By Rev. Mar
“When the one thought-moment of joy arises,
Nirvana is attained without severing blind passions;”1
We often speak of “precious moments” when describing a wonderful experience deserving a place in our hearts. In Shin Buddhism, Shinran Shonin often uses the term “one thought-moment” to describe joyful instances.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to re-read a compelling story that I first read soon after its release in 2014 - “A Tale for the Time Being”. It was even more captivating this time and captures the essence of fleeting moments in time.
Through my eyes, this is a Zen parable crafted by a modern-day ordained Zen priest, Ruth Ozeki, that brings alive the path of Soto Zen founder, Eihei Dogen, a contemporary of Shinran Shonin 800 years ago. This tale enriches my understanding of the Jodo Shinshu path.
A “Time Being” means “all time happening at once”. Like Shinran’s writings from 800 years ago, they are present now for us to appreciate. The connection from a time before and now. And, if I do my job well, these thoughts may linger into the minutes, hours, days ahead, so for this “time being” it’s the past, present, and future all happening at once. The “Zen” way of thinking is existence is time.... all-encompassing time. Doesn’t that seem “very Zen”!
A core message of this book deals with PRECIOUS MOMENTS, for you cannot understand what it means to be alive on this earth until you understand the “time-being.” First thought, what is a “moment”? Zen Master Dogen defines it as a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made up of 6,400,099,980 moments.....or about sixty-five moments in the snap of your fingers!
As Buddhists, we understand that everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same. We must understand how quickly time flows by if we’re to wake up and truly live our lives. SNAP! 65 precious moments GONE!
As Shin Buddhists, we are familiar with “Ichinen” – One Thought-Moment. An instant when gratitude triggers a Namoamidabutsu! A “nembutsu moment.” Out of 65 billion moments in a day, how often do you feel an “Ichinen”? What opportunities we have to experience this precious
moment. How do we capture this moment? For Shin Buddhist, we pause, feel it, and let loose a Namo Amida Butsu!
In a nutshell, “The Tale for the Time Being” is about the relationship of a Japanese-American writer (named Ruth, like the author) and a teenage Japanese girl (Nao – spelled N-A-O), who was raised in California from infancy to 13 years old. Ruth lives on the coast of Washington state while Nao has just been transplanted to Tokyo. Ruth finds Nao’s 2011 diary washed onto the beach 10 years later. The story unfolds as Ruth reads the diary which reveals the ordeals of a teenage outsider in a tough middle school environment. Nao is bullied and her parents struggle too. Nao’s great-grandmother is an important character as a 103-year-old Zen Buddhist priest, old JIKO, who has a small country temple far away from Tokyo in rural Fukushima. Nao spends summers there and slowly learns how to cope.
This book is large and full of heart. It asks the important questions. What does it really mean to be a human being? To be alive and know you’re going to die? How do we understand the cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting on each other? How do we have the courage to keep planting trees, when the forests are being devastated around us?
The central relationships of the novel are nuanced, changing, heart-wrenching, and fiercely loving: between Nao and her father, between Nao and her great-grandmother Jiko, between Jiko and her kamikaze pilot son, and between Ruth and Oliver.
They live in a wild place beset by wild storms, and they make it a home together.
The relationship at the very center of the book is that between Ruth and Nao, who reflect and love each other without ever meeting. They help each other discover themselves as time beings, alive in time. They help each other—and me, too—wake up to the present moment.
In a highly readable novel format, the essence of Buddhist teachings are conveyed. The Four Noble Truths
1. Truth of Suffering: Life is tough
2. Truth of Causes of Suffering: Problems are inevitable, Suffering is Optional
– YOUR CHOICE.
3. Truth of the End of Suffering: Improve – Accept – Leave
4. Truth of the Path: Finding happiness is a process that takes work
For example, Nao develops a way (her supa-pawa) to deal with her school bullies. Old Jiko trains Nao in “the mosquito teaching”. When sitting in Zen meditation (ZAZEN) one needs to be completely focused and still. When a mosquito bites, one needs to resist swatting or scratching, and little by little you grow tough and immune to the bites. Soon you ignore the mosquitoes,
they are just a nuisance and no longer have any power over you.
This is a good lesson on dealing with aggressive, opinionated folks. Resist the urge to react and stay focused. Once the annoyance subsides, choose to respond by either “improving, accepting, or leaving”. In Buddhism, “problems are inevitable, suffering is optional”. Buddhism teaches that happiness is a CHOICE. Choose:
- Improvement (win-win)
- Acceptance (lose-win)
- Leaving (lose-lose)
(Reference: Prof. Ken Tanaka)
Spoiler Alert! The “Tale for the Time Being” has a life affirming conclusion. Through every character’s inevitable suffering, dealing with thoughts of conflicts, suicide, and death, Nao, in particular, chooses life and all the opportunities for precious moments.
Dogen’s UJI – Being Time,
Shinran’s ICHINEN – One Thought-Moment.
SNAP! A Nembutsu moment! SEIZE THE MOMENT!
Namo Amida Butsu
Rev. Dexter Mar
1 Shinran, Kyōgyōshinshō, Chapter 3, page 70