Today is December 17 2023. And in just four days from now, we'll arrive at the winter solstice. Half of the earth will be tilted the farthest away from the sun, such that it's the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. But with it brings the promise of increasing light in the days and months ahead. And in ancient traditions, dating as far back as the late stone age, the winter solstice has symbolized rebirth, renewal, a new beginning. And of course, we can say the same about the upcoming New Year's celebration that's going to happen in a couple of weeks.
As we say goodbye, perhaps even good riddance to 2023 and usher in 2024. Many of us will make New Year's resolutions to take up a new habit or behavior that is, say more healthier or skillful. And letting go of our old, harmful or unskillful ways.
It's interesting, though, you know, the marking of the eve of the new year as December 31, is totally arbitrary. And in that it's culture specific. It's based on the Gregorian calendar that was implemented by the Catholic Church in the year 1582, by Pope Gregory the 13th. And that's a good reminder that our notion of time is just that a notion is a social construct. It's a product of our social conditioning. We're conditioned to measure time, not only in terms of days and months, but seconds and minutes. And there's this whole vocabulary that reinforces the idea that time is linear. Words like earlier, and later, before and after. And we've got watches and clocks and cell phones and calendars to keep track of how we spend our time. And that we use an economic metaphor, spend to refer to our relationship to time is also very telling. Time is money. It has value. It's a commodity can be measured, bought, sold, saved. Can it can be used for gain. It's not to be lost or wasted, squandered. And many of us lament that we don't have enough of it. We don't have enough time, or that we're always running out of it. might tell herself if only there was an extra hour in the day. You know, then I would have time to sit or exercise or you know, whatever it is that we've been struggling to do.
The anthropologist Edward T. Hall, wrote about the human relationship to time, in his book The silent language, which was published in 1966. And I first came upon his work when I was a graduate student. And I was studying intercultural communication. So Hall researched the human sense of time, across cultures. And he came up with two categories, poly chronic, and mono chronic. He said that in polychronic cultures, which include countries in Latin America, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East, timetables and agendas are relaxed, for the most part. And that's because people and relationships matter more than being on time. So in a, in a polychronic society, there's no offense in arriving late to a meeting or event plans and schedules are fluid. What matters most is addressing people's needs and interests in the moment. So meetings may not only start late, but they may run on in the interest of the natural course of conversation. And Hall says that folks who are attuned to this way of life may resent, quote, unquote, the tyranny of the clock, which is common in mono chronic societies, while those who stick to the tyranny of the clock probably get annoyed by meetings that run on and on. Without the efficient management of time gets wasted. In mono chronic societies, which would include Northern Europe and North America, time is viewed as a means of imposing order. Being punctual, completing tasks, keeping scheduled, all of these things are valued, and may even be viewed as more important than relationships. So when a meeting starts at 8am, it starts at 8am, not 805. You're expected to write arrive on time. And if you're late, you're expected to apologize. And your oversight can even result in some form of public shaming. And as a consequence, the perceived need to be on time becomes a source of anxiety.
Now, in the tradition of Zen training, being on time, has a very different quality to it, than what Hall describes, of mono chronic cultures. I'm not aware of him, including Zen monasteries in his cross cultural study. For those in the training program at our center, when the big bell is struck five minutes before the start of a formal sitting, we need to be in the Zendo or on our way to the Zendo. It's a signal to drop, whatever we're doing, which requires awareness, not being lost in thoughts and to respond without hesitation. So on the surface, it might appear that we're clinging to time in a mono chronic sense, but actually In heading straight to the Zendo at the sound of the bell, we're learning to let go. So the emphasis is not so much on being on time, as it is noticing, and responding. And also the timing of rounds, whether they're 25 minutes or 35 minutes, helps us also to let go of our individual preferences. And sitting still with others were a lot less likely to fidget. And this only aids us in allowing the body mind to settle. timed rounds are also in the spirit of practicing in unison as a Sangha, making a commitment to support one another's practice. So when it comes to formal sittings, which have specific start time and end time, the quality of our sitting together in the Zendo would be compromised. If people were routinely arriving late or leaving early, particularly during around of sitting, it's not so much an issue during Kean Hien when there's movement in the Zendo. And aside from the practical aspect, we can experience great inspiration, doing Zen together, whether here in the Zendo or on Zoom. We benefit from the wisdom example and never feeling help of Sangha.
