and shows how it is also subjective.  He would clearly say that time-being is absolute, it is subjective, it is absolute and subjective, and it is neither absolute nor subjective.  Time-being transcends all these conceptual ideas, and also is all of them, at the same time.

As I am now here, time and I are one, for should time not include coming and departing, the eternal now is the very moment when the mountain is climbed.  Should time include coming and departing the I am the eternal now and this, too, is time-being (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 200).

Here, Dogen shows the subjective side of the understanding of time.  In some ways, this idea that there are two kinds of time parallels the thought of Isaac Newton, except that Dogen goes beyond to conflate the dyad by showing how both types of time collapse, as a binary, into time as existence, in a relative and absolute way.  “Not one, not two,” is a classic Zen saying that points toward transcending the inside/outside conceptual “delusion,” and looking directly at the moon, while the moon looks back.  Dogen is not, in any sense, irrational, but his positionality resides outside of a human, ego-centric viewpoint.  Dogen says, “self and other are time” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 201).  Viewing existence as pure activity allows the duality of subject/object to fall away.  This is time-being.

Time could be thought of as a projector, and existence as the film.  Time just rests:

It is believed by most that time passes, however, in actual fact, it stays where it is:  this idea of passing may be called time but it is an incorrect one for, since one only sees it as passing, one cannot understand that it stays just where it is (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 202).

Thus, if “time itself never flows” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 201), then does life actually flow?  Is it continuous?  And does time really exist, if it does not flow?  Dogen answers this:  “It is impossible to say that time does not exist for the mountain and the ocean are in the absolute present” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 204).  Dogen, unlike Heidegger, does not give any attention to past or future, but only acknowledges the present as existing.

Life does not flow, exactly, for Dogen, but it arises.  There is no future that moves into the past through the window of now, but “existence, time, flow gives rise to all things, whether they be good or evil, and their arising is the very process of time, nothing whatsoever being apart therefrom.  It is wrong to think that continuity goes from east to west in the manner of a storm” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 203).  Here, Dogen shows how there is a continual arising of time and existence which we call now, and that arising is a sort-of continuity, but not in a spatial or directional sense, but rather in a cause-and-effect sense.  One moment arises in a certain way, which causes the next to arise.  Perhaps it is more like dominoes knocking each other down, except that each moment arises, rather than falls; to arise is to appear.  Each knife-edge spontaneously appears, as a result of myriad forces or momentum, but as pure activity.  This arising is non-linear, or sometimes fragmented, not unlike the common understanding of postmodern representation.  Taigen Dan Leighton explains Dogen’s stance:  “Dogen clarifies that time does not flow only from past to present to future.  Time moves in mysterious ways, passing dynamically and multidirectionally between all ten times and beyond” (Leighton 2007, P 112).  Dogen goes on to say that, yes, only the present exists, but it is possible that the present also contains all times, that the past and future are included in the present.  In other words, the  present is not an escape from the past or future, and for those, some responsibility must be undertaken, but also, existence is only the present, so regret for the past or anxiety over the future do not make sense.

Dogen gives no clear answers, very much like Heidegger, but enforces how important the question is:  “There is absolutely nothing more than the careful studying of time as existence” (Jiyu-Kennett 1999, P 202).  In order to find the question, he uses the Zen koan, which is a passage that causes the mind to deeply question, to look, to seek.  The following passage is the heart of his main discourse on time-being:

Both mind and words are the time-being. Both arriving and not-arriving are the time-being. When the moment of arriving has not appeared, the moment of not-arriving is here. Mind is a donkey, words are a horse. Having-already-arrived is words and not-having-left is mind. Arriving is not “coming,” not-arriving is not “not yet.”

The time-being is like this. Arriving is overwhelmed by arriving, but not by not-arriving. Not-arriving is overwhelmed by not-arriving, but not by arriving. Mind overwhelms mind and sees mind, words overwhelm words and see words. Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming. This is time. As overwhelming is caused by you, there is no overwhelming that is separate from you. Thus you go out and meet someone. Someone meets someone. You meet yourself. Going out meets going out. If these are not the actualization of time, they cannot be thus (Dogen 1985b, P 82).

This verse can be contemplated, memorised, and spread into the entire body-mind consciousness, and from that intuitive, cellular, body-centred body-mind understanding, then one can find that all of existence is now.  This pointing is the technique of Dogen—and other Zen philosophers—and allows the student to find time.  The finger points toward the moon, and philosophy and words are always a pointing finger, never the moon.  The individual must look at the moon, and only through that actual seeing, will the moon appear, as it actually is, to the mind-eye.

Newton moves in the right direction in pointing that both absolute and relative time exist.  Berkeley expands further by showing how only the empiric can be known, or even exist.  Branching deeper, Heidegger explains how the now-point is the essence of time, and is expressed through Being.  Heidegger believes, however, in a linear concept of time with a future to present to past.  Dogen takes this point and deconstructs it, showing how time spontaneously arises as present-moment existence, and then, just to prove his point he arises from thirteenth-century Japan and expands upon Heidegger’s twentieth-century Western ideas, contributing to the evolution of the understanding of the concept of time and being.


Works Cited

Isaac Newton

Ariew, Roger & Eric Watkins, eds.  (1998).  Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.  PP 244-248.

George Berkeley

Ariew, Roger & Eric Watkins, eds.  (1998).  Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.  PP 478-482.

Martin Heidegger

Critchley, Simon & Reiner Schürmann.  (2008).  On Heidegger’s Being and Time.  Ed. Steven Levine.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Gelven, Michael.  (1970).  A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time: A Section-by-Section Interpretation.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin.  (1949).  Existence and Being.  Intro. Werner Brock.  Tr. Douglas Scott, RFC Hull & Alan Crick.  Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Company.

Heidegger, Martin.  (1962).  Being and Time.  Tr. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin.  (1972).  On Time and Being.  Tr. Joan Stambaugh.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin.  (1977).  Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964).  Intro. David Farrell Krell.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, Martin.  (1992).  The Concept of Time.  Tr. William McNeill.  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers; Cambridge, MA: Three Cambridge Center.

McDonough, Richard M.  (2006).  Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.  New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Mulhall, Stephen.  (1996).  Heidegger and Being and Time.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Prauss, Gerold.  (1999).  Knowing & Doing in Heidegger’s Being and Time.  Tr. Gary Steiner & Jeffrey S. Turner.  Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Eihei Dogen

Abe, Masao.  (1992).  A Study of Dogen: His Philosophy and Religion.  Ed. Steven Heine.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Dogen, Eihei.  (1985a).  Flowers of Emptiness: Selections from Dogen’s Shobogenzo : Studies in Asian Thought and Religion, vol. 2.  Tr. Hee-Jin Kim.  Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Dogen, Eihei.  (1985b).  Moon in a Dewdrop: Writing of Zen Master Dogen.  Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi.  New York, NY: North Point Press.

Dogen, Eihei.  (1999).  Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen.  Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi.  Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Heine, Steven.  (1985).  Existential and Ontological Dimensions of Time in Heidegger and Dogen.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Jiyu-Kennett, Roshi PTNH.  (1999).  Zen Is Eternal Life.  4th Ed.  Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press.

Leighton, Taigen Dan.  (2007).  Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.





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