Tuesday, September 11, 2007


In his classic work, Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji, the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, claims there are 6,400,099,180 moments in a day. Now you could check out his math, assuming you could figure out what he meant by a “moment,” or you could simply be impressed that he has a number at all. I choose the later. I just find the number—6,400,099,180—compelling, and somehow comforting; it leaves plenty of time for mistakes.

A mistake is what it says it is: a missed opportunity to take advantage of a moment. Something is held out to me and I just don’t notice. It could be that what is offered is not something I would choose to grasp anyway, but I won’t know if I don’t pay attention. Unlike many games, the game of life requires you to be present in order to win.

I usually find myself reacting to moment 6,373,199,102 when moment 6,373,199,103 is being offered. I don’t realize I am living in the past until the past I am living in has long passed. There are some spiritual masters who tell me this is an error on my part, and that it keeps me from achieving enlightenment. But I don’t think so.

It seems to me that the “me” itself can only be a reaction to the past. “Me” and “I” are products of the past. The “I” I take myself to be at this moment (moment #4,273,100,736 but who’s counting?) is simply a reflection of the “I” I was in the last moment. And by the time I realize this I am already in the next moment dragging the past along with me.

There is no “I” or “me” in the present moment. That is why I don’t trust people who claim to live in the present. First of all everyone and everything lives in the present, there is no alternative. But the “I” that knows it is living at all is never in the present, but always in the past. Living is always in the present; the liver is always in the past (so are lungs, kidneys, and hearts).

What Dogen is saying (to me anyway) is that I have 6,400,099,180 chances to realize this every day. Of course “realizing” too is of the past, so what he is really saying is that I will experience 6,400,099,180 failures of realization every day. That’s a lot of failures. And in a culture that values success over failure it is very humbling. I like “humbling.”

I like the freedom that comes with being humbled, with knowing that failure is the norm. Of course failure, no less than success, is in the past, so maybe failure and success are both meaningless. Maybe realization and nonrealization are both insane goals. Maybe there are just moments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 6,400,099,180.

Does this bother you? It thrills me. Just moments—no point, no goal, no purpose, just moments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 6,400,099,180.

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