Getting back to Hall's research on time. These two categories polychronic and mono chronic, we can probably all appreciate the value of these two different attitudes about time, their differing emphases on cultivating human relationships, and doing what needs to be done in a timely manner. Both of value. Part of what got me on to this topic of time was a radio lab podcast that I listened to a few days ago. It was titled time, and it came out in 2010. And it gets both into the cultural and also scientific understandings and reveals how our mono chronic society came to be. And one interesting thing that I learned is that in the context of the United States in particular, there was a notable shift toward a rigid approach to time that happened with the introduction of the railroad. Prior to the railroad, it turns out clock time, from place to place. One person's clock might say it's, you know, 2:04pm and another person, maybe their next door neighbors clock would say it's 2:08pm. There was no official time, no synchronization across clocks, even within the same town. And that was fine. People worked it out. And depending on one's community, where when lived in one's occupation, especially if you lived in a rural setting, or you were a farmer, you wouldn't even necessarily need to have a clock. You could simply look up at the sky and know what time it was. You could tell the time of the day by the sound of the birds or even the opening and closing of certain types of flowers. morning glories and evening primroses.
You didn't need a clock to tell you, it was time to wake up time to eat time to work.
Now about the railroad by 1880. According to this podcast, it became essential to to have synchronized time for militants in commerce, having a consistent railroad time was necessary for the smooth transport and delivery of goods, in coordination with businesses and banks. So this led to a conflict between various local times, and railroad time. And they weren't in sync. But eventually, and not surprisingly, the railroad time went out. And thus we had the standard zation of clock time, across communities. And this is all kind of fascinating to me to see to what extent you know, time as we conventionally understand it, and take it for granted, is a social construct. But that's not to say that time doesn't pass. passing of time is an observable phenomenon. And it's a significant part of being a living being. Every day we we can observe the interplay of light and darkness. The cycle of the seasons, spring to summer, fall to winter, back to spring, the winter and summer solstice. So in a very basic way, we experience time as movement. change. And change is constant birth, death, arising and disappearing, growth and decay it's not just a process that we can observe outside ourselves. We are it We Are Change we are time. Nothing about us, is static.
If we were to reflect back over time we might be aware of changes in ourselves in our personality, our needs, our values, our likes, dislikes beliefs. As we developed into adults
every everything we associate with our identity, though, is in flux. I'm not the person I was 10 years ago. I'm not the person that was a second ago, constantly in motion, and responding and adapting to changing conditions. And, of course, we experienced this in a very, very bodily way. Our bodies transform as we age. In our younger years, at first we get taller, but then at some point perhaps once we reach 50 or 60 we start to get shorter. Our skin becomes wrinkly joints stiffen Up, muscles atrophy.
And there's a lot of change that happens in our body moment by moment that we're not able to notice to be out beyond our ordinary perception. Unless we were looking through a microscope, we wouldn't notice that our cells are constantly dividing and multiplying, shrinking, decreasing, and number dying off. They can change from normal to abnormal, and we wouldn't notice it. And there's also the trillions of microbes that live inside us and on our skin. They're constantly changing to
hear a darnel Park, we have an inscription on the wooden block that's played to signal the start of a formal setting. And it's a verse attributed to Zen master Erdogan. Great is the matter of birth and death. Life slips quickly by Time waits for no one. Wake up, wake up, don't waste a moment.
Life can and does change in a moment.
This past month, our Sangha was reminded of this in case we needed to be when a longtime local member had a major stroke. Up until the moment he had that stroke, he had been leading an active, healthy life running for exercise an hour every day, very disciplined. And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, just one instant everything changed for him.
The heart of the Buddhist teaching is the truth that no one and no thing lasts. And even though we can so easily go about our everyday life, unaware of the fact that it's transient, that's changing. And of course, we do that by getting caught up in countless distractions and chasing after anything that brings us comfort and pleasure. drifting into thoughts. Even though we can live our lives that way, to some degree or another. Each one of us here each one of us listening in, knows it. We wouldn't be drawn to Zen practice. If we didn't
and we can distract ourselves all we want. It doesn't change the truth that one day sooner or later. We and the people we love will die. We just don't know the timing of it
the great master Linji known as Rinzai in Japanese put it this way. There is no place of rest in The Three Worlds it is like a house on fire. This is not a place for you to stay long. The murderous demon of impermanence strikes in a single instant, without choosing between high and low, Olden young Do you wish to do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and ancestors, then just do not look for anything outside. In Buddhist cosmology, the three worlds are the realms of desire, form and formlessness. And they're understood in ascending order. And, you know, without getting into too much detail, these three worlds constitute some Saara the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The lowest realm is desire. That includes beings that are attached to the pursuit of desire, sensory pleasure, including us humans. And then there's a realm of form where when no longer clings to desire, but still has a bodily form. And then lastly, the highest realm formlessness. Where there's no material body, just consciousness. So when Linji says, There is no place of rest in the three worlds, it's like a house on fire. He's saying that in order to liberate, to liberate ourselves from samsara, time is of the essence, the fire is burning right now. What better time than now, if not, now, when. And then he says, Just do not look for anything outside. In other words, turn inward. Look at this very moment, this.
