Self is Time

“The self arrays itself and forms the entire universe. Perceive each particular thing in this universe as a moment of time. Things do not hinder things, just as moments do not hinder moments. For this reason, the whole world of time is arousing the way-seeking mind; the whole world of the mind is arousing time. The same is true with practice and experience. Thus, self sets the self out in array and sees itself. This is the understanding that self is time.”

– Dogen Zenji “Uji (Being Time)”

There are a lot of things in this world. There are tables and chairs, doors and windows, cats and dogs, black people, white people, brown people, slightly less brown people, and so on and on.

Among the many things we experience in life, there is one called “self.” The prevailing belief in our culture is that there are lots and lots of selves. Each of these selves, we are told, is unique. Each self belongs to itself. Selves can interact with one another, but each self is its own thing. Selves can become very attached to each other and know a lot about each other, but they are eternally separate. I cannot be you. You cannot be me.

Most of us grow up believing this to be a fact.

But a number of people throughout history in different cultures and in different times have noticed something else about self. They noticed that self is not personal. It does not belong to “me.” This is absolutely contrary to the common understanding of self. 

To most of us, this seems like an absurd thing to claim. Anybody can clearly see that it isn’t true! If, for example, I walk over to Larry and smack him on the head, Larry will feel a lot of pain on his head and I will feel a small amount of pain in my hand. I will not feel any of the pain that Larry feels on his head. Larry will not feel the pain in my hand.

The people who make the claim that self does not belong to “me” understand this as clearly as Larry does. They know what it is to feel pain that no one else feels. It’s likely that they know this very well because many of the people who make the claim that self does not belong to “me” have felt great pain in their own lives. Often it is because of the experience of great pain that they decided to investigate what self is.

Most of them were surprised to discover that self does not belong to “me.” I was certainly surprised. And I had heard and read the claim that self does not belong to “me” many times before I discovered it to be true. So, even being intellectually prepared does not prevent one from being surprised by this discovery. Even believing that self does not belong to “me” won’t prevent you from being surprised when you finally come to see that your self does not belong to your “me.” As Dogen says, “Nobody ever says ‘Ah! There’s realization! It’s just as I expected it to be.’”

In the paragraph quoted above, Dogen gives us one way of understanding the true nature of self. It’s not the only way to understand it. It’s not even the only way of understanding the nature of self that Dogen presents us. He gives us a lot of others. But this one happens to be my favorite.

“Perceive each particular thing in this universe as a moment of time,” he says. He’s asking us to think of things this way for a moment and see what happens when we do. He wants us to put aside the common way of understanding of things and try another way. Instead of thinking of each thing we perceive as being a thing existing in the same time but in a different place, he asks us to try thinking of each thing or each being or each person we perceive as being a different moment of time.

That’s weird. But let’s try it. OK. Instead of thinking of me being me over here and you being you over there, I’ll try thinking of me and you as two moments of time. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as beings that continue to exist over many moments of time. The Brad who typed the first sentence in this essay is the same Brad who is typing this sentence. That’s how I usually think of it.

But what if I think of it differently? What if I think of the Brad who typed the first sentence in this essay as a different Brad from the one who is typing this one? I can do that. Jerry Seinfeld has a funny comedy bit about that. He talks about how sometimes he is “night guy” who parties and has fun late at night without any regard for “morning guy” who will suffer the consequences of “night guy’s” actions the next day. We often do that sort of thing.

OK. So let’s take this a step further. What if I start to think of you and me as being the same self existing in slightly different times. You seem to be standing there in front of me at the same time as I’m standing here in front of you. But what if that’s not the best way to understand what’s happening? Maybe Dogen’s suggestion is a good way of understanding how things actually are. He is making this suggestion because he thinks it’s a somewhat better way of conceiving of things based on his own experience that his self did not belong to his “me.”

“Things do not hinder things just as moments do not hinder moments,” he says. I can’t put a bottle and a book in exactly the same spot. One has to go beside the other, or on top of the other, or in some different place. Moments, too, don’t happen at the same time. The moment of my high school graduation is a different moment from this moment when I’m typing this. 3:05 on Sunday afternoon and 3:06 on Sunday afternoon do not hinder each other. They are not the same time.

Then Dogen says, “For this reason, the whole world of time is arousing the way-seeking mind; the whole world of the mind is arousing time. The same is true with practice and experience.” This part gets tricky. He says that because of the phenomenon of things not hindering things and moments not hindering moments, this is why we seek to understand the true nature of reality. He says that the mind creates time in order to understand what the mind itself is. Here “mind” and “self” may be two different names for the same thing.

When he says that the same is true of practice and experience, he is referencing a kind of conflict or difference of opinion among people who practice zazen. Some say that we practice zazen in order to have an experience called “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment is the experience of sudden realization that the self does not belong to “me.”

Dogen disagreed with those people. He said that the practice of zazen and the experience of Enlightenment are not two separate things. He said that they are one and the same. You can think of it like exercising and losing weight. You could say that you do exercises in order to lose weight. But each time you jog, or swim, or ride your bike, you put into motion those activities within the body that cause it to shed some of its accumulated fat. Exercising and losing weight, therefore, are two aspects of the same phenomenon.

This is how time makes two aspects of the same thing seem like they are two separate things. The moment of riding your bicycle does not hinder the moment of discovering that you have lost two pounds. But that doesn’t mean that the two moments are unrelated. 

Maybe the moment in which I find myself to be eternally different from you, and the moment when you find yourself to be eternally different from me are not what we think they are. Maybe it is the same self looking at itself through two different sets of eyes.

“Thus,” says Dogen, “self sets the self out in array and sees itself.” Or perhaps he could say “Self sets the self out in array and sees self.” In fact, in Japanese “self” and “itself” are expressed by the same word, jiko, so that is what he said. 

I have a photo somewhere of myself as a child standing in front of a bunch of dinosaurs I had made out of clay. Whenever I read this passage by Dogen, I think of that photo. I made a bunch of dinosaurs out of clay and set them out in array before myself so I could see them. Then my mom took a picture of me doing that.

Perhaps, in the same way, the self makes itself into other selves and takes it in turn to look at itself through each of these selves it has created.

Of course, this isn’t exactly what happens. This isn’t the Final Answer to the question of what is the true nature of Reality. It’s just a different way of conceiving of things. Just like any other way of conceiving things, it has useful aspects and it has flaws. No way of conceiving of things is ever the final true and correct way. This is because the human mind has limits to its abilities. It can’t ever grasp the Final Answer. But that doesn’t mean that there is no Final Answer or that the self is incapable of intuitively understanding the Final Answer.

“This is the understanding that self is time,” Dogen says. This isn’t the conclusion of his essay about self and time. In fact, it comes near the beginning of the essay. He has a lot more to say on the subject. But this is the paragraph in which he tries to set the stage for the other things he wants to say. 

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