Zen master Erdogan said, time doesn't pass in vain. People pass in vain.
Each and every moment were presented with a choice. We can choose to be present, we can choose to be here
we can choose not to drift away into thoughts. We can choose to be one with this moment, just as it is. Whatever we're doing, wherever we are, whatever conditions we're experiencing. We don't need to go somewhere else. Or wait for the right conditions. The time to practice is always now. So that means when you're feeling tired, bored law, unmotivated, gloomy, angry, whatever it is. That's the time to practice just as much as it is when you're feeling energized and buoyant. Right now is always the time to practice.
In the Blue Cliff Record, case number six woman address the assembly and said I don't ask about the days before the 15th of the month. But what about after the 15th Give me a word about those days. And then Oman answered his own question saying every day is a good day
every moment is just that. And by the way, the 15th of the month is not just some random date, whether it refers to the lunar cycle, it takes 15 days for the moon, to wane to the point where becomes completely invisible. And that day is called a new moon day.
So, we've looked at time, so far as a social construct, and as a call to practice. But there's another way that we can look at it. And that is through the process of cause and effect that unfolds over lifetimes. Karma. In very simple terms, you hear people say, what goes around comes around how we how we think speak, act, right now has an effect in the future. If I do good things in the present, this is going to help reduce my karmic debt from my misdeeds in the past. So there's a sense of movement there, from cause to effect, but that's actually a shallow understanding of karma. So it's a mistake to see karma as simply a linear or a chronological process with one thing leading to another.
It's true that when you start a garden, say, by planting a seed, then the seed we can say is a cause. And then upon nurturing it another cause, a flower may grow, right and effect. But it's also true that the resulting flower itself will produce seeds, resulting in the potential for more flowers, and flowers and plants, in general, rely on bees and birds. And humans and other animals rely on plants. So karma is not linear. It's a vast web of interrelationships. The mutual interdependence of everything, and everyone, people, animals, insects, trees, plants, mountains, rivers, cars, buildings, computers, desks. Everything exists in relationship to something else. It's all intertwined.
So that we see ourself as discrete or as a unique self is only possible that we exist in relationship to other beings and things.
There is a much larger self than us. At the ending of master Hakuin Chan in praise of Zen. The last line is, this very body is the body of Buddha. It's not just referring to one's particular body but the body of this vast hole the hole of our true nature
I'm gonna read a passage from tick not Han on this vast body. And although his trician is his practice tradition is different from ours. This, this example is a really good one. It's about the vast nature of a piece of paper. He says, If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain. Without Rain, the trees cannot grow. And without trees, we cannot make paper, the cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. interbeing is a word that is not in the dictionary yet. But if we combine the prefix inter with the verb to be, we have a new verb, inter be without a cloud, we cannot have paper. So, we can say that the cloud and this sheet of paper into our if we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it, if the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow, even when we cannot grow without sunshine. Or even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in the sheet of paper, the paper and the sunshine into our and if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see that and we see the wheat we know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread. And therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in the sheet of paper and the loggers, father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. And of course, we can go on and on in this way with lots of other examples and they all point to the wondrous SNESs and the vastness of any given moment
this whole body of Buddha
in closing, I want to circle back to where we are at this juncture. This time of year. The winter solstice and the new year are almost here
we can look back at this year 2023 and readily feel overwhelmed by world events. Wars, climate change, political division, intolerance, discrimination, injustice of all kinds. And then in our personal life, we may have faced really difficult events and challenges in our life the death of a loved one the ending of a relationship. A family crisis. A health scare. You may have a lot of anxiety about what next year will bring
If we look back in time or if we ponder the future
we need to recognize that we're dwelling in thoughts
we don't know what lies ahead we don't know what the future will bring and we can't return to the past. We also cannot fathom the intricate web of relationships that brought us here that brought us to this very moment
but what we have is the opportunity to be present we have this practice that helps us to cultivate that to experience life as it is right now
and if we can allow ourselves to settle into this now